At this month's Critical Mass in Fort Lauderdale, there seemed to be more police present than cyclists. Cops on bikes, in cars, and mounted atop horses showed up at Holiday Park to herd several hundred riders along their group ride on Friday. Even (and oddly enough) park rangers were present.
Close to 8 p.m., one officer laid down the ground rules through a megaphone: Biking sober, obeying all traffic laws, and putting helmets on kids were expected. About 500 cyclists applauded and cheered in response.
It was a surprising reaction given what happened last month. May marked the first time that FLPD assisted with Critical Mass, which takes place in about 300 cities across the globe, and it was also the first time conflict occurred at the event. Dan Littell was tackled by an officer, and Rahim Benjamin says a police motorcycle rammed him on purpose.
Although one man was arrested for drug possession before the ride even started, that was the last sign of trouble. Cops politely rode alongside cyclists and kept them from going into oncoming traffic. There was even friendly banter between the two groups.
"We didn't invite them to the party, but at least they behaved themselves while they were there," says Ray Strack, the 55-year-old New York native who often serves as a spokesman of the leaderless group. The former U.S. Customs agent even helped police out by sending them a copy of the route beforehand.
South Florida is a notoriously dangerous place for cyclists, and Critical Mass is all about promoting awareness among motorists. People in both the Broward and Miami bike scenes say that people's ignorance of bike laws puts them in danger every time they hit the road. (Even Strack has been struck. In January, he was run over and fractured his T9 vertebrae.)
They also says cops need to be educated about cyclists' legal rights. The two instances that took place last month can probably be chalked up to the conflict between bike riders who are used to having their guard up and cops who aren't used to dealing with them. These issues can all be worked out in time, and if the cops keep and open dialogue with organizers, it's likely to happen sooner rather than later. By giving the cops the route in advance, spokesman Strack was able to foster a working relationship and set a good example for the de facto leaders of events in other cities.
Crisis was also averted by our neighbors to the south. Before this month's mass, Miami Police Chief Manuel Orosa suggested that riders might be ticketed because the ride had been hijacked by "anarchists." A blogger who goes by Rydel Deed was sent certified letters telling him to obtain permits for the ride, since he posts the route each month on his site Miami Bike Scene and is therefore considered a de facto leader by the cops. Thankfully, that event was also without serious incident.
But while the Miami ride attracts 4,000 riders and is pretty rowdy at times, only about 500 people came to Fort Lauderdale's most recent iteration, and many of them were older or toting kids. It was almost comical how many cops came to the mass there given how peaceful it seemed.
Critical Mass organizers estimated the number of officers at 750. Fort Lauderdale police, for obvious reasons, wouldn't disclose how much of their was involved.
It's true that Critical Mass takes on a different character depending on what city it's in. Even within Florida, there are different flavors. Miami's version sees participation from some very vocal activists, but it's also populated by people who don't care about any form of civil disobedience and just want to party behind handlebars. Gainesville's ride is more crusty than sexy. In that very bike-friendly and bike-heavy college town, you basically aren't allowed to participate unless you bring your dog and it's wearing a "This Bike Is a Pipe Bomb!" band T-shirt. It's also made up of a very small and pretty tight-knit community.
The Fort Lauderdale version, though, is remarkably tame in comparison to either of those. And while there were a few beer bottles left in the parking lot by Holiday Park, where the ride started, it was pretty damned sober. Most people there saw it as a community event, and many riders flocked from places like Boca and Delray to take part. It's slow in pace, small in size, and teeming with families.
Those are the people Strack is most excited to see on the ride, and while he wants to see less police presence in the future, he thinks that layer of protection from motorists encourages novices to take part.
"Hardcore cyclists ride by themselves, and hipsters ride by themselves," he says. "But so often you see a nice family riding along A1A on the sidewalk, and you say, 'Hey, don't you wanna ride on the street?' and they're afraid to. That's the demographic we are trying to reach."
Send your story tips to the author, Allie Conti.
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