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Remembering the "Critical Massacre"

The Midnight Ride on Sundays has largely supplanted Critical Mass in Buffalo.

Critical Mass, a bicycling celebration whose roots can be traced to San Francisco in 1992, is an event that takes place on the last Friday of every month in some 300 cities around the world. The rides are not “organized,” in the sense that there is no hierarchy within the group, and they are not sanctioned by city governments like parades or organized running events. Yet the pack of participating cyclists often takes the traffic lane and slows motorized traffic. There’s the rub.

Advocates say that Critical Mass events have been effective at highlighting the issue of bicyclists’ right to use the road. Detractors say participants flaunt traffic laws and obstruct the flow of car and truck traffic. Some cyclists fault the rides for provoking even more animosity toward riders from some motorists. It’s typical for Critical Mass rides to provoke everything from horns tooting in support of cyclists, to flat-out rage from inconvenienced drivers, and others.

This Friday, May 31, bicyclists will be gathering in front of City Hall for a Critical Mass ride at 5:30pm. The ride marks the 10th anniversary of a similar rush-hour event that took a controversial turn near the corner of Summer Street and Elmwood Avenue on May 30, 2003, when two dozen police officers converged to break up the “celebration.” Force was used. Batons were swung at the bicyclists. Nine people were arrested, including Artvoice columnist and Buffalo State College professor Michael Niman. The debacle came to be dubbed the “Critical Massacre.”

The ensuing saga included rewritten arrest reports crafted to match up with actual photos taken at the event by participants, and an aggressive prosecution from former District Attorney Frank Clark’s office that attempted to characterize some participants as anarchists. It was all over the top. In the end, the harshest penalties meted out were small fines, but the police overreaction put Buffalo’s Critical Mass rides on a much larger stage and changed the conversation from cyclist rights to human rights.

Canisius College adjunct professor Heron Simmonds-Price was also arrested at the event. As he recalls, problems started when two cyclists at the rear of the pack were singled out for not yielding to an emergency vehicle. The vehicle was the police car driven by the officer issuing the tickets. Riders stopped the procession in order to pass the hat among the pack to raise the money in order to cover the fines. Other police cruisers arrived and blocked the street. Cyclists were ordered to get out of the street. Some protested that they weren’t supposed to ride on the sidewalk. Traffic backed up. Tensions rose. More officers arrived at the chaotic scene, and the law ultimately cracked down.

In the month after the event, the ride ballooned in size. More riders turned out in support of the event, and many casual cyclists participated as well, to protest the heavy-handed police reaction the month before. Ten years later, Buffalo’s Critical Mass rides have morphed into the popular Midnight Rides that start in Allentown and command the streets when traffic is at its lightest, making the events less of a public statement and more of a party.

“I do think that these incidents and a changing culture laid some of the groundwork to improve safety on our streets and create more acceptance for bicycles as a legitimate transportation mode,” says Justin Booth, executive director of GO Bike Buffalo. “That said, I also feel many simply enjoyed riding in a large group and this event pushed it more underground, being the impetus for what has come to be the Midnight Ride.”

Meanwhile, bicycle infrastructure has improved around the city in the last decade, although there is still much that can be done to bring us up to pace with other places around the country. On May 17, Mayor Byron Brown called a press conference to highlight that progress and affirm his plans to continue to develop Buffalo into a platinum-level bicycle friendly city, as defined by the League of American Bicyclists. That status is currently held by cities like Portland, Oregon, which is known for its progressive bike culture.

Friday’s anniversary ride could be something of a test to see if Buffalo’s tolerance for a Critical Mass event has similarly matured.

Correction: The story above on the 10th Anniversary of the "Critical Massacre" police riot erroneously states that "In the end, the harshest penalties meted out were small fines." It should have stated that defendants were acquitted of all criminal charges, with one rider, not cited in this article, receiving a violation for being loud.

Read more about the "Critical Massacre" here:

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