Q&A: Norman Siegel
The New York Daily News
November 4th, 2004
Civil liberties lawyer Norman Siegel spoke to the Daily News Editorial Board about the conflict between police and bike-riding demonstrators.
Question: More than 1,000 cyclists take part in bike rides, called Critical Mass, on the last Friday of every month. That has led to police enforcement, including riders arrested and bicycles confiscated. Whatâ€™s the point of the rides?
Answer: The rides celebrate cycling and the environmental benefits of a growing number of people using bicycles rather than cars. The Critical Mass rides have occurred in the city for six years without incident. Since the Republican convention, that has changed. The NYPD now seems to be overreacting to the rides. There is an increasing clash of cultures.
Q: Police say they need to work out the route with group leaders for public safety reasons. Whatâ€™s the problem?
A: First, there are no leaders. Second, there is no predetermined route. Last month, the police unilaterally suggested a route, but imposing a unilateral route will not resolve the issues. The police and the Bloomberg administration also seem to be arguing that you need a permit to ride bikes in the street.
Q: The ride looks like a protest. Why not get a permit, so police could clear a safe path for the riders and traffic could flow?
A: If you have a right to ride in the street, you do not need government permission. Of course, you must follow vehicular rules, regulations and laws. If pedestrians want to march in the street, they need a permit. Bicycles are defined in the law as vehicular. You cannot ride your bike on the sidewalk but you can ride your bike on the street. So if you deviate from the policeâ€™s unilaterally suggested route, thatâ€™s not a crime. You can deviate if you follow all the rules.
Q: Some cyclists have run red lights, ridden against traffic and blocked side streets. You say they should be ticketed. Why shouldnâ€™t they be arrested?
A: If a car runs a red light or makes a wrong turn, it gets a ticket. For people riding in Critical Mass, even assuming they go through a red light, the appropriate remedy is a ticket, not arrest. Thereâ€™s selective enforcement of the law. That fuels tension.
Q: You represent five cyclists whose bikes were confiscated at the Sept. 24 ride. They got an injunction to stop police from seizing bicycles at the Oct. 29 ride, yet more bikes were taken. Why?
A: To chill people, deter them from riding in Critical Mass and/or to punish people for riding. This is fueling already too-high tension between the police and the bike community.
Q: The mayor and the police commissioner need to provide visible leadership to let people in the NYPD know theyâ€™re wrong. A federal judge told them theyâ€™re wrong. You have to report back to the judge today. What will you do?
A: Iâ€™ll be talking with people and will outline to the judge problems with how and why bikes were seized last Friday night. The issue is still alive.
Q: How can the tension be defused?
A: Riders and the Bloomberg administration must talk to each other to find ways for New Yorkers to ride bikes in the street free of harassment and hostility and in ways that guarantee public safety. For the previous year before August, in good weather they averaged about 1,000 bike riders each ride. So the argument police are making that all of a sudden this got large in number and they have to crack down is not accurate. For the Republican convention, thousands of people rode because of the international attention. But the Republicans have left, and the question becomes why is this crackdown, hostility, targeting of bike riders continuing.
Originally published on November 4, 2004
Copyright 2004, The New York Daily News