Critical Mess: The City Versus Your Civil Liberties

8:00am | On Friday, October 29, 2010, a group of residents and their friends gathered in a parking lot near Atherton and Palo Verde for a group bicycle ride. These people, all bicycle enthusiasts, had no specific agenda other than to ride together as a group, and help promote bicycle safety within their own community. Instead, police officers pulled the group over almost immediately, issued more than 70 citations, and impounded more than 20 bicycles. Some of those citations turned out to cost more than $600.

Gerry Campos, one of the participants, rode all the way from Tustin. “I was expecting to have a good time and ride with my friends,” said Campos. When he noticed more than 20 Long Beach Police officers nearby, he “just figured that they were there to help with the ride, just like all the other Critical Mass rides I’d done.”

According to Ronnie Sandlin, co-founder of Pedal Movement and The HUB, local riders had reached out to the City more than a month before, asking for officers to block traffic as the group passed through intersections, a practice common in other cities that host large group rides. In an interview published on November 2, 2010, he said that local riders had tried to find support for the ride from the Special Events Bureau, the Mayor’s Office, and from the Police Department.

Some riders told me that staff working in the Special Events Bureau said that they needed a permit to hold the group ride. I spoke with David Ashman, Manager of the Special Events Bureau, approximately one week after the ride. When I asked him why he thought a Special Event Permit was necessary, he said, “There were more than 75 people on the ride, so that means they had to have a permit.”

This number, 75, that Mr. Ashman mentioned, comes from a piece of municipal code, section 5.6, that outlines all the rules regarding special event permitting. Much to my surprise, Deputy City Attorney Gary Anderson explained that, since 2004, the Federal District Court had placed an injunction on the City, prohibiting the use of 5.6 because parts of it had been found to be unconstitutional. Why, then, was Ashman using 5.6 as a guide to determine what events did and did not require a permit? When asked, neither Ashman, Anderson, nor City Manager Pat West had an answer.

Anderson explained that the City, lacking any legal code for it, cannot issue Special Event Permits and, further, would not be able to require expressive activities, protected under the First Ammendment of the United States Constitution, from applying for or receiving one.

In a prepared statement, Anderson said, “the City does not issue permits for free speech or expressive activities where the objective is to express, disseminate or communicate an idea, opinion or view. The City will offer assistance to any organization or individual who wishes to engage in expressive activity by helping to coordinate the event to prevent disruption of the proposed event while maintaining public safety.”

On the night of the 29th, this coordinated assistance took an unexpected form.

Campos continues: “We left Cal State Long Beach and turned right onto Atherton Street. We got to Palo Verde and Atherton, maybe 1/4 mile from the pyramid, and came to a stop sign. I was in the lead pack so I stopped and made sure everyone around me did too because there was a squad car waiting for us at the corner. The officer in the squad car directed us to go ahead. He waved us through, like made a rolling motion with his arm.

“Me, and the riders around me, were already at a full stop when he signaled for us to ride through. It seemed very much the way a cop would direct traffic if a signal light was out.”

According to Campos and other riders I’ve spoken with, the riders at the front of the group, who had come to a complete stop at the stop sign, rode through the intersection. All the other riders behind them followed. Immediately, officers blocked the group on all sides.

“They made us sit on the curb, and told us to leave our bikes against the fence,” Campos said. “I asked why I was being stopped and I was just told to shut up so, when they told me to shut up, I grabbed my bike and started to walk away because nobody would tell me why I was being stopped. I know my rights so, when they refused to tell me, I took my bike and walked away. Then I was told that, if I tried to ‘flee,’ I’d be ‘tazed.’ I sat down quick!

“I then took out my camera and started recording what was going on, but a cop took it out of my hand. When I asked why he did that, and said that he wasn’t alowed to do that, he just told me to shut the fuck up.”

I asked attorney Robert Thomas Hayes Link, Esq., who grew up in Long Beach, what he thought of the incident. “As described by Gerry Campos, the supposedly bicycle-friendly City of Long Beach, by way of the conduct of the Long Beach Police Department, would seem to have arranged for a sting operation designed to discourage future cycling awareness activities within its borders. Whether the City managed this in a fashion that shields them from civil rights liability remains to be seen.”

