Buffalo’s Critical Mass
One Year Later after the Critical Massacre
Biking in Buffalo – Part IV
by Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice 5/27/04
This weekend marks the anniversary of last year’s Elmwood Avenue police riot – known locally as the “Critical Massacre,” named for the victims of the assault – cyclists participating in Buffalo’s monthly Critical Mass bike ride. It was May 30 th when police officers stopped the 120 person ride on Elmwood Avenue, ostensibly to ticket two cyclists for what was later proven in court to be a fabricated charge -- failing to yield to the police car that pulled them over.
Over two-dozen officers, many wielding batons or metal flashlights, arrived on the scene in response to a distress call no one quite remembers making. They quickly arrested the only Black man in the immediate vicinity, and then within seconds started clubbing photographers and bystanders. When the dust cleared, nine people were charged with felonies. While photographing the incident as a credentialed journalist, I was clubbed from behind and also arrested – initially facing 13 years in prison. For the sake of brevity, and to avoid repetition, I’ll refer readers to my previous articles on this incident, available at www.mediastudy.com/cm.html.
Part One: Subsequent Investigations
Erie County District Attorney Frank Clark pursued criminal charges against the arrestees, who, after a six-day trial in November, were acquitted of those charges – with the presiding judge declaring most of the counts to be non-prima fascia, or having virtually no apparent merit.
There has been a concerted effort during the past year to see that the perpetrators of the injustices of last May 30 th, and most importantly, those behind the frivolous prosecution, are brought to justice. To this end, civil libertarians filed charges with local, state and federal officials.
One of those agencies, the Buffalo Police Department’s internal affairs bureau, dubbed the Professional Standards Division (PSD), undertook an investigation. Departmental policy states that such investigations should reach a conclusion within 30 days. It’s now been a year, and as of earlier this week, this one is still “pending,” having yielded no findings. The Lieutenant in charge of the investigation has been promoted up and out of the PSD – with no one in the division taking over the case. So it pends. Ultimately, the resolution here will probably be a hastily drafted whitewash garnished with a bit of wrist slapping dealt out to rank and file patrol officers – and little or no admonishment of the commanding officers ultimately responsible for most of the violence and the perjured arrest reports.
Also pending is a complaint filed with the City of Buffalo’s Human Rights Commission (HRC). Since the Masiello administration cut the funding for the HRC’s sole investigator, the commission has been effectively eviscerated. HRC members that I spoke with indicate that the events of last May 30 th were not an isolated incident, but part of a systemic pattern of violent abuse covered up with malicious prosecution. Without an investigator, however, they say their hands are tied.
Then there’s the issue of missing evidence. While in police custody, after I identified myself as a journalist, I was stripped of my clothing and marched naked into a holding cell. It was painted hot pink and spattered with dried blood and feces. I was later given a weird child-sized paper apron to wear. Sound familiar? While my mistreatment pales in comparison to what has been going on in American-run prisons across Iraq, Afghanistan and in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, it indicates an endemic criminal gulag mentality that spans the empire.
Such treatment in Buffalo’s jails, however, wasn’t new. Before the Critical Mass incident, the Clinton-era US Justice Department cited the Buffalo Police for its mistreatment of prisoners. In response, the Buffalo Police agreed to videotape prisoners in lockup. Sure enough, when I landed in my cell, there was a camera trained on each cage.
This camera should have recorded my mistreatment. After my release, I requested that the PSD secure the videotape. Now, a year later, the tape is missing. Sources within the Buffalo Police Department claim it may never have existed, explaining that even though the agreement with the Justice Department may stipulate that the cameras be turned on, in practice, they aren’t. Hence, the missing tape.
Also missing are the Use of Force Reports (UFR) for May 30 th. Again, the Justice Department stipulates that the Buffalo Police must produce a detailed report every time they use force against members of the public. Under this agreement, a report should have been generated for each person arrested and for each additional person who was clubbed or pushed on Elmwood Avenue. But it seems that either no such reports were made, or if they were made, they’re now missing.
For me, the most alarming part of the incident was not the violence on Elmwood Avenue. After hearing the police officers testify in court, and after listening to the dispatch tapes, I can understand what happened. It all basically boils down to a communication breakdown with the police department resulting in stressed out overworked and under-trained officers not knowing what type of situation they were responding to – mistaking a traffic stop for a riot. The combination of adrenaline, fear and confusion, with a frosting of nastiness, got the clubs swinging. It should never have happened – and if not for the nonviolent response of the cyclists, the situation could have been much uglier. But I do believe that no officer woke up that morning with a plan to beat bicyclists with clubs.
