The Power of Nonviolence

Biking in Buffalo Part II

 By Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice 6/12/03

 I never met Lesley Lannan. I know very little about her. I do know that she’s a former Senior Vice President of a well-known local corporation. Beyond that, she’s a mystery. I’m a columnist who rails on about the evils of such corporations. We probably have very little in common. But on Friday, May 30, our lives crossed. From now until the day I die, she will be one of my heroes. Whatever faith I have in humanity is because of people like her.

 By now, most Buffalonians are quite familiar with the basic points of this story. Buffalo ’s monthly Critical Mass bicycle ride, now in its fourth year, was proceeding north on Elmwood Avenue when it was stopped by two police officers who began writing traffic and jaywalking tickets. The Massers waited for the ticketing to be completed so they could move on. But something went haywire in the police department’s communication system, resulting in what The Buffalo News reports as almost three-dozen police officers racing to the scene. What ensued is now being described as a “police riot.” By the time it was over, several of the cyclists were beaten with batons. Nine were arrested.

 The Good Samaritan

 I was the second person to be arrested. I’ve been covering Critical Mass rides for a number of venues, including ArtVoice, and my ongoing interest in Critical Mass is tied to my academic research about acephalous (meaning having no leader or “head”), nonhierarchical movements (see People of the Rainbow: A Nomadic Utopia, Univ. of Tenn. Press 1997, 2003). Lannan came upon the scene just as police were placing Canisius College Ethics Professor, Heron Simmonds, into a patrol car. Simmonds was the first person arrested. I was photographing his peaceful arrest when I was attacked from behind, slammed onto the hood of a patrol car, and beaten with a baton.

 Lannan was driving by with her two children on her way to a function at their former school (she was not “getting a damn pizza” as reported by police and the press). This innocent trip put her in the wrong place at the right time. She reports that from her car, she saw a police officer beating me with a baton. She could have kept driving, but she didn’t. Instead, she played the role of a Good Samaritan and pulled over to plead with officers to stop the beating. By the time she got out of her car, officers had begun to work over other cyclists. Witnesses reported seeing Lannan pleading with the officers to stop the violence while telling the confused and horrified cyclists to leave. Police arrested her on a slew of charges including “felony riot.” According to the police arrest report, signed by the arresting officer, she “did urge the crown [sic] to attack police” while shouting, “fuck you” at the police. So far, nearly 60 witnesses have come forward to testify that these and other charges  against Lannan and the other arrestees were fabricated.

  Buffalo ’s Ramparts Scandal?

 Simmonds’ arrest report also clearly documents a falsification of charges. My photos, and those taken by other photographers, clearly document a peaceful arrest, both on the part of police and of Professor Simmonds. In one photo, an officer cuffs Simmonds with one hand while holding a metal flashlight in the other. In another photo, he is gently leading Simmonds to the patrol car, pushing him along with three fingers. All along, traffic is moving on Elmwood Avenue and cyclists are peaceably waiting by the side of the road. Simmonds’ arrest report, however, claims he was arrested for physically attacking police officers, with traffic blocked, and a full-scale riot in force.

 The strongest evidence documenting this false arrest was in my camera. As I continued to shoot photos, I was jumped from behind and beaten. The rest is history. Photos from two separate cameras—one on each side of Elmwood Avenue —document an officer coming up from behind me. Witnesses say I identified myself as a journalist. They place the officer beating me. A photo has me being choked. My arrest report, however, claims I shoved an officer (a rather large bodybuilder) from behind, fought him and bit his subsequently uninjured finger. Charged as a “biter,” I was stripped naked at police headquarters and thrown into a cell. Because of my status as a working credentialed journalist, a prominent international human rights organization is currently investigating my arrest and any ensuing prosecution. The arrest reports for the other nine victims all contain similar, easily documented falsification of charges.

