2006-03-01 Police Backpedaling? – Villager

Police may be backpedaling from crackdown on cyclists


The Villager

March 1-7, 2006

Jefferson Siegel

Activists distributing fliers to police. Officers ticketing cyclists and allowing them to ride away. The monthly Critical Mass ride is evolving again and tensions between riders and police may even be easing a bit.

Two weeks after a state court denied the city an injunction seeking to halt the ride, several hundred cyclists gathered in Union Square under noticeably different circumstances than in the recent past. A heavy police presence was absent from the plaza, but a block away, six police vans sat waiting out of sight. A lone unmarked S.U.V. sat on the edge of the growing crowd of cyclists as a police helicopter circled overhead but did not sweep its spotlight on the plaza below.

In past months, police had distributed fliers warning riders of the possibility of arrests and bike confiscation. Last Friday, David Rankin and Mark Taylor of Freewheels, the bicycle defense fund, offered their own flier to police, summarizing the recent court ruling. Opening with a reference to the injuries suffered during last month’s Critical Mass ride by two motor-scooter police who collided, Freewheels said, “We regret these injuries occurred.”

“Riders who are caught have been charged with violations, not crimes,” the Freewheels flier continued. “We believe that you should be free to simply accompany the ride, join the fun and be able to ‘keep an eye on things’ without needing to resort to mass arrests,” the flier added, referring to years past when police would facilitate the ride.

Another positive sign was the presence of a child in an event that used to see families participate before fear of arrests led many to skip the monthly ride. A Lower East Side resident who gave her name as Lizann came with her 5-year-old daughter Siu Loong sitting securely on the back of her bike. “The weather seemed nice all week and she got really excited, so I said we could go this week,” Lizann said.

The ride started cautiously after 7:30 p.m. with first a few and finally hundreds of riders pedaling south on Broadway, followed by police vans, motor scooters and the helicopter.

The Mass got as far as Bleecker St. before the first stops of the night. Two cyclists were pulled over on Broadway and issued tickets for running a red light. One of them was Village resident Arielle Assouline-Lichten has participated in Critical Mass for several years. “I’ve never been stopped [before],” she said. After a motor-scooter officer explained why Assouline-Lichten was ticketed, police left and she was allowed to proceed. Asked if being fined would dissuade her from future rides, she firmly replied, “Definitely not.”

The ride continued south to Canal St. and turned west. At Hudson and Leroy Sts. a cyclist was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. There would be three cyclists arrested during the night. All were brought to the First Police Precinct in Tribeca, given desk-appearance tickets and promptly released. A total of 23 class ‘B’ summonses were issued throughout the night, the majority for riding through a red light. The violation carries a first-offender fine of $200, leading some riders to speculate that financial penalties, rather than arrests, may signal a change in tactics for future rides.

Paul Browne, the Police Department’s top spokesperson, denied any variation from past procedures.

“There was no underlying change of strategy for the recent Critical Mass ride. The police responded to what presented itself,” he said.

Luke Son rode again last Friday. Son, an emergency medical technician who came to the aid of the injured motor-scooter officers during January’s ride, said he never heard from the city after his efforts in aiding the fallen officers. “I would have stopped for anyone. It just happened to be two police officers,” Son said.

Unfortunately, police did reach out to him Friday night, but for a different reason.

“I was struck by a large bolt of irony,” Son said upon arriving at the Time’s Up! space on E. Houston St. for the ride’s after-party. He described a scene of 50 riders pedaling up Eighth Ave., followed by two police vans and three unmarked S.U.V.’s. Son said police drove through the middle of the group and formed a blockade at 30th St. “They grabbed me off the back of my bike,” he said, adding he was given a summons for failing to stop at a red light. Son denied running the light.

One of the more dramatic moments of the night occurred in Times Square. In a video of the incident that was screened for the press at Time’s Up! late Friday, legal observers Adrienne Wheeler and Ethan Wolf are shown riding north on Broadway. As the pair approach 43rd St., Assistant Chief of Police Bruce Smolka, the commanding officer of Manhattan South, is seen walking out of the police substation located at the triangle where Broadway and Seventh Ave. intersect. A coffee cup in one hand, Smolka starts crossing Broadway as the two observers ride by, their phosphorescent-green National Lawyers Guild legal observer hats clearly visible.

The tape catches the squeal of Wolf’s brakes as the pair stops on 43rd St. The camera pans down and a moment later, Smolka is seen holding onto the bicycle chain wrapped around Wheeler’s waist after she has fallen against Wolf who, in turn, fell against another police officer in plainclothes. In the video, no badges are visible and no identification is heard. The confusion of several voices saying “hey” and “ease up” are audible. As the camera centers on Smolka, he says to Wheeler, “Stand up, you were going the wrong way. Come over here, come over here.”

“I didn’t know who was behind me,” a visibly shaken Wheeler recalled, “but I just felt someone on me. I fell face down and I was still being held by my chain.” It wasn’t until she turned around that she recognized Smolka. “He never identified himself,” she added.

Wolf is troubled by the circumstances of the collar. “There was no prior indication that I was doing anything illegal, there was no prior indication that he was a police officer,” he said.

Wheeler and Wolf were given tickets for riding the wrong way on a one-way street and allowed to leave with their bikes.

Asked about the summons blitz and relative lack of arrests, Police spokesperson

Browne said, “When participants adhere to traffic regulations there’s neither arrests nor summonses.”

Copyright 2006, The Villager