More than two dozen Buffalo police officers attacked a peaceful group of bicyclists on 6:30 p.m. on Friday evening, May 30. They kicked some and beat several with clubs and Mag-Lites. They arrested nine of them on the kind of trumped-up felony charges cops always levy when they’ve started a mess they shouldn’t have or beaten up folks they had no right to have been bothering in the first place.
It’s unlikely that the Buffalo police department will discipline the cops who rioted or that they’ll initiate a training program to help the more excitable members of the patrol force differentiate between perps committing felonies and ordinary folk riding bicycles. The best thing that could happen at this point would be for Erie County district attorney Frank Clark to find a tactful way to toss all these bogus charges into his prosecutorial garbage can as soon as he possibly can.
The bicyclists were taking part in a Critical Mass event. Critical Mass is more an idea than an organization. Part of the idea is, get a bunch of bicyclists together and ride around town to alert folks to the virtues of non-fossil-fuel transportation and to make people aware that bicycles aren’t an interference with traffic but rather a legal part of traffic. It’s all very laid-back and benign. No speechifying or postering the walls. Just a bunch of folks riding in pleasant company around town, letting other folks know that there are transportation possibilities other than cars and SUVs.
The first Critical Mass in Buffalo took place three years ago. Police had that peleton (as anyone who has ever watched the Tour de France on tv knows, a peleton is a group of bicyclists in motion) pull over while they tried to figure out something to charge them with. They couldn’t find anything, so they let the group go. They charged one person with resisting arrest. I assume that charge was simply to demonstrate that they were doing useful police work when they stopped the group and couldn’t come up with a legal reason for having done so. The charge was dismissed.
According to the police charges and reports, the cyclists were a swarm of violent villains and malefactors: the nine people arrested were charged with felony riot, illegal assembly, obstructing governmental administration, resisting arrest, disorderly conduct, failing to get out of the way of a police car with its siren going, kicking and biting and saying dirty words.
Unfortunately for the police, the whole event was well-photographed, not just by people in the group but also by some people who ran into a nearby convenience store, purchased disposable cameras and began shooting away. The police tried to stop one photographer they seemed to think was getting too close to the violence, Professor Michael Niman of Buffalo State College. They grabbed Niman, pummeled and kicked him, handcuffed him, and shoved him into a police car. He managed to hand his camera to Janet Hinkel, who continued taking pictures with it.
I suspect that some of the cops later wished they’d arrested Niman’s camera too, because the sequence of shots in it show everything from the police stopping the peleton and ticketing two of the riders at the rear, the rest of the group watching in obvious good humor, the first arrests and brutality, and then, further arrests and brutality.
Nowhere, in any of the hundreds of photographs, are there any images of any cyclist performing aggressively to the police.
Crazy on Elmwood
It all started when Buffalo police officers Michael Bauer and Daniel Horan stopped the bicyclists on Elmwood Avenue, I think to tell them to move to the right or spread out their line or whatever they had to do to make it easier for traffic, should there be any, which there wasn’t much of at that moment, to pass by. They gave tickets to Maria Van Wyek-Haney and Matthew Downey for not getting out of the way of a sirening speeding police car, which seems unlikely, but no one in the group got particularly upset. When the others figured out what was going on they passed a hat and raised enough money to pay the two $75 tickets.
The police later claimed that the bicyclists were holding up traffic, but photographs of the scene show that traffic wasn’t actually stopped until the police parked their car in the middle of the road-first so they could talk to the riders in front, and later so they could write their tickets to the two riders in back.
The police then arrested University at Buffalo student Gerald Bove, a bicyclist who had crossed Elmwood to find out what was happening. They charged him with jaywalking and put him into the police car. So far as I know, no one has ever been arrested in Buffalo for jaywalking previously. This part of Elmwood is where pizza shoppers regularly double-park in lines up three and four cars long and no one is ever ticketed or even told to pull into a parking space. Sometimes it’s the cops double-parked in front of the pizza joints.
