Tacoma crosswalk vigilantes tell all

Staff writerJuly 7, 2013 

They were already annoyed. Then along came an anecdote.

The story said a bicyclist was hit by a car on St. Helens Avenue, near The Mix restaurant, sometime in April. He was hurt, hospitalized. Lots of people saw it.

It wasn’t all true, but gossip prompted action. Two weeks later, a hand-painted bike lane marker appeared on the asphalt nearby, the signature of well-meaning vigilantes.

Who was the injured cyclist? The painters didn’t know. “It was just an anecdote,” the group’s ringleader said. Did it matter that the man wasn’t on a bicycle? That he was a guy on foot on a cold rainy night in January, retrieving his debit card from the bar and restaurant, darting across the street just as a car drove by?

It didn’t really matter. The story fueled the painters’ frustration over streets they believe aren’t fit for anything but cars, despite years of rhetoric about walkable and bike-able neighborhoods.

They filled a paint tray, grabbed a brush and sketched a stylized bicycle that resembled the accepted design for such markers — except this one, at the corner of Sixth Avenue and St. Helens, had a mouse on the seat.

That marker led to citizen-painted crosswalks at the same intersection, which led to Tacoma city workers grinding them out and scarring the road, which led to news coverage, which led to more unauthorized crosswalks appearing across the Stadium District.

Which led to city workers removing them all, city leaders declaring them vandalism and threatening to prosecute the painters. City officials say the citizen crosswalks create a false sense of security and could put people who use them in danger.

In late June, the leader and two compatriots sat down for an hourlong discussion with The News Tribune to reveal how their guerrilla campaign for pedestrian and bike safety began and who is behind it.

The trio asked to speak anonymously because of the prosecution threat. The newspaper agreed so that readers could better understand their philosophy and why they did what they did.

The mouse-topped bike marker is “a little whimsical and it’s a little important,” the ringleader said. “There’s an art element. And the bikers are going to see it and say, ‘Oh, somebody cares about me.’”

The ringleader came to the interview June 20 at The News Tribune wearing the uniform of his day job: A well-tailored business suit. He’s younger than 30, as are the other two. The three men have college degrees and jobs. Two of those jobs are for organizations that focus on community service. One man has a wife and a child. They all live in Tacoma.

They said they are part of a much larger group, numbering in the dozens. They call themselves Citizens for a Safer Tacoma. The group is loosely organized. No meetings.

Some members paint, but most offer support including scouting locations and buying supplies. The painters are mostly young adults, but the group is made up of men and women ranging in age from mid-20s to mid-60s. Some are students. Some are professionals. Some, one of the men said, even work for the city of Tacoma.

Though the three men said they personally haven’t gone through official channels to request pedestrian and bicycle enhancements, they know of people in some downtown neighborhoods who have asked for years to no avail.

They believed the man was hit near The Mix just a few weeks before they first decided to act. But they couldn’t nail down the moment they decided to cross the line between griping and breaking the law.

One man, clad in the regional style of sandals, fleece vest and jeans, said he got involved because a friend of his was seriously injured here while riding his bike between home and work.

The third man, wearing a ball cap and a striped button-down shirt labeled with the logo of his employer, said being a student at the University of Washington Tacoma showed him the importance of pedestrian safety. Crosswalks and bike lanes show people and cyclists where to travel more safely. And those same street markings help car drivers have heightened attention to people and bikes.

“We’re not trying to paint the streets because we’re civil deviants,” said the man in the ball cap. “If the crosswalks are there, if the bike lanes are there, people will use them.”

The ringleader cited several sources of frustration that boil down to this: The system isn’t working. It’s all process, no money and no results.

“There’s a lot of rhetoric about Tacoma being a progressive city,” he said, prompting derisive laughter from the other two men. City leaders “find these indicators of action. ‘We’ll set up a committee.’ ‘There’s the mobility master plan. It’s going to be more bike-focused.’

“This demonstration project is to show what a progressive city actually looks like for people who can’t afford cars or choose not to use them. Those people should not be honked at. They should not be hit. They should not be yelled at. They should be accommodated. They should be rewarded.