 In the end, it was the cameras that saved the day. As I was sprawled out on the hood of the police car being beaten, trade publication editor and independent journalist Janet Hinkel grabbed my camera out of my hand, figured out how to work it, and put it back into service documenting subsequent arrests. Her photos, along with those of other photographers, including at least one who bought a disposable camera on the spot at Wilson Farms, provided the dramatic documentation that has since shocked hundreds of thousands of Western New Yorkers who saw some of their images on TV, Web sites, ArtVoice, The Buffalo News and other venues.

 Nonviolence Saves the Day

 The other heroes of the day are the bicyclists themselves, who showed an unwavering commitment to nonviolence in the face of a brutal assault. No one knows why police felt compelled to draw a line in the sand, perhaps telling people to move on when they had no legal right to do so, and then making up charges and violently arresting them when they did not.  What we do know, is that over 200 photos corroborate witness statements showing that, despite well-documented violent provocations on the part of a small group of  police officers, no bicyclists responded to violence with violence. If one of the over 100 cyclists responded violently, the day’s events could have ended horrifically.

 Think about it. If so much as one person tried to physically stop the officer from hitting me, say by grabbing his baton, this could have become a melee, with newly arriving officers seeing bicyclists battling police, who they would interpret as being under attack. The fact that we are all here and recovering from these events is extraordinary evidence of the power of nonviolence (arrestees are cooperating with a police department investigation into this event). Call me näive, but I have full faith that the people who attacked us will be prosecuted. Community leaders will more stringently discuss the leadership problems facing the police department. The issue of rogue officers and police brutality will be aired. The complex issue of falsified police reports (ghosts of Ramparts?) will be examined. And Lesley Lannan and other members of what are now being called the “Buffalo Nine” will be cleared of charges. This is all possible only because the evidence was not muddled by a violent response. There’s no chronology of who hit whom first to establish. It’s all cut and dry. This is the power of nonviolence.

 I’m also indebted to the power of bicycle helmets. It was my helmet that took most of the baton blows directed at me. It was arrestee Mary Anne Coyle’s helmet, which broke on contact with the sidewalk, which saved her when a police officer pushed her down. Though I never envisioned my helmet saving me in such a way, it did.

 Deputy Commissioner Blankenberg: “It’s Bullshit!”

 There are other elements of this story beyond the initial attack and degradations I was forced to suffer through in police custody that I find very upsetting. Foremost is what I term the second attack. That is Deputy Police Commissioner Mark Blankenberg’s knee-jerk response of immediately trying to cover up the brutality before examining the facts of what happened. Regarding the baton attacks, for example, he initially referred to the photographs of the event he viewed on a Web site, telling The Buffalo News, “They’ve got nobody swinging a club…. To me it’s bullshit. If there was any aggressive action by the police. That would have been the grabber on the website.”

 In reality, however, I think the photographers did a damn good job of documenting this event, especially after witnessing other photographers being beaten and arrested. Batons move quickly, probably accounting for only five to fifteen seconds all told, spread out over this whole ordeal. Out-of-control officers don’t keep swinging while waiting for photographers to move into position. The photos that I have seen are extraordinary, including one of me being choked (Blankenberg didn’t mention “choking”), which was shot on a disposable camera. Blankenberg’s insinuation that the peaceful cyclists depicted in the photos must have been otherwise violent, and that the police, while showing aggression in the photos, were not at other moments more violent, lacks consistency.

 I can’t help but ask, however: what if there were no cameras? Does that mean this didn’t happen? Does that mean there actually was a riot? That Simmonds actually resisted arrest, and so on? I find the implicit suggestion that victims are now required to produce Rodney King-style video documentation of their own beatings to be patently offensive. And shooting this footage is extremely dangerous, as evidenced by the arrest of myself and amateur  photographer Jon Piret. In the case of  the Buffalo Nine, the documentation is, in fact, excellent. And it would have been even better except for the fact that the only professional with the equipment and experience to go into rapid-fire photo mode was the first person beaten. This is why people are reluctant to report police brutality—because even with nearly 60 witnesses, 200 photos and high profile victims, one still has to contend with comments such as those made by Blankenberg.

