Seattle Critical Mass Assault a Flashpoint in Bike v Car Culture


Riders from This May’s Seattle Critical Mass

Last Friday, during Seattle’s Critical Mass ride, a Subaru station wagon ran over some cyclists.  The reasons for the incident are up for debate as cyclists claim the driver acted irrationally and plowed into the cyclists without provocation.  The driver claims that cyclists were attacking his car and while attempting to scare them off accidentally backed over a pair of them. 

While the crash itself is bad enough, the reaction of the police and the media is even worse.  When an officer arrived on the scene, he conducted interviews and immediately accepted the driver’s story as fact.  This report has led to an echo chamber effect that has the local media and police united in blaming the Critical Mass riders for the incident.  Consider these two stories in the Seattle Times, which gives the official version of the story, as reported by a police officer who wasn’t present when the incident occurred, under the clearly unbiased title of "Critical Mass riders injure driver in Capitol Hill altercation."

According to Jamieson, as the Critical Mass group moved down the
street, blocking traffic, some riders got in the way of the Subaru and
prevented it from leaving. Some bikers sat on the car and were banging
on it, he said.

"The driver was pretty fearful that he was about to be assaulted by the bicyclists," Jamieson said.

The man tried to back up, but bumped into a biker. "This enraged the group," Jamieson said.

Several of the bikers bashed up the Subaru, shattering the windshield and rear window, Jamieson said.

The driver tried to drive away, but hit another bicyclist, Jamieson
said. Still, he drove about a block, to the corner of Aloha and 15th
Avenue East, before the Critical Mass riders cornered the car again and
started spitting on it and banging against it.

One bicyclist punched the driver through his open window, and another used a knife to slash the Subaru’s tires, Jamieson said.

Wow, sounds pretty terrifying.  Imagine being trapped in a car when a large group of cyclists attack your car for no apparent reason.  Of course, there is another side of the story.  Unfortunately, the Seattle Times waited for the bottom of their third story on the incident to print a detailed version of the cyclists version of the crash.

But Braun, the injured attorney, said it was Mark whom he saw acting
"aggressive and belligerent" when Braun, who had been riding at the
back of the Critical Mass pack, crested a hill on Aloha Street.

The Subaru was parked perpendicular to the street, and was backed
over a sidewalk and someone’s front lawn, said Braun, 36. He stopped
and stood straddling his bike to watch as the cyclists tried to calm
the driver.

"He was screaming the whole time and yelled something about being
late for a [dinner] reservation — and he floors it, he literally floors
it into a bunch of people and I took the brunt of it," he said.

A woman was also hit but jumped free, he said, and a man jumped onto
the hood of the car to avoid being hit. But Braun — and his bike — got
pulled beneath the vehicle.

"I was trying to hold onto the front and the bumper. I was pinned
under the car, struggling for my life," he said. When Mark made a sharp
left, a tire ran over Braun’s right leg, but somehow, he managed to
roll free of the car.

He didn’t see what happened next.

These stories are representative of the coverage of the incident.  The Stranger, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, KOMO News, and The News Tribune all wrote stories blaming the cyclists for the incident. 

We’ll probably never know the entire story, only the Critical Mass cyclists who witnessed the incident and the driver know what really happened.  However, the Seattle PD and press’ reaction provides a perfect illustration of the bias that still exists in many media outlets to blame the cyclist first. 

In the Seattle P-I article above, the Seattle PD’s spokesperson admits that Critical Mass has gone on for a long time in Seattle with no major incidents, yet the first time there is one the establishment is unanimous in blaming the cyclists based soley on the word of the people who would be charged if the cyclists version were believed.

One wonders what the reaction to the Mandeville Canyon crash would have been if the story had been broken by the mainstream press instead of the bike-friendly LAist. 

Photo: The Corey/Flickr

  • A.T.

    Those CM riders that have them need to use their cell phone cameras or have them on video standby whenever they mass.

  • Who is this other AT? I’m the original AT – ya hear?

  • Ron

    There actually was another incident in the June critical mass, which I participated in. We were downtown heading North on 1st Ave around Madison. I was in the last third of the pack. There were a few bicyclists that had blocked off the traffic headed west. One car started throwing their soda’s at a biker and shouting for them to move out of the way. The biker simply stood his ground. Then, a minivan in the left-hand lane started inching towards two bikers and revving its engine. I circled back and watched as the minivan driver started to actually crush two bikes with riders still on them. Everyone was shouting for him to stop and some of us started beating on the car because what else could we do? The bikers were pinned by the bumper. Somehow they jumped free.

    It seemed like it could quickly turn into a mob riot, so most of us decided to leave after the bikers were relatively safe. Did anyone else here witness this event?