“Those are the thoughts that lead to action.”

THE FIRST CROSSWALK

The mouse on a bike was one of several markers painted in early May around the Stadium District. The ringleader and three others went out in the early evening, just two blocks north of City Hall, and sketched stylized bicycles on the pavement.

“We almost thought the city wouldn’t notice,” said the man in sandals. “That they would be, ‘Oh, sweet! Did we put a marker there?’”

Once the bike lane markers were down, dusk was setting in. Crosswalks seemed a natural addition.

“We had already encroached on the right-of-way,” the ringleader said.

The group of four was joined by two more, and they laid down thick white stripes in an L shape from Sixth Avenue to Baker Street, then from Baker Street across St. Helens Avenue.

The crosswalks stayed for two weeks. The man in the ball cap and the others expected some kind of official response, perhaps a news release of some kind. The only response was city workers taking the stripes out with a grinder, leaving an L-shaped crosswalk in photo negative.

“We were shocked! Hugely shocked! At the time, the effort, the destruction of it,” the ringleader said.

“The cost to do it!” said the man in the ball cap. “And the look of it afterwards!”

“We heard it cost about $1,200 to do,” said the man in sandals.

After the grinding, the ringleader said, the group reacted with a lot of text messages and emails. People hadn’t considered that the city would spend so much money to remove the crosswalks. Wasn’t a lack of money the reason there were no crosswalks in the first place?

“That’s definitely what prompted the second go-round,” the man in sandals said. “You’re telling us there’s no money, but you can afford thousands of dollars to remove them?”

City officials have said the unauthorized crosswalks put people in danger by giving them a false sense of security.

The painters reject that argument. First, they chose places where people already are encouraged to cross. Second, and more important: There is no magic safety zone in any crosswalk, whether it’s laid by themselves or the city. Pedestrians and drivers have the same responsibilities whether there are stripes or not.

They planned their response. Still, the ringleader acknowledged the danger of people taking matters into their own hands.

“It could turn very ugly very fast,” he said. “People painting wherever they want. It goes from something simple and positive to something very big and destructive.”

PLANNING A RESPONSE

A Seattle television reporter did a story on the grinding. He wanted a story about the painters, too.

“He said he wanted to see another one,” the ringleader said. “He gave us a day. We said, ‘OK, let’s do that, let’s do it at this time.’”

That day, June 4, the reporter canceled. Some people worried about a setup and decided not to participate. The ringleader pushed ahead anyway.

He had learned of a man in California who had been arrested for painting a crosswalk. He also had been told by people at the city that legal action was possible if more painting showed up. City officials already had said they couldn’t endorse the painting.

Group members “had definitely talked about that it was illegal,” the ringleader said. “We had never denied it was illegal. This was civil disobedience.”

The man in the ball cap said he had heard about the man in California, but he took the approach of “do the work and think about consequences afterward.”

They wanted to avoid a second round of grinding — they want to antagonize, not compel destruction. So they watered down the paint so it could be scrubbed or worn away. They chose locations that had all the infrastructure in place for a crosswalk — wheelchair ramps, yellow safety strips.

“All that was left to do was the painting,” said the man in the ball cap. “Us connecting those ramps was basically us saying, ‘We’ll finish it for you.’”

The man in the ball cap and others staked out a few locations for about a week ahead of time. They counted police patrols and general traffic counts, picking the time of day with the least traffic. They decided to go out around 3 a.m. so regular cars wouldn’t smear the paint or hit them while they worked.

“We didn’t have orange safety vests,” said the man in the ball cap.

In the wee hours of June 5, a group of three set out to paint their rebuttal to the city’s removal of the first crosswalks.

HOW IT WENT DOWN

The three needed to figure out if the diluted paint would work and see how long the process might take. Wearing plain shirts, pants and hats, they walked to South Seventh Street and marked straight white lines across Yakima Avenue.

Satisfied, they walked a block north to Sixth Avenue, between Wright Park and the Hob Nob restaurant and repeated the process. Two people painted, and one person stood lookout.

“It was an exhilarating moment,” said the man in the ball cap. “It was the first one where there were cars driving by, so we’d have to walk off nonchalantly and hide the cans.”

