Bicyclists allege police used excessive force to break up Downtown group ride

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April 9, 2002 // UPDATED 1:17 pm - April 30, 2007
By: David Brauer
David Brauer

On the final Friday evening rush hour each month, Twin Cities bicyclists get together in Loring Park for Critical Mass, a ride designed to underscore that bikes "don't obstruct traffic - we are traffic."

Participants say mass riding is fun, peaceful, and provides protection from motorists who ignore Minnesota law giving bicyclists equal rights to any traffic lane.

Some Critical Massers say that if some drivers are delayed behind a pack of 60 riders, that's not so bad. "It's two wheels good, four wheels bad," said participant Jared Lodge. "I have asthma; I'm stuck behind you all the time, making me breathe your exhaust. I'm not hurting you, though - you'd still be stuck in traffic."

However, on March 29, riders say they were physically attacked -- not by cars, but by the Minneapolis police. They allege officers used excessive force to break up a 60-person Downtown ride, knocking riders off bikes, sending one to the hospital and pepper-spraying two others who complained about brutality, and confiscating approximately 30 bikes for not having bike licenses. There were two arrests and 13 citations. The police respond that Critical Mass riders disregarded traffic laws, ran red lights as a pack, biked "curb-to-curb" on some streets and fled or resisted arrest when police enforced traffic laws.

Police spokesperson Sgt. Medaria Arradondo said, "Officers realized there were some serious safety issues, and tried to get riders to comply, but some did not comply. To prevent any kind of injury from these violations, they proceeded to use force. If it was excessive force, Critical Mass has an opportunity to make complaints."

Minneapolis Police Chief Robert Olson said problems with Critical Mass result from "a few hard-cores who want to block traffic."

Riders respond that any traffic violations are incidental -- and when drivers run red lights, they aren't pepper-sprayed and their cars aren't taken by force.

Councilmember Dean Zimmermann (6th Ward) said regardless of traffic violations, force is inappropriate. "Any individual motorist is delayed five to ten minutes at the outside. [Critical Mass riders] are not destroying Western civilization. The response the police are giving is over the top."

What happened

Critical Mass began a decade ago in San Francisco to raise awareness of biker rights. The rides, which now happen simultaneously in many cities, are leaderless and loosely organized. Riders usually decide the route at the last minute; on March 29, about 60 Critical Massers decided to bike to northeast Minneapolis, through Downtown.

The cyclists left Loring Park pedaling south on Willow Street, on the park's eastern border. The front riders turned left onto Grant Street, where they planned to head east, then north, through Downtown.

Rich Ryan, a Skyway News photographer assigned to shoot the ride's start, said cyclists pedaled as a loose group on Willow, biking in the oncoming lane, though there was no oncoming traffic.

The "mass" turned left onto Grant but didn't get far; riders spotted two squad cars down the street. Riders opted to keep going south on Willow. The police arrest report later stated: "The group was completely blocking Grant Street from curb to curb."

Riders found a squad car blocking Willow at West 15th Street. An officer announced via bullhorn "single file, get single file," although Minnesota law allows riders to ride two abreast per lane of traffic.

As bikers slowed, officers stopped and confiscating unlicensed bikes.

Minneapolis is the only city in Minnesota that requires a license; elsewhere, it's an optional way to help authorities recover your bike if stolen.

Riders who saw the confiscations did a hairpin turn back into Loring Park. Some riders with unlicensed bikes opted to leave Critical Mass entirely; others looked for another way out of the park to continue the ride. According to the arrest report, "officers attempted to stop the group and deal with the traffic offenses, but the group split up and rode through Downtown, breaking countless traffic laws."

What remained of the mass emerged from the park around Minneapolis Community and Technical College. (At this point, Skyway photographer Ryan no longer saw what happened.) The group eventually headed north on 3rd Avenue.

Rider Colin Keith Thomsen said "the call from the front of the line was to stay two abreast," though he acknowledged the mass did not always obey red lights. That's because the mass can stretch longer than a block and tries to stay together. "At different parts, people were blocking traffic or not blocking traffic," Thomsen said. "I never felt we were consciously running through an established red light. The intent was not to create

dangerous situations or chaos."