 Celebrating Violence

 There’s a real nasty underbelly to this story as well. Justin Kraemer of WKBW TV, during a segment where he interviewed Blankenberg, in sensationalistic style, promised “new photos” to counter the photos of police brutality. The photo that he showed was one of mine, which was supplied to WKBW along with other photos on the night of the incident while I was still locked up. I later supplied WKBW with a CD containing all of my photos, as well as photos from other photographers on the scene. These were not “new” photos. The only thing new was the spin. The photo that Kraemer showed was one of Critical Mass cyclists using two lanes on Delaware Avenue , as if this justified the ensuing beatings of cyclists at the hands of police. There are a few things to point out here. First, there’s question as to when 100 bicyclists should move into the left lane to make a left turn. Not taking the lane until the last minute would cause traffic problems since the bicycle traffic was so heavy. But traffic law and the various arguments about interpreting it aside, assuming for the benefit of the doubt that a traffic violation did occur, is this reason to attack and beat people? The implicit suggestion from Kraemer was, yes, it was.

 There was a lot of bad reporting. The Associated Press ran with the police report, framing the incident as if cyclists rioted and I bit a police officer. “Niman,” they wrote, “declined to comment.” In actuality, the Associated Press declined to contact me. Other reporters such as WGRZ TV’s Ron Plant, relied entirely on tainted police reports, despite evidence from the field which should have initially cast suspicion on them—suspicion that other reporters such as WIVB TV’s Luke Moretti and The Buffalo News’ Michael Beebe, Vanessa Thomas and Matt Gryta followed up on with legwork and old-fashioned reporting.

 Our post 9/11 culture is getting nasty. There’s an underlying feeling among reactionary (dare I say un-American?) elements in our society that people exercising their right to protest deserve a beating. And the Critical Mass bike ride was mistaken for a protest. Joseph Savoli, the only witness to come forth to support the police actions, actually confirmed, during an interview with the News, that arrestees were beaten with batons. But he indicated that such violence was appropriate, since some cyclists were “obnoxious.” Attitudes like this are frightening. The attack that Blankenberg denied occurred is confirmed in this statement, but it’s justified, even in its brutality, because people might have asked questions of authority figures. Or, in my case, photographed them acting inappropriately.  

Duking Donn Esmonde on Nonviolence

 Worse yet was Donn Esmonde, my counterpart at the News. In his June 6th column, he tells how, coincidentally, he was riding on an Elmwood Avenue bus backed up in traffic by slow moving Critical Mass cyclists. Buses have unparalleled forward vision. Esmonde should have been able to see that it was the cyclists, in fact, who were stopped dead in the road by a police car, after traveling on Elmwood Avenue for only one block (the ride turned onto Elmwood Avenue at Allen Street ). The police car was stopped not on the right, but near the centerline of the road, blocking both the cycles and Esmonde’s bus. When the Critical Mass was stopped again a block later, cyclists and the initial police officers lined the sides of the road, allowing traffic to pass. I have photos of Esmonde’s bus discharging passengers in the middle of the “riot” and then moving on.  But, assuming for the sake of argument, that the cyclists in fact slowed Esmonde’s bus. Is this cause to beat them? According to Esmonde, the answer is a horrific Yes. Referring to Critical Mass participants as “cycle militants,” he writes, “They’re lucky some of the riders on the public bus they slowed down didn’t have billy clubs. They would have gotten a taste of what real brutality feels like.”

 If Lesley Lannan represents the best of what we are, Donn Esmonde certainly seems to represent the worst. As a journalist, he should have been at least curious, not cranky, about seeing 100 bicycles pulled over by the police. And he should have gotten off the bus and gone to work trying to cover the story. He should have been standing next to me when I was photographing Simmonds’ arrest. Instead, he chose to ride on, and base his column on rumor and innuendo. But worse, he chose to write a hate-filled diatribe that divides our community rather than helping us heal. And he chose to glorify and promote violence when the real story of the day was nonviolence.


 Dr. Michael I. Niman’s previous ArtVoice columns are archived at


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