    I think there needs to be some policy issues worked out on critical mass. I know there is an anarchist spirit to it, but it precipitates misunderstandings and pisses many motorists off. Blocking off intersections so bikers can go through red lights seems questionable at best. What if a pack of cars decided to do this? Drivers, who are inconvenienced by having to wait a few minutes for bicycles to pass, are out of line assaulting bikers, period. But bikers need to find a way to make their protest more effective.

  • kg

    Ron, I couldn’t agree more. We need a policy solution. The anarchist spirit of Critical Mass rides is exactly what makes them so fun and risky. As cyclists, we are always extremely vulnerable on the road and CM rides (or any group rides for that matter) are the only moments where we have any sort of ability to feel strong as a collective. That energy turns adversarial the instant the tension between the cars and the riders (or, god forbid, the police) reaches a boiling point. We need to come up with a way to feel strong without letting it get out of control. When cars act out against us when we are alone on the road, we couldn’t be more at risk.

  • Paul

    I’m not sure why CM bikers can’t stop at red lights or stop signs. It would be way more productive and may help gain more respect from motorists. I mean, what if one day there were just that many bikers riding to work? I think the goal should be to show how hundreds of bikers can share the roads responsibly.

  • Not knowing what happened I of course can’t say who was in the right, but if the purpose of your protest is to annoy and anger people by inconveniencing them, you shouldn’t be surprised when those people lash out at you.

    Expecting people in cars to be rational and level headed while you antagonize them by blocking intersections, running stop signs, blocking streets, etc. is arrogant and naive.

    That doesn’t make a driver who attacks or endangers the bicyclists justified in his/her actions. But you can’t be surprised that it happens.

    If you’re being a dick, there’s a good chance you’re going to get punched, regardless of what the law says.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    Ron,

    Motorcyclists riding in special “runs” block traffic at red lights so the group can get through all the time and no one seems to care. Funeral procession do it to! But a bunch of people do it bicycles and it’s justifiable grounds for assault with a deadly weapon.

    I don’t condone much of what Critical Mass has become and no longer participate in the ride in my local small New Jersey town. However corking intersections so the group can make it through is in everybody’s best safety interest. That said, the head riders in the group should NEVER blow through red lights (or stops signs) forcing the rest to blindly follow.

    BTW, in a CM I’ve done in the past, drivers were threatening our group of 20 riders for being in the road as we were stuck in massive gridlock with them. There are just TOO MANY drivers out there who are homicidal maniacs. As if the 50 feet of road we were occupying in front of him would have gotten him home any more than 2 seconds sooner!

  • Asha

    “I think there needs to be some policy issues worked out on critical mass. I know there is an anarchist spirit to it, but it precipitates misunderstandings and pisses many motorists off. Blocking off intersections so bikers can go through red lights seems questionable at best. What if a pack of cars decided to do this? Drivers, who are inconvenienced by having to wait a few minutes for bicycles to pass, are out of line assaulting bikers, period. But bikers need to find a way to make their protest more effective.”

    Thank you!! Well said!

    Although aggression directed at cyclists is never acceptable or appropriate, it is also a challenge to communicate a positive message of cycling, when many of the participants on a group ride like critical mass are being disruptive and rude. In particular it is damaging to those riders who want to remain respectful and reasonably law abiding…

    It certainly couldn’t hurt for cyclists to develop a more coherent strategy when demonstrating….but doesn’t that go against the anarchistic and leaderless “spirit” of critical mass? How does one control chaos? It is up to each individual on the ride to demonstrate good behavior and courtesy…

    (ex: Critical Manners up in San Francisco…)

  • Thanks to friends in Seattle, I’ve been following this story since Saturday. And Damien hits the nail on the head when he says, regardless of who is right or wrong in this case, that the police and press jumped to the conclusion that the cyclists were at fault.

    I can understand the press getting it wrong. It makes a far better story if a bunch of rampaging bikers attacked a defenseless driver, than if a driver just ran into some bikers, intentionally or not. Or, as usually happens in these cases, if both sides were at fault.

    But there is simply no excuse for police bias against cyclists leading them to ignore the witnesses, just because they happened to be other CM riders. Or for the press failing to do it’s job in keeping the police honest.

    The real story here is that the system failed. Once again.

  • Not the original A.T.

    Andy B stated that motorcyclists and funerals get to stop traffic. They generally have permits to do so because of the collective number. Bicyclists on huge charity rides do also (at least that is what I have heard) when there are a thousand cyclists going through a small city.

    It would destroy the nature of critical mass, but could you imagine the irony of a huge bike ride through santa monica, with police escorts blocking the intersections so the cyclists could all ride through en mass.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    Funerals maybe but the motorcyclists, I doubt it. I’ve never seen a police escort with either that I’ve observed and some of the motorcycle rides had less than 50 riders.

