Police and a Cyclists’ Group, and Four Years of Clashes
The New York Times
August 4, 2008
By JAMES BARRON
The New York City Police Department, with its 35,000 officers, has in recent years been on the front lines of the citywide decline in serious crime. It has protected visiting dignitaries like Pope Benedict XVI at events that drew thousands of people, and it has posted officers in foreign capitals to gather information on terrorism and trends that could threaten New York.
But the Police Department continues to be flummoxed by bicyclists riding together once a month.
The rides are known as Critical Mass. The police have sent helicopters to track the riders as they roll through Manhattan on the last Friday evening of every month. They have stationed mobile command centers — the kind of trailer-size outposts set up after a major emergency like the collapse of a crane or a steam pipe explosion — near where the cyclists usually gather in Union Square.
The police say that the cyclists break the law — running red lights and blocking side streets to allow riders to pass, while shouting disparaging comments at officers. Over the past four years, the cyclists say, the police have arrested about 600 riders and issued more than 1,000 summonses during the rides.
A cyclist arrested in the latest rally was accused of riding straight into an officer in Times Square. But when a video surfaced last week showing the officer going out of his way to shove the rider off his bike, it seemed to surprise the city’s top officials.
“From what you could see on the video, it looked to me to be totally over the top,” Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said. Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly told a television reporter, “I can’t explain why it happened. I have no understanding as to why that would happen.”
But the antagonism between the police and Critical Mass riders has festered for years. It is one result of what happens when the line between legality and disobedience is constantly shifting. The police, unable to convince the courts that the cyclists need permits that would force them to adhere to certain restrictions, have adopted what the riders said were belligerent tactics. For their part, the riders have avoided meaningful negotiations — and city oversight — by refusing to name anyone as their leader.
“It’s just a bike ride, but the cops are treating it like a war,” said Bill DiPaola, the director of Time’s Up, an environmental group that says it promotes the rides but is not involved in organizing them.
Mr. Kelly said the Police Department wants to work with the riders. “We’ve been trying to work with them for years,” he said. “But apparently there is an element there that doesn’t necessarily want to work with us.”
Critical Mass took off in San Francisco in the early 1990s. Barbara Ross, who has become something of an unofficial historian of the rides in New York, said the first one occurred here in April 1993. It began in Washington Square Park. The turnout varied from 200 that summer to as few as 3 in the winter.
The gathering place moved to Astor Place, and then to Union Square Park in 1998. The crowd grew as Time’s Up promoted theme rides for Halloween in 1999 and Earth Day in 2000, and the pack expanded to include riders on unicycles, tandem bicycles and rigs with baby seats and trailers.
Ms. Ross and other longtime Critical Mass riders say that until the summer of 2004, the police were friendly. Several officers had trailed the riders, blocking cross-traffic to let the riders go by more quickly and creating a buffer that kept cars from overtaking the riders.
“Part of what I love about the ride is anybody could take part in the ride,” said Benjamin Shepard, an assistant professor at the City University of New York. “I loved that there were people in suits just getting off work.”
The mood changed, cyclists say, in August of that year, when the city was preparing for the Republican National Convention and the police were preparing for demonstrations. About 5,000 cyclists took part, snaking through Midtown, the West Side and the East Village, and the ride took on political overtones. Some riders shouted, “No more Bush!” as they neared Madison Square Garden, where the convention was to be held.
The police arrested more than 100 people, mostly on charges of disorderly conduct.
Since then, the relationship between the bicyclists and the police has been “antagonistic,” said a former commander of a Manhattan precinct often traversed by Critical Mass riders. “We look at them as just a bunch of radical bikers,” said the former commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on behalf of the department.
He said that there were no rules specifically directed at Critical Mass riders, but that officers were told that enforcement should be strict. Critical Mass riders, he said, were to be given summonses for pedaling in the wrong direction on one-way streets, running red lights and impeding traffic. There were nights in 2004 when the police issued about 200 tickets, he said. Recently, they have been issuing one-tenth of that number because there have been fewer riders.
Last week, Mr. Kelly said that “it was not appropriate” for large numbers of riders to go against traffic — which Critical Mass cyclists acknowledged sometimes happened when rides turned into follow-the-leader with no set route.
Paul J. Browne, the Police Department’s chief spokesman, said the Critical Mass riders “used to tell us their routes.” The relationship was “informal, but it worked,” he said.
“Shortly before the convention, this anarchist group hijacked it,” he said of the ride, echoing an op-ed article that Mr. Kelly wrote for The Daily News in 2004. It said, “Where once the cyclists were courteous observers of the rules of the road, the newcomers transformed rides into disruptive, often dangerous events.”
Since the convention, the cyclists believe that the police have used undercover officers to infiltrate Critical Mass. They talk of being watched by people in unmarked cars with blacked-out windows, an approach that seems more appropriate for a narcotics or terrorism investigation than a bicycle ride. And the cyclists say that once the ride gets underway, the police turn too quickly to harsh tactics.
Cyclists say the “anarchist” label is unfair. They say that they can be irreverent, cantankerous, even unruly at times, but “anarchist” has political connotations that do not apply to them. Of a score of regular Critical Mass riders interviewed since the clash in Times Square, all described themselves as environmentally conscious people who joined the rides to focus attention on the benefits of cycling.
Some of the riders say the police have succeeded in making the ride less popular by intimidating cyclists into staying away, even before the video of the officer, Patrick Pogan, shoving the bicyclist, Christopher Long, became an Internet sensation. Officer Pogan has been stripped of his gun and badge while the authorities investigate the case.
“Since the police decided to treat it as a criminal act, the entire tone of the rides has changed,” said Eric Goldhagen, 42, a longtime rider who works as a technology consultant developing software for nonprofit groups. “Instead of being fun, it’s now something that I don’t enjoy, but feel I have to do.”
He said he was ticketed for running a red light during a ride in the spring after several officers on motor scooters circled him as he approached a yellow traffic light . He said the officers behind him were so close that if he had stopped, he would have caused an accident.
Norman Siegel, a former executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union who has represented Time’s Up, said he was concerned that officials had ignored the tensions that had been building. “There are officers there who feel they can do to the Critical Mass bike riders what they would not be able to do to any other group in the city,” he said.
He said that since 2004, there had been times when “the officers came with ‘We’ll get you’ and the riders came with ‘We’ll outsmart you.’ ” He added: “I didn’t like that dynamic. It could only create serious and substantial problems.”
Mr. Siegel, noting that the leadership had changed at Patrol Borough Manhattan South, which covers the territory below 59th Street, said he had hoped to broker a meeting between the cyclists and the officials now in charge. But when asked whether the riders were interested in arranging such a session, he said, “No, it’s more subtle than that. You have to float the idea, let people have some time to think about it, let them have time to talk about it. The first thing they say is, ‘Who are we to negotiate, because there’s no leadership here?’ ” He added, “It becomes a difficult endeavor to find some common ground.”
That idea was underscored in a conversation with an officer from the 13th Precinct, who said he was often assigned to patrol the rides.
“Look, I’m not excusing what that cop did because it was wrong,” said the officer, who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on Police Department procedures. “But the question that people forget to ask is what happened before,” he said, referring to the time before Officer Pogan pushed Mr. Long off his bicycle. (Mr. Long’s lawyer, David Rankin, said on Friday that “the videotape shows pretty clearly that nothing happened before that.”)
“The problem with these guys is that they provoke you,” the officer from the 13th Precinct said. “They’re no angels.”
Reporting was contributed by Al Baker, Ann Farmer, Colin Moynihan and Fernanda Santos.