Bell protesters come full cycle, join Critical Mass
June 4, 2008
By Jefferson Siegel
For a little while, it seemed like a Critical Mass from the “old” days. Cyclists filled the south end of Union Square for the first time in more than a year, gathering on the last weekday of Bike Month for a pre-ride rally while police stood by on the sidelines.
The rally, organized by Freewheels, the bicycle defense fund, featured a special guest: Reverend Al Sharpton and members of Sean Bell’s family joined riders to speak out against the mass ticketing of cyclists and the fatal police shooting of Bell.
Sharpton began by telling the hundreds of listeners that, whether in Union Square or Harlem, the police should be there to serve the people, not the other way around.
“The same privatization that they’re doing in the north end of this park is the same gentrified privatization they’re doing in Harlem,” Sharpton declared.
“If we can come together as Critical Mass, if we can ride together, if we can protest together, we can make this city livable for everybody together,” he stated
As he spoke, Sharpton was flanked by Bell’s fiancée, Nicole Paultre Bell, Bell’s father and other friends and family of Bell. All were wearing white T-shirts with “SEAN BELL” emblazoned on them. Also wearing that shirt and addressing the crowd was Yetta Kurland, a civil rights attorney who is a candidate for Christine Quinn’s City Council seat.
“We are going to work together to have a Critical Mass in this city where we can ride in justice,” Sharpton said.
The plan was to have Sharpton speak and then join the bicycle ride in a pedicab provided by Time’s Up!, the West Village environmental advocacy group. However, minutes before Sharpton began talking, while attorney Wylie Stecklow was still addressing the rally, a yell of “Critical Mass, Yeah!” rose from the back of the crowd, followed by the traditional tinkling of bike bells. A majority of cyclists then poured onto 14th St., heading west.
When Sharpton did start speaking several minutes later, there was still a sizeable crowd of bystanders and cyclists listening.
“There’s something wicked when we think it’s more important to deal with getting on line to watch ‘Sex and the City’ than to stand up for justice in the city,” he said to cheers.
“We are all Sean Bell, we are all Critical Mass,” Sharpton concluded.
Bell’s father, William Bell, took a briefer, more conciliatory tone.
“Justice is nice,” he said, “but I just want to see Reverend Al ride a bike.”
Sharpton and the family then stood at the edge of the square and looked around for a minute until someone walked up and offered him a bike. Without hesitation, Sharpton climbed onto a Fuji Crosstown 3.0, a 21-gear hybrid considered well suited for bike commuting. After straddling the aluminum-frame bicycle for a minute, Sharpton took a few tentative pedals, then got his balance and started riding west on 14th St., surrounded by a dozen other cyclists. Doing a short route, the entourage rode to Fifth Ave., down to 12th St., east to University Place and back to Union Square.
Meanwhile, Nicole Paultre Bell and two others rode around the block in a pedicab from the Manhattan Rickshaw Company. When The Villager asked about her ride, Paultre Bell smiled and said, “It was wonderful.”
One incontrovertible fact is that everyone in New York has a cell phone camera, as was demonstrated by virtually every person recognizing Sharpton asking him to pose for a picture. Sharpton obliged all requests. After several minutes, Sharpton and the Bell family climbed into two cars and left.
Meanwhile, the Critical Mass ride had splintered and was running into some roadblocks. A half-dozen cyclists were stopped and ticketed on Eighth Ave. at 16th St.
“I’m really quite bummed,” said Gregory Hum, 20, a Boston University student from Westchester. Hum was ticketed for riding outside the bike lane — he and others had been riding on the opposite side of the street from the bike lane.
Hum has been participating in the Boston version of Critical Mass for years and said the police have never hindered a ride there. As he stood contemplating his ticket, word of more riders being ticketed came in, including a group at Madison Ave. and 42nd St. Most of the evening’s citations were for riding without a signaling device or riding outside a bike lane.