Bent wheels, slashed tires: Many bikes seized by CPD were badly damaged

A protester's bike with a bent wheel the 35th Ward office. Photo: 35th Ward
A protester's bike with a bent wheel the 35th Ward office. Photo: 35th Ward

The Chicago Police Department has gradually been releasing scores of bikes confiscated from racial justice protesters during this summer’s demonstrations, but in many cases the cycles have been handed over with severe — and apparently intentional — damage.

Activists, attorneys from the Chicago Lawyer’s Guild, and 35th Ward alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, have been successful in recovering bikes seized by officers during the July 17 action at the downtown Columbus statue and the August 15 Loop protest. However, many of the vehicles came back with bent frames, “taco-ed” wheels, mashed derailleurs, and both tires slashed. That’s according to protesters, bike shop staffers and volunteers with Safe Bike Chicago, the grassroots coalition that’s been on the forefront of helping demonstrators get back on two wheels by offering replacement bikes, free repairs and money for expenses raised through crowdfunding. 

Safe Bike has been repairing some of the damaged bikes, but they need more volunteer mechanics, so they’re encouraging protesters to get their bikes repaired at a shop and then provide the receipt to the group for reimbursement out of the $80,000 raised in July, said Chicle, a founding volunteer. “We have not been shy with the funds,” he said.

Some of the damage to the bikes likely occurred when police tossed dozens of cycles taken from protesters into heaps, which was widely documented on social media. Many commenters have argued this showed a blatant disregard for citizens’ property, which forced residents to find another form of transportation and possibly spend money on repairs or new parts. 

Worse, there’s evidence that some of the damage was done on purpose. Kevin Womac, owner of Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square [disclosure: SBC editor John Greenfield formerly worked there], said he repaired about ten bikes from the recent protests and the signature damage was two slashed tires. “A tire does not get slashed on its own,” he noted. 

Other issues with the cycles has included bent frames, wheels, and derailleurs. “That damage could have been intentional [or else]  just a case of mishandling — [unintentionally] stomping on the bike, shoving them around,” Womac said.

He added that the pandemic has been an especially inconvenient time to get a bike fixed because the current cycling boom created a shortage of spare parts. He said one protester got her bike back after the Columbus statue protest with both tires slashed. Ordering replacements was difficult and expensive. “A lot of these are $40-50 tires, times two, that’s [up to] $100,” he said. “That’s a big burden on somebody who was practicing their right to protest and just happened to have their bike [with them.]”

“It’s upsetting and it’s scary,” said Angela Chan, a mechanic at BFF Bikes in Bucktown. “I am sure most of [the police mishandling of bikes] was unnecessary.” She said one person who participated in the August protest brought her bike in with severe damage to the front wheel and other issues caused by rough treatment by officers. The shop didn’t charge the woman for the labor out of solidarity.

Alderman Ramirez-Rosa, with help from the National Lawyers Guild of Chicago and Safe Bike, has recovered a total 61 bikes so far but plans to keep the effort going, the alderman previously told Streetsblog. Many have been returned to their owners, while 15 were left at the ward office for repair. “Some of the bikes turned over to our office are not in a condition to ride,” said Ramirez-Rosa’s chief of staff Jessica Vasquez. “There are many that need repairs.” There will be another pickup event on Sunday September 20, from noon to 5 p.m. 

Safe Bike’s Chicle said, “What we have heard from almost everybody that comes in to pick up a replacement bike is, ‘I saw the cops not just take my bike and throw it aside; I saw them step on it, hit it with a baton.’ Like a child, somebody who is mad at somebody… just wants to hurt whatever they can.”

In August Working Bikes, a nonprofit based in Pilsen, partnered with Safe Bike to hold a donation drive that collected over 40 bikes for protesters, and the co-op has also been helping with repairs of CPD-damaged cycles and providing storage space. Anna Henschel, community programs manager at Working Bikes said said their mechanics have seen bikes with bent cranks and severely warped wheels. She said that Working Bikes’ mission is to provide the public with affordable transportation, so teaming up with Safe Bike “seemed like a perfect extension of what we already do every day.”

Bikes collected at the August donation drive.
Bikes collected at the August donation drive.

Chicle said the team has provided between 15 and 20 protesters with loaner bikes from the donation pool wait for their personal rides to be released by the CPD. Of the about 100 requests Safe Bike received from demonstrators who said they got their bikes taken or destroyed at the Columbus action, over 80 have been fulfilled.

“A big thing for us is spreading the love,”  Chicle said. “We want to be able to take the funds that we have and spread that around as much as we can to all the bike shops in the city.” If you need money for repairs to fix damage to your bike caused by police at recent protests, email info@safebikechicago.org

The Chicago Police Department did not respond to requests for comment as of press time.

Follow Ariel Parrella Aureli on Twitter at @arielparrella.

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