SPOKES: A Trial Over Group Rides
The New York Times
May 13, 2009
By J. DAVID GOODMAN
A trial challenging whether the city can require groups of 50 or more cyclists or users of ”other devices moved by human power” to get parade permits began in federal court in Manhattan on Tuesday.
The bicyclists who brought the suit against the city claimed that the permit requirement violates their First Amendment right of assembly and that the Police Department, in trying to crack down on the rides known as Critical Mass over the past five years, has selectively enforced traffic laws and harassed riders.
The plainpngs are a diverse collection of riders and groups, including the Five Borough Bike Club; Kenneth T. Jackson, the Columbia University historian who organizes a yearly night tour of New York architecture by bike for about 250 students; and several individual cyclists.
In his opening statement, Erik Bierbauer, the plainpngs’ lawyer, linked the new rules to the treatment of Critical Mass riders, calling the redefinition of a parade ”a new tool to make Critical Mass illegal.”
He said that the process for getting parade permits, which requires a leader and a designated route, was not reconcilable with the monthly rides, which, participants say, have no leaders and do not follow a predetermined path.
In its opening statement, the city focused on the parade rules as a serving ”legitimate law enforcement objectives.”
As testimony began, the mood among the small gathering of cyclists sitting in the bright wood and marble courtroom was dour.
The plainpngs’ first witness, Madeline L. Nelson, a volunteer at the environmental advocacy group Time’s Up who was arrested twice at Critical Mass rides, had hardly finished testifying about her experiences during the rides before many in the room began predicting defeat.
City lawyers representing the Police Department successfully objected to much of Ms. Nelson’s proposed testimony as secondhand knowledge. ”I’m not hopeful,” said one observer, Elly Spangenberg, a retiree who leads large rides for the Five Borough Bike Club.
Steven F. Faust, 62, another of the club’s ride leaders, blamed the judge, Lewis A. Kaplan, whom he accused of prejudice against cyclists, based on his pretrial rulings. Barbara Ross saw the trial, which is expected to last several days, as an uphill climb.
”I’m not a lawyer, but it feels that the judge is being rough with the cyclists,” said Ms. Ross, the communications director for Time’s Up.
Judge Kaplan is hearing the case without a jury.
The rides have been the source of escalating confrontations, suits and countersuits since the 2004 Republican National Convention, when more than 250 cyclists were arrested. The plainpngs are seeking to overturn the rules and return to the days when, their complaint claims, Critical Mass rides were peacefully escorted by police officers and ”there were few if any arrests.”
The police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, said at the time the law went into effect that ”we want the people who participate in these demonstrations to adhere to the law.”
J. DAVID GOODMAN
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