Copyright 2003 The Buffalo News
June 5, 2003 Thursday, FINAL EDITION
SECTION: NEWS, Pg.A1
RIDING AT THEIR OWN RISK;
NINE PEOPLE FACE FELONY CHARGES IN WHAT POLICE CALL A RIOT INCITED BY BICYCLISTS WHO ADVOCATE THEIR RIGHT TO SHARE THE ROAD, BUT CYCLISTS SAY POLICE WERE THE INSTIGATORS
By MICHAEL BEEBE and VANESSA THOMAS; News Staff Reporters
THE DEFENDANTS- five men and four women -- range in age from 19 to 49, and are hardly the usual criminal suspects one finds before the bench in City Court.
The nine people, eight of whom are part of a group of 120 or so bicyclists who gathered outside City Hall last Friday afternoon for a monthly ride called Critical Mass, will appear Friday in City Court to face felony charges of inciting a riot on Elmwood Avenue.
The group includes two professors -- one who teaches journalism at Buffalo State College, the other an ethics teacher at Canisius College. Two are former school spelling bee champions. One is a woman with two children who stopped her car because she said police were beating a cyclist.
All nine are also accused of a slew of charges that include resisting arrest, using obscenities, disorderly conduct and failing to obey the commands of police officers.
Two are also charged with assaulting a police officer -- one officer said he was bitten on the finger, another said he was kicked in the stomach.
The bicyclists deny the accusations. They say some of their members were beaten by police using nightsticks or heavy flashlights. They say they were roughed up, hauled to jail and treated like common criminals.
"This was a police riot, not a bicycle riot," said their attorney, Mark J. Mahoney, after he examined dozens
of photographs of the arrests taken by a half-dozen cyclists. "The police are the ones with the energy. They were the ones going into the crowd."
Deputy Police Commissioner Mark Blankenberg examined those same photographs. He said they show his officers acted appropriately.
"They've got nobody swinging a club," Blankenberg said of the photographs displayed on a Web site (www.rentaweb.net/bikeride). "To me, it's bull----. If there was any aggressive action by the police, that would have been the grabber on the Web site. They have everything but."
A neighborhood resident who witnessed the arrests confirmed that some of those arrested were hit with nightsticks, but said the police acted appropriately.
"They were getting into the face of the police officers," said Joseph Savioli, a computer sales representative who described himself as a frequent bicyclist. "They got more and more obnoxious. More police came, the police felt they were being threatened, and they did what they had to do.
"I probably saw two to six people getting hit," he said.
Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark and the commander of Buffalo's internal affairs unit said they will look at how police responded.
"I don't know enough about what happened here," Clark said. "I know what the protesters are saying. I know what the police say. I need to talk to as many of them to get a truer picture. After looking at these sort of things over 30 years, I know the truth usually lies somewhere in the middle."
Police Inspector Patrick G. Stafford, commander of the department's Professional Standards Division, said his unit is looking at the arrests.
"All those allegations of misconduct by the police will be fully investigated, and a conclusion of the facts will be presented to the commissioner and his staff," Stafford said.
Clark said his preliminary look shows that felony charges against the bicyclists may not be warranted.
"I'm going to ask that the matters right now be adjourned for a matter of time," the district attorney said. "I'm not prepared to move to felony hearings right away, nor do I think felony hearings might be the way to handle this."
Fighting for cyclists' rights
All this from a bicycle ride that started peacefully, as it has once a month here for the last four years.
The local bicyclists are part of the Critical Mass movement that began in San Francisco in 1992 and has spread to more than 300 cities.
"We aren't blocking traffic, we are traffic," Critical Mass in Berkeley, Calif., wrote in a beginner's guide. "How many times have you had to wait forever to cross a busy dangerous street? For once, bikes are the majority."
Critical Mass brings controversy wherever it goes because the large groups of cyclists often tie up traffic, run red lights while others guard intersections -- a practice called corking -- and sometimes irritate other bicyclists who say the group does them no favors by getting motorists mad at all cyclists.
Savioli said besides blocking traffic, few of the cyclists he saw last week wore helmets, some had no shoes on, and others carried beer in their water bottle racks.
In Buffalo, the group meets at 5:30 p.m. on the last Friday of each month in front of City Hall. As a group, they decide which way to go and have biked throughout the city.
It's an eclectic group. Some wear bicycle helmets and ride expensive bicycles; others come on beat-up hand-me-downs; some ride children's bikes with streamers on the handlebars.
Michael Niman, a professor of journalism and mass communications at Buffalo State College and one of those arrested Friday, explained misperceptions he said police and others have about Critical Mass in a column he wrote in June 2002 for the alternative weekly Artvoice.
"Police often claim the cyclists are 'blockading traffic,' " Niman wrote. "This is also false. Critical Mass is not about bicyclists 'blockading' anything. It's about cyclists becoming traffic and hence, lawfully filling the streets where they have a legal right to ride -- a right that is often denied them by reckless aggressive ignorant automobile drivers.
"Hence," Niman wrote, "Critical Mass is also about education, as the monthly rides serve to educate drivers and police officers about the rights of bicyclists."
Blankenberg, the deputy police commissioner, said Niman and Critical Mass need to be educated about the rules of the road as defined by New York's Vehicle & Traffic Law.
Pictures on the Web site show the Critical Mass group riding five or six abreast on Delaware Avenue on Friday, blocking traffic behind them.
