Critical Mass tries new tactics, but not the police
By Lincoln Anderson
The monthly Critical Mass started out differently than usual last Friday night. There was a rally for cyclists’ civil rights, followed by a blessing of arrested cyclists. And instead of one big departure from Union Sq., the riders left from four different sites. But the city’s response didn’t change: Police showed no signs of backing down from their hard-line stance, making 34 arrests.
The night also saw what some called a “standoff” between East Villagers and riot-gear-clad police officers at E. Sixth St. and Avenue A, where police handcuffed and briefly arrested a New York Times reporter.
Before the ride, a “Still We Speak” rally was held in Union Sq. in response to the city’s recent court action to try to bar four members of the Time’s Up! group from publicizing Critical Mass.
“We submit bike riding without a permit is not unlawful,” said civil rights attorney Norman Siegel at the rally.
Siegel said they plan to file a counterclaim in state court next month against the city’s lawsuit against the bicyclists. The city is arguing that Critical Mass needs to get a permit to ride and a permit to gather in the park. Siegel said they’ll continue to hold rallies before the monthly rides.
“We have to say, ‘No way. We have a right to be here. We have the right to speak,’ ” he said. “Critical Mass will not stop.”
Councilmember Margarita Lopez, who represents Union Sq., the riders’ usual departure point, and other areas of Downtown that the unscripted Critical Mass events often travel through, announced she is introducing four pieces of legislation to close administrative code loopholes police are using to arrest the bikers.
“We know that in this country selective use of the law is not acceptable,” Lopez said. “All of these pieces of legislation I’m looking into have one thing in common — it’s protecting the Constitution, the right to ride bikes, the right to stand in here [Union Sq., a city park]. The right to private property — you can’t even lock your bike [without police cutting the lock].” Lopez vowed not to allow “a single loophole” to remain.
In blessing the cyclists, Reverend Billy preached, “You’re pedaling your bodies out into a city that has forgotten the First Amendment.” He prayed to “the goddess that knows how to fix bicycles” for their safety.
Police presence around Union Sq. was heavy. But the cyclists had already planned to split up and also depart from three other points — Tompkins Sq., Washington Sq. and Madison Sq. Word got out that police were waiting out of sight around Union Sq. and planned to “arrest everyone with a bicycle” in the square. A line of police mopeds were parked in front of Barnes and Noble on 17th St. as a loudspeaker truck warned riders they would be arrested for “riding in a procession without a permit.”
The group of cyclists that left from Madison Sq. cruised east then down through the East Village and across to the West Village. Moods were high as police were nowhere in sight. There was some opportunity to enjoy spinning through the city and comment on the scenery, though not all of it inspired positive reactions.
Zack Winestine, a Greenwich Village community activist, could be heard fuming about a “monstrosity” as the group passed the new, mirrored-glass Gwathmey-Siegel tower on Astor Pl., angrily muttering that a version of it was now being slated for the Greenwich Village waterfront.
“This is where Edgar Allan Poe got his morphine and laudanum fix — the Northern Dispensary,” announced Matt Levy, as they whizzed along Waverly Pl. “It’s my job to know this stuff. I’m a tour guide,” said Levy, sporting a kaiserlike moustache and a Tyrolean hat.
Joel Pomerantz, a mural organizer from San Francisco, said he delayed his flight to Europe for an extra day so he could ride in the New York City Critical Mass. He’s been riding in the San Francisco Critical Mass since its start in 1992, he said. About five years ago, police there gave up trying to rein in the ride and realized it was easier to just let it happen, he said.
“They just have a few police ride along at the end — to show they have some control,” he said.
The group spread out across avenues, forcing cars to slow down for several blocks, then peeled off onto sidestreets. But as a bus came up behind them, there were yells of “Bus! Left! Left!” and they opened a way for mass transit to get through. The rides block traffic to send a message that bikes have a right to safety on the road, and to feel powerful, too. There was a report of one cyclist being rammed by an angry motorist during the event, but the biker was uninjured.
On Hudson St., the Madison Sq. group merged with the Washington Sq. group to cheers — the bikers communicate by cell phone and text messaging to keep track of their own and the police’s whereabouts. Then they headed Uptown, all the way to Columbus Circle, which they rounded twice, while shouting “Stop Shopping! Start Biking!” as they flew past the Shops at Columbus Center in the AOL Time Warner Building. “Stop Eating! Start Biking!” they called out while speeding by restaurants.
But things began to be less fun in East Midtown after three undercover officers on bikes tailing the ride radioed for police mopeds to cut off and trap the Critical Mass at 46th St. and Madison Ave. The pack was broken up and smaller groups of riders headed back Downtown, with arrests being made as police picked off riders at various locations.
Obert Wood, a banker who lives in the East Village, said when they fled the police at 46th St., the officers yelled at them, “What are you doing, girls?” Not very professional, he and a few other riders with him who had managed to elude arrest, thought.
Earlier, Colin Moynihan, a Times reporter, was arrested after he had been standing at E. Sixth St. and Avenue A interviewing someone while covering the story. According to John Penley, an East Village activist who witnessed the event, an officer shoved Moynihan as police were clearing the corner and Moynihan asked for the officers’ badge number three times, after which a group of officers threw him on top of a police car trunk and handcuffed him.
Moynihan, who was released without any charges, declined comment.
Penley claimed he had started things by yelling at police after he saw them walking an arrested biker up Sixth St. Penley said right before that he’d seen three vans full of police roar up Avenue A and almost hit people, and he became indignant at the idea of hundreds of police chasing around the cyclists. Soon a crowd of East Villagers were shouting at the police, he said.
“Actually, it was me that started the whole thing going over there,” Penley said. “I started yelling at the cops about what a waste it was of our tax dollars to have vanloads of cops and helicopters following people around the neighborhood — and that people like the bikers in the neighborhood. It was just yuppies and old ladies yelling about it. People clearly see it as a big waste of time and money and don’t support it.” Apparently some police might agree: “A white shirt [supervising officer] came over and told me, ‘I’d rather not be doing this,’ ” Penley said.
Penley said three or four vanloads of police came in quickly and cleared the corners, during which Moynihan was “shoved pretty hard.”
Meanwhile, Alina de Laforcade, an artist whose boyfriend runs Holyland grocery store on St. Mark’s Pl., said that in Paris — as in San Francisco — the city is taking a more cooperative approach to a mass, human-powered event. Every Saturday in Paris, she said, “20,000 people” rollerblade around the city, up and down the Rue St. Germain and Champs Elysees, in a giant pack and that police facilitate it.
“The police, like, stop traffic so this group can go and rollerblade,” she said, as she showed some of her psychedelic, black-light murals to Noah Rider, a member of the St. Mark’s Pl. Art Commune. “So you have a car, you have to wait five or 10 minutes. But it’s fun to see — 20,000 rollerbladers. C’mon, hello!,” she said, as if to say this was obvious.
But New York isn’t Paris, it’s not even San Francisco, and under the Bloomberg administration the police are still chasing Critical Mass.
Speaking of Bloomberg, Bill DePaolo, a Time’s Up! member, was giving out stickers at the start of the ride: “I Bike and I Vote,” they said.