2007-03-31 – Critical Mass: Dispatches from #25 – L magazine

L Magazine
By Adam Klasfeld
March 31, 2007


When I decided to write an article about participating in March’s Critical Mass ride, I was almost certain that I was going to be arrested. After all, it was the first ride since the NYPD rewrote the parade rule to criminalize rides of 50 or more people without a permit. Under the new terms, violators could be jailed for up to 10 days. The police were so adamant about it that they drafted it without a public hearing — after two different versions of it were rejected in legislation. One civil liberties attorney stated the obvious: The cops were out to “get” Critical Mass.

An article in the LA Times predicted that the ride would be the biggest standoff since the Republican National Convention, when the police corralled over 200 cyclists in mesh netting and threw them in a makeshift holding facility along the Hudson. The NYCLU report documenting the incidents of spying, harassment, excessive force, and false arrests totaled 69 pages. By the time I got up the courage to ride, it was too late to apply for a press pass, which I could only obtain through the police department, whose rule I was protesting.

Even though many people were probably scared off, about a hundred gathered at the Union Square starting point. Eventually, one man handed me a white t-shirt with the number 25 written on it in red magic marker. “Do you want to wear this?” he asked, explaining that they went up to 49. He wanted me to be a moving target, an advertisement mocking the parade rule and daring the police to enforce it. I put it on, reluctantly.

The evening started with a half-hour protest, which drew major print, radio and television media. Here’s what was probably edited out of the coverage: During civil liberties lawyer Norman Siegel’s speech, when he said, “In Brooklyn, we have a word for this kind of law,” one small group yelled “BULLSHIT!” (The word that Siegel meant to use, he insisted, was “cockamamie.”) Aside from that, a representative from the Five-Borough Bike Club announced his organization’s lawsuit against the NYPD, and leaders from the environmental group Time’s Up talked about their ongoing legal battles. Councilwoman Rosie Mendez told a cheering crowd that she would risk arrest by riding along in a pedicab.

With that announcement, the swarm began to pedal — headlong into a police barricade a block away. I knew the first person the police shoved into their vehicle. She was a 49-year-old jazz singer named Kim Kalesti, and we’d spoken before the ride. It was her first one. She knew little about it, but had friends prominent in bike advocacy groups and wanted to show her support. Her business card had pictures of red carnations and advertised “BEAUTIFUL SINGING” in pink letters. It was strange to see this woman treated like a criminal.

The cops ordered the crowd to disperse, and I slipped away into traffic and away from the scene. But I knew the ride wasn’t over. Since there are no leaders, it can reconvene wherever there are enough cyclists to join together. This time, the cops unwittingly helped me find the group. I knew I was getting close when I saw a police squad traveling in their direction. Two blocks later, I joined two other riders meeting with a larger group at Times Square.

Predictably, as soon as the cyclists rolled into 43rd Street and Seventh Avenue, the cops started handing out tickets, whether or not the violations made sense. People riding in the bike lane were ticketed for not cycling on the right side of the street. Arguments over the fines heated up, and again the crowd was ordered to disperse. Shortly after, a photographer was arrested, and anyone trying to find out why risked the same fate. The flare-ups only got worse, but I would have to wait until after the ride to find out the details.

When we arrived at the Time’s Up headquarters for the afterparty, it felt like a victory even for the people with tickets to fight, and a television crew broadcast the return live.  Critical Mass had never received so much sympathetic media attention. Once inside, people ate and traded stories. Ms. Kalesti, the jazz singer, was back, and was cleared of all charges. I spoke with an older man named Steve Faust, who also wore a numbered shirt. When the cops pulled him over to summon him, they shouted, “Number 19, pull over!”

Since I had a tape recorder with me at the celebration, some people suspected I was an undercover cop. When one person made the accusation out loud, Jefferson Siegel from The Villager vouched for me, “Would a cop wear shoes like that?”

Bike advocates reviewed footage and photographs of the arrests, and I saw a girl I recognized in one video. When we’d walked our bikes on the sidewalk along West 43rd Street, she appeared shy and nervous. I found out later that she was a 21-year-old photographer named Joyce Lin who originally got into trouble for taking pictures of officers’ badges. One cop restrained her and another searched her bag. When he found a knife, several officers suddenly forced her to the ground. She screamed, struggled, kicked, and bit wildly, and she was taken in for assault and four other charges.

The arrests that followed — as related by the DA’s report — could have been written by the Marx Brothers. When videographer Christian Gutierrez had taped the Lin arrest, the police ordered him to go and eventually arrested him for obstruction of governmental administration and disorderly conduct. Then, photographer Jordan Groh snapped pictures of the Gutierrez arrest, and was brought up on the same charges. The police were camera shy that night, and a journalist from another popular alt-weekly was told to stop taking pictures even after he flashed his press credentials. In addition to the three arrests, there were 47 summonses.

Nobody, tellingly, was taken in for parading without a permit.

Press Coverage