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Critical Mess


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Building hostility in the streets of Bloomington

By Joe Nickell

Friday 4:30, and I'm frantic. The gray sky is drooling again, a heavy wet oppression that closes in, muffles my grumbling voice as I rip at a plastic Kroger bag. My video camera was not made for Indiana weather; it wasn't made for taping from the teardrop seat of a borrowed mountain bike either. So I'm rigging up a home job--wrapping the camera in plastic, sealing the holes with rubber bands and scotch tape. Countdown to Critical Mass: thirty, twenty, fifteen minutes.

I don't know what to expect. Jenny rode in Bloomington's first Critical Mass last April, back before the two of us were engaged, before I'd ever heard of a Critical Mass. She came to my house that day and told me the whole story of her experience: of the furious drivers and laughing bikers, the idiots who intentionally plowed their two-ton automobiles into fragile bicycles and the other idiots who verbally assaulted individual drivers.

“What was the point?” I asked Jenny that day.

“The POINT!?!” she yelped. “The point is that we're sick and tired of being run off the road by asshole drivers, we're sick of people who drive five blocks to campus, we're sick of not having bicycle lanes in this town!”

“But what good does it do,” I whimpered, “if the tables are simply turned for a day? I mean, doesn't that just piss off the drivers and make them hate bikers all that much more?”

The conversation did not end there; it didn't end that day even. It's been a point of contention until today, in fact, and so I'm balanced on a borrowed bike, risking life and limb as I race to the Sample Gates to ride amongst the protesters.

Ten minutes to five, and I arrive at the gates simultaneously with two Bloomington Police cars. Police Chief Sharp trundles out of one car, grinning. I approach him with my video camera.

“What's your plan for today?” I ask.

“Well,” he replies, “we're basically here just to maintain order and to make sure that people follow the traffic rules.”

“And what if they don't?” I ask.

“Then we'll stop them,” Chief Sharp smiles.

I look around. Thirty, maybe forty college-aged cyclists are huddling around the flower planters. Their bikes look well- worn; many of them are caked with mud. I look back at Chief Sharp and imagine him, bald spot dripping, running down the street waving his billy-club, chasing bicyclists like a keystone cop. I smile.

But this is serious. I ask one rider why he's here. “To piss off some cops,” he sneers. And another: “it's a bicyclist's greatest fantasy: to run all the cars off the road.”

5 p.m., the scheduled time for departure into the rain soaked streets. By now, more than a hundred riders have shown up. Jenny arrives with her yellow bicycle and an extra battery for my video camera. Several cops stand at the edge of the street, arms folded smugly. A secretive murmur has risen to chatter amongst the riders, as the voltage increases. Then, the call rings out: “Let's go...through campus!”

The bikers pull a fast one on the cops: rather than heading down Kirkwood (as the police evidently expected), the peddle- pushers take off through campus, leaving Chief Sharp and company befuddled at the Gates.

I grab my bike, and tag behind Jenny up the brick sidewalk. At Kirkwood Hall, the group turns south, heading for Third Street. Yelps of excitement puncture the chill, wet air as we emerge from the Old Campus, clustering for a moment at the edge of Third Street. Then, with a collective whoop, the riders spill into the clogged avenue.

I can't wield my camera like this. The street is wet, my balance is poor, and I've got a plastic bag between my fingers and the machine's controls. I drop my bike and begin recording. But by now, the group of riders is fifty yards ahead of me, and Jenny is coming back with the first tale of confrontation: “somebody just ran over a bike up there!” she yells as she skids up to me.

I pick up my bike again and race forward; but the shouting match is over and the bikers have moved on, leading a half- mile clot of honking automobiles and shouting drivers.

At Indiana Avenue, the first police car catches up. It's Chief Sharp, and he pulls slowly into the thicket of bicycles, inching along. His loudspeaker crackles from under the hood: “move out of the roadway.” The bikers laugh and continue down Third Street, slowly creeping toward the Atwater-Third Street split.

And then, from all directions, the police cars arrive, sirens blaring. It's a well-designed trap, and several bikers are forced to stop near the corner of Third and Grant. I race forward on my bicycle and arrive at the intersection just as a young, blonde officer is playing tug-of-war with a young man's bicycle. Two other bikers stand nearby, pleading with the officer.

“What have I done wrong?” asks a young man from Singapore.

“You're being charged with obstruction of traffic,” replies the officer.

“But I was only riding my bike,” the man protests. “What have I done wrong?”

The officer hesitates, then stammers, “I'll ask the questions in a few minutes.” He's obviously not sure himself exactly what the rider did wrong. It seems that the officer had jumped out of his car and told several riders to stop. The three who obeyed were cited for obstruction of traffic--even though one asserted that she wasn't a part of the protest group.

I remain at the intersection, videotaping the series of events that unfold. The huge pack of cyclists has moved on, down Third Street to Lincoln. One of the three apprehended bikers is arrested--handcuffed, patted down, and shoved into the back seat of the officer's car--because he doesn't have his driver's license with him. The officer doesn't notice the irony.