Two others joined them, making a crew of five. They headed southeast, to South Seventh and Tacoma Avenue. As they painted across Tacoma just south of the First United Methodist Church, a police car drove by.

“We all kind of walked away, started up the street, but it must not have been noticeable to him,” said the man in the ball cap.

One of them had parked a car nearby. The crew jumped in and headed north to South Fourth Street and St. Helens, near the Metropolitan Apartments, and painted another crosswalk. A person from the city manager’s office lives there, the painters believed, and they wanted her to see it.

People walking by took notice.

“They’d say, ‘This looks great!’ or ‘Finally!’” the man in the ball cap said. “One guy thought we were from the city. We just said thanks and went back to work.”

WRAPPING UP

Back in the car, the five headed to the night’s biggest target: The five-point intersection of Tacoma and Division avenues, near the Presbyterian Church and Stadium Thriftway. From the stakeouts, they had learned that police patrol at regular intervals. They waited for a cruiser to pass, then got to work.

“We figured we had about an hour,” the man in the ball cap said.

The crew laid pink-and-white stripes across Division. One woman, a bystander, offered advice on the location of the lines. They added a few bike lane markers, too, then called it a night.

A second crew came to the intersection later and added crosswalks in the style of a yellow-brick road, and one with pink and green polka dots.

By 5:25 a.m., eight citizen crosswalks and a few bike lane markers had popped up at five intersections.

The group was tired but charged up.

“A little scared, for sure, and excited, knowing there would be some sort of larger reaction but not knowing what that would be,” the man in sandals said.

They went home, slept in, and waited.

THREAT OF PROSECUTION

The city’s first reaction came about two days later. City crews removed the latest markings, but used something besides a grinder.

“They’re learning,” the ringleader said. “We’re very impressed with the quicker, lighter, smarter approach.”

On June 10, the city issued a news release. In it, City Manager T.C. Broadnax said the painting was vandalism and that the city would pursue legal action. A police spokeswoman told The News Tribune the charge likely would be a misdemeanor, depending on the level of damage, or a traffic citation.

The painters discussed the possibility of arrest.

“If somehow we were arrested, that would really push the issue,” said the man in sandals. “We didn’t want to invite that, and I still don’t right now. I am not saying, ‘Come and get us.’ But it would definitely spark a conversation: People who are working for citizen safety — why are they trying to stop that?”

During the interview with The News Tribune, two weeks after the painting, the man in sandals said the group wanted to be more productive and collaborative with the city. He thought everyone regretted the polka dots. It felt juvenile, he said. It was a tactical error.

The ringleader wouldn’t go that far.

The city “didn’t like the lines,” he said, with a small smile and a raised eyebrow. “They didn’t like the white lines that we did, so we said, ‘We’ll make an anti-crosswalk.’ We’ll do something whimsical so they can’t say, ‘OK, we’re erasing a crosswalk.’ It’s obviously not a crosswalk. It’s polka dots.”

NO MORE TALK

On June 14, the city started seeking volunteers for a bicycle and pedestrian advisory committee to work with a newly created Transportation Commission. The committee of about a dozen people will meet once a month to work on planning, prioritizing projects and design of any future transportation projects, as well as ongoing issues.

This is different from the Citizens Neighborhood Street Improvement and Safety Task Force, which last fall presented recommendations on how the city might spend new transportation money.

The trio is not impressed with either effort. Friends of the painters already are asking to be involved if there’s another round of rogue painting. If money is the issue, they say, let’s raise some. Voting for like-minded City Council members clearly hasn’t worked.

“We put you all on the council,” the man in sandals said, “but we want this to happen, and we’re going to give money to have it happen.”

Or “walk us through the painting process and give us all the regulations,” he said. “Sign us up. We’ll volunteer. What did that cost us to do? Four dollars? What did they say crosswalks cost? A thousand dollars? There’s an issue of efficiency here that we feel like is on our side.”

“We’re interested in action,” the ringleader said, “rather than another meeting.”

Kathleen Cooper: 253-597-8546
kathleen.cooper@thenewstribune.com

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