Let’s say a man bit your finger so viciously that the flesh was torn away and the bone exposed. Let’s say it happened in a public place in front of dozens of eyewitnesses who prevented the biter from leaving the scene. Say a police officer rolled up to the scene within a minute or two of the bite, and you and many of the eyewitnesses pointed out the biter to the officer. You’d bet your other thumb that he’d be arrested, right?
Victor Vega would have made that bet until September 26, 2008, when he was on the receiving end of such a bite in such a situation and the police officer on the scene did nothing.
Vega’s ordeal came around 9:30 p.m., near the end of the Critical Mass group bicycle ride. It was the first time he’d ever ridden in the monthly bicycling event. “Two coworkers of mine, they’d gone to Critical Mass before. And they said, ‘Why don’t you come out and ride with us?’ And they told me about Critical Mass. I said, ‘Okay, sounds cool.’ So I went that evening, picked up a friend of mine who is on my softball team, and went to Balboa Park and met.”
Critical Mass is more of a phenomenon than a planned event. The first ride was in San Francisco in 1992, 16 years and 1 day before Vega’s fateful ride. It’s now, according to Wikipedia, in more than 300 cities throughout the world. There’s no official leadership to Critical Mass, no agenda, no planned routes. But it’s understood in bicycling communities that riders will gather at a certain spot and time on the last Friday of every month. In San Diego, it’s 7:00 p.m. at the fountain in front of the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park. That’s where Vega met his friends September 26. “It was just people hanging out for a while, and then around eight o’clock everyone said, ‘Okay, let’s take off.’ Then it was kind of like follow the leader. We headed across the bridge over the 163, and from there we started taking some side streets, playing follow the leader, going with the crowd. We rode all the way to San Diego State University, and we turned back around and went down El Cajon Boulevard and headed back down to Balboa Park. We turned left down 30th Street, and I was going down 30th when I noticed there was some kind of altercation going on up ahead in an intersection. There was a bunch of people, kind of amassed in that intersection. Something was going on.”
The altercation was taking place in the middle of the stop-lighted intersection of 30th and Redwood in North Park. The riders were moving southbound on 30th, while some fellow cyclists were doing what’s known in Critical Mass circles as “corking,” that is, blocking traffic on side streets by standing in front of the cars. Motorists, you may have guessed, aren’t always pleased about having to wait for thousands of cyclists to pedal by. Such was apparently the case that night. “There were a lot of people” gathered in the intersection, Vega recalls. “As I was going through the intersection, it appeared that there was a fight going on between a cyclist and some guy who was a passenger in a motor vehicle. And I was riding by looking at them. Fists were being thrown. As I was riding by, the cyclist pushed the passenger of the motor vehicle into me and knocked me down to the ground. I got up and picked up my bicycle. The guy [from the car], then he turned to me and started to charge me, arms swinging. He swung about three times at me.”
Vega insists that he said or did nothing to incite the man. “Nothing at all. I was just riding through like everybody else. So he was swinging at me, and I had my bike between us, and that put some distance between us so he couldn’t connect the swings. But when he was swinging at me, I put my hands up to block his swings. My left hand was the furthest out, closest to him. He grabbed it and bit down on my thumb so hard that he broke skin. I told him, ‘You are biting my thumb, you are biting my thumb, please let go!’ But he didn’t. He bit down all the way until he hit the bone. Then, instead of just letting go, he jerked away and ripped the meat off of the bone. The whole tip of the thumb was dangling by a piece of meat. The bone was exposed.”
Two weeks after the incident, the stitched-up wound on Vega’s thumb is still gruesome to behold, and Vega says it’s painful. But when it happened, “I was in shock, staring at my bone, thinking, ‘I can’t believe this happened.’ Then it started to set in, and it was hurting…throbbing…constant throbbing.”
