To Control the Event
November 2, 2004
By James Davis
Apparently, once you displace whatever is in the road you are traffic. With
this in mind 1000 cyclists gathered at Union Square in New York for the
annual Halloween Critical Mass bicycle ride. Participants were rakish as
ever but found themselves besieged by an enormous police charm offensive at
Union Sq. Officers in fall-casual baby blue rain jackets handed out fliers
affirming that riders should follow a designated route and that “bicyclists
who do not follow the route are subject to arrest.” The Flier also declared
that bikes left locked on the sidewalk or street might be removed. A sound
truck and white shirted officers with bullhorns repeated the same statement
and caddishly wished participants a good time.
The current escalation on New York streets emerged out of events during the
Republican National Convention in the city two months ago. The August 27th
Critical Mass set off with 5000 participants and rode for two hours before
ending up outside St Marks church on Second Ave. The ride was the biggest
ever east of the Mississippi and was swollen by new people stepping up to
unwelcome the Republicans. At St Marks police attacked the crowd and arrested
scores of bikers and passers-by. The tally of arrests for the night ran to 260.
At the same time officers were using bolt cutters to take bicycles locked in
the area. This tactic was repeated during the week of the convention but that
night more than 40 bikes were seized. Many of the bikes belonged to
neighbourhood residents who assumed their bikes had been stolen. 5 of the
victims sued in federal court on the grounds that their fifth amendment right
to due process had been violated when their property was seized without any
charges being brought against them.
The city denied the claims of the bike owners and countersued seeking an
injunction to prevent the Halloween Critical Mass ride from happening last
Friday. On Thursday Lawyers for the city and the 5 aggrieved riders faced off
in front of Judge William H. Pauley III. Civil rights attorney Norman Siegel,
and co-counsel Steven Hyman argued for the bike owners that the NYPD could not
confiscate property without bringing charges against anyone.
Skinhead police commissioner Raymond Kelly wrote in The Daily News on the
morning of the hearing that Critical Mass had been taken over by extremists
precipitating a police crackdown. Judge Pauley had earlier denied United for
Peace and Justice Coalition’s application for a permit to rally in Central
Park after the big RNC demonstration on August 29th, that may have encouraged
Kelly in feeling anointed.
However, Pauley was sympathetic to the plainpngs arguments in court. He
granted a preliminary injunction preventing the police from seizing bikes
without informing owners, giving a reason and indicating the course of appeal.
Cops can take bikes that are obstructing sidewalks or streets but not punitively
as a means of discouraging participation in rides. On the question of the
countersuit by the City seeking an injunction preventing Critical Mass from
happening on Friday, Assistant Chief Bruce Smolka outlined the Police
Department’s rationale. He wrote that while the rides had been going on for
several years they had grown in the last year from “fewer than a hundred’ to
rides 4 or 5000 strong and “because the rides were so disruptive to normal
traffic flows it was extremely difficult for the department to move around
the mass to control the event.” For this reason the rides need to be permitted.
Norman Siegel argued that it was unfair to force the 5 plainpngs whose bikes
had been appropriated by the police to carry the burden of the permit issue.
He also noted that the permit issue does not belong in Federal court and, in
any case, Critical Mass is not illegal and so it doesn’t need a permit.
Judge Pauley had done some research and knew that unpermitted rides of 1000
or more bikes were relatively common over the last few years both in NY and
elsewhere in the country. He wondered why the police were seeking an
injunction now when they hadn’t had a problem with Critical Mass in the past.
To ride in Critical Mass is, he pointed out, to engage in “expressive
association” to wit “[T]he right to associate with others in pursuit of a wide
variety of political, social, economic, educational, religious and cultural
ends” which enjoys First Amendment protection. Therefore it would appear that
Critical Mass is traffic and speech, in as much as the Boy Scouts is speech.
The Judge turned down the city’s application tp outlaw the Critical Mass
because the rides had gone on in the past without objection. He added, “This
court declines the City’s invitation to wander into a Serbonian bog before a
state court has had the opportunity to illuminate the path”. A Serbonian bog
relates to the lake of Serbonis in Egypt, which by reason of the sand blowing
into it had a deceptive appearance of being solid land, but was a bog.
A gulf profound as that Serbonian bog . . .
Where armies whole have sunk.
So by Thursday afternoon it was 2 for non-polluting transport promotion and zero
for the City. Cops couldn’t steal bikes and Critical Mass didn’t need a police
permit to ride. Pauley did commit both parties to agree upon a route before the
ride began though. Thus the police fliers at Union Sq on Friday. The ‘official’
route was not agreed by both parties, it was a unilateral order from Bloomberg’s
enforcer, Commissioner Kelly. Nevertheless, riders in Halloween garb set off up
Park Avenue accompanied by scooter mounted police outriders, police SUVs and
three-wheeled traffic police electrocaddies. The mood was quieter than usual, a
little nervous over the police intimidation. There were noticeably fewer older
people along perhaps because people had been discouraged by the arrests and the
bicycle thefts. But people meant to have a good time and 1000 bikes are hard to
repress. By the time the ride reached midtown participants had had enough police
interference. Officers blocked all the side streets expecting cyclists who wanted
to leave the route to dismount and walk their bikes. Police tactics were reminiscent
of demonstrations in the city where barriers are used to coral marchers and break
them up into individual blocks. The scooter fleet purchased with RNC security loot
worked as mobile barricades, but only in isolated pockets.
