When Michael Ehrenreich decided to ride his bicycle to an indigenous rights rally last Friday in Grant Park, he had no idea Chicago police would take his bike.
But the Bucktown resident said that’s what happened after the rally veered off into the area around the Christopher Columbus statue, where a melee broke out between police and some protesters.
“I didn’t do any pushing or anything offensive with [my bike], and it was just snatched out of my hands and violently thrown behind the police lines,” Ehrenreich said. “From there, I haven’t seen my bike again.”
Ehrenreich’s account echoes several others told to WBEZ or attorneys with the National Lawyers Guild, a nonprofit legal collective working with protesters. Indeed, on Monday a police spokeswoman acknowledged the department had taken 76 bikes in total from the site of the protest. But the department said they’d been “recovered and inventoried.” The NLG, however, are accusing police of illegally confiscating property “without due process” and are negotiating a return of all bikes.
“We are contemplating whether we are going to have to bring a lawsuit,” said Janine Hoft, an attorney at the People’s Law Office and a member of the NLG. “Because it’s certainly a constitutional violation to take people’s property without due process.”
A Chicago police spokeswoman described it differently.
“We have recovered and inventoried 76 bicycles, many of which were used as weapons or used to tactically facilitate mob action in and around Grant Park on Friday, July 17. However, many of the bicycles that were used as weapons against CPD officers were abandoned, making it difficult to distinguish the bicycles as discarded property or a criminal weapon,” according to a statement from a police spokeswoman. “As a result, we did not place a ‘hold for investigation’ designation on any of these bicycles.
“These bicycles have been transported to a secure location for detailed documentation of each bicycle serial number. We are in the process of developing a protocol to allow for the bicycle owners to reclaim their property in a safe, expedient and efficient manner.”
Rally attendee J. Michael Eugenio contests the characterization that many bikes were used as weapons.
“The [protesters’ bikes] were basically being used as a barrier to protect people, and the police were ripping them out of their hands,” he said. “Police were even throwing bikes onto people, basically [the police] were using them as weapons.”
And as far as abandoning the bikes, Eugenio said “[protestors] only abandoned them when the police were spraying them with pepper spray.”
Kenwood resident Latonya Maley said she had also been standing on the edge of the protest in a line with other bicyclists when her bike was taken.
“Once they used the pepper spray, the line pretty much dissolved and the police started walking through us,” she said. “So I was being stepped on by police because I was crouching down after I got sprayed. And I had my bike on top of me, and I didn’t want to open my eyes. But when I did, I saw the cops rip my bike away. Finally, another protester grabbed my hand and brought me to a medic.”
She said she returned home to treat pepper spray burns “all over” her body and hasn’t seen her bike again.
Getting the bikes back
After the protest, a group of rally organizers and bike activists urged protesters not to contact CPD about their lost bikes. Instead, organizers steered them to NLG, where Hoft said they are keeping a spreadsheet of lost property and negotiating with the city to return the bikes.
“It’s unconstitutional theft,” said Hoft, noting that she considered it a violation of the 4th and 14th amendments.
On Monday CPD officials said they are working on a protocol to allow owners to reclaim their bikes “at a neutral location” and would release details in coming days.
But NLG attorneys want to be able to pick up the bikes for their owners — based on detailed descriptions — to protect the protesters’ identities.
Requiring protesters to reclaim their own bikes, Hoft says, would violate “their 5th amendment right not to implicate themselves. So, to ask people to go to the police department and provide any information, we feel like would be a continued violation of the Constitution.”
To help replace and repair bikes lost or damaged in the protest, march organizers and members of the bike community started a Venmo fundraiser over the weekend. By Monday, they’d raised $80,000.
“We threw up a form for people to fill out if they need bike repairs or replacement bikes to use in the meantime, and we have received more than 100 requests,” said Eugenio who helped coordinate the fundraiser.
Even after granting all the requests, he said they still have money left over, which they will use to plan “a bike repair and donation day to show solidarity with all those who put their bikes and bodies on the line.”
He said they also plan to create workshops for bike marshals to help them better manage and protect protesters — and their own bikes — at future rallies.
“We want to be able to equip them with goggles and a fleet of beater bicycles so they don’t have to put their personal mode of transportation on the line,” he said.
Monica Eng is a WBEZ reporter. Contact her at email@example.com.