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Riding with Critical Mass

May 4, 2005

It’s the summer of 2004. The Republican National Convention is coming to town.

For three years, New Yorkers have been counting orange alerts. Now the Republican National Convention and its security apparatus are threatening to gobble the city whole. What an opportune time, with the citizenry wondering which face the body politic will show next, for three police helicopters to spread their frantic hum over Union Square, a popular park near the East Village.

If you’re a downtown regular, you probably saw them. On the last Friday of every month, the police hold a procession in Union Square. The force is quite impressive: officers in riot gear wait at each corner, squadrons of scooters flank the park’s southeastern tip, jump-out vans are parked around the block, along with the ubiquitous command SUV and sometimes a flatbed truck. A police sound truck sets the rhythm with a garbled soliloquy. The cost to taxpayers? — easily in the millions.

Terrorists beware! Shenanigans on these Friday evenings will surely result in a fate most grim. Except that this has nothing to do with the current orange alert; in fact, it has nothing to do with terrorist threats or any sort of threat at all. This is the City of New York’s response to a bicycle ride called “Critical Mass.”

Critical Mass began in San Francisco in 1992 under the inauspicious and luckily short-lived name “Commuter Clot.” The ride’s proper name was derived from Ted White’s 1992 documentary “Return of the Scorcher,” in which he characterized the buildup and consequent surge of bikers through Beijing streets as a “critical mass.” Critical Mass takes place in hundreds of cities around the world (critical-mass.org counts four hundred and four rides on six continents) as a “semi-spontaneous” event. “Spontaneous” because the ride has neither leaders, nor a prescribed route, nor a destination, and “semi” because there is an agreed upon time and place for the ride to begin. For about two hours on the last Friday evening of every month, Critical Mass takes the streets away from cars and hands control to cyclists.

New York’s Critical Mass got its start about eight years ago with only a handful of participants. By 2003, the ride had grown to hundreds, sometimes thousands, of cyclists. On the whole, relations between the New York Police Department (NYPD) and Critical Mass remained stable. Occasional periods of unrest marked the Giuliani era, but they got along at the beginning of Bloomberg’s tenure.

Election-year high-jinks changed things. By July 2004, the NYPD presence at the rides had grown substantially. Instead of a few scattered patrols, detachments of scooters, unmarked sedans, and SUVs surveilled us. By late August, the Republican National Convention was cozily double-parked in front of Madison Square Garden and the NYPD (along with the FBI, Secret Service, INS, etc.) were poised to handle a record-setting number of protesters.

The Mayor’s office and the NYPD adopted policies that are now common knowledge — the rule of that long week was preemptive arrest. Simply put, anyone who looked like a dissident was forcibly removed from the streets, and effectively removed from public discourse, as well. Police officers arrested more than 1,800 people, more than at any prior Republican or Democratic convention in United States history.

The August ride was scheduled just days before the official convention kick-off. With over five thousand cyclists (some news sources place the ride at seven to ten thousand), it was the largest New York turnout ever.

During the ride, Critical Mass broke into several groups, then coiled its way through the city, chanting all the anti-Bushisms a crowd of thousands could muster. Maybe this embarrassed the Mayor, or maybe the unrestrained expression of a presidential term’s worth of frustrations sounded the alarm for Police Chief Raymond Kelly. In any case, the NYPD reacted aggressively. Two-hundred sixty-four Critical Mass participants were arrested. In many instances, the NYPD used orange nets to capture bikers. When a large portion of the ride terminated in front of Saint Mark’s Church, the NYPD sectioned off the block and riot cops marched in.

Despite the arrest of cyclists, the August ride was an enormous success, both in terms of its size and its defense of our fundamental right to protest, which the Mayor and NYPD were doing their best to squelch.

Everyone Goes to Court and a Cop Does an Ugly Thing

The August ride set the stage for the bizarre set of circumstances which dog Critical Mass to this day. Unable to control us during the convention, an embarrassed Mayor Bloomberg and Police Chief Ray Kelly began an aggressive campaign against Critical Mass. A massive police presence became common at rides, as did the infamous orange nets and arrests. The NYPD claimed that bicycles cannot be counted as traffic and therefore are lacking in vehicular consideration (NYPD-speak for “they need a permit”). They further asserted that Critical Mass presented a hazard to public safety, and that it was possible the ride could block an emergency vehicle. The blocked-ambulance rationale was later supplemented with a “bikers are hooligans” mantra — a contention that echoed in the op-ed pages of local tabloids (like the November 5, 2004, op-ed “End the Anarchy” in AM New York).

For the September ride, the NYPD added a new element to its repertoire — the confiscation of chained bikes. Police cut chains and confiscated forty bicycles from participants, many of whom had left the ride, ironically, because of the police presence. The bikes’ owners were never arrested or charged with any crime.

Here’s a good line from the U.S. constitution: “No person shall be . . . deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

Anything pertaining to this brief line of the Fifth amendment ends up in federal court. So, when five cyclists who had their locks cut and bikes confiscated filed for an injunction barring the city from the aforementioned practice, the federal government, in the person of Judge William H. Pauley III, put in an appearance. Responding to the cyclists’ injunction, the city and the NYPD filed a counter-injunction asserting that Critical Mass was an illegal event, essentially a parade without a permit. The whole mess ended up in court just four days before the much-anticipated October Halloween ride.

