Brutalized and arrested, but not charged

Alice Battey stayed with Katy Howard, figuring two women together were safer from police than one all alone. This is part one of a two-part series.

by John Hoff

Three weeks after graduating from the University, Alice Battey, 22, was pepper-sprayed by police and thrown into a jail cell with women alleged to be crack addicts.

Battey, a slim young woman with dreadlocks and torn jeans, has the kind of gentle and soft-spoken demeanor one would expect from somebody who majored in child psychology. The shocking acts against society Battey freely admits committing include helping a friend whose skirt was caught in a bike chain and videotaping police with her cell phone camera.

After spending about 30 hours in jail for “probable cause rioting,” Battey was never actually formally charged with anything in a court of law.

In fact, based on correspondence Battey has received from her attorney, Jordan S. Kushner, it seems only four members of Critical Mass might still be facing charges for the Aug. 31 incident. So apparently more than a dozen individuals were arrested for stuff police couldn’t make stick, weak sets of trumped-up allegations never resulting in formal charges.

Is this the kind of rampant police-state overkill and oppression we can expect at the Republican National Convention in 2008?

Now feeling comfortable enough to tell her story, Battey discussed her arrest in the basement of Coffman Union while playing air hockey with my 10-year-old son.

Prior to Aug. 31, she had attended two previous Critical Mass rallies. Compared to those rallies, it seemed riders were more respectful and orderly than on previous rides, not less. The 400 or so riders stayed on their own side of the road. There was no yelling profanity at drivers who angrily honked car horns.

Everyone seemed in a calm mood, and some people had brought boom boxes. There was even a small bike trailer cranking out funky 1980s tunes. A few people were swerving to the beat, what Battey called “bike dancing.” Battey was riding with no hands so she could perform fun, silly dance moves.

People always share water at these rallies. You can get water from a complete stranger, just by saying, “Water?” A ton of Battey’s friends were there, and “everybody was talking to everybody.” Though she had been feeling ill from stomach flu, and had been moving out of her apartment for the past two days, Battey didn’t want to miss the fun and sociable event.

There was a minor incident when police briefly detained an individual, and then bikers chanted “Let him go.” But police actually let the biker go, and the ride continued. Then things got ugly near LaSalle Avenue and Grant Street.

“Mass up!” somebody shouted, urgently. Battey helped relay the shout to the front.

It is common to hear this yell at Critical Mass rallies, as the bikers stick together for safety. Bikers will send a cry of “mass up” forward if the people in front are too fast. “Mass up” is one of the first things new participants learn.

Usually bikers just slow down, but upon hearing urgent shouts the whole bike rally turned around, going backwards to regroup. Battey saw a squad car and several police officers. Somebody was being detained. There was intermittent yelling and chanting of “Let him go” but, for the most part, the scene was “eerily quiet.”

Once the individual was cuffed and stuffed in the squad car, people decided to move forward, since there was nothing else to be done. In call-and-response fashion, the bikers chanted, “Whose streets? Our streets.”

Gradually, bikers found themselves followed and boxed in by increasing numbers of police who continued yelling stuff like “keep going” and began to pepper-spray individuals who lagged behind. Battey said there was never an order like “disperse” or “go home” but rather it was always “keep moving.”

Battey said whoever lagged back was “brutalized.” Battey’s friend, Katy Howard, got her skirt caught in a bike chain and yelled to Battey. With a line of officers advancing on her friend, Battey went back to help.

“Where are you going?” a male officer yelled, and added something like, “She’s a big girl, she can take care of herself.”

Battey managed to wrench Howard’s skirt loose, damaging the skirt, but keeping Howard from falling into the line of advancing police. Katy was riding a borrowed bike, and couldn’t keep up very well. Battey stayed with Katy, figuring two women together were safer from the police than one all alone.

Battey was pepper-sprayed twice as police herded the bikers like sheep to be slaughtered. Battey is “pretty sure” she was sprayed the second time for trying to videotape with her cell phone. She saw one officer “indiscriminately spraying” with a “full arm, wide motion” like he was “trying to coat everyone and everything.”

The pepper-spray “felt at first like spicy food, but then exponentially worse.” It tingled, then burned, then it was a searing pain. The pain was not just in the eyes but in the whole face, especially the forehead. So much mucus was coming from Battey’s face “it was like crying snot.” Arrests were happening all around, seemingly random.

Water was precious and in short supply at that point, but a stranger gave Battey water to rinse out her eyes.

Battey decided she couldn’t afford to take any more video, but should turn all her attention to avoiding arrest.

Police had the street ahead partially blocked. The recent graduate in child psychology was faced with a choice. Should she go on the sidewalk with her bike, which was illegal, or risk random arrest by passing legally between the two police cars?

She decided to pass through the police cars, but felt a pang of terror as an officer yelled at her, “Get off your bike!”

As her friend Katy somehow managed to slip away in a torn skirt, avoiding arrest that awful night, Battey let her bike fall to the street and put her hands up in the air.

John Hoff welcomes comments at [email protected]