A monthly protest bike ride called Critical Mass—a national event aimed at raising awareness of the need for drivers to share the road with cyclists—ended in violence on Friday, July 25, after a confrontation between a motorist and Critical Mass participants sent at least two cyclists, as well as the driver, to the hospital, and landed another two riders in jail.
The driver and the cyclists gave very different accounts of what happened, but you wouldn't know it from the way Seattle's media reported the incident. The initial wave of coverage from newspapers like the Seattle Times and Seattle Post- Intelligencer, and TV stations like KING 5, ignored the fact that the driver ran into the cyclists with his car before they attacked him. Instead, they portrayed the incident as a clash between an innocent, frightened driver and a crazed, angry mob.
According to the police report, the driver was headed up Aloha Street on Capitol Hill when he saw a crowd of cyclists headed toward him. The driver backed into a parking space and waited a few minutes before attempting to make a U-turn to merge with the crowd. A handful of riders quickly moved in to block the driver from entering the pack of cyclists—a common practice, called "corking," used to protect Critical Mass riders—and words were exchanged. "He just got really irrational," says 25-year-old Abigail Wharton, who had ridden in Critical Mass once before.
At this point, accounts of what happened vary. Every eyewitness The Stranger spoke with agrees that a group of cyclists swarmed the car and the driver took off down the street. A small group of cyclists chased him down, slashing his tires with a pocketknife and smashing the car's windows. One cyclist hit the driver with a bike lock, leaving him with a gash on his head that required stitches. Police showed up a few minutes later and took two cyclists into custody for "investigation of malicious mischief."
When contacted by The Stranger, Seattle Police Department (SPD) weekend media contact Mark Jamieson, who had not yet read the police report, made it clear that the department was holding the cyclists responsible for the melee. "The driver at this point is being treated as the victim," Jamieson said the day after the incident. "[The driver] pulled out onto the street and was surrounded by cyclists... Why didn't they let him out into the street? The onus is on the people in the group."
Numerous cyclists who were present tell a different story. They say cyclists only attacked the driver after he angrily plowed his car into a large crowd, injuring at least two riders badly enough that they had to go to the hospital. Wharton and other cyclists say the driver grew impatient and angrily told them to "get the fuck out of [his] way" because he "had reservations." John Lawton, one of the men arrested after the melee, says the driver barked "fuck this" before plowing through the crowd.
Tom Braun, a 35-year-old insurance attorney who was injured in the clash, says he had nothing to do with the attack on the driver. Still, he ended up in the hospital with bruises and possible internal injuries: Doctors found blood in his urine. The next morning, Braun checked for news on the clash. He wasn't pleased with what he found. "I was just shocked [when] I found out cyclists got charged," Braun says. "I find the whole thing outrageous. This guy plowed me and other people down. I literally got run over."
The driver, Mark, a 23-year-old travel agent from the Eastside who asked his last name be withheld, says he's willing to shoulder some of the responsibility for the clash, although he, too, has his own version of events.
As Mark drove through Capitol Hill on his way to a birthday party in the University District, he says, he was "corralled" by several Critical Mass participants who began shouting at him. "At [that] point it was just playful harassment," he says. "[But] I was getting worried. They were getting a little bit more aggressive."
Mark says he revved his engine at the bikers in an attempt to "try to be macho and scare some people." But the car lurched into gear, and that's when the chaos started. Mark struck several riders and bicycles and sped off down the street. "Someone shouted 'someone's really hurt' and I slammed on the brakes and stopped the car," he says. "I wanted to get away from the situation, but if I'd hurt someone I didn't want to flee." At that point, Mark says, he jumped out of his car and was struck by a cyclist wielding a heavy metal bike lock.
Two days after the incident, Mark said in an interview that he had "overreacted. I didn't pay attention to what I was doing and I'm sorry for it." He adds: "I sympathize with [their] cause... I'm gay, the person with me was a lesbian and we were attacked by ecoterrorists. It's the most Seattle thing that could have happened."
As the story has unfolded, the daily papers and TV newscasters have slowly caught up with the facts in the case. Headlines have been changed; stories have been rewritten. However, most of the later stories still took the driver's point of view, quoting heavily from SPD spokesman Jamieson who described the driver's actions as "completely understandable."
Friday's fracas only heightened the growing rift in Seattle's cycling community between those who support high-profile but unlawful actions like Critical Mass, and those who believe such actions hurt the larger cause of achieving parity with drivers.
David Hiller, advocacy director for the Cascade Bicycle Club, called out Critical Mass for the incident's potential to further damage the strained relationship between riders and drivers in Seattle. "There is definitely an attitude among some [Critical Mass participants] that they want to exacerbate existing conflict," Hiller says. "This doesn't do anything for us. It doesn't make us look good."
Although numerous cyclists have called on the police to file charges against the driver, that doesn't appear likely; SPD has not forwarded any such charges to prosecutors. At press time, no cyclists had been charged, and the two men arrested both deny any involvement in the attack. The two are scheduled to appear in court on July 30.
"I'd rather not have anyone have to be charged for anything for this," Mark, the driver, says. "I hit two of their friends and they tore apart my car. I'm sorry for the whole situation."