Campos soon discovered that Long Beach, which claims to be “The Most Bike Friendly City in America,” is one of the few Cities in the State that enforces a mandatory bicycle registration program. Because he isn’t a resident, and Tustin doesn’t enforce such a rule, his bike wasn’t registered. Much to his horror, his $1,200 custom built bicycle was thrown to the ground by an officer, and soon had other bikes piled on top of it, all of which were loaded onto a big flat-bed truck.

Long Beach City Manager Patrick West has been cycling seriously for 18 years. In a phone interview last Thursday, he said, “Long Beach has been a leader in [developing] bike infrastructure. When a group goes out there to violate traffic laws, it brings more [negative] attention to the money that we’re spending on infrastructure, and angers the average motorist.

“If it’s a Critical Mass ride,” West continued, “you can expect our police department to be there to to monitor that. A Critical Mass ride is something that is going to attract the attention of our police department to prevent cyclists from, you know, to maintain the vehicle code. And I’m just speaking of Critical Mass. I’m not speaking about any other ride in Long Beach at all, whenever, where-ever, whoever. I’m speaking about a Critical Mass ride.”

According to Wikipedia, Critical Mass is an idea that originated in San Francisco in 1992. Since then, the concept of cyclist riding together to raise awareness about bicycle safety has spread to more than 300 cities around the world. Although there is some variation from City to City, rides typically take place on the last Friday of the month, in the early evening.

There is no Critical Mass group, organization, or other kind of entity. It is a concept that people, in their local communities, connect with. Events grow organically, via word of mouth, and through posts on facebook and other social media sites. Critical Mass rides reflect the spirit and character of the riders who show up. These rides do not specifically or indirectly encourage or require a violation of municipal, County, or State vehical codes. In fact, riders often go to great lengths to work with municipal law enforcement so that violations can be avoided entirely.

Hugh D’Andrade is a Bay Area blogger who writes about Critical Mass and bicycling issues at SFCriticalMass.org. In a prepared statement, he said, “One of our slogans in San Francisco has long been ‘We aren’t blocking traffic. We ARE traffic.’ We aren’t out to prevent motorists from getting where they are going. We are asserting our right to the road, and demonstrating how different our streets might look if our city were more like Amsterdam or Copenhagen, where bikes are a significant part of the traffic priorities. We are also inviting motorists to join us on their bikes one day a month!”

Campos says of other Critical Mass rides he’s participated in that, “generally, all the rides have really positive attitudes and are very welcoming. They’re just a group of people getting together to share their love of cycling and share that love with anybody and everybody who comes.”

Since the police intervention on October 29, 2010, many of the participating riders have been terrified to ride inside Long Beach. The tickets they received are so expensive that, for some, they’ve had to face the very real possibility of not being able to pay rent. There had been some talk of a “legal defense fund” by Charlie Gandy, Mobility Coordinator for the City’s Bike Long Beach program but, so far, only $400 has been raised.

To help address this, local cyclists organized a Christmas ride and fundraiser, scheduled for Thursday, December 23, 2010. Again, through word of mouth and social network sites, riders agreed to meet at Bixby Park. When they arrived, a phalanx of police officers, and a “paddy wagon,” were waiting for them. Some of the riders, upon seeing the officers, fled on foot, scared that the mere act of riding might get them another expensive ticket.

According to City Manager Patrick West, “we suspected that the second [ride] was a Critical Mass ride and, in hindsight, it was clear to us that it was not a Critical Mass ride. We communicated that to the group, then I talked to Jerome Podgajski [founder of MashLBC.com-ed] and I apologized.

“The second ride involved many of the same individuals,” said West, “and, at the end of the day, it turned out that no one had any intention of creating a a Critical Mass ride, so we would have supported that ride. We’re learning as we go along, and we’re talking to event organizers to just be careful about billing things as a Critical Mass ride because we’re very very conscientious of that group.”

Still, the financial hit of the $650 citation looms large for Campos. “I earn between $500 and $700 per month, working very part time for my dad, because I’m a full time student. I can’t afford it at all. Its either pay my bills, or fight this case.”

Campos has no plans to ride in Long Beach anytime in the near future.

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