A Beautiful Day for an Unnecessary Bicycle Protest

I would put money on Brett Favre tying the NFL all-time interception record Sunday (he needs 2 to tie, 3 to break it), but I would not put money on many Critical Mass participants getting arrested today. As always, I’m putting the over/under on Critical Mass arrests at 2, and I’m taking the under.

It’s the smart bet, based on the tune the city’s whistlin’ in Randy Furst’s Strib article today.

And my Mpls.St.Paul Mag bicycle article came out this week too. I spent the summer researching this thing, so check it out. I wrote it before the August Critical Mass freakout.

And yeah, I’ll be going on Critical Mass tonight, just for the first hour (have to review Home Place at the Guthrie at 7), just to see what’s going to happen after all this hype.

Like I said, I’m taking the under.

Blood on their Tracks

I was on the Critical Mass ride last night. Right in the middle of the so-called “riot,” when 19 cyclists were arrested by the MPD. I was in the middle of terrified kids scrambling off their bikes after being maced. Sirens converging from all four directions and stern city cops pulling out aerosol cans and uncollapsing batons. I was standing right next to the MPD prowler weaving its way down LaSalle through the confused rabble of cyclists. I heard one cop’s matter of fact threat: “If you don’t get out of the way, I. Will. Run. You. Over.” I was looking over my shoulder, peddling my ass off while blue and brown-uniforms advanced shoulder-to-shoulder up the street like it was Chicago in 1968 or Manhattan in 2004. I’m choosing those dates for a reason, but first, before I contribute any further to this Labor Day weekend’s blog hysteria, let me tell you what I was doing there.

I just finished a story on bicycling in Minneapolis for the October issue of Mpls.St.Paul Mag. Just went to press yesterday. In fact, I lead with an account of the July Critical Mass, an uneventful jaunt through the city–the cyclists even had a bemused police escort for the duration of the ride. I only decided to go on last night’s ride at the last minute, because my neighbor Juka was heading down. So we left around five p.m. and met everybody else by the Loring Park Fountain.

There were actually fewer people in the park than there were for the July ride. I was sitting on the grass, drinking Gatorade with Juka and listening to this loquacious black dude Darryl hold court about the Bonneventure Cemetery in Georgia when a kid in a baseball cap and a bandana around his neck passed the three of us these little yellow cards. The card were printed with “YOUR RIGHTS AS A CYCLIST” on one side and “YOUR RIGHTS WHEN DEALING WITH THE POLICE” on the other. At the bottom of the card there was a number for Joe Vacek, a cyclist/attorney at simplelaw.org. Then a scrawny kid with a scraggly beard called for our attention from fifteen feet up in a tree. “HEY,” he shouted down to us in his reedy voice, “WE HAVE SOME GUESTS FROM OUT OF TOWN THAT WILL BE JOINING US ON TONIGHT’S RIDE. WE’RE FROM pReNC AND WE’RE GOING TO BE HOLDING WORKSHOPS ON STRATEGIES TO PROTEST THE REBUPLICAN NATIONAL CONVENTION THAT BEGINS ONE YEAR FROM TODAY.” He announced that pReNC would be meeting at a restaurant on Lake and 29th at the end of the ride. “THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IS THAT NOBODY GETS ARRESTED AND WE ALL GET THERE SAFE.”

At the time, I thought this dude seemed to be freaking out. I mean, I heard the St. Paul Critical Mass ran into some problems a couple of months back, but the Minneapolis rides are almost officially sponsored by the city at this point. Check out the Star Tribune’s story. MPD Lt. Marie Przynski sounds like she’s carefully reading from a pro-bike press release: “We’ve never had a problem with Critical Mass, the rally. We agree with them that we need to lessen our dependence on the automobile.” It’s the last part of Lt. Przynski’s statement that speaks to what really was going on: “Apparently, they had some infiltrators or outsiders who joined the rally tonight. And these outsiders were trying to provoke the officers.”

The battle lines are being drawn a full year in advance of the RNC, an event known as The Protest Super Bowl. With all the bridge coverage, you might have missed some of the stories in the Strib about the preparations on both sides. Earlier this week, the Minneapolis City Council voted not to contribute a penny. (I’m sure the cops loved that.) On Wednesday, Kathy Kersten wrote a story about the “pinstripe brigade,” all the ACLU lawyers who’ll be in town to defend what Kersten calls the “anarchists rabble-rousers eager to flout the law.” No surprises on either side.

Long before all the trouble on LaSalle, there was a police helicopter in the air following the pack. As the cyclists rolled south on Washington some dude was blasting “Thriller” on his boombox. There were riders on BMXs with Jesse James bandannas over their faces Al Qaeda-style. There was a menacing undercover dude in a Boston Red Sox jersey strapped with a glock that kept appearing at each intersection and eyeballing everybody behind dark aviators. He leaned out the door of his unmarked car and murmured into his walkie-talkie each time. When somebody got pulled over for a joint or for riding into traffic or whatever the hell happened on the Broadway Bridge (400 kids on bicycles makes for a ridiculous game of “telephone”), everybody went right into their roles. ACTION, baby! Twenty-somethings that had been handed yellow cards stamped with their RIGHTS AS A CYCLIST chanted “Let Him Go!” Cops set their jaws. They eventually let him go, but cruising down First Ave., the kids at the back of the pack started talking shit and the sirens whooped. By the time the group bottlenecked in front of the SuperAmerica on LaSalle the tinder caught. The call for officer assistance went out, boots hit the street, bicycles crashed, pepper spray singed the air, kids cried.

To quote Strother Martin: “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” Yeah, there is some cultural dovetailing going on—many of these unwashed bicyclists are sympathetic to the anti-WTO, Bush-hating types. But Critical Mass is known for a Merry Prankster spirit, not for throwing rocks at Starbucks. Last night was a full-on dress rehearsal for the RNC. Both by the cowboys and the indians. The cops and the robbers. With a lot of bewildered young women on $25 Schwinns caught in the middle. I would bet that everything settles down by next month’s Critical Mass.

But next August is going to be ugly.