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
“Bikes Against Bush!”
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?
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.
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.
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.
I got arrested. Thanks for your support. More here:
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 …
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.
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…
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.
-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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This blog helped me broaden my horizons.