2005-12-27 Critical Mass Crackdown – Democracy Now

Democracy Now
December 27, 2005

Cycling advocates have faced targeted surveillance and policing over the past year. We bring you excerpts from the documentary “Still We Ride,” which traces the police crackdown on Critical Mass bike rides in New York City since the Republican National Convention.

The ad hoc bicycle advocacy movement Critical Mass consists of monthly group bike rides in cities around the world. In New York City, the rides have been specially targeted by NYPD officers in uniform and in plain clothes.

Last August, when thousands descended on New York for the Republican National Convention, over three thousand bicyclists and skaters participated in a Critical mass ride on the eve of the start of street protests. That night, police moved in on the bikers and arrested hundreds. Over a week and a half surrounding the RNC, police arrested nearly 400 bike riders.

Since then, activists and civil liberties groups say the City of New York has been targeting bicyclists and Critical Mass in particular. Police presence at rides includes plain clothes officers who videotape riders without identifying themselves as members of the NYPD.

    * Still We Ride, documentary produced by Elizabeth Press, Andrew Lynn and Christopher Ryan.
    * Elizabeth Press, co-director of Still We Ride. She is also a producer at Democracy Now!

AMY GOODMAN: In a moment, we are going to speak with Jim Dwyer, who did the expose in The New York Times. We’ll also speak with Eileen Clancy, who was with I-Witness Video, who provided the videotapes to The New York Times, but first, we’re going to an excerpt of a documentary about the cycling movement known as Critical Mass.

    CYCLIST: Critical Mass is like a way of saying, ‘Hey, everybody! Come on! Let’s do it! We can all do this. We can all make our city a better, more fun place to live.’

    CYCLIST: If you ride with a bunch of other people, it feels good.

    CYCLIST: This is a story of bicycle riders which call themselves critical and a system which calls them criminal.

    UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You hand these out every month, or is it just this month?

    CYCLIST: Just distributing it today.

    UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Bike rules.

    CYCLIST: On the last Friday of every month we meet at 7:00 at Union Square, and we take to the streets and we ride.

    CYCLIST: This is Critical Mass. And it’s just very cool to be able to exercise democracy. This is what democracy looks like.

    CYCLIST: You could see that there’s a direct relation to more people biking and Critical Mass being big.

    CYCLIST: This is way bigger than last time. This is mad.

    CYCLIST: It’s really about reoccupying the city on a different basis, and that pleasure is a crucial subversive principle of that reoccupation and re-inhabitation of our lives.

    CYCLIST: It’s amazing. Like, as far as I can see in either direction is bicycles.

    CYCLIST: When you’re riding your bicycle, it’s an amazing thing. You really feel the connection between like what you do and how it affects everything else. And you really almost, without even realizing it, become very environmentally aware.

    CHRIS CARSSON, Co-Founder of Critical Mass: Nothing here is for sale. You’re not even welcome to sell anything here. It’s all about just coming together with a bunch of other people moving through the streets. You’re mobile. You’re in motion the whole time. And you don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s actually open-ended. We don’t have—you cannot predict what is going to happen at any given moment in Critical Mass. And I think that’s part of the magic of it. It speaks to people’s craving for authentic, spontaneous human interaction and community. It’s something you don’t get to do very much in this society. I have been involved in Critical Mass since day one. I was one of the people who helped start it with about several dozen other people here in San Francisco. The concept came along to try to meet up once a month and fill the streets with bikes.

    CYCLIST: The logic of the dance between Critical Mass bicyclists and police, wherever you are, there’s been a number of incidents. New York is definitely on the forefront of this struggle right now. The police, on some level, as individual rank-and-file policemen, are offended by Critical Mass.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of the documentary, Still We Ride by Elizabeth Press, Andrew Lynn and Christopher Ryan. When we come back, an excerpt specifically on police surveillance, and then we’ll be joined by representatives of The New York Times, of I-Witness Video and the New York Police Department.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we go to our extended discussion on the expose of undercover police surveillance of political protest in New York, we wanted to play another excerpt of Still We Ride, the film that examines the police crackdown on the monthly Critical Mass bike ride in New York, that looks at some of the covert police tactics used by the New York Police Department. It’s directed by Elizabeth Press, Andrew Lynn and Christopher Ryan. Elizabeth Press is a producer here at Democracy Now! Welcome, Elizabeth. To introduce this piece, I certainly remember well at one of the Critical Mass bike rides that you were on when you just had passed Times Square, coming out to see the ride, and you were filming the whole thing, when we spent most of our time trying to get you out of detention, out of arrest.