At 3rd Avenue and 7th Street, a trailing part of the pack may have rolled through a red. Thomsen said "four or five" squad cars descended on the group. Lodge said, "a cop car very quickly pulled alongside and hit the brakes. A door opens, and [an officer] tackles me very quickly from behind. He threw me over my bike, jumped on my bike, lifted my head and slammed it to the pavement. Then he took my right arm, and cuffed me."

Lodge was ticketed but not arrested; he said officers dropped him off at Hennepin County Medical Center, where medical records indicate he received two stitches in his face and a splint for his possibly broken arm. In the arrest report, police said they used no force when citing Lodge for obstructing traffic.

Police spokesman Arradondo said, "there was no indication in any reports that

officers tackled bikers in Critical Mass."

Thomsen - one of two riders arrested, along with a 16-year-old girl -- said an officer knocked him off his bike.

"I said 'this is completely unconstitutional,' and [the officer] said, 'good for you!'" Thomsen recalled. "I stood there confused. I saw a kid [Lodge] get tackled, I saw him in the middle of the street with blood on his head. I saw another rider [the 16-year-old] say 'I'm not resisting arrest, I'm not resisting arrest.' They grabbed her by the hair, handcuffed her and sprayed pepper spray right into her eyes."

Thomsen said he was standing away from most of the riders, and began shouting about police brutality. He said an officer approached him and asked him to leave. "I said, 'I'm leaving, I'm leaving.' Just as I turned from the officer, he sprayed pepper spray in my left eye. It's completely incapacitating; it just drops you. They put my hands behind my back, put me right into the cop car," Thomsen said.

The arrest report indicates that force was used on Thomsen and the 16-year-old. Thomsen was charged with obstructing the legal process and interfering with traffic as a pedestrian. He doesn't quite understand the latter charge, although police did ticket riders who rode on the sidewalk; riders say they did that to avoid police violence and potential crashes from the sudden stops.

Without commenting on the appropriateness of the force used in the two arrests, Arradondo noted that riders were fleeing the scene in small groups, and officers were attempting to make arrests.

Thomsen was booked into the Hennepin County jail and released at 4:15 a.m. Saturday morning; because his bike had been confiscated, he had to walk to his Whittier home.

Doing it differently

Critical Mass riders say this isn't the first time police have battled them; they say a July 2001 ride through Uptown was also blocked and bikers tossed off their bikes. Robin Garwood, a rider and Green Party official, said he was surprised because the newest incident happened in new mayor R.T. Rybak's term; Rybak is an avid bike commuter. "I guess we thought it would be different with R.T. in the mayor's office," Garwood said.

At an April 2 meeting with 30 riders, Rybak did not directly criticize the police, saying he had not talked to them.

However, he declared, "there's no reason we should be treating bicyclists like

criminals in this city. ... It's pretty clear we share the same values."

He then said, "I'll let you in on a dirty little secret - I don't have a license for my bike. I haven't been put up against a cop car and I don't expect to be and I don't expect other people to be."

(In the wake of the confiscations, 10th Ward councilmember Dan Niziolek will propose repealing the city's mandatory bike-license provision.)

Rybak floated the idea of a parade permit for future Critical Masses; the reception was cool because riders say drivers don't need parade permits to drive.

In the wake of the incident, Police Chief Robert Olson sounded a conciliatory note: "We really want to look forward to trying to work with those folks in the future to make sure these things come off a lot smoother than they did last Friday. If they will work with us -- and we want to do that -- we can help them get their point across and make sure they have an uneventful ride."

Riders ask why the police didn't talk to them before the March ride. Then, the police did not approach the mass, instead ringing the park and waiting for violations.

Riders pressed Rybak to investigate the use of force, their top concern. He pledged to do so, but also emphasized that riders need to obey traffic lights and other laws.

Some Critical Mass riders seemed reluctant to embrace a strict rule of law, saying that drivers routinely violate minor traffic rules, such as running red lights, yet don't have their cars confiscated.

Asked if Critical Mass loses the moral high ground by not obeying all traffic signals and lane restrictions, rider Stephen Eisenmenger said, "I understand the argument, but tell me if the police were following [drivers] all day, they'd find a reason to give them a ticket. If the mass runs a red light, is it a reason for a police action - six cop cars, a paddy wagon?"

Even if common ground is found, the April 26 ride may be the stiffest test of police-bicyclist relations yet. Eisenmenger, who runs a Critical Mass website, said that after the brutality allegations, "I've gotten so many calls and emails from people saying 'how do I ride?' It may be the biggest mass we've ever had."