Traffic hell

[Editor’s note: All of the names of Critical Mass protesters have been changed, at their request.]

“Fred Free” heard the whoops and hollers of joy from his friends behind him give way to angry shouts and the scream of police sirens, just as he put his feet down on the pavement at a stoplight at Broadway and College Street.

Free and his friends were taking part in an April 6 Critical Mass bike ride, a kind of mass demonstration designed to protest the ills of the American car culture while promoting alternative forms of transportation. Similar events have been held worldwide in recent years.

But as he watched his friends getting arrested, Free says he felt himself compelled to take action.

“I was shocked at the injustice being done to the bike ride, and I performed an act of civil disobedience, to protest the arrest of people,” he said.

So Free sat down in front of a patrol car; perplexed spectators applauded his act of solidarity as he and four others were picked up, pulled or dragged to patrol cars, and taken to jail. They were arrested for various violations, including failing to yield to a blue police light and resisting arrest.

“The point [of the ride] was to call attention to the fact that people drive cars too much. Getting arrested just happened; there definitely wasn’t a plan,” he added.

The five are now facing court dates for their part in the event and its immediate aftermath. Some embittered activists believe they were wrongly stopped and arrested, simply for trying to bring the message of “more bikes, fewer cars” to drivers in Asheville.

But police say they had no choice but to arrest the riders for blocking traffic and causing a public-safety hazard.

Lt. Jon Kirkpatrick of the APD’s Police and Community Together team said the Critical Mass, traveling at an estimated 5 to 10 mph during rush hour, had traffic backed up “hundreds of yards” on Merrimon Avenue, thus endangering the public. Blocking the lanes by maintaining a slow speed is illegal, he said, no matter what type of vehicle is involved.

“The speed limit is 35 mph on Merrimon,” said Kirkpatrick. “If they were on the far-right-hand lane, there would have been no problems, and an emergency vehicle could have gotten by. At that slow speed, an ambulance or fire truck could not get by.”

Event participants concede that blocking the flow of traffic is part of the idea of the rides.

“It is meant to encourage other people to get out there and ride their bikes and get away from the use of automobiles,” said “Albert,” another Critical Mass cyclist.

The Critical Mass movement, which originated in San Francisco in 1992, seeks to address a number of different issues with the mobile rallies. As in the Asheville ride, participants often fill the streets, alarming and confronting motorists with a pack of anywhere from 10 to more than 1,000 bicyclists.

Cyclists say they had ridden around downtown Asheville for about an hour on the afternoon of April 6, peacefully protesting and “having a good time.” Bike activists say the overall reaction of drivers was positive, though there were a number of negative reactions from frustrated motorists caught in the Mass-created traffic jam at rush hour. Two patrol cars intercepted the riders in the vicinity Chestnut Street and Merrimon Avenue and proceeded to follow them into town, with blue lights flashing.

“We were taking up two lanes of traffic going towards town,” said Free, “and that’s a big hill, so traffic was backing up. The officers came around the back and were tailing the Critical Mass — escorting or tailing, we couldn’t tell. The ride was going to end at Vance Monument, anyway.”

But less than a block from the monument, the APD brought the Critical Mass to a sudden halt. Witnesses and participants say that, around 5 p.m., the bikers had yielded to a stop light at Broadway and College Street when police officers began pulling riders off their bikes, handcuffing them, and putting them into patrol cars.

Kirkpatrick said that police intervened because the 30 to 50 bicyclists were blocking a “substantial” amount of northbound traffic on Merrimon. The officers activated their blue lights and sirens in an attempt to find out what was going on. “They ignored the officers,” he reported. Two riders were arrested two riders for “failing to yield to a blue light and siren and impeding the flow of traffic.”

As police began making arrests and the Critical Mass fell apart, confusion quickly turned into an angry, vocal protest, as people saw their friends being arrested, participants acknowledge.

