Tucson on Two Wheels

The participants in the Tuesday Night Bike Ride want to build community -- and the police to leave them alone

Nick Jett's 21st birthday was the occasion of the first Tuesday Night Community Bike Ride in July. Back then, it didn't have a name, and it was just a handful of friends cooling off during the summer. Now the group often has more than 300 riders.
Every Tuesday night since July, the neighborhoods surrounding the UA and downtown have become viaducts of swirling and swishing as bicycles travel through the city's dark streets.

The assembly of bicyclists is clumsy at first, as hundreds of bikes work to move forward all at once and avoid each other. Some say the assembly proves that despite this age of war and environmental chaos, we can still celebrate the best of what it means to be American.

Once the bikes get through the UA campus on the 8-mile journey, the pedaling is smoother, and the breeze hits the bicyclists' faces. The bike lights and reflectors help the uniform group look like a swarm of desert fireflies.

In the beginning, what is now called the Tuesday Night Community Bike Ride was just a group of guys who wanted some summer-heat relief while doing what they loved best--bicycling. From the original handful of people, the group grew--5, 18, 25 and then 70 people. By September, the group had grown to more than 300 bike riders, who continue to meet at 8 p.m. every Tuesday at the UA flagpole behind Old Main.

While most of the riders look like 20-something UA students, others here and there are middle-aged. Some are joined by their middle school-age sons and daughters. A few riders rig radios on their handle bars and chat with friends, while spontaneous conversations spark along the route.

There are also pockets of quiet contemplation, with the only sound coming from the swirl and swish of bike tires. Swirl and swish. Swirl and swish.

This is obviously not a race. The pace is easy-going, taking the UA students in the group through areas of Tucson they'd never traveled, through south and west neighborhoods, alley ways and pedestrian bridges far from the university campus.

On Oct. 23, however, the cyclists discovered that not everyone feels the Tuesday Night Community Bike Ride is just an easy-going celebration. That's when a large contingent of Tucson Police Department bike cops and motorcycle cops joined a paddy wagon, a bike trailer and unmarked police cars as bicyclists began to organize, like normal, before the ride.

Some of the 360 riders that night, including children and older adults, were ticketed and warned. Bicyclists report that motorcycle cops drove too close to the riders, shouting for the bicyclists to get into a single lane.

One rider, bike builder and activist Evaristo Ramirez, aka Varo, was arrested, and his 7-foot unicycle was confiscated. University of Arizona students Nick Jett and Adam Piatkowski; Adam's brother, Aaron Piatkowski, a Web designer; and artist Hunter King are the guys who started the Community Ride on Jett's 21st birthday. The ride has been easy-going from the beginning--a slow-paced evening ride that was part-adventure, part-social activity, they said. They didn't expect it to grow into a local social movement.

These four have become spokesmen for the Community Ride, yet there are no official leaders or organizers. Only once did the friends put out a flier in an effort to gather more interest. Only once, because the ride quickly took on a life of its own, with different riders taking turns planning routes and others helping riders through intersections, accidents and flat tires.

King said he and his friends realized they were on to something special the night they had 70 riders. They never thought it would grow into a group of 250, and later more than 300 riders.

"It has a life of its own, and we just have to show up," Adam Piatkowski said.

Some have called it an example of anarchy at its best. But the core group does not want that association, nor do they want to be a part of any other political agenda. Hunter said he feels the group is on to something life- and community-changing.

"This is a peaceful assembly without logos, no corporate sponsors--just a grassroots movement that is more than any of us ever imagined," King said.

Then came the Oct. 23 ride. Some bicyclists at that ride said the police made them feel like a mass arrest and an order to disperse could happen any minute, although Varo was the only person arrested that night. Varo is considered the Tuesday Night Community Bike Ride's mascot, Hunter said.

Erik Ryberg, a local attorney and bicyclist, runs a local blog called Tucson Bike Lawyer (tucsonbikelawyer.com). He considers himself to be a bike advocate and has a caseload of bike clients fighting tickets or vehicle run-ins. He was there the night Varo was arrested.

"They were treating us like we were criminals," Ryberg said. "But this isn't what they thought it was. This is a joyful ride through town."

