Scenes from the protests

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

whole way.

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


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12 Responses to Scenes from the protests

  1. Michelle says:

    “Bikes Against Bush!”

  2. Andrew | BB says:

    Cool. I’m linking. And thank you for your peaceful protest against the man who should be removed on Nov. 2

    Lame traffic violations. Who knew this is what Pataki meant when he said the convention would generate $250 million?

  3. barry says:

    I don’t think it’s illegal for bikes to be on the street outside of a bike lane. There aren’t bike lanes on many streets, including broad ones like 23rd Street.

    It is definitely illegal for bikes to be on sidewalks, but that’s never enforced.

  4. Toby says:

    I did get a flyer handed to me before the ride last night, and in general found the police very friendly — until we got to 10th and 2nd, when I saw a really nasty arrest and two people who were definitely the victims of entrapment — the cop seemed to promise to show them “how to get out the mess and home” but instead walked them to another cop who put them both in cuffs and took their bikes. Nice.

  5. Tricia says:

    I LOVE CRITICAL MASS! I think it’s great that you had the opportunity to ride in such a giant Critical Mass. The only ones I’ve been involved in have been with maximum 100 people and even that felt energizing. Obviously nothing compared with the number of people & bikes in the critical mass you were with. Even with the small Critical Mass rides I participated in out in California the only pro bike people were us – the peeps pedalling around and we barely disrupted traffic. In LA the newest bike lanes have been protested by just about everyone. Hummers are trying to get Hummer lanes so I believe cyclists should show that they deserve the road as well. Keep up the good work and I’ll post your bail if you get netted by New York’s finest.

    Just remember – BE SAFE. Perhaps wear a helmet at all times on bike or not during the RNC. Republicans are mean.



  6. Mike says:

    I got arrested. Thanks for your support. More here:

  7. Gothamist says:

    Satan’s Laundromat Discovers…Jail

    From photoblogging to prison bologna sandwiches, Mike from Satan’s Laundromat spends 30 hours in lockup after being arrested Friday night! Mike rode in the bike protest:Rather than writing us summonses for the offenses we were charged with, which were …

  8. bafc23 says:

    jeeezus. this is out of hand, passive-agressive police brutality, what a twister. glad you participated and DIDN’T get popped Felix – this reminds me of events a few years back in Chicago during some of the anti-war protests where the cops ‘helped’ people in order to arrest them. perhaps the more ‘average’ citizens that get hassled by the cops, the louder the public outcry will be, but I doubt it. I’m crawling back under my rock now. with my bike.

  9. MemeFirst says:

    NYPD vs bicycles

    As the RNC kicks off at MSG, the NYPD has made it abundantly clear that the biggest threat to the convention is on two wheels. More than half the arrests so far have been of bicyclists, either at the Critical…

  10. LA Rider says:

    I rode in the Critical Mass ride during the 2000 DNC in Los Angeles. It is shockingly similar to the NYC ride accounts I read. Only difference is scale.

    -Peaceful ride begins with several hundred cyclists, along with cheerful and helpful police on bicycle. Intersection closures are tolerated, even encouraged at several major cross streets.

    -Ride approaches actual convention area(Staples Center) and a large cadre of motorcycle and riot police corral groups of riders into area.

    -78 arrests.

    -48 hours in jail. This is the main goal, I believe, as they want people in jail so they do not return to the streets for additional protests.

    -Two weeks later, charges dropped.

    -4 years later, class-action lawsuit results in LAPD/LASO paying out large claims for numerous violations.

    Good luck NYC riders. My experience created a life-long remebered event. Too bad, I thought it was going to be just another ride in the city.

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  12. akne says:

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