Critical Mass rides gearing up
March 9, 2006
Justin Rocket Silverman
The city may be fighting a losing battle against the Critical Mass bike rides.
As warmer weather promises to bring even larger crowds to the rides, observers wonder whether the recent court setbacks will affect police enforcement.
Last month, a state judge refused to grant the city a preliminary injunction to ban people from joining the ride. In January, another judge ruled that riders could not be arrested for “parading without a permit,” one of the most common charges.
“The hope is that given the various legal decisions and all the attention being paid to police over-enforcing the laws on bike rides, that there will a de-escalation this summer,” said Matthew Roth, a volunteer with bicycle-advocacy group Times-Up! “We would like to see it go back to what it was pre-2004, when there was a much more amicable dynamic between police and bike riders.”
The NYPD’s top spokesman, Paul Browne said the department’s position remains unchanged despite the legal setbacks.
“If participants obey the law they will not face arrest or summonses,” he said via e-mail. “If they break the law, they do face arrest or summonses.”
Critical Mass is billed as a spontaneous gathering of bicycles on the last Friday of every month in Union Square. From there, the bikers take over all lanes of traffic, blocking intersections along a route that has not been pre-determined. The ride was conducted peacefully for almost a decade, until a record number of riders turned out in the summer of 2004 — when the GOP convention came to town — and police began making mass arrests that continue to this day.
In late December, city lawyers settled for $140,500 with three cyclists who had their parked and locked bicycles removed by police during a Critical Mass ride two years ago.
“The city’s lawyers were defiantly trying to make this about Critical Mass,” said Rebecca Bray, one of five plainpngs in that case. “Our argument was, no, we’re just citizens and you just took our bikes without any proof that we had done anything wrong.”
Amateur video shows uniformed officers walking up to Bray’s bicycle, which was chained and locked to a parking meter. The officers used a circular saw to cut the chain, sending a shower of sparks over the sidewalk.
Bray’s case hinged on the fact that she was not given any notice before or after her bicycle was taken.
“All these people admitted to riding in Critical Mass that night,” said Deborah Berkman, one of Bray’s lawyers.
“The government is not supposed to take your stuff without giving you an opportunity to be heard and make a defense.”
The judge agreed with three of the plainpngs that they had been denied their rights to due process because they weren’t notified that police had taken their bikes, Berkman said.
The two other plainpngs will not receive money because they were told by police at the scene that their bikes were being taken.
City lawyers maintained that the police did not violate any of the defendants’ rights.
“While we don’t believe that any of the plainpngs’ due process rights were violated,” said Sheryl Neufeld, senior counsel with the city’s Administrative Law Department, “we made a strategic decision, as parties to litigation often do, to settle this matter for minimal damages since the cost of further litigation would have been substantially greater.”
During last month’s ride, the first after the judge denied the preliminary injunction, only three arrests were made.
Most rides in the last year prompted dozens of arrests, and the city is still seeking an injunction against future rides.
Police say they would like to work with riders by deciding on a prearranged route that would not interfere with the movement of ambulances and other emergency vehicles.
“The Critical Mass riders are very resilient,” Berkman said. “This is a hard group to keep down.”
Copyright 2006, amNewYork