Law Center: Police and Cyclists continue legal battle over Critical Mass Rides
By ELIZABETH LeSURE
Associated Press Writer
December 7th, 2004
On the last Friday of every month, New York City’s abundant yellow cabs, buses and delivery trucks are briefly forced to yield to a phalanx of bicycles — a gridlock of pedals and handlebars known as Critical Mass.
The monthly takeover has been a ritual in New York for the past few years, closely monitored by police but rarely controversial — until August.
That’s when more than 250 cyclists were taken into custody during a ride days before the Republican National Convention, igniting a struggle between cyclists and police that continues to play out on the streets and in court.
The police department is now trying to block the rides unless cyclists get a permit. But participants say there is no formal organization to apply for one and that a permit isn’t needed because bicycles have the same right to the streets as cars do.
The unresolved issue has led to legal battles, and another court hearing was scheduled for Wednesday.
“After six years, the city has decided to target them, and that’s wrong,” said attorney Norman Siegel, who is representing five cyclists whose bikes were seized during the September ride.
Critical Mass was started in San Francisco in 1992 with the goal of making a statement about cyclists’ rights and has since spread to cities around the world.
It is not a formal organization, riders say, and has no leaders. Some take part because they want to encourage bicycling as environmentally friendly transit, while others say they do it because it’s fun to ride in a big group.
Critical Mass has tussled with authorities in other cities as well. In San Francisco, more than 100 people were arrested in July 1997 after then-mayor Willie Brown called the ride a “critical mess.” Three police officers were hurt and nine people were arrested during a ride in Buffalo, New York, in May 2003. And in Portland, Oregon, where police have cracked down on the monthly events, this year’s Halloween ride drew only about 100 people.
The Manhattan rides, which begin in Union Square, have been taking place regularly for several years. While there were some tangles in the past, police and participants largely agree that they had reached a kind of unspoken truce until this summer.
Matthew Roth, a volunteer for the environmental group Time’s Up, which promotes the rides, said he recalled friendly banter between participants and officers on scooters. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, in an opinion piece in the Daily News on October 28, said that in “years past” participants stopped at red lights, used bike lanes when they existed and generally observed traffic laws.
But the August ride came during the Republican convention, when city streets were the setting for dozens of massive demonstrations. Thousands of cyclists came to the Friday night ride, including many there to protest at the convention. By the end of the evening, 264 had been arrested.
Police and participants disagree on how the trouble began.
Kelly wrote in the Daily News that the events had been “hijacked by groups of cyclists intent on disruption and on violating the law.”
But Roth said he believed the police — not the riders — became confrontational. “I think the radical change has come from One Police Plaza,” he said.
A month after the convention, at the September ride, nine people were arrested and 40 bikes were seized. Five cyclists then sued the city, claiming the bikes were wrongfully confiscated, and a federal judge ruled that police could not take bicycles unless their riders violated the law.
The city also asked that cyclists be required to get a permit for the rides, but the judge said the request was not filed in enough time to affect the October ride, which resulted in 35 arrests.
On November 15, the city once again asked a judge to block cyclists from riding without a permit. The city also went a step further, asking that they be prohibited from gathering in Union Square Park before the ride.
The issue remained unsettled for the November ride, and police told cyclists who gathered in Union Square that they would be arrested if they rode in a group. Some riders fanned out around the city, and a group congregated again in Washington Square Park. Seventeen were arrested.
The next ride was planned for New Year’s Eve, beginning at 7:30 p.m. at Union Square. A second ride was planned for 10:30 p.m., starting under the arch at Washington Square Park and ending in Central Park with music and fireworks, according to the Time’s Up Web site.
Copyright 2004, The Associated Press