Mass critique 

Striking a balance between Critical Mass and police

In the aftermath of Missoula’s first Critical Mass ride of the summer, which ended in seven arrests and allegations of police misconduct, officials are evaluating how they handle the rallies and participants are looking at how they can better get their message across.

Critical Mass bicyclists met this week to discuss how they can explain themselves to the community. Meanwhile, the Missoula County Sheriff’s Department continued meeting with participants and examining complaints that deputies mishandled last month’s rally.

“The point of it all’s been missed in all this hubbub,” says Mark Ninneman, one of the Critical Mass riders. He was one of the participants who met this week to draft a statement of the aims of Critical Mass and plan for the next ride, which will take place on the last Friday of the month. This time riders hope to distribute informational pamphlets to motorists.

Missoula has had Critical Mass bike rides for about six years. They are loosely planned events—Critical Mass has no organizational structure and no leaders—in which bicyclists come together and fill up busy streets during rush hour. About 100 riders turned out for last month’s ride.

Different people ride for different reasons, Ninneman says, although two of the most prominent goals are to promote alternative transportation and to assert bicyclists’ rights.

“When you’re the only biker on the road, cars have a tendency to be very aggressive,” he says. “What people don’t realize is, on a daily basis these people are chancing potential harm because they don’t want to pollute during their commute.”

Ninneman says that he and his fellow bicyclists are regularly bumped, nearly hit, and generally harassed by reckless and malicious drivers in Missoula. Clogging up the roads with Critical Mass riders is one way to show bike solidarity, he says, but also to protect riders by slowing down motorized traffic.

“We are existing in a manic society and people are moving at way too fast a speed,” Ninneman says. “Humans aren’t even supposed to be moving at 75 miles an hour biologically. I think it’s way too fast for a lot of our senses, and there’s a lot of danger. That’s why there are a lot of auto accidents.”

Not all of Missoula’s bicyclists agree with Critical Mass’ methods, though. Phil Smith, program manager for the city’s Bicycle/Pedestrian Program, says he has received nothing but negative comments about last month’s event.

“The people I deal with are folks who are serious bicycle commuters who have been riding for years and who have put hours and hours into the bike system we have in town,” Smith says. “And with no exceptions they feel the Critical Mass thing has kind of given them a black eye.”

The Bicycle/Pedestrian Program has been responsible for installing bike lanes and racks around town and for advocating non-motorized accessibility in zoning laws. Smith, who says he has not spoken with anyone from Critical Mass but would like to discuss matters with them, feels that the rallies make his job even harder by antagonizing motorists.

But Critical Mass rider Travis Burdick says the cyclists were not at fault last month for creating a situation that angered drivers. “It seemed to me the whole situation was something the police created,” Burdick says. “It was basically a peaceful bike ride. It was slowing down a lot of cars, which was the point, but I think the whole event lasted a lot longer than it would have because of the police disruption.”

Sheriff’s deputies were monitoring the ride because Missoula city police, who usually handle Critical Mass rides, were called away on a more serious call. As deputies tried to clear some traffic lanes several arrests were made. Some spectators claim deputies drove into bicyclists. Ninneman was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, misdemeanor citations he plans to fight.

“They were not trying to resolve the situation,” Ninneman says of the police. “They were trying to end the situation with a scare tactic, just blatantly start arresting people and the rest will be scared and go away.”

Last year the Missoula Police Department drafted a plan for handling Critical Mass rides, a plan they are now sharing with the Sheriff’s Department. Chief Bob Weaver would not give specifics of the strategy, but he says that it was developed by the department’s planning unit according to standard procedure.

“They go in and study what the organization is, how it functions, what the experience level in other cities is, what succeeds and what doesn’t succeed,” Weaver says.

Since Critical Mass began in San Francisco in 1992, it has spread to dozens of cities across the United States and around the world. In nearby cities similar to Missoula, the police have handled the rides in different ways. In Eugene, Ore., police have taken a laid back approach, forsaking special strategies or extra patrols.

“We’ve looked for opportunities to mediate before we have to enforce,” says Eugene Police spokesperson Pam Alejandre.

By contrast, in Bellingham, Wash. police felt like they were caught off-guard when a major Critical Mass ride took place in 2000. Officers consulted other cities and developed a plan for handling the next ride. When cyclists returned to the streets, they were met with a visible presence of extra officers, including bicycle and motorcycle cops, and with the prominent display of the department’s special bus for making mass arrests. (According to Traffic Sergeant Shawn Aiumu of the Bellingham Police, the department was also approached by a cyclist who disagreed with Critical Mass and gave them insider information.)

“The Critical Mass obviously thought it was overkill and it may have been,” Aiumu says. “We were well-prepared for a larger group than showed up and I don’t know if that’s because they got scared away or had second thoughts or were scared to be arrested or what. But it was a smaller group than the first time and we just didn’t have the problems.”

According to Undersheriff Mike McMeekin, Missoula has tried to strike a balance. People may have been unhappy with law enforcement’s actions, he says, but they were doing the best they could to make sure no one got hurt.

“We didn’t have the Critical Mass people in civil disobedience—we didn’t have bricks or rocks flying—and on the other side they didn’t come around the corner and find a line of shielded, helmeted law enforcement with German shepherds,” McMeekin says. “This really is Missoula being Missoula. We will continue to disagree and there will always be complaints on one side or another.”

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