Some of the bicyclists at the front of the group came back to see what was wrong. A second police car arrived and the cops who got out of this one seem, according to all accounts and the photographs, to have thought they were there to deal with Hell’s Angels: they wore leather gloves and waved clubs and heavy Mag-Lite cop flashlights. They were ready for violence and when they didn’t find any they brought their own.
Heron Simmonds, who teaches ethics at Canisius College in Buffalo, asked why they were arresting Bove, whereupon Officer John Santiago handcuffed Simmonds and led him off to a police car. Simmonds was the only African-American bicyclist in the group and no one has yet figured out the real reason he was arrested. Bicycling While Black? Asking Questions While Black?
Niman was photographing Simmonds being taken to the police car when he was attacked.
After that, everything went haywire.
Some cops bent a woman over the truck of a police car and one of them hit her with a nightstick. Sibhohan McCollum, a student at Buff State and one of the cyclists, said to a police lieutenant, "Please, you have to stop hitting people," whereupon she was bent over a police car, handcuffed and taken away. A woman with two children in her car stopped and asked the police to stop beating a bicyclist. They arrested her and took her away.
In all, four women were arrested, every one of them because she was pleading with police to stop clubbing someone who wasn’t doing anything except standing or lying there getting clubbed.
"Why are they hitting people?"
I asked McCollum what happened and this is what she told me:
I was standing behind Heron when he was arrested. I was there for the bulk of his dialog with the officer. It was absurd. The police had told us to get off the street and we did. We were on the sidewalk and the cobblestone between the sidewalk and the street. Then a police officer came and told us to get off of the sidewalk.
I saw Mike when he was on the ground being attacked. I don’t know what they were doing. I had run off the sidewalk to see what was happening . I thought they were going to kill him. Just all of a sudden this hell breaks loose. As they were in the midst of this conflict with Mike, Officer Horan was standing next to me and he said, "Get off the street, get off the street." I think I was in a state of shock. All I could say until I ended up at the police station was ‘What’s happening? Why are they hitting people? Why are they doing this? What’s happening?’ He just escorted me to the sidewalk, where I stayed. And that was the only time I was in the street through the whole thing. I went to the window of the car Mike had been put into, then his wife appeared and I moved away. At this point the chaos was happening. There was just a mass of bodies and police cars screeching up. People coming up carrying their billy clubs and flashlights. I saw people getting hit and I was standing on the sidewalk saying, "Please stop hitting people, please stop hitting people. Why are you doing this. Please stop hitting people." And then I made eye contact with Lieutenant Keene. He was coming toward me and I turned toward him and looked him in the eyes and said, "Please, you have to stop hitting people." He grabbed me by the neck of my hooded sweatshirt and slammed me on the car and threw cuffs on me. [I said, "And your offense was what, talking to a police officer in public?"] I used my manners and I made eye contact. I’m not stupid enough to use foul language with the police. They’re in a position of power. You don’t want to get yourself in trouble. All I could say was "Please stop hitting people." Because I couldn’t believe that this thing was happening. I was too scared to run when it was happening because what happens if you run? Are you going to get chased? It was madness. So I was thrown to the car and then Lieutenant Keene handed me off to a guy, I think his name was Vasquez who wasn’t involved at all in the attacks. He was standing next to the car while I was on the car and he very gently escorted me off to a cruiser to put me in. Again, I kept saying, "What’s happening? Why are they hitting people? Why are they hitting people?" He looked devastated. He shook his head and he said, "I don’t know." I don’t understand it at all. They were so angry. They looked so angry. And we hadn’t done anything. As far as I could see there was no aggression, there wasn’t even any action on the part of the cyclists. Looking back over the photographs, we’re all standing still. They’re the ones who are in positions of action. Everyone is just in shock. This is the enemy?
"Iatrogenic" is the word the medical profession has for medical problems introduced by physicians or medication or treatment programs. "Iatrogenic" is when you get sick because you encountered the people or companies who were supposed to be making you well.
