The new horsemen: how American riot police espoused the bicycle

As a new digital epoch of protest has dawned under Occupy and Trump, riot police across the US have embarked on a fundamental shift in crowd control

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 greater group of anti-fascists. The two sides had been exchanging chants and taunts across a wide, fenced-off region, 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 dres 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 all regions of the intersection in two columns of five, leaped into action.

Dismounting as they closed in, they pushed their bikes immediately into the heart of the melee. Screaming instructions Move BACK! they used the motorcycles, and their bodies, to create a line, pushing back the crowd and separating the antagonists.

They held the line. As people began to scatter, the police gradually expanded the perimeter. After 20 minutes or so the crowd had noticeably thinned, and the riot bicycle division left for a nearby park where more battle had kicked off.

If it all appeared smooth and efficient, its partly because Seattles bike squad gets a lot of practice. Seattle has 200 -3 00 protests a year, tells Sgt Jim Dyment, the squads result trainer. Although theyre not all as contentious as todays.

Riot police use motorcycles in downtown Seattle at the anti-sharia rally in June 2017. Photograph: Jason Wilson for the Guardian

Its also the remarkable product of a fundamental shift in mob policing in the era of Occupy, Black Lives Matter and Donald Trump. When “youre thinking about” 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 permitting protesters to easily organise, sort and scatter. Mobile communication lets instantaneous tactical redeployment when things get heated, video and photography now capture every motion, and public relations have become paramount.

In response, riot police have enthusiastically espoused a amazingly low-tech mobility answer: the bicycle.

Bike-mounted policemen are everywhere you look, from last few years Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio when Trumps coronation attracted ratings 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 disagreement, with some observers calling them evidence of the militarisation of policing: the introduction of counterinsurgency techniques into the management of legally formed crowd. It devotes them tactical advantages, tells Kristian Williams, a critic of American policing. Theyre more mobile, they can more easily create physical roadblocks and the motorcycles can be used as weapons.

They employed blogs. So we used bikes

Midtown South Precinct new bicycle patrol makes the streets in July 1995. Photograph: New York Daily News Archive/ Getty Images

It was here in Seattle back in 1999 that Dyment himself first pressed bicycles into use for crowd management, when 50,000 people presented up to protest at a session of the World Trade Organisation. Their numbers overwhelmed the citys 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, tells Dyment. They utilized blogs and Nextels[ a cellular telephone with a push to talk function like a walkie-talkie ]. Out of necessity, we utilized 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 arrived early in the 20 th century. Bikes were introduced in the late 1880 s to police departments looking 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 publication calculated 50,000 bicycle police across the country, with 1,200 in New York City alone.

Over the 1920 s and 1930 s, however, bikes has steadily replaced first with motorcycles, and then by vehicles controlled under dispatch systems.

In the 1980 s, policing took another turning with the epoch of community policing. This was about restoring police legitimacy after the civil unrest of the 1960 s and 1970 s, and the professional isolation of police, says Alex Vitale, a sociology educator at Brooklyn College and author of the forthcoming volume 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 barbarism 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 during the course of American history.

Motorcycle police in Berkeley, California wait in preparation for an anti-war rally in 1965. Photo: Anonymous/ AP

The new horses

By and big, the bike-led epoch of community police didnt happen, Vitale tells. The motorcycles stayed piled up in police station until 1987 when two officers in Seattle proposed using them in traffic snarls, caused by construction in the downtown region. The idea worked brilliantly, government departments 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, tells 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, motorcycle 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 inexpensive tool for crowd control, allowing relatively few officers to form a comparatively long line. They offer a natural barrier, Dyment tells. The European model is more on foot. The London Met or the NYPD can only throw resources at situations like that. For mid-majors like Seattle, this is a way of controlling big crowd 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 motorcycle 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, policemen focus on lining the bikes, front wheel to rear wheel, across the region to be blocked or protected.

Police utilize 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 motorcycles are a sort 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 seem friendlier to the press and other observers. But, he tells, there is nothing inherently de-escalating about them.

Police on motorcycles 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 utilizing motorcycles 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, tells Williams. Cops on motorcycles are less alarming than policemen on ponies, or in an armoured personnel carrier until youve been penned in by by a dozen policemen on both sides using the motorcycles as barriers.

Though there are disadvantages to bicycles an officer is more likely to be pushed back by a mob than one on a motorcycle Williams argues that bicycles permit 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 overshadow the fact that police have arrived on the scene with helmets, body armour, and clubs.

Not your casual BMX

Sgt Jim Dyment( R) directs Seattles bike squad at the anti-sharia protest last in June. Photograph: Jason Wilson for the Guardian

There is certainly a Robocop feel to the outfits Seattles bike squad wear: despite the polo shirt and( optional) shorts, the officers wear Bell Super 3R helmets and body armour. Nor are the motorcycles 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 cellar under the downtown west precinct building, where the squad is based.

The motorcycles enduro wheel defined features custom DT Swiss rims with a wide inner thicknes of 25 mm. 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 result. We ride through a lot of broken glass, Dyment tells.

They use 3×9 gears but they will soon switch to 1×11, to further cut out upkeep. 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 motorcycles, the big companies such as Kona could only offer 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. Protester themselves sometimes approach to ask about the motorcycles and discuss the gear. Dyment thinks the relationship between police and Seattles long-term protest community isnt entirely unfriendly; he compares it to the Warner Brother cartoon Ralph Wolf and Sam the Sheepdog. We all know each other. They scream stuff at us at protests, but we insure 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 motorcycles too, they cant keep up with our mobility, Dyment says. They have better and better communications technologies, but we have the bikes.

Guardian Cities is dedicating a week to exploring the future of cycling in cities around the world. Explore our coverage here and follow us on on Twitter andFacebook to join the discussion .

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