As the court found, the city’s counter-injunction was riddled with legal problems. Can a leaderless event such as Critical Mass apply for a permit? Who would apply? Does filing a counter-injunction against Critical Mass based on an injunction from five cyclists unjustly frame them as the representatives of the ride? And, of course, how do the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth amendments apply to New York City traffic ordinances? Here are some excerpts from the Judge’s October 28, 2004, ruling:

“By attempting to use litigation as its platform, the city has injected a slew of important and complex issues into this action. With only two days to respond to the city’s application, the Plaintiffs are prejudiced, and the Court is short-changed.

Yet again, helicopters hovered like wild-hearted cherubs, high above the witches, pirates, and ghosts assembled in Union Square on Halloween. Using an alternate strategy, the NYPD tried to establish a route for the routeless Critical Mass. As the riders watched the low light fade, NYPD officers circulated through the crowd politely handing out flyers with a route of their own — one which did not stop at Times Square as rides frequently do — and threatened to arrest those who deviated from the prescribed path.

An important part of Critical Mass is that it is a spontaneous ride. There is no destination, no route. So it did not surprise many people when the ride broke off from the police path and eventually meandered its way back downtown to the Critical Mass Halloween after-party hosted by Time’s Up, an environmental and bike advocacy group that has largely been responsible for getting the word out about Critical Mass. The NYPD didn’t like them.

By about ten o’clock that evening, the Critical Mass crowd was partying away at Times Up’s Houston Street location when things again went sour. It all started with a big woman who had a crew cut, wore a football jersey, and was smoking a cigar — really. Most Critical Mass revelers didn’t know what to make of her as she began shouldering bikers and stepping on toes. She certainly got everyone’s attention, so much so that few revelers noticed the police curser pulling up in front of the space. That is, except for one man standing on the sidewalk who wanted to take a picture of the police car. Little did he suspect that the belligerent woman would grab his camera and throw it on the pavement, then grab his beer and pour it on the camera, then, showing her badge, grab him and throw him into the very cruiser he was so fond of. Incidentally, the man happened to be a German tourist taking a picture for his son. He spent twenty hours in lockup that night before an interpreter was found.

Officers perceived the bust of the intrepid German as a signal to raid. They swarmed in from their hiding places and attempted to enter the Time’s Up space (which, legally, they needed the property owner’s consent to do). The party-goers swiftly moved to repel the invading police. It resulted in a standoff: the police let no one out and the cyclists let no one in. By the time someone had contacted the group’s lawyer, Norman Siegel, the NYPD had once again snatched up a number of the group’s bikes.

Biking in the Dead Cold

On December 8, 2004, Judge Pauley ruled that Critical Mass is in fact a legal ride and does not require a permit. The Judge’s ruling, however, did not contain anything to restrain the NYPD. Confrontations continued, spilling into the smaller Brooklyn Critical Mass (which met on the second Friday of every month), where mere handfuls of bikers routinely found police vans and scooters waiting for them. On one rainy night, the NYPD snatched and cuffed the cyclists, telling them that it was “a show of force” before releasing them without arrest.

It’s time for a quick lesson in politics: when a delegation from the city of Messina complained to the Roman General Pompey of his legions’ brutality when they retook Sicily from the Marians, he replied, “Stop quoting the laws to us. We carry swords.”

It’s January 2005 and the presidential inauguration; then February and the Lynne Stewart conviction; then March and another year of the Iraq war and occupation. In the courts, the federal injunction has settled into stalemate, but the New Year brings more of the same on the streets: scooters, helicopters, vans, trucks, then arrests. In Brooklyn, the NYPD routinely outnumber riders by two or three to one. In Manhattan, metal barricades and orange nets surround Union Square. On 17th Street, sparks fly as grinders cut locks from parked bicycles — how proud we are of our amendments.

Critical Mass is smaller for the cold weather, faster in the winter streets. After months of conflict, many riders have developed a hyper-alertness. Critical Mass moves with a new tension. The NYPD remains the same, unaffected by the cold weather, though some officers complain. Month after month, it’s bikers and police—neither backing down.

On March 22, 2005, the city filed a new lawsuit in State Court. This time, it framed the Time’s Up group as the mastermind behind Critical Mass. Is the idea of a leaderless event really so hard to swallow? The lawsuit enjoins Time’s Up from promoting Critical Mass (though the ride has been advertised in dozens of New York publications). More importantly, the lawsuit seeks to establish a precedent that would place in the hands of the police the power to dictate how many people can assemble in a public park. If the city wins, the NYPD can disperse a gathering of twenty or more people at its discretion.

The Problem

It would be easy to dismiss the entire Critical Mass affair as a sign of the times. But how far can last year’s political vortex reach? This year, the next? And how long can the NYPD remain mobilized against its own city? To suggest that the maintenance of a political prerogative justifies the NYPD’s recent behavior would be insufficient – indeed, pathetic. A more plausible logic might say that once defied, police forces will move to reestablish their authority, often with crushing force — move for those out there who can still remember Osage Ave and Gregore Sambor. It’s a simple explanation and one that works.

But where has the Mayor been in all of this? Why has the city’s top executive consistently condoned the actions of this massive, aggressive, and very costly police force against a bike ride? If the vision for our later-day New York is of a city so stunted and strangled by its own security apparatus that even a bike ride presents a threat, then New York has truly become the embodiment of our national crisis.

The powers that be never seem to have grasped Critical Mass on a conceptual level. The riders are anarchists or hooligans or whatever term will sell that day — anything but simply citizens of New York. It’s right and proper that the only coherent and consistent position regarding Critical Mass has come from the bikers themselves. In nearly a year of struggle with the country’s premier police force, Critical Mass has never been stopped. And in that same year, there has never been a shortage of bodies willing to stand up for themselves and their community. From Critical Mass comes a definitive position: “Still We Ride.”

To comment on this piece: editors@guernicamag.com


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