New Mission News * May 9, 2001

Road Rush

By Joe Donohoe
New Mission News

On April 27, Critical Mass experienced one of the largest turnouts of bicyclists ever at Justin Herman Plaza. That same day, a protest had been organized at noon on the steps of City Hall to protest the reduction of charges against Reuben Espinosa, who the District Attorney's office was prosecuting for the death of former Mission resident and bike messenger Chris Robertson. Espinosa had run his 18-wheeler over Robertson and his bike on November 17th of last year in what he described to authorities as "playing chicken."

If there wasn't enough bad feeling towards the City among bike riders, the death of yet another bicyclist, this time a young woman in her 20s, on the morning of the same day, made things even worse. One of the City's dailies mentioned that the young woman had been "swerving" in and out of traffic. Once again, the responsibility of staying alive was laid at the feet of the bicyclists, and the burden of driving safely seemingly removed from any motorist.

There is a psychological perception in the United States, not shared in Europe or Asia, that a bicycle is a toy, and that anyone who rides one is somehow a child who refuses to grow up, buy a car and get a regular job. Many motorists seem smugly convinced that bicyclists should stay off the road and out of their way out so the grown-ups can get about their important money-making business, as facilitated by the efficiency and speed of their internal combustion engines. But there is another point of view in the world, and it goes like this: the bicycle is a non-polluting, completely efficient means of transportation that is, in addition, good exercise and an activity that contributes to a sense of freedom, which used to be considered an important American value. 

When Judge Herb Donaldson reduced Rueben Espinosa's bail from $1.5 million to $10,000 and reduced two felony assault charges to misdemeanors in the circumstances surrounding Robertson’s death, lack of evidence was given as the reason. It was also brought up that Robertson had a blood alcohol content of .015% at the time, so maybe his own reckless riding is what killed him. That Espinosa, who once went to prison for murder, was also under the influence of alcohol and narcotics while driving a huge commercial vehicle was not mentioned by the daily newspaper in its coverage of the incident. He was in a motor vehicle and the bicyclists were in his way, so the dead man got what he deserved for riding his silly bicycle on a public street. It's an attitude that's both simpleminded and cruel, and in light of its tragic consequences it is hard to believe it is the perspective of the status quo. 

Espinosa, who was up for a third strike and 25 to life, may, as he claimed, not have seen Robertson, and maybe the Judge was right for not wanting to make a man spend the rest of his natural life in prison on the strength of the evidence....but using a truck to "play chicken" with a group of bicycles is the behavior of a jerk, and a dangerous jerk at that. Should he really be allowed to drive an 18-wheel vehicle on the streets of San Francisco once he finishes whatever reduced sentence he will have to serve?

Critical Mass, despite the climate of mourning and fear, was for the most part peaceful as I rode with it. Most of the people involved just seemed to be glad to be there and to be alive. If traffic conditions and motorist mentalities remain as they are, perhaps by this time next year some of them won't be. 



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