With the bikers gone, I approach three officers who are standing and chatting in Third Street--their own car blocking a lane of traffic. In my most amiable voice, I ask, “what good do you think it does to arrest these bicyclists?”

They stare into my camera lens for an awkward moment before one grumbles, “would you please step back onto the curb?” So much for explanations.

By now, my frustration is considerable. The bicyclists have made no effort to communicate a message to drivers; the overriding tone has been simple hostility and confrontation. On the other hand, the police have gone beyond the call of duty, choosing to rough-handle the protesters and cause further congestion rather than escorting the group and mitigating conflict.

And it's far from over. Jenny and I eventually head up toward Kirkwood Avenue, hoping to catch up with the group. We have no idea where they've gone--the route was not planned in advance, even in the most general terms. But at the corner of Kirkwood and Grant, I spy the trail of evidence: first, a few handbills flitting across the pavement; then, in the distance, a police car--again, it's Chief Sharp--with a bicycle leaned against the back door. Jenny and I head toward campus.

As we arrive back at the Sample Gates, we spot a police car, lights flashing, a hundred yards north on Indiana. A passing pedestrian with a nose ring confirms that the pack of cyclists has headed up Indiana toward Tenth Street.

We catch up to the group near Collins Living Learning Center, where riders are blocking the intersection of Tenth & Woodlawn. There are fewer cyclists by now--apparently, the encounters with police have chased off all but the most committed few. One bicyclist tells me that a rider was bodyslammed on Indiana Avenue by an angry cop. Nobody seems interested in talking to drivers or passing out handbills; it soon becomes apparent that they're just waiting for the police to arrive again.

Chief Sharp again pulls up, and the riders head down Tenth Street toward the IU Library. The road is deserted, and it's 5:45. I hear speculation of a trap set ahead.

At the north entrance to the Arboretum, the riders stop. A discussion arises regarding whether to cut through the Arboretum, or whether to continue up Tenth Street. When two police cars arrive and turn on their sirens, the decision is quickly made: the pack races through the Arboretum, less intent on protest than on avoiding arrest.

But at the other end, a campus officer is waiting in the Library parking lot. The pack of riders turns around and heads back to Tenth Street. By now, it's a game of cat and mouse. The riders enter Tenth Street, and the call arises: “back to the Sample Gates!”

The group is by now less than fifty strong, and riders seem mostly intent on completing the circuit. The pack moves more quickly, and it's hard to videotape much. At the corner of Woodlawn, the group blocks the intersection briefly again, and a physical altercation nearly ensues between a yahoo in a pickup and a yahoo on a bicycle.

The confrontation turns my stomach. This is not social protest; it's not communication or education. It's nothing more than blind, aimless antagonism. I'm embarrassed to be on a bicycle and embarrassed to own a driver's license. Nonetheless, I follow the stragglers back to the Gates.

The Critical Mass is over. Bicyclists stand around the Gates, exchanging anecdotes and talking about future protests. Three police cars pull up, but nobody fears arrest now that the bikes are on the sidewalk. The group of cyclists stands around for a few minutes before several police officers step out of their cars and shout for the group to disperse. All but a few bikers ride off into the rain.

Five or ten of us remain. I've packed my video camera away by now. Then, I hear a shout: “Joe! Bring your camera!” I rush to where a group has formed around a police officer. Apparently, the officer had walked up to a man holding a bicycle, put his arm on the man's shoulder, and told him he was under arrest. The cyclists are furious, screaming at the officer. “That is the coldest thing I've ever seen,” says one. “You had no reason to do that.”

The mood has turned nastier than ever. The officer shoves the rider toward his car while a second officer impounds the man's bicycle. Bystanders have joined in, jeering the police. I realize that my perceived immunity may be wearing thin. The cops want bodies.

Then, as I prepare again to leave, mayhem breaks out. Out of the corner of my eye I see my friend Asheesh drop his bike at the curb and sprint toward the Gates, pursued by a cop who's fingering his gun. The cop tackles Asheesh into a flower bed as shouts turn to screams. Another young man begins to pry at the officer's shoulder, then leaps onto the officer's back. Four other officers race up and rip the second man from the officer. As I struggle to focus my video camera, the second man is thrown to the concrete, and three officers leap on him, one holding the man's head to the ground with his knee while the others handcuff the screaming man. My heart racing, I barely hear as Jenny screams into the faces of the officers, “police brutality sucks!”

And then, it's over. The officers shuffle the offenders away. No-one knows how it started. Everyone's ready to be done with it. I wipe the rain off my camera and ride a few blocks home.

For the thirteen arrested riders, the protest will linger in their memories in the context of court dates, fines, and more than a few bruises. For the drivers whose ride home was interrupted, the protest will be forgotten, or chalked up to the angry aimlessness of something called Generation X. I suppose the cops think they were successful, that they did the right thing and maintained order for the city of Bloomington.

For me, I've got it on tape. That's my memory.

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