Blood from the bite wound covered Vega’s hand and arm and dripped onto the pavement beneath him. The biter went back to the car he was riding in and got in the backseat. Two women occupied the front seats. “People stood around the car so they couldn’t leave,” Vega recalls. “Of course, there was nowhere they could go because there were all kinds of cyclists going through the intersection. I looked up 30th, and I saw an officer, a cruiser, coming up slowly. He was taking up the rear, following the cyclists. I flagged him down. He asked, ‘What is the problem?’ I showed him my thumb. I said, ‘That guy right there, he just bit my thumb off.’ And the officer looked at me and said, ‘What did you expect?’ Those were his exact words: ‘What did you expect?’ And I didn’t understand what he meant; I was trying to make sense of why he was saying that. I said, ‘Dude, he just bit my thumb off!’ And then the officer asked, ‘What do you want me to do about it?’ And I said, ‘I want you to arrest that guy.’ So he pulls up, gets out, and he goes and talks to the guy that bit my thumb off. He talks to him really quick, like a few seconds. They kind of chuckle about something, and he comes back to me and he tells me, ‘Well, you know what, I’ve got witnesses that say you assaulted him.’ He says, ‘So here is what I am going to do: I am going to take you to jail, and I am going to take him to jail, or you can forget about it, go to the hospital, and get it stitched up.’ ”
Hutch Seese, a 51-year-old painter, was exiting a liquor store on the corner as all of this was going on. “I watched the whole thing happen before I got in my truck. That’s why I ran over to help Victor. I told him, ‘I’ve got a container of wipes and some rubbing alcohol in my truck.’ Because the cop had said [to Victor], ‘Just get the hell out of here.’ And I thought, ‘How could he leave? This guy’s bitten half of his thumb off. How’s he supposed to ride to the hospital on a bicycle?’ ”
Seese says the biter seemed irate that the car he was riding in had to wait for thousands of bicyclists to pedal by, even though the car had the green light. “The lady driving the car kept trying to inch through the intersection through all the bikers, but the bikers just kept coming [and she couldn’t make it across]. Then I saw the man get out, and it was clear he was out for a reason.”
Seese wrapped Vega’s thumb in antibacterial wipes, put his bike in her truck, and drove him to Mercy Hospital. Both say they were perplexed and angry at the San Diego police officer’s dismissive treatment at the crime scene. But, Vega says, the dismissive treatment by the police didn’t stop there. “The ER nurses were asking me about what had happened. I explained, and I told them the story about the officer there at the scene. And they said, ‘Well, we need to call San Diego PD, because you are a victim of a crime. Since a report wasn’t taken there we need to have an officer come out here and take a report from you.’ So, hours later, an officer does show up. He sits down and starts to ask me what had happened. I said, ‘Well, I was cycling in an event called Critical Mass, where a bunch of cyclists meet together and they go for a ride,’ and he stopped me, and he said, ‘Yeah, I know Critical Mass, I know what Critical Mass is all about.… Why did you participate in Critical Mass?’ And I said, ‘For the exercise. I have friends that ride, and they invited me.’ So he says, ‘Well, the next time you might want to do a little more research before you go out and just join up with a group of people. Critical Mass is an anarchist organization.’ ”
Vega figured out later what intersection the incident took place in. At the time of the bite, he wasn’t sure where he was. He was simply following the riders in front of him. Of course, the first question the officer at the hospital asked him was, “ ‘What street were you on?’ When I told him I didn’t know, he closed his laptop and said, ‘You know what, I am going to just refer this to a detective, and they may or may not contact you.’ He was just a jerk the whole time. He had an attitude.”
Eventually, Detective Eric Stafford got hold of Vega and an investigation is ongoing. Detective Stafford did not return calls for this story.
Tommy Nguyen, who works at Mission Hills Bike Shop and is a frequent participant in Critical Mass, rejects the anarchist tag but acknowledges that for some, at least, Critical Mass “is a political statement that people can ride bikes to get places — they don’t need their cars to get everywhere — and that drivers need to be more aware of cyclists.”
However, the mood of the rides is not political, Nguyen says, but more of “a party on wheels. It’s a family event. If you have a bike, you are invited.”
Nguyen believes there is a strong police bias, and possibly an unofficial police policy, against Critical Mass. “I have witnessed it,” he says. “The cops side with the driver 99 percent of the time. I have seen numerous times people just use their cars and just hit cyclists, and police don’t do anything about it.”
San Diego police officer Jim Johnson responds, “Is there a policy with the San Diego Police Department that we don’t like Critical Mass so we’re going to do everything in our power to discourage it? No, there’s no such policy.”
Johnson adds, “Handling any kind of protest situation, whether it be a pro-life demonstration, Critical Mass, or anything else, is delicate. We can’t be for or against it. Our concern is simply for [the protesters’] safety and the safety of others.”