ELIZABETH PRESS: Yes. Yes, so since then, since that night in August, I have been documenting Critical Mass with a few other people. And there have been more than 650 arrests in the last 16 months, and we have created a documentary called Still We Ride that we just saw a clip from, and we’re going to see another clip from. And this clip comes from after the October Critical Mass ride in 2004. In October, there were 35 arrests on that ride, and then there was an after-party at the Time’s Up! space, and Time’s Up! is a direct action environmental group that exists here in New York City. And this is a clip that leads into the story of undercovers.

    BILL DiPAOLA, Time’s Up!: It’s the night of October 29, going into the 30th. We’re the at Time’s Up! environmental space on 49 East Houston Street, New York City. Today we had the Critical Mass bike ride. We had a federal judge trying to protect us from the permit rule. We had a small party at the space.

    MATT ROTH, Time’s Up!: By about 11:30 or so, there had been several undercover cops, including a Lieutenant Fanale, wearing this Redskins jersey. She had sort of come into the party very definitely undercover, no badge showing. And apparently, she had sent a distress signal. I don’t know why she would have. If she were inside the party, she would have just seen people dancing and having a good time.

    BILL DiPAOLA: The police tried to come into the space without a permit.

    CYCLIST: Where is your warrant? Where is your warrant?

    BILL DiPAOLA: We were able to hold the doors back. They started pepper spraying us, arresting people. Now they have the whole place surrounded.

    CYCLISTS: We do not consent to a search.

    MATT ROTH: They picked up this one woman. They took her camera. They were trying to wrench it out of her hand, and she ended up having damage to her wrist from it. They completely destroyed her video camera. It was actually Lieutenant Fanale who came at her and like smacked the camera out of her hand.

    CYCLIST: Get your hands off me. Keep moving.

    UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What happened to your hand?

    CYCLIST: They were trying to get my camera out of it, so they were hitting it repeatedly to get me to release the camera.

    UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What is it all about?

    UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I don’t know. It’s about people trying to show that they’re in control, I guess. Two different crowds, two different mentalities. All I saw was the people dancing. People were dancing, and the cops just showed up. That’s it, yeah. It was crazy.

    UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I have no idea. I’m trying to get my work up to go home.

    MATT ROTH: They called Norman Siegel. They woke him up, and he came down.

    BILL DiPAOLA: Okay, this is Norman Siegel. He’s our lawyer. Listen, let’s do this in a really orderly fashion.

    NORMAN SIEGEL, Civil Rights Attorney: We were able to get people out. Eventually, we ended whatever this standoff was. As people were leaving and going and getting their bikes off of the Puck building fence, the police at one point pulled out a saw and cut a couple bikes off of the Puck building. This was part of the targeting and the selecting of Critical Mass bike ride community for this kind of punishment, and it’s chilling, it’s intimidating. I think it’s overkill, it’s unnecessary.

    CHRISTOPHER RYAN: Have you ever been in a criminal court case before?

    PAULETTE: No. I haven’t even been a juror on a criminal court case.

    MATT ROTH: The whole process is very much political. The fact that I’m going to court and I don’t know what’s going to happen, and March is how many—it’s seven months or eight months after my arrest. It’s like the punishment is the process.

    PAULETTE: I didn’t have any special fear of police officers or suspicion of them or paranoia or thinking that somehow they were working for the other side. You know, I thought they were as much a victim of the system as I was. But now, I just don’t feel so trusting at all.

    EILEEN CLANCY, I-Witness Video: It’s really up to the broader public to know and to understand what’s going on out there and for a consensus to be developed about how these types of events should be policed.

    BILL DiPAOLA: Just crazy things are going on to stop a few people from biking, but if you could see what they did with the community gardens, they spent just as much money. So you have to wonder, is it really about the bicycling, or is it about community versus the corporate behavior.

    EILEEN CLANCY: This amount of policing has really translated into a loss of democracy for people.

    POLICE LOUDSPEAKER: It is dangerous and illegal to ride a bicycle in a procession on the public streets within New York City.

    GIDEON OLIVER, Civil Rights Attorney: The Police Department has always sent, you know, a certain amount of police officers on bikes or scooters. You know, they go up along the sides, and you know, and cork and facilitate the ride as it goes. And it seems to me that that doesn’t cost nearly as much money as the way they’re cracking down now, and it kept everyone safe for years, so why can’t it continue to keep them safe? You never kind of want to believe that that much money and governmental power could be wielded, you know, because essentially somebody has a grudge, but that’s really what it starts to feel like when this goes on for months and months completely unchecked.

    POLICE OFFICER: You want to talk about a waste of tax dollars? This is a waste of tax dollars. We have to be here because of this.

    PAULETTE: Originally, I decided to take this to trial because it seemed like there were unfair politically motivated, preemptive mass arrests. But that almost seems like nothing compared to what’s going on now.

AMY GOODMAN: Excerpt of the documentary, Still We Ride, produced by Elizabeth Press, Andrew Lynn and Christopher Ryan.