A nice balmy summer’s night – perfect for a group bike
ride around New York City, no? I thought so, anyway, so I joined about five
thousand other like-minded bicyclists at Union Square this evening for the
monthly Critical Mass event.
It’s a Take Back The Streets thing – get enough cyclists together in
one place, and they can actually control the roads rather than being sidelined
(literally) by cars. There’s something really rather exhilarating about pedalling
down the middle of Sixth Avenue in such numbers that the cars have to yield
to you, rather than the other way around. The most popular chant is simple:
"Whose streets? Our streets!"
Normally, the police are well disposed towards Critical Mass events. They help
the cyclists stay together, even if it means allowing them to run through red
lights. Ultimately, so long as the bikes keep moving, the disruption to traffic
is minimised. This time, however, was different: the AP reports that the police
made nearly 250
I feel a need, here, to explain what these people were arrested for –
and to complain about the rather incoherent attitude of the NYPD tonight. According
to news reports, the police were handing out flyers at the start point in Union
Square – although I saw many police officers there, and none handing
out flyers. Organisers were apparently told in advance that the police would
be strict about enforcing traffic laws – even saying that we weren’t allowed
to ride more than two abreast.
But when the ride started, everything seemed copacetic between the police and
protestors. A clearly senior police officer in suit and tie, rather than any
uniform, let the riders out of Union Square and down Broadway in batches, allowing
traffic to flow sporadically along 14th Street. We had no problems riding down
Broadway and then making a right onto Houston Street; we then turned onto Sixth
Avenue to make our way up to Midtown.
The general M.O. in such events is that if you’re in the part of the pack which
happens to hit an intersection as the light turns red, you stop your bike in
front of the traffic so that it can’t move until the pack has passed the intersection.
This ensures the safety of the riders: no one wants to be sideswiped by a car,
so it’s best to make sure they don’t even think about driving into the peloton.
I found myself on such traffic-calming duty a couple of times, and it’s a nice
feeling, necessarily a little bit reminiscent of that famous photo of the lone
protestor holding up a long line of tanks outside Tiananmen Square. Mostly,
the occupants of the cars were supportive: New Yorkers are generally well disposed
towards these kind of actions, I think.
At one intersection in the 20s, however, things got ugly: a middle-aged white
guy in a shirt and tie stormed out of the taxi he was in the back of, and tried
to physically shove me out of the way. Naturally, dozens of cyclists immediately
surrounded him, and he backed off, but he tried the same stunt a minute later
with another guy.
I was a bit shaky after that, but relaxed when we hit 30th Street, where the
ride moved east over to Madison Avenue. Suddenly, the police seemed to be in
control again: rather than leaving the traffic control to the standard Critical
Mass DIY method which had caused the confrontation on Sixth Avenue, the NYPD
was making sure that tempers didn’t fray too much on either side. We crossed
Fifth Avenue without incident, biked up Madison to 55th, and then went over
to 7th Avenue with police seeming very much accommodating of the bike ride the
The highlight of the evening was Times Square, for sure. Hundreds of cyclists
filling up the Crossroads of the World, slowly – the police were manning
42nd Street, so we backed up into Times Square proper, and at one point somehow
all managed to raise our bikes in the air at the same time, above our heads.
I hope someone posts a picture online!
After Times Square, as the New York Times puts
it, police patience appeared to grow thin. I suppose I must have been near
the back of the pack at this point, since I was up by 36th Street, while netting
was dragged across 14th Street, backing up riders. I did, however, see a major
police operation, with riot police and motorcycle cops rushing down 34th Street
in formation, creating a cordon around a group of riders, and, I assume, pretty
much arresting them all. What you have to understand is this: every single one
of the 5,000 riders was technically breaking the law, since we were not confining
ourselves to bike lanes, we were riding more than two abreast, and we had to
run through red lights just to stay with the pack.
The crowd was hyped up, and enthusiastic, but by no means were we a bunch of
anarchists intent on violence. I’m sure that the arrests were entirely random:
the police, at whatever point they decided to move in, simply rounded up whomever
they first laid hands on, either on 34th Street or a bit further down the ride,
at 10th Street in the East Village. I have absolutely no idea what they intended
to achieve by this: it certainly didn’t stop the main peloton from continuing
the ride up First Avenue and on to 23rd Street, and everybody who witnessed
it, I’m sure, was rather taken aback by the NYPD’s sudden heavy-handedness.
The thing is, this was very much the kind of peaceful protest which Mayor Bloomberg
has repeatedly said that he welcomes. Yes, we disrupted traffic, but that has
always been the whole point of the Critical Mass ride, and traffic disruption
is not violence. New Yorkers on the sidewalks, whether it was uptown or downtown,
East Side or West – even the tourists in Times Square – were all
hugely supportive of us, cheering us on all the way and flashing peace signs.
They understood what we were about.
And the NYPD has a history of being very good at dealing with protests –
when the World Economic Forum was in New York in 2002, say, or during the UN
Millennium Assembly. Very few arrests, professional crowd control – I’ve
always thought that New York managed to show its mettle in hosting such events,
in contrast to, say, Seattle or Genoa.
The RNC, however, is a whole different kettle of fish. When protestors abseiled
down the Plaza Hotel with an anti-Bush banner (great stunt), a policeman on
the roof fell through a skylight, which allowed the protestors to be charged
with assault: they now face possible long jail terms. And the hundreds of arrests
today have already easily broken the total for the entire duration of the DNC
in Boston – and the RNC hasn’t even officially started yet.
Up until this evening, I was confident that the protests, though large, would
not be marred with too much antagonism between the protestors and the police.
Now, however, I’m not so sure: the NYPD seems keen to prove a point, even if
the point it’s trying to prove is hard to fathom. Earlier this evening, I inwardly
scoffed at the grungy downtown types handing out emergency phone numbers for
people who got arrested. Now, I’m going to make sure that I take that phone
number with me to the big demonstration on Sunday. I have no idea what might