People carried signs reading “Nazi Lanes” at the Minneapolis anti-bike lane demonstration, which several political candidates attended.
You probably haven’t heard of internet prankster Jeremy Piatt, but you may be familiar with his work. A mock GoFundme campaign to “Get Kanye out of debt” was widely covered in the press as serious, with Kanye’s camp eventually having to clarify that no, he didn’t want the money.
Piatt, a graphic designer, recently pulled off a sequel of sorts by stirring up the hornet’s nest that is the the current bike-lane debate in Minneapolis. About two weeks ago, Piatt created a Facebook event for what he thought would be a fake protest against new extended bike lanes near his home downtown.
He wrote that the streets had become “congested driving nightmares” since lanes were installed, “making driving a mess.” He ended with a rallying cry in all-caps: “TAKE BACK OUR CITY!”
But some people took his invitation seriously. On Sunday, a small crowd of about 15 to 25 people showed up to protest at the designated place, the intersection of 26th and Hennepin Avenue, including two city council candidates, Joe Kovacs and David Schorn. (Piatt was nowhere to be found.) The protest was even more intense than Piatt had satirically called for: As Minneapolis’s ever-present political Twitter account, @WedgeLIVE, noted, people carried signs that read “Mafia Lanes,” “Suck it Lanes,” and “Nazi Lanes.” For extra effect, sign posts were painted red to look like they were dripping with blood.
How did what was intended as a fake call for protest turn into an invective-laden real-life event, and one of the most extreme examples of what is known as “bikelash”?
It started with the response to Piatt.
After he created an event, people took the bait, with the pro-bike camp being the first to jump in.
“It was all cyclists arguing with nobody basically, just showing everybody how great they are and just kind of patting themselves on the back. They started sharing it, then the real people who are actually against the bike lanes started sharing it,” Piatt says.
Now Piatt had an audience. And, like any good internet troll, he knew what to do. “I kept fanning the flames and putting in terrible memes with comic sans,” he says.
Kovacs, the Republican candidate for city council, was among those who appreciated Piatt’s meme work.
“It started as a joke, but it’s an issue people care about so it very quickly became not a joke,” he says. “It was so funny because he kept putting up facts for us and our points, many of them legitimate. So maybe it was a joke but he was helping us out.”
Kovacs says he figured out the event was a spoof once he got there, but he chose to participate anyway. Schorn, however, didn’t discover the hoax until this reporter told him.
“I didn’t know that—I just found out from you,” says Schorn, a former civics teacher. “So he does this for fake news? Geez. I don’t know, I’ve never heard that before… I mean, the guy has a lot of time on his hands? There is a lot of tension in the neighborhood based on those two new bike lanes they put in ... so I think that prankster probably recognized that. Maybe that’s why he did it.”
Both Kovacs and Schorn disavow the “Nazi Lane” signs, but insist that the protest expressed the concerns of some residents who felt like the city had ignored them. Schorn says he’s primarily worried about traffic delaying first responders—an argument proponents have dismissed as unfounded, with this video filmed Tuesday showing a cop car with its emergency lights on easily passing traffic next to the bike lane. Kovacs takes a broader view, arguing that the bike lanes were part of an “anti-car agenda” at City Hall.
“Many people that I’ve talked to feel that adding bike lanes is a way to try to force people to stop driving—to try to make traffic so bad, and parking so bad, that people don’t want to drive down here anymore, so they have to bike or find alternative means of transportation,” he says.
One of Schorn’s opponents, incumbent Lisa Bender, attended a pro-bike lane rally that was quickly organized later that day.
“We are in a time in our country when there are actual Nazis and white supremacists marching in cities across the country, so absolutely, any time, particularly now, any person who wants to be an elected representative in our city should absolutely not stand for that kind of language or display of disrespect,” she says.
That Minneapolis is a site of such a vitriolic debate could come as some surprise. Despite the the city’s harsh winters, it is consistently ranked among the most bike-friendly in the country and the world, in part because of its increasingly interconnected system of bike trails and lanes. Two years ago, the city passed a plan to add 40 protected bike lanes, like the ones extended further along 26th and 28th streets, to that system.
The streets that are the current focus of the bike lane debate have a unique place in the city’s planning history. As noted by local geographer/blogger Bill Lindeke, they were made into fast one-way streets to provide an easy way to get around the city while the freeways were being constructed in the 1960s, but stayed as one-ways after the highways were complete. That design, argues Lindeke, has made both streets two of the more dangerous in the city for pedestrians and cyclists, with numerous fatalities over the years, including a 4-year-old who was killed when he stepped into traffic on 26th Street in 2014.
Janne Flisrand, a co-founder of the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition, a bicycle advocacy group, is also running for city council in a four-way race that includes Kovacs, incumbent Lisa Goodan, and Teqen Zea-Aida, a gallery owner. While she has a different point of view, she understands the frustration with bike lanes.
“If you've been using 26th and 28th as a speedy way to commute, it feels like you’re losing something, and change is often hard,” she says. “It’s hard to get used to things being different, and there is a shift in Minneapolis about how people chose to get around, about what neighborhoods they want to live in, and about what people want their streets to look like. And in this particular instance it’s coming out in the form of bikelash.”