Critical Mass bicyclist aids police hurt in collision
By Jefferson Siegel
For months cyclists participating in the Critical Mass rides have expressed concern about potential injuries resulting from police vehicles chasing bicyclists. Their concerns became reality last Friday when two motor-scooter police suffered injuries after colliding while policing the ride. By the end of the night, 14 cyclists were under arrest and many wondered if because of the police injuries a new level of confrontation loomed over future rides.
After recent articles about undercover police participating in the monthly Critical Mass rides, a group of cyclists in Union Square approached unmarked S.U.V.’s before the ride’s start, attempting to engage police commanders in dialogue. One of the cyclists asked Police Chief Stephen Paragallo about undercover procedures.
“You said you’re here under normal operations,” a female cyclist said, inquiring, “what is, exactly, your purpose today?”
“It’s a normal patrol,” Paragallo replied. “There are undercover vehicles and officers every day in this city, all over the city. I think you should feel safer that we’re doing normal patrols, keeping you and everyone else in the city safe,” he added.
Police Inspector Kenneth McGrath, operations commander of Manhattan South, was sitting in another S.U.V.
“There are lots of ‘bridge-and-tunnel’ people who are out, drunk,” a second cyclist told him. “So maybe you should watch out for the drunk drivers rather than sober bicyclists.”
McGrath nodded, listening patiently and offering his name to the cyclist when asked. Both cyclists declined to be identified.
Son, at rear, and police tend to the second fallen officer.
Riders pedaled out of Union Square shortly after 7:30 p.m., heading east on 16th St. Within minutes, 150 cyclists, several marked and unmarked police vehicles and at least a dozen motor-scooter police riding alongside turned down Third Ave. Just below 13th St. police attempted to curtail the ride, with grievous results.
“I heard a cop say, ‘Grab her, grab her’” cyclist Molly Sair recounted. “And the next thing I knew, I looked around and saw people on the ground.”
The lead scooter police had collided, sending two officers hurtling to the pavement. One lay on a downtown lane near his fallen motor scooter; the other several feet away in an uptown lane.
Luke Son, 23, a licensed emergency medical technician and a Columbia University student, was on his bike near the front of the Critical Mass ride.
“Everyone was following traffic rules. We were stopping for traffic lights,” Son recalled. With the lead riders slowing down, he said, “the scooter cops saw that as an opportunity to cut in front of us and create a moving wall.” Son said police were riding into opposing traffic in the northbound lane. “One of the scooter cops directly to my left pulled forward and they all started accelerating as a group.” Son observed the lead officer angling right to block cyclists. “One scooter cop turned and got ‘T-boned’ [hit in the side] as the scooter cop behind him was accelerating to catch up with the group. It was actually a pretty violent collision.”
Aware he was a target for arrest, Son said he “went into emergency mode. I didn’t really think about the situation, I just saw someone was hurt.”
Son dismounted, dropped his bike mid-avenue and rushed to the first officer sprawled in a southbound lane. He began assessing the basic “A, B, C’s” of emergency care: making sure the airway was clear, checking breathing and C-spine [the cervical spine, which connects the spinal cord to the neck]. The one officer was immobile but conscious. “The other one behind me was not. He was rocking and thrashing a bit,” said Son.
Son first attended to the officer who wasn’t moving. “I just followed protocol. I held the C-spine — immobilizing the neck and head.”
While checking the officer’s pulse and extremities, Son kept an eye on the other downed officer, who was now being aided by another police officer. “His upper extremities were numb on the left side,” Son observed. “His left hand had very weak tactile strength but he had a good pulse.”
As Son cared for the fallen officers, traffic continued to crawl by for several minutes, including an articulated bus and private garbage truck that passed within feet of the second stricken officer. Bystanders and cyclists filled both sides of the avenue, watching events unfold. Ten minutes after the collision, Third Ave. was filled with police and Emergency Medical Service trucks as a helicopter swept its searchlight over the scene.
“After I knew this guy was stabilized, I became aware of my situation,” Son recalled. “I’m a rider in Critical Mass, I was in the lead group, my bike is next to me. Literally four feet away, another cyclist is getting handcuffed.” Police arrested four riders at the scene. The injured officers were loaded into an ambulance and taken to Bellevue hospital. They were treated for cuts and abrasions and released later that night.
Although police thanked Son for his efforts, no one asked his name. “I just moved on,” Son said. “I would have done it for anyone.”
The ride continued west. Just blocks away, at 13th St. and Broadway, East Village resident Shani Parsons and her husband were arrested with several others. “I watched my husband get grabbed by a police officer as he was crossing Broadway on a green light,” she recounted. She stopped, got off her bike and stood watching in amazement. “And then I was arrested because I was standing there,” she added. “It just seems completely random and straightforward harassment.”
The ride splintered and continued Uptown. Five more cyclists were arrested in Times Square. A third motor-scooter officer suffered minor injuries on 23rd St. between Sixth and Seventh Aves.
Arrestees were taken to Tribeca’s First Police Precinct. Kit Bland, founder of Freewheels, the bicycle defense fund, waited outside the precinct most of the night. “I feel very concerned about the injured police officers,” Bland said as arrested cyclists emerged over several hours. “These accidents, these injuries are indicative of how out-of-control the situation has gotten. The only time I’ve ever felt unsafe [riding in Critical Mass] is when I’ve been chased by police,” Bland added. As he spoke, Freewheels co-founder Blue Young, paralegal Caroline Samponaro and other Freewheels volunteers offered arrestees drinks, legal advice and a choice of loaner bikes for the ride home.
Legal cases stemming from the arrests continue in the courts. Gideon Oliver, an attorney for many of the cyclists arrested in Mass rides, said that three more cyclists from the March 2005 ride were found “not guilty” last week. During that ride, there were 37 arrests. Six more cyclists go to trial this Thursday.
E.M.T. Son, who is also a volunteer mechanic at Time’s Up!, the East Village-based bike advocacy group, observed of the policing of the rides: “It’s kind of absurd how much time and energy and, obviously, human expense they’re putting into this.” Police did not return a call for comment by press time.