Once again the Critical Mass Bike ride is in the New York Times Metro Section. My compliments to this paper’s constant interest in the issues that effect the New York City cycling community and the erosion of civil liberties.
Flouting Arrest on 2 Wheels, for the Monthly Crime of Pedaling Without a Permit
By DAN BARRY
Published: May 4, 2005
BARBARA ROSS is 41 and lives on the Lower East Side. Several times a week, she straps on a blue helmet and rides her bicycle through the streets of this city. What a troublemaker.
It doesn’t matter that she works in human resources for a large company, or that she votes and has a dog named Doc. Just check her name in the criminal justice database: two arrests within the last year, both while in possession of that insidious, two-wheeled invention, the bicycle – also known as a bike.
Ms. Ross was nearly arrested a third time in March, but used her wiles to get out of a jam. Seeing the heat coming down the street, she chained her bicycle to a pole and ducked into a bar. All she could do was watch the sparks fly, as police officers cut the heavy chain with a special tool and confiscated her bicycle.
“I’m just an everyday person,” she said yesterday. “But I like to ride my bike.”
She even admits it. Typical bicyclist.
This city usually works like a trusty old bicycle, always able to shift gears for difficult hills on the horizon. But lately the wheels are not spinning smoothly. Something is broken.
For more than a decade now, cities around the world have accommodated a monthly event called Critical Mass, in which bicyclists ride en masse through the streets to enjoy themselves, promote transportation alternatives, and send the message that roadways are not just for cars. A supposed charm of these rallies is that no one is in charge. They are, like, organic.
The police here used to tolerate the rally, which takes place on the last Friday of every month. Officers sometimes held off traffic as a cycling cluster wheeled out of Union Square Park and looped through Manhattan streets. You would see parents cycling beside their children, and even a tandem or two.
All that changed last year. In late July, some cyclists caught the police unawares by disrupting traffic on the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive. And in late August, on the eve of the Republican National Convention, a few of the thousands of rallying cyclists violated traffic laws and purposely blocked crosstown traffic in a practice called “corking.” Scores were arrested, though very, very few of the charges stuck.
The police then tried to find a Critical Mass leader to establish an agreed-upon route and other ground rules. They were told that no one is in charge, although a direct-action group called Time’s Up! promotes the monthly event on its Web site. Besides, a predetermined route would, like, violate the spontaneous spirit of the rally.
Uh-huh, said the police.
After years of allowing Critical Mass rallies to take place, the police began arguing that the event required a parade permit; without one, participants were subject to arrest. The department began using a helicopter above and orange netting below to play a crazed cat-and-mouse game playing out on pavement. Hundreds of otherwise law-abiding cyclists have now looked forlornly out the backs of police wagons.
THE cyclists bear some responsibility, of course. A few seem to enjoy taunting the police as much as they do running red lights. “And when you press them about observing the lights, they say you wouldn’t arrest somebody driving a car,” Paul J. Browne, the deputy police commissioner for public information, said. “It’s sort of: We’re breaking the law on one hand, but on the other, we’re being treated more harshly than motorists.”
But Ms. Ross, who is a volunteer with Time’s Up!, spoke for many when she said that cyclists are essentially being arrested for minor traffic violations that would normally warrant only a summons. “If I went through a red light and got a ticket,” she said, “what could I say?”
It’s no longer about traffic flow, though. It’s about control.
Once a month now, the police – who say they are willing to facilitate the rides if permits are obtained – surround Union Square. A chopper hovers above to track rogue packs of cyclists. Officers stand ready to snare bikers with netting, or to confiscate hurriedly abandoned bicycles. They arrested 34 people at Friday’s ugly rally.
Meanwhile, city lawyers are seeking an injunction to prohibit Time’s Up! from publicizing the monthly gatherings. Their astounding logic is that the cyclists gather in Union Square Park before each rally; large gatherings in city parks require special permits; no permits are being sought. Therefore, publicizing an unlawful event is – unlawful.
The wheels of this city are not spinning smoothly. Something is broken. The next rally is on May 27. It’s a good thing that people on both sides wear helmets.