Critical Mass causes chaos

This article was published in 1997, in Newsletter 14.

Bicyclists defy City officials, spit at stuck motorists (from the San Francisco Examiner, July 97)

A plan designed to please The City and Critical Mass bike riders did neither Friday night, as thousands of riders diverged from a city-sanctioned route and police arrested about 250 bicyclists for unlawful assembly.

The cyclists ran red lights, shouted at passing motorists, spit at stalled drivers and generally disrupted traffic, police said. Some tried to get on the Bay Bridge.

Police equipped with riot gear responded in force. Squad cars flew down Market Street one after the other, their sirens blaring.

The event began with an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 riders – far more than previous Critical Mass events – who gathered at Justin Herman Plaza at the Embarcadero, then fanned out through The City.

The monthly ride, designed to promote the idea that bikes are a positive alternative to cars, was threatened with a crackdown by Mayor Brown earlier this month.

Instead, several bikers met with city officials and brokered a deal: They would start the ride at 6:30, to cause less disruption to rush-hour traffic, and they would follow an agreed-upon route.

In exchange, they would get their usual police escort. And city officials promised to hold a summit in the near future to discuss bicyclists’ requests, such as more bike racks and lanes.

But many Critical Massers chafed at the idea that their monthly protest had turned into something akin to an orchestrated parade.

‘We feel we don’t need to be herded by the police; we have the right to ride wherever we want to,’ said Cassady Winston, 16, of San Francisco, who derided what he called the ‘sell-out route.’

‘This is one day a month,’ Winston said. ‘There’s a car mass every single day of the year.’

It was clear at the outset that the compromise was doomed.

As the crowd gathered, riders who had not participated in the talks passed out printed suggestions for alternative routes.

San Francisco police Capt. Dennis Martel and Brown addressed the crowd, struggling to be heard above the jeers and boos.

‘I’m delighted that the bicyclists of San Francisco sat down with The City and with themselves for the purpose of putting together a program that will make San Francisco the most livable city in the country,’ Brown told the crowd. ‘Have a good ride.’

Several bikers yelled to Brown: ‘Get a bike, Willie!’

‘I can’t afford a bike,’ Brown yelled back, laughing. ‘Lend me yours.’

At the suggestion that he perhaps wasn’t getting much respect at the gathering, Brown replied, ‘Respect is votes at the ballot box. How many people who are yelling at me do you think vote? Two?’

Some riders took to the streets early, starting around 6:15 p.m. Police estimated their numbers to be about 500.

Shortly after 6:30 p.m., when the ride was to officially begin, police called off their escort. Too many riders were not following the route, police said.

‘I don’t think we need their help, quite frankly,’ said rider Karen Casey, 27, of San Francisco.

Martel said police had had no idea they would face such a high number of disorderly bicyclists. Martel said many bicyclists might have followed the dissident bikers by mistake.

Police estimated they had arrested about 250 people by late Friday. Bikes were stacked in the back of police trucks as riders were hauled away.

Police were expected to meet with Brown next week on the matter. Brown was not available for comment after the ride, but spokeswoman Kandace Bender said the mayor would review reports on the event before making a decision on future rides.

Two officers were injured when they were hit with bikes, and one was believed to have suffered a cracked rib, police said.

At one point in the evening, 25 cyclists were cornered at Sacramento and Montgomery streets and arrested for failure to disperse and unlawful assembly, police said. Witnesses estimated the group at closer to 200. About 50 police in riot gear barricaded both ends of the street, and bikers were told not to move.

One rider said she was shocked at what she called the brutal reaction by law enforcement.

‘The police were pretty nasty about it, and I didn’t see any rhyme or reason to it’ said Sue Peters, 32, of San Francisco.

The bikers were cited and released, according to police Detective Robert Mangosing at the Operations Center.

At the corner of Davis and Sacramento streets, 25-year-old Toni James got out of her tan GMC Blazer and engaged in a shouting match with several bikers.

‘I want a cop. I want a cop now,’ she screamed.

‘The cars do not control the road,’ a biker screamed louder.

‘I pay taxes!’ she yelled.

Dwayne Hill, a computer programmer stuck in a cab at Market and Pine streets, said, ‘I feel that Willie was on the right track when he tried to shut it down. But then he reversed himself, and now it’s worse than it would have been.’

Some cyclists were dismayed that the media coverage of the event focused on what they considered the wrong issues.

‘The intent behind this is to draw attention to bicycles as transportation, and nobody’s really talking about that,’ said Myra Chachkin, 29, of San Francisco.

Like other riders, she called on the mayor to make substantive changes in The City’s transportation: by installing more bike lanes, putting more racks on Muni buses and educating drivers on bicycle safety.

‘I haven’t seen any evidence of that so far, except for the bike route signs, which are cosmetic but don’t really promote bike safety,’ she said.

By Emily Gurnon
Al Saracevic of The Examiner staff contributed to this report.