By Jessica Lee
April 5, 2007
The several hundred bicyclists who set off from Union Square March 30 were not only putting foot to pedal in the long struggle against the New York Police Departmentâ€™s (NYPD) crusade to squash Critical Mass in Manhattan, but also defiantly facing down a new parade ordinance threatening freedom of assembly and speech.
Enacted unilaterally by the police department Jan. 28, the new parade ordinance states that any â€œrecognizable groupâ€ of 50 or more must first obtain a permit if they want to gather on a sidewalk, in the road or in the parks.
â€œThis [new parade] rule was propagated for one reason alone, to get Critical Mass,â€ said Norman Siegel, former head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, at the March 30 preride press conference.
Although three people were arrested and 46 summons were issued, to the surprise of many people, no one received a ticket for violating the new parade ordinance. The evening ride â€“which is held on the last Friday of the month in more than 300 cities around the world â€“ followed a now familiar trend with the police issuing tickets for alleged traffic violations and scooter cops working aggressively to break the ride up into smaller and smaller groups of cyclists. Nonetheless, almost 40 riders evaded the police and completed the two-hour ride, including Councilwoman Rosie Mendez (DLower East Side) who rode via pedicab, vowing to support the cyclists and to protect the First Amendment. For many, participating in the ride was an extremely frustrating experience.
Eduardo Davila received a summons early in the ride for allegedly passing through a red light. â€œThis is my first Critical Mass ride, and it discouraged me completely,â€ Davila said. He had ridden no more than three blocks up Park Ave. from Union Square before getting pulled over.
â€œIt is so ridiculous it has gotten to this point. This should be something good for the city, not something to crush,â€ said Skye Chamberlain, a Cooper Union student who received a summons for â€œnot riding on the right side of the road when no bike lane availableâ€ on Park Avenue South. Alan Fox, in turn, received a summons for the opposite reason, for â€œriding outside the bike laneâ€ on Park Avenue South, â€œThis is harassment, it is just an annoyance ticket,â€ Fox stressed.
â€œCRITICAL MASS STOPPED BEING FUNâ€
Speaking with cyclists at the Times Up! bike repair shop in Lower Manhattan before the March 30 ride, The Indypendent found similar feelings of frustration and discouragement about what has happened to Critical Mass since the NYPD crackdown began in August 2004 when 264 bikers were arrested during a massive ride of 7,000 cyclists that snaked through Lower Manhattan three days before the beginning of the Republican National Convention (RNC). â€œPeople couldnâ€™t feel worse about Critical Mass right now,â€ said Austin Horse, an avid bike rider and Times Up! volunteer. â€œThe police have waged a campaign against Critical Mass with arrests and lots of tickets, especially in the last few months. Since RNC, there have been less and less people riding.â€
â€œCritical Mass stopped being fun and became more of a chore,â€ said Leah Todd as she repaired her green road bike. â€œI was anxious that I would be arrested and get my bike taken again.â€ Todd is involved in a civil lawsuit against the city for false arrest during the RNC, the length of her detention and conditions at Pier 57, where the police temporary held arrestees.
Steve Klein, who has been riding Critical Mass bike rides since they begin in NYC in 1993, recalled â€œthe good old daysâ€ before the RNC when police took a more easygoing approach to the ride, which grew to include thousands by the summer of 2004. â€œI stopped going to Critical Mass because I got tired of looking over my shoulder,â€ Klein explained while he helped people fix their bikes. â€œIt isnâ€™t fun anymore.â€
SWITCHING GEARS TO COURT
â€œTimeâ€™s Up! does not know why the city is cracking down on non-polluting transportation,â€ said Bill DiPaola, the organizationâ€™s cofounder. He stressed the connection between the continual harassment of large bicycle rides, the attempt to limit the amount of pedicabs in the city and recent press reports of extensive domestic spying being carried out by the NYPD (see sidebar).
While sympathetic to his fellow riderâ€™s sentiments, Horse expressed frustration at the low turnout for the ride. â€œInstead of rallying around the fact that police are attacking Critical Mass, people are washing their hands of it â€˜because it isnâ€™t fun anymore.â€™â€ said Horse, who himself has been arrested during rides more than once. He noted that when police in London tried to shut down the bike ride, five times the normal number of people showed up in support the following month. â€œWe need to have more community,â€ he said.
TALKING TO THE COPS
The Indypendent tried repeatedly to contact an NYPD spokesperson for comment. When that failed, Indypendent reporter Ryan Dawes began interviewing on-duty police under the guise of being a tourist. Speaking in Sunset Park on March 30, Officer L.K. Andreassen, explained that â€œdisorderly conduct could be pretty much anything.â€
An unnamed officer, while patrolling the west side of Madison Square Garden on March 28, described how a scooter task force accompanies most rides to help contain the mass of cyclists while preventing vehicles from cutting into the group. In addition to â€œprotecting everyone from danger,â€ scooters and police cruisers are then used to hack up the herd of riders and divert them down separate streets with the guidance of plainclothes cops participating in the ride. He also described Critical Mass to other on-duty officers as, â€œthe mass bike demonstration where we send out lots of guys on scooters to write lots and lots of summonses.â€ As for the biggest mystery from the March 30 ride â€“ why did the NYPD fail to enforce its own parade ordinance? â€“ the answer can likely be found in the courtroom where the police and cyclists have battled continuously since August 2004.
AN UNLIKELY ALLY
In what is considered an â€œoffensive moveâ€ in the bicycle community, the Five Borough Bicycle Club (5BBC) and several other plainpngs filed a lawsuit March 27 in federal court, asking the judge to stop NYPDâ€™s new regulation. â€œSuing city government is not one of the ordinary roles of the 5BBC, but organizing group bicycle rides is,â€ the group disclosed on its website. â€œThe NYPDâ€™s parade rules essentially outlaw large bike rides, under the dubious claim that bicycle rides are a danger to public health and safety.â€
Civil rights attorney Gideon Oliver, who helped represent Timeâ€™s Up! in court, suggested that the timing of the 5BBC lawsuit might have put a wrench in NYPDâ€™s plans to enforce the new ordinance on March 30 as a means to stop the mass bicycle ride. â€œThere is a lawsuit pending that challenges application of the parade ordinance to require a permit for bike rides,â€ explained Oliver. â€œIn all likelihood, the city is being careful knowing that a judge is thinking about the issue.â€
U.S. District Court Judge Lewis A. Kaplan stated that a decision would be rendered on whether or not to preliminarily enjoin the enforcement of the new parade rules before April 27, when the next scheduled Critical Mass ride is to take place in Manhattan.
Ryan Dawes contributed to this report.