2004-09-01 Critical Mass at St. Mark’s – The Villager

Critical Mass at St. Mark’s, as bikers find sanctuary
The Villager
By Keith Crandell


Last Friday evening, I was especially proud of being a part of St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery, the venerable Episcopal monument at Second Ave. and E. 10th St. On Friday evening, the church provided sanctuary for dozens of bicyclists fleeing police in the most tumultuous event of the run-up to the Republican National Convention. Church activists George Diaz and Father Frank Morales, an associate pastor, faced off the city police outside the church after encouraging cyclists to take refuge inside.

The cyclists clustered within the confines of the ancient cast-iron fence that encircles the church and its yard, burial place of Peter Stuyvesant. The N.Y.P.D., which had already arrested 264 cyclists at various places around Lower Manhattan, hoped to take more into custody. But Diaz and Morales denied the police entry to the church grounds, declaring it a sanctuary for cyclists.

Later, Diaz described a conflict between the church and an individual whom he described as “police plant” seeking to create a violent confrontation so that police would be able to legally enter the church sanctuary in order to “quell violence.”

“Each time the ‘plant’ began to start trouble, a group of St. Mark’s people interceded between him and his targets,” said Diaz. “We were successful — there was no violence.”

St. Mark’s has been a gathering point for much of the pro-environment, anti-war activity leading up to the Republican Convention. On Friday, food was available for cyclists and a medical treatment operation was functioning in the parish hall, although no serious injuries were reported.

The convergence of bicycles outside St. Mark’s was the climax of an event that brought about 5,000 bicyclists together for a jaunt through the streets of Manhattan. The event was by far the largest of a series of group bicycle rides, sponsored by Time’s Up!, a nonprofit environmental organization. The series, known as Critical Mass, has departed from Union Sq. on the last Friday evening of each month for eight years. Last Friday’s was by far the largest. Earlier rides had brought up to 1,000 cyclists and had been carried out with little police interference, according to Pria Morgan of Ithaca, N.Y., press representative for Time’s Up!

The huge Critical Mass ride attracted cyclists from throughout the country. One was Mark Messing of Chicago, co-founder of the Human Television Network, which planned to broadcast live from the streets of New York using a bicycle-mounted audio/visual system. He was on hand outside St. Mark’s watching skeptically as a police helicopter hovered over the St. Mark’s tower, flooding the scene below with light.

“A high-tech way of engendering fear on the streets,” he commented.

Another visitor was a cyclist with the improbable name of Geronimo Garcia, a tall, lean Californian with charming naivete, who rode his bicycle some 3,000 miles to take part in the demonstration. When I met him a couple of weeks ago, he was delighted to be here and full of warmth for people who had helped him on his way; country people in Idaho and North Dakota, urban folks in St. Paul and Chicago. It had been the experience of a lifetime. I would be profoundly embarrassed if it all came apart for him on one grim Friday evening in my city.

At midnight, George Diaz was trying to ease his visitors toward the exit. The police had gone. The helicopter had vanished. Gideon Oliver, a legal observer for the National Lawyers Guild, reported that some 300 people had been arrested including a handful of legal observers. A few of the cyclists had already been released.

By my crude count, there were still 145 bicycles chained to the ancient cast-iron fence. Next day, a spokesman for Time’s Up! said that most everyone was out on the street. Amen.