    I wonder if states have special laws about funeral processions. I doubt most have special provisions in their Motor Vehicle Code to allow funeral processions to blow red lights and stop signs without a police escort. It has just become custom to do so, like waving someone through an intersection when traffic is backed up in front of you.

    Also I was once harassed by a bunch of motorcyclists on a “run” on the freeway in New Jersey. There were hundreds if not a thousand motorcyclists going down the Interstate at around 55mph (speed limit 65). I was passing them for 10 minutes as I cruised by doing about 70mph. When I went to merge into the right lane to exit (very politely with my turn-signal and in a large gap way before my exit), I was “flipped-off” and even cursed at when one pulled up next to me! WELL EXCUSE ME!!! What the hell else was I to do!

    Oh yeah! That massive group of motorcycle riders didn’t have a police escort either but that’s OK.

  • @Andy B: I think you kind of made our point for us: neither are OK — The motorcyclists were being rude and dangerous as well.

    And a funeral precession is a very, very different thing than a bunch of self-righteous bicyclists gathered together for the sole purpose of garnering attention by being annoying.

    I’ve biked for many years, I used to commute by bike. I support improved infrastructure for bicyclists, but being antagonistic, annoying and dangerous isn’t going to win any friends.

  • BigDave

    So if I was to organize a counter-protest, where a large group of pedestrians blocked the Critical Mass cyclists by walking slowly through a crosswalk, would that be OK?

  • SeattleWitness

    My first encounter with CM was Friday night in Seattle about 10 minutes before the much publicized altercation. We were parking our car across the street from our restaraunt destination when my girlfriend and I noticed the large group of cyclists proceeding down the main boulevard (Broadway) through the neighborhood.

    I have no idea what happened in the actual altercation 10 minutes later, but what I witnessed personally in my own encounter with this group left me with a lasting impression.

    I watched a few things that bothered me just a little, like the group running the red light, not allowing pedestrians to cross the street at the crosswalk, and interfering with traffic in both directions of travel. The reason I mention it is because it established the notion in my mind that this group did not have law-abiding intentions.

    However, what really got me to spend the next three days pondering this incident is when I saw the cyclists using their bodies and thier bikes to actually surround and block motor vehicles from proceeding on the roadway.

    These actions (that I now understand are called “corking” by CM) are where I think an extremely dangerous line was crossed. Regardless of the “real” intent or nature of the group as a whole, I was very shaken to witness everyday citizens being detained without provocation or explanation. In my mind, all it would take is a minor reaction from either side for the situation to escalate completely out of control.

    What I haven’t been able to resolve for myself is how I would react to some group of strangers tyring to immobilize me and vehicle without provocation. All I could say is that it seems extremely dangerous, and extremely reliant on a very passive driver to expect a non-violent outcome using this “corking” tactic.

    For someone who is not familiar with the group, and has a strong sense of right and obligation to protect himself, I can completely see a valid argument for using force to get away. In this country, there’s no excuse for detaining someone in this manner and not expecting them to exercise their right to get away. If you’re foolish enough to block a 3,000 lb. vehicle with your 20 lb. bicycle, it would give me reason to assume your judgment is something worth getting away from.

    Within a few minutes of the group passing us, police cars were speeding in their direction. I commented then that there was probably an altercation resulting from the kind of situation I had just witnessed.

    In my mind, what happened next was completely predictable, and could have turned out much worse. Thankfully, that incident ended with only some recoverable injuries and a beat up car.

    I hope there’s some intervetion before the group’s ride next month.

    Those are my two cents.

  • BigD

    Why are the bicyclists feeling wronged for what they did? These bicyclists trapped a car with it’s occupants and stateed assaulting him and I’ve seen this more than once before in this city. Critical Mass seems to think they own the road and can break whatever laws they want to and yet it’s a car drivers fault when someone gets hurt, even when the bicycle riders provoked the fight that got this man hit on the head by someone who meant to inflict as much damage as possible!

    I hope this group is outlawed themselves! One person actually yelled “this week it was knives to tires and if you try to stop us next time it will be a knife to your throat”! Really? Go ahead and just try to commit murder and see where that gets you!

  • Andrew M

    Ride Civil has organized a monthly ride as an alternative to Critical Mass. The next ride is this Friday (08/08/08) beginning at 5:30 from Westlake Center.

    Information is at Ride Civil at http://seattle.ridecivil.org .

    There is a Facebook group as well at http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=33421667813 .

    Join up and join the ride too.

    Best,
    Andrew

  • BG Davis

    I’ve been run off the road on purpose when riding alone; one of my friends was deliberately run down and seriously injured. In the SF bay area, riders have been deliberately targeted by drivers. It’s time for cyclist to arm themselves. Cars are deadly weapons and everyone has the right to use lethal force when threatened with lethal force.