As a new digital era of protest has dawned under Occupy and Trump, riot police across the US have embarked on a fundamental shift in crowd control
by Jason Wilson in Seattle, The Guardian, June 15, 2017; Guardian Cities Cycle Week
Early last Saturday afternoon, under clear blue skies, a sparsely attended “anti-sharia” rally left the grounds of City Hall in Seattle, Washington.
Until then, the attendees had been facing off against a much larger group of anti-fascists. The two sides had been exchanging chants and taunts across a wide, fenced-off area, manned with riot police.
As they left the grounds, however, the two sides came into direct contact at the corner of 4th and Cherry. A group of young men – some wearing red Donald Trump “Make America Great Again” hats, others in masks – spilled from the pavement out onto the street. Punches started flying.
Immediately, 10 fit, muscular police officers on black mountain bikes who had been watching from across the intersection in two columns of five, leaped into action.
Dismounting as they closed in, they pushed their bikes directly into the heart of the melee. Yelling instructions – “Move BACK!” – they used the bikes, and their bodies, to create a line, pushing back the crowd and separating the antagonists.
They held the line. As people began to disperse, the police gradually expanded the perimeter. After 20 minutes or so the crowd had noticeably thinned, and the riot bicycle unit left for a nearby park where more fighting had kicked off.
If it all looked smooth and efficient, it’s partly because Seattle’s bike squad gets a lot of practice. “Seattle has 200-300 protests a year,” says Sgt Jim Dyment, the squad’s lead trainer. “Although they’re not all as contentious as today’s.”
It’s also the remarkable product of a fundamental shift in crowd policing in the era of Occupy, Black Lives Matter and Donald Trump. When you think of riot police, the typical image is of them spilling from armoured vehicles with truncheons to face off against a large mass.
But American protest in the digital age is changing. Protests are mushrooming across the country in larger numbers than ever before, with social media allowing protesters to easily organise, form and disperse. Mobile communication allows instantaneous tactical redeployment when things get heated, video and photography now capture every movement, and public relations have become paramount.
In response, riot police have enthusiastically embraced a surprisingly low-tech mobility solution: the bicycle.
Bike-mounted cops are everywhere you look, from last year’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio – when Trump’s coronation attracted scores of protesters – to the rallies of “alt-right” groups who have staged a series of provocations in urban centres throughout 2017.
They have also attracted controversy, with some observers calling them evidence of the militarisation of policing: the introduction of counterinsurgency techniques into the management of legally formed crowds. “It gives them tactical advantages,” says Kristian Williams, a critic of American policing. “They’re more mobile, they can more easily create physical barriers – and the bikes can be used as weapons.”
It was here in Seattle back in 1999 that Dyment himself first pressed bicycles into use for “crowd management”, when 50,000 people showed up to protest at a meeting of the World Trade Organisation. Their numbers overwhelmed the city’s mid-size police department – but this was also a more sophisticated group of protesters than Seattle had ever seen. They were highly mobile, and they used new technologies to coordinate their actions.
“They had great command and control,” says Dyment. “They used blogs and Nextels [a cellular phone with a “push to talk” function like a walkie-talkie]. Out of necessity, we used the bikes.”
Though this was the first time riot police took to two wheels, bike-based policing has a long history in the US. What Dyment calls the “golden age” came early in the 20th century. Bikes were introduced in the late 1880s to police departmentslooking for more mobile patrolmen, and to New York City in 1895 under then Police Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt, an avid cyclist. By 1907, a bicycle trade magazine estimated 50,000 bicycle police across the country, with 1,200 in New York City alone.
Over the 1920s and 1930s, however, bikes were gradually replaced – first with motorcycles, and then by cars controlled by dispatch systems.
In the 1980s, policing took another turn with the era of “community policing”. This was “about restoring police legitimacy after the civil unrest of the 1960s and 1970s, and the professional isolation of police,” says Alex Vitale, a sociology teacher at Brooklyn College and author of the forthcoming book The End of Policing.
“The concept was: get police out of cars and closer to the community. It was an attempt to respond to accusations of brutality and racism with a new professionalism, to show that police could talk to the public and respond to community concern.”
Vitale calls the twin use of the bicycle – increasing officers’ tactical advantage while trying to win the hearts and minds of the public – “a tactical dance between protesters and police” that has played out over the course of American history.
By and large, the bike-led era of community police “didn’t happen”, Vitale says. The bikes stayed piled up in police stations until 1987 when two officers in Seattle proposed using them in traffic snarls, caused by construction in the downtown area. The idea worked brilliantly, the department began using them in general patrols, and by 1993 the bike squad had 70 officers.