The alarming part of the story centers on District Attorney Frank Clark’s office. His relentless pursuit of baseless charges against the victims of May 30 th did not happen in the flash of the moment. His was a cold calculated decision that he stood by for five months right up to and through the November trial. Once in court, his Assistant District Attorney relied on conflicting reports and blatantly perjured testimony while fighting to suppress the original arrest reports – which were essentially badly written fiction riddled with perjury. The performance of Clark’s underlings showed nothing but contempt for honesty and justice.
To date, however, none of the police officers who perjured themselves on the witness stand have been charged with perjury. When questioned about when these charges would be forthcoming, the unofficial word out of the DA’s office was, “we don’t charge police officers with perjury.” This is akin to a policy of not charging grade pedophile schoolteachers with child molesting. Police officers are officially officers of the court. For our justice system to work, they have to be held to the highest standards of honesty. If an officer’s word can’t hold up in court, the system can descend into chaos from traffic court on up the line.
In an attempt to build any sort of case against the cyclists, Clark even went as far as to assign his office’s Chief Confidential Criminal Investigator, John Abraham, to do a background check on defendants, inquiring if defendants were “communist
” or were “down on society.” In court, Clark’s Assistant District Attorney cross-examined me, asking about different ArtVoice columns I’ve written, ultimately bellowing, “Are you or are you not an Anarchist?”
This sort of behavior should never happen in an American Courtroom. And innocent people should never be dragged through the rigors of a criminal trial based on a political agenda. It’s more than simply wrong. If the DA’s actions were intentional, as opposed to simply the end result of incompetence, then they are criminal.
Legally, however, intent is difficult to prove. The Critical Mass defendants, none-the-less, filed complaints with the US Justice Department. These were turned over to the FBI’s Civil Rights Division. Confidentiality regulations make it difficult to get information from the FBI regarding the current status of pending investigations. FBI officers here in Buffalo, however, seem genuinely concerned about this case – but the FBI is otherwise disposed and the Civil Rights Division doesn’t seem to be a major priority. Hence, all indications are that this case, like the PSD and the HRC cases, will remain “pending” without any foreseeable resolution. This is where the case lies – with the only hope for justice coming from John Ashcroft’s Justice Department and the FBI. I’m not holding my breath.
Part Two: Changes in the Ride
Needless to say, the impact of all of this on subsequent Critical Mass rides has been extreme. In the month following the Critical Massacre, the ride doubled in size, with community members filling their tires and dusting off their bikes in an effort to show support for Critical Mass. This is the kind of stuff that makes me proud to be a Buffalonian.
With the increase in size, however, come new riders, not quite familiar with Critical Mass’s evolved culture. Here’s where the arrests and prosecutions have taken their toll. Frank Clark’s investigators sought to identify a “leader” of Critical Mass. Of course, as a nonhierarchical movement, Critical Mass has no leader. Cyclists meet on the last Friday of each month at 5:30 in front of City Hall in Buffalo, as they do in hundreds if not thousands of other locations around the world, and ride their bikes. It’s a simple celebration of the bicycle. It’s not an organization.
Even though a hypothetical leader would have broken no laws, no Critical Mass rider seems willing to be mistaken for such a leader and singled out for official harassment. Hence, riders appear to shun being at the lead of the mass. And they avoid traditional responsibilities such as facilitating rides by offering maps or making explanatory leaflets to give to bystanders.
With no one navigating, the rides tend to slow down as people drop back away from the lead. And they get stuck in traffic circles. And they stall at corners while people reach a quiet consensus about which direction to go. Usually they just continue on straight.
Hence, with no one proposing interesting routes, the rides tend to take the same tired old paths, often heading up Elmwood Avenue. This is particularly problematic because on most of the stretch up Elmwood Avenue from Virginia Street to Forest Avenue, it is technically illegal for a car to pass a bicycle due to the narrowness of the street, and the combination of parking lanes and double yellow lines. Hence, if the mass doesn’t meander onto different streets every few blocks, traffic backs up and nerves fray.
During the Critical Massacre trial, the DA and police officers made a point of emphasizing that state law requires cyclists to ride only two abreast. Again, to avoid potential harassment, many riders follow this regulation. The end result is a longer more spread out ride – complete with all the added traffic congestion associated with a less compact ride.
