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Mobtown Beat

Uneasy Riders

A Critical Mass Protest Leads to Charges of Assault--From Both Police and Cyclists

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 4/23/2003

A cold and gray April 17 morning found 20 people standing in front of the Eastside District Court Building on North Avenue holding signs that read peaceful protest = violent police reaction and cops attack peaceful bikers. They were there to support James Johnston, Frank McCraw, and Todd Spalt, who were arrested and charged with assaulting police officers during a Critical Mass anti-war bike ride on March 28. Two of their cases have been resolved and one is going to trial, but all three claim that they were actually the ones assaulted.

"Not only did they assault me, but throughout the whole thing the officers were just way out of line," McCraw says. "Harassing people verbally, excessive force, pushing people, and stuff."

The loosely organized Critical Mass rides have been taking place in Baltimore just about every month over the past four years to protest the United States' dependency on petroleum-fueled vehicles. Darren Gray, a biomedical engineering graduate student at Johns Hopkins University who has ridden in several local Critical Mass rides, says that, although the police periodically shadow the rides, he has never experienced any altercations between police and riders before. But this ride was different. It was meant specifically to protest the war in Iraq.

On March 28, approximately two dozen people met at the intersection of Charles and Redwood streets a little before 6 p.m. to ride up Charles Street, turn on Mount Royal Avenue, and come back down St. Paul Street, all the while slowing down traffic to draw attention to their cause. When 25-year-old Baltimore natives Frank McCraw and Todd Spalt arrived at the gathering place, there was already a larger-than-usual police presence, consisting of as many as 10 officers on bikes and motorcycles and in a police car. Though the riders were free to pedal down city streets, they did not have a city-issued protest permit to block traffic.

Though the Critical Mass riders felt intimidated by the police presence, they decided to go ahead with the protest, with police officers following on bikes and motorcycles and the squad car bringing up the rear. As they rode up Charles Street, protesters say the police became aggressive, driving through the crowd at high speeds, cutting off riders, bumping their tires, even knocking Gray into a parked car.

"The whole time, they were kind of like talking shit, and we were saying to each other, 'Don't pay attention to them,'" McCraw says. "'Don't let them make you fall or any of that stuff. Ignore them.' People started getting into little shouting matches with some of the cops, but we tried to not do that."

By the return trip down St. Paul Street, the police had backed off a bit. When the riders crossed Baltimore Street, however, three officers--two riding motorcycles, one riding a bicycle--tried to arrest one of the riders.

McCraw, who was behind the unnamed rider, says he tried to pull the rider back, but the officers knocked them both to the ground. McCraw says he got up, holding onto to his bike, and was struck in the hand by an officer with a baton. McCraw says he was then knocked to the ground again, that officers kneed and kicked him, and that one officer pressed his knee into his head, grinding it against the asphalt and cutting his ear.

Spalt says he was watching McCraw "being hit with clubs and then finally taken to the ground" when an officer pushed him off his bicycle, picked the bike up, and used it as a shield while swinging a baton at him. Spalt backed away, "tripped over the curb, and [the officer] threw my bike on top of me." Another officer arrested Spalt.

"While they were trying to arrest Todd, I had a bottle of water and I just like threw it over all of them so I could splash water at them," recalls 26-year-old James Johnston, another Critical Mass rider. "Next thing I know, I felt two cops on my back." After he was handcuffed, Johnston says one of the officers pulled off the bright orange mask he had been wearing for the ride and called him a "terrorist."

Johnston, McCraw, Spalt, and the initial rider arrested were all taken to Central Booking. McCraw later had to be taken to Mercy Medical Center with a cut on the side of his head and a chest-wall injury that made it difficult for him to breathe.

Johnston, Spalt, and McCraw were charged with assault in the second degree, a charge that can have a penalty of up to 10 years in prison or a $2,500 fine, and told to appear at Early Disposition Court on April 17. In the police incident report, Officer Timothy Williams wrote that McCraw "jump[ed] on my back striking my right arm several times with his fist in attempt to free his friend." McCraw says he never struck the officer. In the report recounting Spalt's arrest, Officer Arnold Houghton contends that Spalt "approached and shoved this officer out of the way with his hands trying to stop the male from being arrested." Spalt says he didn't even see Houghton until the officer arrested him.

Though neither pled guilty on the morning of April 17, McCraw and Spalt each accepted a deal offered by the state and endorsed by their public defenders: Spalt received 24 hours of community service and McCraw accepted a $150 fine. Only Johnston, who had a previous arrest for assaulting a police officer at an anti-Ku Klux Klan rally in Michigan in the late '90s, pled not guilty and requested a jury trial.

"I felt like I was forced to take 24 hours," Spalt says. "It would have been eight police officers' versus eight protesters' words. . . . What else can you say?"

Ten of the Critical Mass riders, including Johnston, McCraw, and Spalt, have filed complaints with the Civilian Review Board, an independent agency that processes complaints of harassment and excessive force against members of the Baltimore City Police Department. They also plan to file a civil suit against the city.

"Not only did the city not help protect us, but they jeopardized our safety," Spalt says. "I really feel like everyone was harassed, everyone was bullied, and a lot of people were assaulted directly by the police."

Baltimore City Police spokeswoman Regina Averella says that "the police were there for the protection of the protesters as well as of the traffic," and that Johnston, McCraw, and Spalt were "placed under arrest when they refused to obey the lawful orders of the police, and when at least one or two of the individuals assaulted one of the officers by throwing a water bottle." No complaints have been filed with the Internal Affairs Division regarding the incident.

The Critical Mass bike ride was not the first protest since the war in Iraq began in which the police have intervened. Police officers clubbed a protester during a March 20 march through downtown Baltimore (The Nose, March 26, 2003-03-26/nose2.html). And the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a federal suit against the city's policy of requiring permits for protests. On April 10, the city agreed to suspend permit requirements for groups of less than 25 people for 180 days.

Raj Goyle, staff council for the ACLU of Maryland, says that the police department's reaction to protesters has become more severe since the war started. "We've been getting intakes from protesters and citizens across the state who have told us about government officials, including law enforcement, enforcing patriotism and disciplining those who question the war or government policy in general," he says.

But not all of the war protesters have had such negative experiences. Thomas Christian, one of the 40 people who were arrested March 21 during an anti-war protest outside of the Garmatz Federal Courthouse on West Lombard Street, recently wrote a letter to The Sun praising the police: "I was treated with respect and courtesy by men and women who were only doing their job, for the many officers, regardless of their political feelings, acted neutrally toward me in carrying out their duties."

The Critical Mass riders wish that had been the case when they were protesting. "The most dangerous situations [during the ride] came from the police themselves," Spalt says. "And all they had to was drop back, let us ride and do our protest, make sure that we were being protected, and that the traffic behind them was being protected from us. And everybody would have had a great little protest, a great little day."

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