The bikes had one clear advantage; police can be quickly deployed in force to wherever they are needed.
“It allows you to be mobile as a group,” says Dyment. “Bikes also allow you to have constant presence with the group.”
This mobility is useful both in ordinary patrol and in first responder situations. In June 2014, when a shooter opened fire at Seattle Pacific University, “bike officers were one of the first ones there. They were the only ones who could make it through the downtown traffic.”
The bikes also turned out to be a highly effective – and cheap – tool for crowd control, allowing relatively few officers to form a relatively long line. “They provide a natural barrier,” Dyment says. “The European model is more on foot. The London Met or the NYPD can just throw resources at situations like that. For mid-majors like Seattle, this is a way of controlling large crowds with minimal resources.” (Historically, horses have played an analogous role, Vitale notes.)
A 2002 article written by the late Mike Goetz, a Seattle bike squad officer, describes manoeuvres including “the crossbow” and “the barrier technique”.
In the first, “the bike squad forms a double column behind the line, far enough behind so they can get a little speed up,” Goetz wrote. “On command, the line makes a gap in the center and the bikes ride through this gap.” In the second, officers focus on “lining the bikes, front wheel to rear wheel, across the area to be blocked or protected”.
Police use bicycles to create cordons around protesters ahead of 2016’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Photograph: Reuters
Dyment also believes bike squads strike a less confrontational pose than massed platoons of officers in riot gear.
“The bikes are a form of de-escalation in themselves. If you go into any group of people, almost everyone has ridden a bike. It means you have something in common, something to talk about.”
Vitale agrees that bikes provide “a combination of operational flexibility with a softer appearance. Bikes look friendlier to the press and other observers.” But, he says, “there is nothing inherently de-escalating about them.”
Police on bikes might not be likely to involve themselves in baton charges, but they have pepper-sprayed people. He also notes the bikes themselves are sometimes weaponised. Accusations of police using bikes to attack – often backed up by YouTube videos – have been levelled against bike squads in Portland and Seattle.
“The fact that bikes seem innocuous is a way of masking a weaponised potential,” says Williams. “Cops on bikes are less alarming than cops on horses, or in an armoured personnel carrier – until you’ve been penned in by by a dozen cops on each side using the bikes as barriers.”
Though there are disadvantages to bicycles – an officer is more likely to be pushed back by a crowd than one on a motorcycle – Williams argues that bicycles allow riot police to have their cake and eat it. “Bikes allow police to assert a threat but not be seen as threatening by some parts of the public,” he says. They obscure the fact that police “have arrived on the scene with helmets, body armour, and clubs”.
There is certainly a Robocop feel to the outfits Seattle’s bike squad wear: despite the polo shirts and (optional) shorts, the officers wear Bell Super 3R helmets and body armour. Nor are the bikes themselves your casual BMX. They have a custom-built hardtail mountain bike frame from Volcanic, a company in Bellingham, Washington that specialises in catering to law enforcement.Mountain bikes are best “because of the durability factor”, Dyment says. “You may need to ride them down stairs. Officers have to carry equipment including radios and full armament, and they are on average heavier than most people.”
Field repairs are carried out by a bus that follows the riot police around, loaded up with parts and eager mechanics. “Almost everything that goes wrong with a bike can be fixed within half an hour,” he says. More intensive maintenance is carried out in a vast basement under the downtown west precinct building, where the squad is based.
The bikes’ enduro wheel set features custom DT Swiss rims with a wide inner width of 25mm. They use Fox Float 32 front forks and Serfas 2.1 cross tires, and a NoTubes liquid latex sealing system that patches punctures as they occur. “We ride through a lot of broken glass,” Dyment says.
They use 3x9 gears but they will soon switch to 1x11, to further cut down maintenance. And they have mechanical disc brakes, which was the whole reason the department chose a local company: back in 2005, when they were shopping for the bikes, the big companies such as Kona could only provide hydraulic disc brakes.
The officers themselves are all keen cyclists, which underlines the fact that cycling really is a point of commonality between them and the public. Protesters themselves sometimes approach to ask about the bikes and discuss the gear. Dyment thinks the relationship between police and Seattle’s long-term protest community isn’t entirely unfriendly; he compares it to the Warner Brothers cartoon Ralph Wolf and Sam the Sheepdog. “We all know each other. They yell stuff at us at protests, but we see each other on the street and nod.”
They never trade secrets about tactics, though.
“The evolution of their tactics and ours, and the evolution of our bikes, go hand in hand. Unless they have bikes too, they can’t keep up with our mobility,” Dyment says. “They have better and better communications technologies, but we have the bikes.”