“We had some people who were speaking freely of their minds,” said Critical Mass organizer “Peter.” “The police saw fit to start arresting those people who were saying what was on their mind.”

Kirkpatrick, however, noted that the protesters weren’t merely being vocal, they were yelling aggressive verbal assaults at the officers, calling them “mother f***ing pigs” and “motherf***ers” as the first two arrests were made.

“[The kid on the trashcan] was cussing and trying to incite people,” said Kirkpatrick, who was the officer in charge of the scene until Chief Will Annarino arrived.

Not only were the cyclists impeding traffic, say police, they were also breaking the law by endangering the public and then resisting the authority of the officers trying to control the volatile situation.

“It surprises me that the police are singled out,” observed Kirkpatrick. “I think every officer present conducted themselves properly. We weren’t chanting [obscenities]. We, in my opinion, acted in a professional manner. We were enforcing the laws of North Carolina that these folks chose to break. In the view of the officers, [the Critical Mass participants] were violating the law, and whether or not they were is up to a judge to decide.”

Some witnesses say they were bewildered and shocked by the police intervention and the subsequent confrontation. Many say the bike ride turned to chaos only after the police moved in, charging that the APD overreacted.

“It was weird,” said Anna Hicks, who was standing at the corner of Broadway and College as the police made the arrests. “I’ve been a part of protests before, and it seems like [the APD] were freaking out over nothing. All [the Critical Mass riders] were trying to do was get people to ride bikes more often. It seemed like the police were just bored and this was something they didn’t like.”

Protesters also say police used excessive force in trying to stop the cyclists.

“APD began snatching people off their bicycles,” said Free.

Kirkpatrick, however, said the APD did not behave inappropriately and that he did not see anyone being treated indecently at the scene. He contends that “no one” was snatched or thrown to the ground, that he observed.

“Officers grabbed [the cyclists] by the back of the belt and they were walked back to the police cars,” Kirkpatrick said. “One kid ran away, [an] officer caught up with him, pulled him to the ground and arrested him. Another kid climbed up on top of [a] trash can, he was swearing and chanting and [in the process of being arrested], he was taken to the ground.”

“If they’re violating the law, they’re going to be arrested,” declared Kirkpatrick.

Some protesters maintain that bicycles are traffic and, as such, they should be given the same privileges as cars and trucks. Kirkpatrick, however, said that’s precisely why the police were eventually forced to stop the Critical Mass.

“They are traffic,” Kirkpatrick said, “but you can’t drive a motor vehicle as slow as you possibly can, where it impedes the flow. They are considered normal traffic, [and] it is considered their responsibility to pull over when they’re stopped by police.”

Moreover, Kirkpatrick pointed out that the entire incident could have been avoided — and the Critical Mass could have continued unhindered — if the riders had chosen to conduct their protest in a legitimate manner.

“If they would have applied for a permit of some sort, we would have cooperated with them in every manner.” he proclaimed. “We would have shut the roads down, we would have made sure that this kind of display could be done safely. They chose not to follow the rules that have been set up to keep everybody safe.”

Some participants, however, say the parade permit is an unnecessary and illegal requirement. Free, for one, scoffed at the necessity of a permit, which he feels is an unconstitutional requirement.

“We didn’t need a permit, because we have the First Amendment of the Constitution,” Free declared: “We have the permit that’s a part of the Bill of Rights. We were peacefully assembled. We weren’t having a parade, we were having a bike ride.”

Nonetheless, the city of Asheville requires a $10 parade permit for any public demonstration, gathering, rally, block party or festival. And Kirkpatrick maintains that the permit would have allowed the Critical Mass to demonstrate safely, while minimizing the threat to public safety.

“If they had just contacted the department ahead of time, we would have gone out of our way to cooperate. We could have set up a route where they could display their message, and nobody would have been put at risk,” he said.

Critical Mass plans to stage monthly rides, on the first Tuesday of each month. Rides will start at Vance Monument at 4 p.m., organizers say.

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