That’s what Buffalo cops did on Elmwood Avenue at 6:30 p.m. Friday evening. They turned a pleasant situation-that group of maybe 100 bicyclists riding around town in the hope of alerting people to the advantages of ecologically viable modes of transportation-into a bloody mess.
People who ride bicycles in groups are perhaps the most benign amateur athletes there are. Instead of trying to beat the fastest guy in the group they wait for the slowest to catch up. Instead of trying to amass a score they take pleasure simply in pedaling on. You can’t come on as a tough-guy in those silly poster-color clothes and stretch-pants serious bicyclists wear, and you can hardly walk in the biking shoes.
That’s why I don’t believe for a minute the Buffalo police department claims that the reason they started strumming heads with their clubs and flashlights on Elmwood Avenue was because the bicyclists got nasty to them.
The most that should have happened is the cops telling the group to try to stay more to the right, and even that is arguable. Elmwood is the slowest boulevard in the city and bicyclists riding alone almost always make better time than automobiles. The photographs show that there was almost no traffic on Elmwood when the police parked in the middle of the road and caused the chaos.
What cops fear
Sometimes it seems to me that the one thing cops fear and loathe almost as much as an armed felon hiding behind a dumpster in a dark alley is looking stupid, appearing as if they had no idea what they were doing.
The cops who assaulted Buffalo’s bicyclists had no idea what they were doing. If they thought the bicyclists were slowing up other traffic improperly (in New York, bicycles have as much right to the road as automobiles and trucks and motorcycles) they should have told the group that, let the group move on and then moved on themselves. But their commands were muddled from the beginning, and they seemed to have little idea what the applicable law was. One told the cyclists to ride on the sidewalk, another told them to get off the sidewalk, another told them they had to disperse. All three orders were wrong and the bicyclists knew it.
The deeper in they got, the more they had to defend what they were doing. Every bit they escalated required another bit of escalation to prove the escalation that just happened had been worthwhile. It’s like the Inquisition torturers Michel Foucault describes in the first chapter of Discipline and Punish who have the attitude that anyone they’re torturing must be guilty of something, else why would the torturers be torturing them like this?
There’s no returning from that kind of logic once it comes into play. Reason, common sense, sanity-they won’t help one bit. Every single thing you say inflames them further, which is why the people the Buffalo cops arrested at the end were people who were simply asking why the Buffalo cops were arresting anybody in the first place.
Your lying eyes
The comedian Richard Pryor had a bit about a woman who comes home and finds her husband having sex with another woman. "Who you gonna believe," the husband says, "me or your lying eyes?"
That seems to be the official line toward all of this being taken by the Buffalo Police Department. Deputy Police Commissioner Mark Blankenberg told the Buffalo News that he examined the photographs and "said they show his officers acted appropriately."
Erie County District Attorney Frank Clark told the News, "After looking at these sort of things for over 30 years, I know that the truth usually lies somewhere in the middle."
Usually, but not always. Not this time. These events aren’t civil litigation where you try to give each side enough so both can go home feeling they at least got something of what they thought they were owed. Sometimes one side is really wrong and the other side isn’t. Thus far, the only thing that seems to have caused strong reactions from the bicyclists was the police making absurd arrests, beating and handcuffing people.
This is an embarrassment for the Buffalo police department and for the city. District Attorney Frank Clark can make most of it go away, and he should-by tossing all these bogus charges filed by the police. And every cop who misbehaved on Elmwood last Friday should have his cop car and truncheon taken away and should be made to patrol the city’s streets on a bicycle for the rest of his career. Their health would improve, and maybe their relationship to ordinary citizens would as well. It’s really hard to be violent when you’re riding a bicycle.
BRUCE JACKSON edits the web magazine BuffaloReport.com. He is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Samuel P. Capen Professor of American Culture at University at Buffalo.
His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.