Ryberg and others said they think the police were confused by another bike event that happened three days later, on Friday: Critical Mass.

Aaron Piatkowski said the Tuesday Night Community Bike Ride is decidedly not a Critical Mass ride. Critical Mass bicycle rides are organized around the world on the last Friday of the month to draw attention to bicyclists. The first took place in San Francisco in 1992 and recently celebrated its 15th anniversary. Critical Mass has drawn the attention of critics, who say the event has two purposes: to disrupt traffic and shut down the streets.

"Critical Mass comes from a place of frustration. The Community Bike Ride is about the joy of riding bikes through our city," Aaron Piatkowski said.

Police were present for the Critical Mass ride, too, on Oct. 26. About 100 riders showed up, and no arrests were made, Ryberg said.

The week after the Oct. 23 ride, Ryberg, Jett and Adam Piatkowski met with Capt. Perry Tarrant at a meeting facilitated by City Councilman José Ibarra at his office. Tarrant, with the Tucson Police Department's specialized-response division, was in charge of the TPD operation.

According to Ryberg, Tarrant said there would be less of a police presence at the next ride on Oct. 30, with only six bicycle cops. If any motorcycle cops joined, they would be used to block intersections and would not drive through the bicyclists, Ryberg remembered Tarrant as saying.

Ryberg said Tarrant explained that the police were there on Oct. 23 because of motorist complaints that the Community Ride was disrupting traffic. But the police reportedly realized once there that the crowd was peaceful, not a group wanting to break the law.

Tarrant asked the group to do some self-policing, and if successful, there would be no need for a police presence during future rides. He requested that riders stay in a single lane to allow cars to pass and told the group that they could not block intersections, Ryberg said. Tarrant also reportedly said that police would not continue to help unless the TPD was financially compensated, and that children at the Community Ride should not be without helmets and lights.

Jett and Piatkowski worked with their friends to identify people who could be bike marshals during the ride, each marked by an "X" in red reflective tape. The group also developed different routes for Tarrant so the group would cross fewer intersections and stay in the downtown area.

While Piatkowski and his friends were eager to sit down with Tarrant, they said that there had never been an incident and still didn't understand why police involvement was necessary.

There was no confusion between the Community Bike Ride and Critical Mass, according to Tarrant.

Tarrant said the police came out en force that night due to complaints that TPD received the week before about a large group of bicyclists who may have been part of a demonstration and who were obstructing the roadways, not allowing cars to pass and shutting down intersections.

The problem was Tarrant had no information about who was in charge of the ride, nor did he have any contact information. If the Tucson Police would have had a phone number or the name of a group or individual in charge, police would have called to discuss the complaints rather than bringing out the motorcycle and bike cops, Tarrant said.

The complaints to the TPD, however, did provide the location of where the group met before the ride; that is why police showed up at the UA, where the Community Bike Ride leaves from each Tuesday night.

When asked if the TPD overreacted in its show of force, Tarrant said no.

"It depends on your perspective," Tarrant said. "We were dealing with an unknown crowd. It's not unusual for police to respond with motorcycle (police). It allows a level of mobility that we need to go from point A to point B."

Tarrant said that during the meeting with Ryberg, Jett and Piatkowski, his message never changed. That message: The group could continue to hold the Tuesday night ride, but cyclists needed to allow motor vehicles to pass, and the group could not block intersections, because the police had received complaints about cyclists standing at intersections and blocking traffic. Even if it was the group's way of protecting cyclists from cars at intersections, Tarrant said, it is still illegal to block intersections.

Tarrant said he also wanted to see the group take other safety precautions, such as using helmets and bike lights.

The next Community Ride, on Oct. 30, was viewed a test by everyone involved: a test to see if Tarrant would keep his word, and a test to see if the Community Ride would continue to be a peaceful assembly with organizers self-policing the stream of cyclists.

About eight bike cops and four motorcycle cops greeted riders at the UA flag pole. Before the ride began, the motorcycle cops drove off, and the bike cops got ready to ride with the group. There were no paddy wagons, bike trailers or unmarked police cars present.

