A Moscow man says he and a friend were wrongfully arrested and charged late Thursday night for allegedly obstructing law enforcement by riding their bicycles on North Main Street ahead of three overlegal Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil loads.
Zachary E. Johnson, 33, said he probably plans to the fight accusations in court.
He said he was part of a Critical Mass bike ride earlier Thursday night prior to shipments passing through the city. Critical Mass of Moscow is described on its Facebook page as a group that opposes the fossil fuel industry and promotes cycling and will do so to assert their right to access roadways.
Johnson said after most bikers dispersed, he and several other cyclists, including Aaron T. Malgren, 22, who was also arrested Thursday, made their way from Gritman Medical Center to where South Main Street intersects with Palouse River Drive.
Once they saw the lights of the ExxonMobil convoy, Johnson said the cyclists turned around and headed back up Main Street.
“We had no plans to block or impede the megaloads with our bikes or bodies,” he said. “We did not want to get arrested. That was not our intention at all.”
Moscow Police Chief David Duke said about nine cyclists were warned at the Sunset Mart about riding in the roadway prior to the shipments entering the city. The cyclists began riding alongside the shipments on Washington Street, he said, frequently leaving the sidewalk and returning after warnings from law enforcement. When the loads reached the Moscow Food Co-op, Duke said several cyclists were observed riding between the equipment modules, occasionally striking them with their hands.
“They were making profane comments toward the loads and the drivers, as well as the flaggers and the officers,” Duke said.
Johnson said he and Malgren rode in the bike lane until its end at the intersection of U.S. Highway 95 and State Highway 8 before moving to the sidewalk heading north on Washington Street, but was not aware nor did he participate in any actions against the shipments.
“We were just following alongside peacefully,” said Johnson. “We weren’t trying any funny business, trying to weave in between the loads. Nobody ever rode in front or darted in between the loads. I did not personally witness any of that.”
He said he approached one Moscow police officer in a patrol car between two loads on Washington Street at one point to report nearly being struck by a module that was extending into the sidewalk.
“At that point a megaload came very, very close to hitting us on the sidewalk. It was about six inches away from me, of my face at this point,” Johnson said, adding he was initially ignored by the officer sitting in the passenger seat of the patrol car. “He rolled up his window and would not look at me, not look at me at all.”
He said he was finally told to lodge his complaint at the police station, but he instead continued north, again leaving the sidewalk when his path was impeded by about 40 protesters and returning 50 feet ahead of them.
Duke said one cyclist rode ahead of the load to intercept it where Washington and Main streets fork and was later joined by a second cyclist. These were determined to be Johnson and Malgren.
Johnson said he took Washington Street to Walgreens, and then proceeded back onto North Main Street using the sidewalk with Malgren. He said they had to leave the sidewalk again between E and Morton streets because of a traffic sign in the way that indicated the left lane of the road was closed.
“A couple seconds after we were back on (the sidewalk), an ISP officer said through a loud speaker, get on the sidewalk,” Johnson said. “At that time we were already on the sidewalk, so we didn’t think anything of it. All of a sudden I heard his siren. I think he was trying to say something to us, but the megaload was right next to him.”
They were then told to lay down their bikes and sit on the ground, Johnson said, and were placed under arrest.
According to court documents, Johnson and Malgren had refused to return to the sidewalk, which led to their arrest and citations for resisting and obstructing a law enforcement officer. They were also issued infractions for not licensing their bikes with the city of Moscow, Duke said.
Johnson said he and Malgren had tried to explain to officers why they had left the road, but were ignored and taken in a Latah County Sheriff’s Office van to the county jail.
Both men are scheduled to appear in Latah County 2nd District Court at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday. They each posted $500 bonds Friday morning.
“I plan to plead not guilty,” Johnson said. “I was trying to explain to the officers why we were in the road. We both find that these charges are absurd, and we will probably fight them. I am not guilty of obstructing and resisting an officer’s request.
“I think it’s a travesty that this situation had to happen and I think it’s a travesty that law enforcement is having to be put in this position of having to protect these loads. I think the whole thing all around is crappy. I wish this whole thing hadn’t happened, and I don’t know why it had to happen.”
(By Brandon Macz, Staff Writer, Moscow-Pullman Daily News)