"The law is that no one rides more than two abreast, you stay to the right, and when overtaken by traffic, you must form a single file," Blankenberg said.
On Friday's ride, Critical Mass left City Hall, rode north on Delaware Avenue, headed west on Allen Street and then continued north on Elmwood Avenue.
David Hess, who said he is a competitive cyclist, wrote in an e-mail to The Buffalo News that he witnessed Friday's ride and said those who disrupted traffic were not cycling enthusiasts. When the group went through Allentown, he said, they blocked traffic in both directions.
"The group was a perfect example of why motorists don't want to share the roads with others," he said, "and I was disgusted."
Gerald Bove, a graduate student at the University at Buffalo, was on his first Critical Mass ride last week, near the front of the pack, when a police car came alongside the group on Elmwood Avenue just past North Street.
"They told us we needed to get off the street," Bove said.
Many in the group said they told the two officers it was illegal to ride on the sidewalk.
The two officers in the police car pulled over the last two cyclists in the group near Summer Street.
Maria Van Wyek-Haney and Matthew Downey, the last two cyclists in the group, were told by the officers -- Michael Bauer and Daniel Horan -- that they were going to be given traffic tickets for failing to yield to an emergency vehicle.
Bove said he and the rest of the cyclists stopped, and he rode back up the other side of Elmwood. When he got to where the police car was, he got off his bicycle and walked it across the street.
"You come here, you're getting the next ticket," he said one of the officers told him. "They gave me a ticket for jaywalking."
Bove said that as he waited for his ticket, with the bicyclists all now stopped on Elmwood, at least three more police cars suddenly showed up. Later police reports put a total of 28 officers eventually on the scene, led by two lieutenants.
"They got out, they had their batons ready," Bove said. "People started saying, 'Geez, why do we need all these police officers for this?' There weren't any obscenities that I heard. Some people in the crowd were making oinking noises."
Pictures taken by the bicyclists show the newly arriving police officers wearing black gloves, holding batons and flashlights.
Bove said police told him they needed to check his identification and told him to get into the police car.
"This black person stepped off the curb and said, 'Give this guy a break,' " Bove said. "They grabbed him, bent him over the car andcuffed him. That's when things got out of control."
Heron Simmonds, 33, an adjunct professor of ethics at Canisius, was then arrested. Others said the rest of the group was incensed to see the only black person in the Critical Mass group in handcuffs.
Police accuse Simmonds of resisting arrest and fighting with them, but the pictures on the Web site show Simmonds standing calmly while one officer puts handcuffs on him and another looks off down the street.
As Officer John Santiago led Simmonds to a police car, Niman said he followed at a distance, taking photographs. Niman said he told police he was a credentialed journalist, working for Artvoice.
"The last picture I took was of Heron Simmonds being led away by a police officer," Niman said. "Within a second or so, I was struck from behind."
Niman said he was clubbed, thrown to the ground, and said he felt like someone stuck something in his mouth and tried to gag him. Police Officer Robert Johnson accused Niman of biting him on the right index finger and charged him with felony assault.
Officer Horan accused Jonathan Piret, 21, of Lockport, of kicking him in the chest and stomach and charged him with felony assault.
The only noncyclist charged with inciting a riot was Lesley Lannan, 49, who stopped her car as she was driving past, Mahoney said, while Niman was being hit.
"Officer, this is wrong," she said as she was being arrested. "I wasn't involved in this. I was just getting a damn pizza."
Also arrested on the felony charges were Siobhan K. McCollum, 38, of Buffalo; Mary Ann Coyle, 42, of Buffalo; Craig J. Freudenthal, 23, of the Town of Tonawanda; Genevieve Bojado, 20, of Buffalo; and Eric A. Bifaro, 19, of Cheektowaga.
Discussions are urged
Critical Mass riders have also been arrested in other cities, but this is the first time anyone recalls cyclists being charged with inciting a riot.
Jesse Day, executive director of the New York Bicycling Coalition, which he said represents about 100,000 bicyclists in the state through various bicycle clubs and organizations, urges a meeting in Buffalo before the next Critical Mass ride, June 27.
He said after a similar ride brought arrests in New York City two years ago, members of the New York Police Department and Times Up, a group participating in the ride, held a meeting.
"They sat down and worked something out," he said.
Blankenberg said he is willing to meet with Critical Mass organizers, but those who ride with the group say they have no organizers.
Clark said he doesn't want to see another round of arrests later this month.
"Regardless of how this situation works out in the criminal justice system, plainly there has to be discussions between two groups to prevent this from happening," Clark said. "While it's not my job to stop it, if it happens again I'm going to look at this very harshly. Once is enough. On both sides."
GRAPHIC (Two News Photos) One photo taken by JANET HINKEL with caption: " In this photo taken by a member of Critical Mass, police officers arrest bicyclists during a confrontation on Elmwood Avenue on Friday." Attorney Mark J. Mahoney Deputy Police Commissioner Mark Blankenberg Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark
second photo by MICHAEL NIMAN with caption: "An officer leads away Heron Simmonds on Friday on Elmwood Avenue. Simmonds was accused of resisting arrest and fighting with police, but photos show him being handcuffed and led away by one officer who uses one hand to guide him. This photo was taken by another bicyclist who was later arrested."
Also file photos showing Attorney Mark J. Mahoney Deputy Police Commissioner Mark Blankenberg Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark
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