Pissing off drivers is not the purpose of Critical Mass. But when people passively ride, fearing to actively navigate or otherwise facilitate rides, this can be an outcome. Combine this with an already stressed out population, whose federal government celebrates violence abroad as its primary conflict resolution strategy, and whose people are awash in daily war news. Add high gas prices and a sinking economy, and you have a dangerous cultural mix.
Last month these factors resulted in three attacks against the Critical Mass bike ride. One was a hit and run at the tail of the ride, with an SUV driver knocking a cyclist to the ground and speeding off. Given the police department’s history with Critical Mass, no one called them for help. Then there was a tack attack. Every non-winter ride since last May 30 th, has been met with a tack attack – with someone tossing hundreds of thumb tacks into the path of the oncoming bikes. The riders have responded by treating tires with instant flat fix compounds or by packing extra tubes for quick pit stop tire changes.
The third attack on last month’s ride came on Amherst Street near Delaware Park, where another SUV driver started surging at the back of the ride, pounding on his brakes right before mowing into the crowd. He repeated this accelerator-brake dance until the ride stopped. At that point, rather than passing the ride, as other cars were doing, he got out and ran after a rider who had yelled something along the order of “peace and love” to him. Harmless as the words may be by definition, they could also be a taunt.
According to witnesses, when the driver was about 50 feet from his SUV, a Critical Mass rider seized the keys from the ignition and rode off on his bike – sending the keys back after a five minute cooling off period. According to witnesses, this action might well have saved lives, since the motorist, who earlier was engaging in vehicular menacing, was now chasing people on foot. The fear was that if he reemployed his vehicle as a weapon, he could kill someone. Hence, the cyclist who creatively intervened may have saved a life. And he may have saved the SUV driver from some serious jail time. Another motorist called the police, but again, given the Buffalo Police Department’s history with Critical Mass, no one wanted to stay around to file a complaint. Least of all the motorist, who some witnesses say seemed a bit drunk.
For Critical Mass riders, some who came out with their children for a quiet evening ride around the city, the effect was chilling. Many say they are ready to call it quits – not wanting to subject themselves to violence.
The problem of violent motorists has been compounded by the problem of nasty aggressive cyclists. Again, with no one wanting to actively facilitate the rides in the wake of last year’s persecution, there’s little mechanism to deal with out-of-line cyclists. At the last ride, this included two or three riders who both crossed into oncoming traffic in a self-destructive sort of dare, and who actively blocked traffic from passing the Mass.
This is not what Critical Mass is about. And people engaging in aggressive cycling have no business hiding amidst or endangering 100 peaceful riders who have no desire to become part of a conflict. If someone feels the need to aggravate motorists – at the very least a tactically stupid move given the armor differential between a bike and a 5,000 pound SUV – they should do this on their own, and not jeopardize the safety of the Critical Mass ride. The rest of the Critical Mass riders, for their part, have a duty to ostracize obnoxious riders – even at the risk of having such peacekeeping be seen by Frank Clark as “leadership.” Two provocateurs have no right to put Critical Mass in danger – and riders shouldn’t put up with such stupidity or malice.
One Critical Masser, on pondering whether or not to ride again, remarked, “maybe Buffalo’s just not civilized enough [with “civilization being a good thing in this context] to have a Critical Mass ride.”
Overall, the reaction to Critical Mass in Buffalo is positive. Many motorists smile and wave to the passing cyclists – many of whom are often motorists themselves. One of the city’s new tourist guides proudly touts the monthly Mass. The Mayor’s office sent an email message to a Wisconsin tourist, proudly citing this city’s record of hosting Critical Mass rides. Even last month’s troubled ride was mostly positive – with the exception of a few fools on bikes and in cars. But that’s all it takes to screw up a ride. And that’s why riders have to actively serve as peacemakers – ostracizing obnoxious cyclists and getting out of the way of aggravated motorists – even when cyclists are in the right. I mean really, my right to the road is nothing I’d want to die over.
Buffalo can pull this off. We’ve done it for four successful years. This flat city with its wide tree lined parkways was described at the turn of the last century as “a wheelman’s paradise.” With cycling again on the rise in Buffalo, we owe it to ourselves to sustain a Critical Mass. It’s fun. It’s a good thing. And if I have to once again go to court to defend my right to say so – we should keep this monthly ride alive!
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