Once the official route broke down the ride split up into smaller groups and kept
moving. Police scooters flew around trying to block riders and began making arrests,
30 in all before the ride wound down a couple of hours later. By then there were up
to 10 different splinter rides around Manhattan between Midtown and Union Square,
they split up to regroup spontaneously at a different junction later on. The ride
was a big success and participants thrilled pedestrians and on-lookers. As is
customary an excess of police force was frustrated by the agility and creativity
of Critical Mass.
Critical Mass has been seizing US streets for more than a decade. During the Summer
of 1997 Willie Brown of San Francisco was traveling in his Mayoral limousine when
he became ensnared in the middle of a passing ride. It was a slow news Summer for
the Mayor so he decided “to declare war over this”. Chris Carlsson, one of several
Critical Mass originators in the city recalls the Mayor convening a meeting to
which participants were invited. Carlsson declined to attend but those who did were
harangued by City functionaries. Immediately afterwards one of Browns PR men appeared
before the press claiming that there was agreement and that Critical Mass would apply
for permits from then on. When rides continued without approval Brown instructed the
police to stop them. SF police were unsure what to do so they attacked riders and
arrested more than 100. No arrestees were convicted of crimes and one of them, Howard
Besser, sued the City for unlawful arrest and won. He beat the City again when they
appealed to a superior court.
Afterwards the Police backed down and Brown moved on to other targets but 7 years
later Critical Mass is booming in San Francisco. Last weekends Halloween ride had
more than 2000 cyclists who visited the picket lines of locked out hotel workers
from Local 2. The details of this most recent SF ride bear on whats happening in New
York. Because the event is established in these cities (as it is elsewhere) it is a
simple matter to coordinate it with issues happening locally, like the hotel lockout
in San Francisco or the Republican Convention in New York. On his website Carlsson
All this is to say that the new composition of work and production, spread widely
through temporary and precarious employment (the hotel workers of Local 2 themselves
are almost all immigrants from South America or East Asia), is giving rise to a new
set of tactics for resistance and revolt. Rather than workplace occupation, the
diffused nature of economic organization-globalization in a word-has moved our
collective power from specific worksites to the arteries of economic life, the roads.
Its clear that New York cops became preoccupied with Critical Mass in the lead up
to the RNC. Commissioner Kelly is a Marine Corp Vietnam Vet and probably remembers
all that better than most of us. It wakes him late at night to dream of a late
Spring evening with 10 or 50,000 bikes against the war in Iraq seizing the city’s
thoroughfares willy nilly. As with Iraq “to control the event” becomes more and
more improbable. The defeat in court simply compounds the issue, Judge Pauley’s
mention of “expressive association” opening a Pandora’s box of inference and precedent
that makes any legal remedy inaccessible. If Britain in the 90’s invented Reclaim The
Streets parties as a way out of ever retrenched opportunities for political and social
expression then Critical Mass has created a similar outlet in the contemporary American
On Friday night in New York the police, having no other option, reverted to force and
attacked the after party in at the Times Up non-polluting-transport-promotion-space on
Houston St. Police later claimed that an undercover lieutenant had been struck in the
face when she confronted people with open containers at the storefront. There was “no
sign of injury” and the assailant was “a person unknown” but the policewoman and her
colleagues called for backup when they found themselves “surrounded”. Reinforcements
closed down Houston St. and its sidewalks for several blocks. 7 people were arrested
on the street as events unfolded. A cop appeared brandishing a shotgun pointed skyward
and at one point undercovers tried to bum rush the party but were kept out by revelers
blocking the door and others singing “we do not consent to a search”. Outside police
behaviour was becoming dangerous while inside some people were fleeing over the back
wall as others, oblivious to events at the door, continued dancing in the basement.
The police laid siege to the store for almost 2 hours. Negotiations allowed people to
leave but when Mandy Hu did a cop pushed her as she walked away, she objected and was
arrested. She spoke at a press conference at the space on Sunday afternoon. Tahura
Faune Alfword who was videotaping outside and “obeying police orders” by walking
backwards as she taped, was lunged at by a female undercover as other uniforms tried
to take her camera by striking her hand. According to Norman Siegel the police were
“extremely agitated” displaying “outright hostility” and that “there appears to exist
selective enforcement of law targeting Critical Mass Bike riders.”
Siegel was summoned from his bed at 1:30am on Saturday morning by Times Up! volunteers.
He came and negotiated with the police to allow the last of the party goers leave
unmolested locking the shutters behind them. No doubt all this will come before Judge
Pauley in federal court before next months ride. And there may be a few more charges on
the docket. As soon as the Times Up! space was empty cops began clipping the locks off
bikes parked on the sidewalk. These guys never learn. The police don’t have a whole lot
more to throw at Critical Mass in New York, short of large scale repression. They are
tactically baffled and incapacitated by tight turning and by Deleuze. As Chris Carlsson
“Young urban bicyclists, many of whom survive as members of the burgeoning
‘cognitariat’ and/or at the margins of steady employment, come together monthly to
affirm a new way of living, a new way of being together in city life.”
This doesn’t mean that the police are likely to back off in NYC any time soon, but
Critical Mass has displayed a rare intelligence and it remains several moves ahead of
any net that might be cast to capture it. Next months ride will be significant in this
regard. In the past during similarly tense moments rides have sometimes ‘ridden to rule’,
obeying all traffic signals and directions scrupulously. Critical Mass’s ingenuity and
energy mean that it has lots of options. Lets Roll!
Copyright 2004 Counterpunch.com