RNC NYC: Hell on Wheels: GOP invades city, NYPD makes an example out of beloved bikers
The Indypendent (September 2-15, 2004)
By A.K. Gupta
Sunday, September 05 2004 @ 04:29 PM CDT
New York City
Bicycling, to me, is one of life’s great joys. I’ve biked from Connecticut to Montreal, Pittsburgh to D.C., and across New York State. Most of my time is spent navigating the asphalt paths of New York City, jockeying with cabs, cars, trucks, pedestrians and a hundred other obstacles. But as often as I can, I join in the monthly Critical Mass rides, transforming the city with pedal power.
In Critical Mass, bicyclists take to the streets in numbers large enough so that they, not cars, dominate traffic. It began in San Francisco over a a decade ago and has reportedly spread to more than 400 cities worldwide.
A bike-friendly city is cleaner, quieter and healthier. In the last year, bicycling has exploded in the city.
Enthusiasts point to the inaugural “Bike Summer” of 2003.
Dozens of events gave thousands the confidence to bike New York’s perilous streets for the first time. Critical Mass grew from hundreds of riders to thousands. Brooklynites launched their own Critical Mass this summer. I went on the July ride and it was enormous, perhaps 2,000 riders.
So I reacted with dismay but not surprise when the New York Police Department issued a letter essentially outlawing Critical Mass on the eve of the Republican National Convention. The letter mandated that cyclists had to obey all the rules of the road or risk summons or arrest.
It sounds reasonable, but traffic laws are designed for speedy cars, not leisurely pedalers. The police normally take a hands-off approach to Critical Mass. They know well that making riders obey traffic laws creates far more chaos and danger than just letting cyclists take the streets for a few hours.
On Friday, Aug. 27, the police leafleted Critical Mass riders assembling in Union Square with flyers placing numerous, and absurd, demands on cyclists. Don’t ride more than two abreast. Stay close to the curb. Don’t block traffic. Forget that bikes are traffic.
With 5,000 cyclists, the ride was New York’s biggest yet by far. There was a imposing police presence offset by applause from pedestrians as the riders took off from the park as usual, down all of Broadway. The police let it proceed, but they chopped up the ride near the end to let crosstown traffic through. The decision seemed capricious and inefficient. Letting cars and cyclists alternate slowed everyone down.
Critical Mass normally ends with a party. According to organizers, their planned party on a West Side pier was canceled after the police leaned on the owner of the venue – an old tugboat called the “Frying Pan.”
As a fallback, St. Marks Church on 2nd Ave. and 10th St. opened its doors to the cyclists, but with so many thousands, the streets surrounding the church were jammed with bike riders.
Arrests had already occurred in other locations. They were clearly pre-meditated, unnecessary and arbitrary: streets suddenly blockaded and everyone swept up; orange netting stretched across some intersections.
But the big game was on 2nd Ave. By denying cyclists a safe space to end the ride, the police created the illegal conditions. And they used this as a pretext to attack the riders. Police scooters surged into the crowd. Riot cops seized intersections. Low-flying helicopters chopped the air overhead. Hundreds of pedestrians gathered, many angered at the display of force.
Within minutes, groups of cyclists were surrounded, bikes tossed on trucks, riders arrested and flexicuffed. The police brass were present, directing the action.
I ran into one friend wheeling her bike on the sidewalk. I assumed she was safe, but later found out that she had been arrested. She was given conflicting orders while trying to leave the scene. Pedestrians were allowed to pass by one knot of cops, but she was ordered in the other direction, toward cops who arrested her while she walked her bike.
The next day, Saturday, Aug. 28, about 100 police showed up outside the storefront of a bike convergence space on East Houston St. in an act of intimidation, organizers said. And on Aug. 29, the day of the big march, scores of riders in a “bike bloc” were surrounded and arrested.
I spoke to one organizer who said this is all part of a police strategy to target cyclists. It is certainly a political decision. After all, why let the ride take place for six years without incident, only to outlaw it when freedom-hating Republicans invade the city?
The police say they are enforcing the law and protecting public safety, but this is a hollow claim. If this were true, aggressive SUV drivers who flood downtown on weekend nights would be locked up by the hundreds and their vehicles impounded.
The next Critical Mass will be Sept. 24. I wonder if the city will continue its crackdown. And I wonder what purpose is served by declaring war on people who want to make the city friendlier, livelier and more livable. Regardless, I’ll be there.