One afternoon this past summer, as I was cycling north in the bike lane along Hennepin Avenue, a Minneapolis Police Department cruiser also traveling north turned right from Hennepin onto Oak Grove Street and nearly creamed me. It happened suddenly, as these things do — with an abrupt stop, I just avoided the collision. I took a moment to catch my breath, watching the cops drive off. I was certain they hadn’t seen me.
As I proceeded east, I had time to think about this latest close call. Cyclists reading this will know there are far too many. To be an urban commuter is to be made a cautious rider. There’s no sense getting angry at these incidents, dangerous as they may be. Better to have a short emotional memory. At least, that’s how I usually roll.
In this case, though, I couldn’t quite do it. It bothered me that this driver was a police officer. Doesn’t cops’ behavior set an example for others? I thought as I pedaled past Loring Park. Shouldn’t cops be especially attuned to what’s going on outside their cars? I thought as I saw the cop car in question stopped ahead at a red light on Nicollet. I eased off my pedaling at the sight of it, figuring I’d save myself what could be nothing but trouble and let the officers pull ahead.
And had the light changed sooner, that’s the way it would have gone down. But the light stayed red, and by the time I approached the car, I had decided to say something.
I checked myself to be sure I wasn’t acting out of anger. I felt calm and clearheaded, also confident in my complaint and secure in my rights. I signaled to the cop in the passenger seat, who rolled down his window.
Summoning all the good nature I had, I explained that they’d unintentionally cut me off.
The cops, it turned out, understood the situation differently. To wit: “No, we didn’t.”
“Yeah, right back there on Hennepin,” I said, remembering to smile. “You guys turned right across the bike lane.”
A brief consultation with the driver followed before the cop riding shotgun said, “Sir, pull onto the sidewalk.”
• • •
A Portlander by origin, I’ve been in Minneapolis for more than four years now. I can’t begin to recall the number of times I’ve been asked to hold forth on the relative merits of these simpatico cities.
When it comes to cycling, I highlight Minneapolis’s superior trails and the sense of community that emerges from the ubiquity of Nice Ride and self-service repair stations popping up around town. On Portland’s side, I point out the ease of navigation by bike lane, the better condition of the roads, and the weather.
But the real clincher for Portland is that drivers there — because of culture as well as the sheer volume of riders — are more accustomed to cyclists. I remember counting “Share the Road” bumper stickers while I was still on training wheels. This doesn’t mean that cyclists aren’t hit there (often by cars turning right across bike lanes), but it does mean that many drivers there are trying to avoid you as much as you’re trying to avoid them.
It’s this uncommon awareness, more than anything else, that makes Portland the best cycling town in America, no matter what Bicycling magazine says (Minneapolis, if you haven’t heard).
When the cop ordered me onto the sidewalk, I considered apologizing for my insubordination and offering to disappear. I considered it, then I rejected it. “OK,” I said, not bothering to smile.
The driver pulled over to the curb (blocking the bike lane, I noticed), and got out of the car. What followed was (to me) a cliché of low-level intimidation and childish retaliation. The cop accused me of entering the intersection illegally, which made me wonder whether they had seen me and whether this reflected better or worse on the driver. I declined the invitation to admit my guilt and asked instead how it could be possible to enter an intersection illegally riding in a bike lane with the green light. The officer did not appear impressed by my reasoning.
I did my best to stand respectfully without acquiescing, refusing to be intimidated as his version of the event became more entrenched in his memory and as the accusations against me mounted. In addition to my moving violation, he announced, he was charging me with a misdemeanor for interfering with an arrest (of the drunk guy handcuffed in the back of the squad car).
How did I like that? he seemed to want to know. Had I learned my lesson yet?
• • •
I’m trying now to imagine this encounter from the cop’s perspective. Maybe he was having a bad day, and then didn’t see a cyclist because he was communicating with someone back at precinct. And then, there in front of him, was presumptuous-seeming me making a scene.
It was becoming a scene. The sidewalk was busy with pedestrians who had stopped to watch and shake their heads with sympathy and what looked to me like too much familiarity. Maybe the officer felt by then that he had no choice but to teach lessons to a young punk.
In a way, it worked: I was learning things. Not about who held the power in our encounter. Not about how to avoid trouble. After all, I literally went up to the cops and asked for trouble. The charges (and time wasted with cops, lawyers, hearing officers and automated city phone lines) would prove more than I wanted, but they were not as much as I was willing to put up with. The lesson, I decided, with a surge of something like civic responsibility, was the simple conviction that if you have it in you to speak up, you must. Another day, I might not have spoken up. In fact, I tried my best that day to avoid it. But by whatever confluence of forces, I did stop that car — and I feel fortunate for that.
• • •
Skipping ahead, the court dismissed the interference charge last month, and my lawyer is filing to have it expunged from my record. The moving violation was dismissed last week. I had hoped the case would go to trial so I could face the cops again in court. My lawyer had helped me understand the exact nature of the charge.
It was a Bicycle Events Violation, the fine print in the relevant subdivision of which suggests that I unlawfully participated in, of all things, a parade. Yes, unlawful parading — see statute 169.222 subdivision 10(a).
Up against a ton of metal, I am a fragile being; but up against this charge, I’m no clown.
Scott F. Parker lives in Minneapolis.