As I write this, I am of two minds about publishing it. It is a true story, but it comes with consequences (as all stories do). There are those who will think it is a "bicycle story", and tangentially, it is. Mostly, though, it is a statement on how things in American cities are very on the edge these days.
Last Saturday, ironically, just 30 minutes after writing and posting this, I had a very frightening encounter while riding on Valencia St. with my husband and older son. The sun was shining and the street was lined with pedestrians and cyclists despite the massive construction along the street that has eaten up both the sidewalks and the bike lanes. The three of us were headed to pick up my son's new contact lenses. As we approached the intersection at 17th St. I found myself being cut off by a driver turning right, no signal. I was in that weird place where you can't stop but you are still behind the car, so I rang my bell a couple of times and gave a shout out. The driver slowed the car but kept moving, slowly enough for me to pass but fast enough to be nerve rattling. The windows were down on the car and I could see the driver and his two passengers looking out at me. They were paying so much attention to me, I was worried they didn't see James and Cameron behind me, so I told the driver there were two more bikes behind me and kept riding. I could hear the driver yell something at me in an angry voice. It sounded like he called me a bitch but I couldn't really hear him.
At this point I did something kind of dumb, I flipped him off. This wasn't the most intelligent thing, but at some point you just get sick of being called names for not wanting to be run over.
I was about to look back to see where the boys were when I heard a big bore engine gun behind me and my first thought was "OK. You're one of those drivers." and I braced myself for whatever was coming next. The part of Valencia St. we were on no longer has a bike lane (temporary) and instead has a ditch with sharp gravel in it. In a situation like this, I find parked cars a great boon as you can dive between them to get out of the way, but there was nowhere to go so I would have to just be ready.
The car raced up next to me, just a little too close for comfort, to force me to slow down. I kept moving but he paced me. The driver leaned over his passenger and said "Shut your fucking mouth bitch or I'll knock you off your bike". He didn't yell it at me, he just stated it like there was no way it could be any other way, straight to my face. My nature is to not show fear, especially with people like this- I have found it makes them more bold. I looked right back at him ( I started taking note of all the details- the driver, the passenger in the back, the colour of the car....) and asked him if he would like me to call the police to report his harassing me? I got another "shut up bitch" and he started to drive away, slowly to see if I would try to pass him.
At that point I was just annoyed- I shouldn't have flipped him off, but he shouldn't have done any of the things he had done (I realized at this point that his almost right hooking me was not an accident). Then I saw what turned the whole thing very frightening- the car was an unmarked San Francisco Police car. Red and amber lights were in the rear window along with what looked like a police citation book.
I was completely floored. I had just been threatened and intimidated by a police officer. His partners in the car had done nothing to stop him. To top it off, this all happened not 100 feet from the Mission Police Station (which I turned around and went straight into to file a report which is now with the Office Of Citizen Complaints). The worst part was that from behind, both James and Cameron thought I was about to be run down in front of them (James pulled out his cell phone to start taking pictures). That was when I started shaking, just a little but for the next three hours.
This by no means puts me off of riding or makes me distrust all police officers . While this officer may have a special thing for cyclists, his issue was not with me, or me on a bike, or anything even remotely that personal. This is about one person's need to prove his power over the world around him and intimidate everyone and everything that comes close to him. My bicycle probably is more of a target for him than if I had been on foot, but he would be just as hateful and mean regardless.
Had he done this to many other cyclists, and my guess is he has on many occasions, they would probably stop riding. While I understand that, what I hope people understand is that this kind of behavior has nothing to do with bike lanes, or the need for infrastructure, or a lack of bicycle culture and points more to something deeper and more insidious that is happening in our cities. People are finding it more and more acceptable to behave poorly or as though they are in a movie.
I will not stop riding. It would take a hell of a lot more than this to stop me. I will not let this situation pass without making this officer face me and tell me why he thinks it is OK to threaten a women with bodily harm in front of her family. I will fight back so that no one else has to deal with this.
Maybe working for real bicycle culture is about working for a better culture period. Maybe the people who ride bicycles are something of a canary in a coal mine and how we are treated is a barometer for how all vulnerable members of society are being treated these days. Of course, with all of the people out there trying to build that culture, there is way more to be happy about than intimidated or angry. We have a voice and we can use it.
We can ride our bikes.
update- this story has been picked up by Streetsblog SF and NBC to air at 11 pm this evening.