Mixed signals 

Near the conclusion of bicycle activist Brian Huntington’s short trial in Missoula County Justice Court two weeks ago, prosecutor Ben Hursh held up a flyer advertising Critical Mass, a weekly rally for bicycle activists. The flyer carried the image of a clenched fist, and Hursh asked Huntington to interpret it for the jury.

Huntington was arrested April 29 for his participation in a Critical Mass rally that rolled from downtown to Malfunction Junction, calling attention to the need for improved alternative transportation, and obstructing automobile traffic along the way. Five other cyclists and one driver were also arrested by a combined force of city police and sheriff’s deputies.

In the courtroom, Hursh prompted Huntington to interpret the clenched fist by suggesting it was a threatening gesture. Instead Huntington called it a symbol of unity, but not before disavowing authorship of the flyer.

What the jury thought of the clenched fist and its relevance to Huntington’s case, only they know. But the three men and three women agreed with Hursh at the end of the trial and found Huntington guilty of disorderly conduct and failure to yield to an emergency vehicle.

Subsequently Justice John Odlin sentenced Huntington to $215 in fines and court fees. Last week Huntington stated his desire to appeal the decision but was not sure which conviction, if not both, to take to a higher court. The five other bicyclists arrested last April pleaded guilty earlier.

What the clenched fist represents—whether a threat or sign of solidarity—clearly lies, as do all symbols, in the eye of the beholder. Such diverging perceptions carried over into the courtroom when Huntington portrayed himself as a victim of unnecessary police force, while his arresting officer, Sheriff deputy Carl Ibsen, preferred to see himself as an aggrieved civil servant.

The rally began “peacefully,” Huntington testified, but “the moment [officers] arrived, the mood of everything shifted.” He attempted to obey instructions relayed via megaphone from Ibsen and other officers, Huntington said, but became “scared and disoriented” when he was bumped from behind by Ibsen’s squad car. “The second time he hit me, I was like, ‘He’s after me.’”

Meantime, a clearly frustrated Ibsen remarked, “I could be at home sleeping instead of in this courtroom,” as Huntington’s attorney replayed several times a clip of videotape recorded from his squad car. Ibsen narrated his pursuit of Huntington through the pack of cyclists to the Good Food Store as cyclists careened on and off the television screen in the courtroom. It was difficult to reach the man he had chosen to arrest, Ibsen said, because “Everybody was trying to tie me up.”

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