2005-10-01 Bicycling is Not a Crime – Satya

Bicycling is Not a Crime: The Satya Interview with Bill Di Paola


October, 2005

By Sangamithra Iyer

Time’s Up! is New York City’s direct action environmental organization run entirely by 150 or so volunteers. Their goal is to raise awareness about how our actions affect the environment and, over the past 18 years, Time’s Up! has focused on several campaigns from reclaiming public space to saving our community gardens. Within the last four years, most of the volunteers have shifted their efforts toward transportation issues, bicycle riding in particular, with the hopes of making the city more bike-friendly.

Bill Di Paola, the Executive Director of Time’s Up! talked with Sangamithra Iyer about their fight for non-polluting transportation and the city’s recent crack down on cycling.

Time’s Up! has been active in promoting a more sustainable New York for the past 18 years. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in promoting environmental issues in New York?
Being an environmental organization in a city like New York is just difficult to begin with because most people are here to make money. It’s a capitalist city. For raising concern about the environment, sustainability and animal rights, it is not an easy town. However, a lot of people, through how they live, are environmentalists without even realizing it. They live in apartment buildings, which actually save a lot of energy, and get to work using mass transit and sometimes bicycles. In a way they are doing things that, compared to the rest of the U.S., is very advanced and leaves less of a global footprint. So part of what we do is let people know what they are doing is something unusual to begin with.

It is Time’s Up!’s opinion that the city is not interested in promoting non-polluting transportation. Some of the leaders of the city, for whatever reason, are fighting it and not creating the proper infrastructure. So we do our best to have events to put new cyclists on the street. Increased cycling will create the necessary pressure to drive the city to create infrastructure to support the cyclists. We have been incredibly successful at increasing cycling in New York City.

Can you explain Time’s Up!’s relationship to the Critical Mass bike rides?
There’s two major ways in the city where new cyclists are generated. One is the west side greenway—a place where people start riding bikes for the first time, feel comfortable, and then start commuting. Another big way is the Critical Mass bike ride.

Time’s Up! is not the organizer of the Critical Mass ride, nor do we have a route for it. However, the ride attracts new riders with positive energy and this is what Time’s Up! is interested in. In turn, these new cyclists will most likely become everyday bike commuters.

The city has also been trying to seek an injunction against the ride. Bicycling is a means of transportation that promotes a healthy environment and lifestyle. Why do you think it’s been targeted as an almost criminal activity?
The Critical Mass ride’s been getting bigger. More cycling is happening and the city is still taking its stance that it is not interested in promoting cycling and just feels that there are too many cyclists on the road. There are a lot of cars out there too. Why is the city so unhappy with bikes when they see them in mass, and they are not unhappy with cars?

Have you found it to be more targeted since the Republican National Convention last year?
Sure. Time’s Up! has been working on these issues for the last 18 years and probably has had the most problems with the police last year after the RNC. Prior to the RNC, individual officers would come on the ride.

Last August, we had set up a Bike National Convention, to run parallel to the Republican National Convention. This was not a protest. This was to show all the people coming to town and everyone in town, the environmentally sustainable things happening in the city. Of course the major focus was that bicycles should be viewed as a sustainable solution for our city. But the city [and the Republicans] didn’t want the bicyclists in the streets and they wanted less biking during the convention.

One of the events during this was the RNC Critical Mass, which possibly had 7,000 people in it. The police said the event couldn’t happen without a permit. Obviously that didn’t fly too well. The event happened anyway, with great success, and it was an embarrassment to the city because they tried to stop this beautiful event and they couldn’t. There was a party after the event where they arrested over 250 people after the ride was over. There was a lot of media attention about the arrests.

Some type of decision was made to continue the harassment of this particular event over the last year. There have been all these techniques they have been using—most of them illegal—to deal with this.

Can you describe these tactics?
In the beginning, they said the bicyclists had to be over in the right hand [lane] of the street. We found a city law saying that bicycles can ride in the whole street. Then they said that bicyclists need a permit. We said we don’t need a permit to ride a bicycle. So they have taken us to court on this.

Then, they have infiltrated the group and have come on some of the rides with undercover police posing as bicyclists. In some cases these undercover officers have led the ride, acting aggressively to intimidate our peaceful events.

They have also tried to raid our space at after parties without a search warrant. That is illegal. At some of the after parties they go around just randomly stealing bicycles. It’s hard to believe, but Time’s Up! caught them doing this and videotaped it. Our lawyer Norman Siegel went to federal court with it and we won the case.

The city’s major complaint is that we don’t stop at red lights. Time’s Up!’s opinion is that everyone should stop at red lights and [they should issue] tickets for that. They have given no tickets for [running red lights], but use that in the courts and in the media as their number one complaint.

A lot of this is really about morale. The police do illegal things to discourage people from riding and screw with morale. If you do get arrested it is close to $700, you spend a night in jail and you get your bike taken away. There is no reason why you should have your bike taken away.

Time’s Up! and the bicycle community have rallied together to deal with this intense harassment, but legal costs are adding up and we are trying our best to raise funds to continue promoting non-polluting transportation.

I’m not sure if you have an answer for this, but who is calling the shots here?
We’re not sure, but the officers on the scene tell us the orders are coming from very high up and it’s out of their hands. But aside from Mayor Bloomberg, we’re finding that almost all community leaders and politicians are in support of the cyclists.

Can you talk about the lawsuit New York City has filed to censor Time’s Up! for promoting Critical Mass?
There are several lawsuits going on. There are individuals who get arrested—on the last ride there were 48 arrests. The amount of people getting arrested every month varies—anywhere from 15 to 50.

When the ride starts, it’s pretty much a chase the whole time. The city is doing whatever it can to shut down whatever street they can to arrest cyclists. Cyclists sometimes do everything the city asks them to do and they still get arrested. It’s not really about the ride. It’s about stopping the movement.

There is another case brought up by NYC and the parks department. This makes us mad because we are an environmental organization and we’ve done hundreds of community garden cleanups and promoted parks, but somehow the police got the parks department involved. The lawsuit states three different things. First is that Time’s Up! cannot advertise an event, which the city deems is illegal, such as the Critical Mass. The second thing pretty much says that Time’s Up! needs to apply for a permit for the Critical Mass bike ride, which we claim is not our ride and it happens in over 300 cities around the world. Third is that any meeting in a public park of over 20 people needs a permit.

What are the larger impacts from these infringements on biker rights?
As an environmental group we feel this is about what is happening in America right now. Corporations are pretty much taking control of the media and the politicians. One of our biggest problems in the U.S. is our dependency on oil—which is not a great thing and will add to erratic climate change

We are looking for long-term sustainable solutions, where the city seems to be looking for short-term quick solutions. Promoting cycling is wonderful for people’s health and a great way to get to work. It doesn’t take up much space on the street. We are hoping the city is going to value non-polluting transportation.

The tide has shifted in a more positive way where we are shedding light on some of the corruption that supports oil in this country.

How do we go about making New York a safer and friendlier place to bike and live, and do you have any advice for aspiring cyclists?
Even though there is much police harassment against cyclists and it can be dangerous, cycling has continuously increased for the past five years in New York City and is getting better all the time. Change does not come easy, and Time’s Up! is suggesting that people ride together in small groups for safety reasons and if they keep riding, in a few years we are sure there will be more infrastructure and safety will come.

To learn more or get involved visit http://www.times-up.org.

Copyright 2005, Satya

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