Village Voice blog
March 31, 2007
by Sarah Ferguson
Friday night’s Critical Mass bike ride was played as a First Amendment “showdown” over the NYPD’s new parade rule, which requires groups of 50 or more to get a permit to be on the streets.
Predictably there were arrestsâ€”three to be exactâ€”along with 46 summonses issued to the cyclists, who pedaled out of Union Square in a pack of about 100 and ran smack into a police blockade on Park Avenue a block away.
But for all of Police Commissioner Ray Kelly’s bluster about their being a new law in town, none of the Critical Mass riders were actually ticketed for parading without a permit.
Rather the cops hit people up for a host of minor traffic violations like failing to keep to the right, not having a headlight, or not riding in the bike laneâ€”even though there is no bike lane on Park Avenue.
Things did get a bit nastier uptown. One 21-year old woman was charged with felony assault for “kicking, punching, and biting several officers” after they wrestled her to the ground in Times Square. She was also charged with criminal possession of a folding knife and resisting arrest. According to activists who videotaped the incident, the woman was on the sidewalk taking close-ups of police and their badges when she was “violently knocked to the ground” by half a dozen police officers. Police declined to comment on that allegation, saying only, “she was arrested for assaulting an officer.”
Two other young men were charged with disorderly conduct and obstructing governmental administration.
But evidently the cops decided not to test the new parade statute by actually charging anyone for violating itâ€”even though some bikers made it easy by wearing white T-shirts numbered 1 through 50 to demonstrate their willingness to defy the law.
“I think they’re afraid it won’t stand up to a court challenge,” said Bill DiPaola of the environmental group Times Up!, noting how the city’s lawsuit seeking to ban his group from promoting Critical Mass didn’t hold up in court very well either.
DiPaola was jubilant about all the media that turned out to cover the ride, brought on in part by Mayor Bloomberg’s fortuitous veto Friday morning of the City Council bill that would sharply restrict pedicabs in the city.
“The mayor actually heard our message,” said Kate Freitag, a trike mechanic from Staten Island who was one of a half-dozen pedicab drivers who rode with Critical Mass to celebrate. Freitag says the Council bill would put the company he works for out of business.
Also reveling in all the press attention was City Councilwoman Rosie Mendez, who was greeted with cheers of “Ride, Rosie, Ride!” for her decision to join the mass in a pedicab.
Mendez called the NYPD’s latest “50 or more” rule “arbitrary and unconstitutional,” then hoarsely led the crowd in chants of “Whose streets? Our streets!”
Perhaps not looking to hand her any more hype, the cops let Mendez and the other pedicab drivers slip by their dragnet on Park Avenue.
Though the cops say Critical Mass inconveniences drivers and is a danger to public safety, there was something Orwellian about the swarms of police vans, SUVs, and scooters that descended on the bicyclists, stopping up two lanes on the northbound side of Park Avenue for at least 30 minutes. “Heads up for traffic, please!” screamed one captain at the horde of TV cameras rushing into the street to film a woman getting corralled by a group of cops on the traffic median.
“I can’t figure out the rationale for any of this,” said Daniel Gillmor a 30-year-old technology advisor from Brooklyn, who found himself surrounded by five journalists wanting to know all about the traffic citation he got for supposedly failing to keep to the right. “I was stopped because the police had blocked the intersection. They came over and grabbed my bike and took my license,” Gillmor explained, looking bewildered.
While many riders gave up after the fiasco on Park Avenue, at least 30 regrouped and toured through midtown, including Mendez, who made it all the way to Columbus Circle and Times Square.
“It was great being out there, but I saw some disturbing arrests,” said Mendez when we caught up at Life CafÃ© in the East Village, where she and her pedicab driver from Revolution Rickshaws were celebrating over a beer.
Though the riders who made it through felt victorious, the fact that about half the cyclists got nailed for something is not much to crow about.
“The police have really ruined Critical Mass,” notes Gideon Oliver, a lawyer who has represented hundreds of Critical Mass riders over the last three years.
“They’ve gotten really good at shrinking the ride through intimidation and splintering it up. I don’t know why they need these new parade rules to ruin it further.
“The fact that the police didn’t use the parade rules to ticket anyone last night sort of begs the question, why do they need it?”