Ryberg said he was pleased that everyone kept their word and that a large (albeit smaller) group returned to the ride despite the force used the week before. Ryberg said Tarrant admitted the police overreacted on Oct. 23--a charge Tarrant denies--and knew they were in the wrong place when they saw parents with their children and older adults mixed in with the mostly 20-something crowd of students.

"They expected it to be aggressive from what they Googled about Critical Mass. But they found out that's not what we are about," Jett said.

The number of riders was down 130 from the week before, with 232 people, including the bike cops. Conversations with police even happened along the ride, as bike cops rode with the bicyclists through the streets and all the way to its end, near Presidio Park in downtown Tucson.

Friends Charlotte Bennett, 23 and Travis Langdon, 23, told bike cops during the ride that they were glad that not as many motorcycle cops were present, like the week before.

"It was pretty oppressive, the last ride," Langdon said. "They were dangerous, not us. They were more of a hazard."

The police intrusion didn't just make organizers and riders feel like criminals, but it added to the bruising that bicyclists take on the streets by police tactics that criminalize bicycling and make car drivers think it's OK to harass cyclists, Ryberg said.

The city has earned gold status as a bicycle-friendly community by the League of American Bicyclists. The Tucson-Pima County Bicycle Advisory Committee

(BAC) is working to get platinum status. It's a recognition Ryberg thinks is undeserved: Ryberg said that the city's gold status should be stripped until the number of meaningless tickets dished out to bicyclists decreases, and the focus on cycling is urban rather than recreational.

The other problem is the lack of recognition of the abuses bicyclists receive from motorists. Ryberg claimed that when a car hits a bike, the cyclist is often ticketed, even when the motorist is at fault. Ryberg said these incidents need to decrease, and bike accidents need to be taken more seriously by the police and the courts.

"Instead of giving out tickets to kids without helmets and lights, why not get together with the BAC and hand out free helmets and lights?" Ryberg said. "That is what makes a city bicycle-friendly."

While Ryberg continues to fight for bicyclists in Tucson--he's representing Varo following his arrest during the Oct. 23 ride--other Community Ride participants hope the continued police presence ends before it destroys the ride.

Janet Miller, 48, has been on four rides. While she wasn't able to attend the Oct. 23 ride, she thought it was extra important to be at the Oct. 30 ride so police didn't feel riders would go away. Miller--an occasional Weekly contributor--said she was glad to see a large group return.

Miller agrees that the Community Ride should not be associated with Critical Mass.

"If we really wanted to fuck things up, this whole group could get in our cars, and that would really fuck things up" since most of the Community Ride participants use their bikes for transportation, Miller said.

If police feel they need to continue to check on the ride, Miller said, she suggests they come in plain clothes and see for themselves that the group already takes care of itself.

"They would see how well we've done without them," Miller said.

Miller said there is no word in English to describe how she feels during a ride, so she uses French: esprit de corps. There is a sense of community that she returns for every Tuesday night. While the group leadership is young and male-heavy, Miller said, she feels comfortable. Her second time at the ride, she told Adam she had an idea for a route, thinking he might dismiss her suggestion.

"He said, 'Cool. Do you want to lead the ride tonight?'" Miller said.

There's also a sense of pride, and while the group's aim is not political, Hunter said, he feels what the group expresses each Tuesday night is the best example of patriotism: They're exercising the freedom to gather peacefully and create community.

"I'm proud of my friends and neighbors in what they've created," King said. "I feel like something special is happening right now in Tucson. This is a part of it, but I feel there's going to be more."

Jett, the Piatkowski brothers and King said they hope that as the Community Bike Ride continues, similar rides will start in other parts of the community.

If people think they can't change or start something in their community, the Community Bike Ride should be a strong reminder that they can, King said.

Besides, there is fun in all of this unintentional community building. The end of the Community Ride is a good example. Some cyclists break off into small groups to talk; others ride home, but a larger group begins to ride in circles to play a game of Footdown. The point of the game is to stay on the bike and keep moving. If you stop, and your feet go down, you're out. The number whittles down until eventually until there is one bicyclist left: the winner.

"Sometimes, I feel that bicycles could solve all of our problems," Ryberg said.