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This Month in New York City Critical Mass OR How Much Does It Cost the City to Run One of Those Police Copters All Night?

The cops here sure are getting all the mileage they can out of their RNC-funded, jacked-up mopeds. Have you seen these things? They're hilarious.

Tonight was my first critical mass ride since last summer, since before the Convention. I had no idea what a sad and intimidating mess it's become this year because of the whole paranoid round-up in August. Nobody has been spared the "permit required" hatchet since Cheney, et al, came to town; especially not a bunch of goofs who just want to ride their bikes around without getting clobbered by SUVs and cabs, myself included.

In the glory days, way back in the summer of 2004, people on bikes in New York City used to gather up in Union Square north on the last Friday of every month to wait for for the dude on the recumbent, towing a couple of speaker cabinents and a boom box in a trailer hooked to his bike to press play and make his way out on the street. That was as organized as it got. That guy usually started the show and the rest of us would follow, making our leisurely way through the streets of New York for an hour or two, inconveniencing traffic for a few minutes at a time, trying to demonstrate the power of the bike.

Nothing hugely lofty, but something I can get behind. I had a blast on those rides. We once even made our way through Times Square where a pretty good segment of the ride stopped, dismounted and held their bikes above their heads while the cops kept the cars back. It was a parade for simpler living and self-sufficiency. Plus whatever else you wanted to toss in: more bikes, less cars; no war for oil, whatever.

That's all on hold for the time being. Ever since the Convention, shit is way different. I missed the ride in March, but the rumor at Union Square tonight was that last month, the cops didn't even wait for the ride to start. They apparently surrounded the crowd with orange plastic netting and took to cutting their bikes loose from across the street, taking everything in their path into custody. I wasn't there, so I can't really speak to that. Maybe another author or somebody in the comments can fill us in on that one?

This time, I could tell people were uneasy. Things started early, close to 6:30. Someone involved in the NYC bike scene who'd been arrested spoke; he said some 50-odd people this year alone have been hauled in during critical mass. Can't remember his name, sorry. Normal Siegel spoke for while, condeming the city and its draconian policing since the RNC. And of course, Reverend Billy did his thing.

They wrapped up around 7, when the ride was supposed to start. Nobody did anything but mill. At this point, I'd guess there were at least 50 cops in the immediate vicinity. Only a handful right close to where the speeches were, but on my way in, I saw a few different groups congregating on the outskirts.

The word came through the crowd that a ride was leaving from Tompkins Square Park and people filtered out on their way to that one, or elsewhere, I'm not entirely sure. 20 minutes passed and still nothing. Then, from the east side of 14th street, a half dozen people came by on their bikes yelling for the ride to start. The crowd slowly moved off the plaza at Union Square South and headed down University, the wrong way. This wasn't the first sign, but it was a pretty good one that this was going to be not so much a fun ride as a ride to avoid the cops. Whatever critical mass does to mess with the cars, it never goes the wrong way down a street. Following the flow of traffic is a pretty crucial part of the critical mass thing; the whole idea is we're a vaild form of transport and we just need to be taken seriously.

Anyway, it was a very small crowd. Maybe 50-75 bikers, which is literally nothing in comparison to the rides of last summer, which were easily in the high hundreds, if not thousands at times. And nothing leisurely about it. We were riding to avoid the cops, who were on us after a matter of maybe a dozen blocks. There's something not a bit creepy about looking back over your shoulder to see 20 visor-shielded police on mopeds right on your tail.

We took a circuitous route through the West Village -- to shake them off our trail? I have no idea -- and made our way back up Hudson, only to have them come shooting out in a kind of Smokey and the Bear roadblock move from Perry or Charles Street, whichever goes east to west, to cut us off. Some people went through; others took to the sidestreets. I made it all the way up 8th Ave into the high teens before I backed off when I saw the vans and cruisers swarming in. I personally saw 4 people arrested and their bikes thrown in the trunks of cars.

Meanwhile, apparently other rides had formed from Union Square and were making their way toward Washington Square. The few of us left still hanging around headed that way. We met up with whichever ride it was at this point and followed it. I hung pretty far back because I didn't have any interest in having my bike stolen by the cops (and the word is you don't ever get it back) on the weekend of the 5 Boro Tour. I got to ride with the plainclothes cops at the back, who, in a crowd full of rail-thin single-speed kids, are gonna tend to stand out.

I lost track of where the ride had gone when it left Broadway. I assumed it was going east and I only had to follow the police helicopter to figure that out. Oh, did I mention that? Yeah, they had a helicopter following us the entire time, circling Union Square well before any rides started. I finally made it over to Avenue A and 6th street around 8:30, which for all intents and purposes is where the night and the rides came to an end.

More people were arrested; I don't know how many. A rumor went around that one of them was a writer for the Times. He had some credentials around his neck, but that's all I can say for sure. The last guy to go was getting a pretty good-sized crowd behind him, yelling at the cops to let him free and not to steal his bike. At this point, an ABC 7 news van had arrived (I didn't catch the 11 o'clock, but a cursory glance at their website give me a murder, a stalking, a 9-year-old getting stabbed, and tree killing beatle eggs. No critical mass.)

More milling, more yelling. Eventually, the moped cops showed up, along with their friends from the riot division and a healthy cavalcade of vans full of beat cops. I would guess, at ten to 9 o'clock, on the corner of A and 6th, there had to have been 100 cops, if not 150. All for the sake of -- at that point -- maybe 40 riders. Maybe. Who had had their fill of running from the fuzz for the day and were pretty content to yell at the police and not much more. Did I mention the helicopter? They were still busy overhead. Now, I'm not up on my subscription to Modern Policing but I'm going to take a guess that this one was a little bit in the overkill.

I don't really know how to sum up. That was it. Everybody dispersed. I went and drank some beer. It was sad. Sad and mind-blowingly frustrating. Critical mass is a good thing. I have a really hard time understanding how a once-a-month ride can possibly be a bad thing, let alone warrant as massive a law enforcement display as the one I saw tonight. Over what? A permit? After years of peacful riding? This ride marked the 12th anniversary of critical mass in New York and what a shit way to do it, people. I don't need to get into the Republican administration and Bloomberg's ass-kissing and the RNC protestors and the dirty pier and all that. We all know about that. Just remember this next time you're thinking, "Goddamn, was that a shitty time," because that time is very much this time. It's a time when you could literally be arrested just for riding your bike on the street. Seriously. It's really come to that. I hope to see you all on the 27th, because while we may not be able to ride for free right now, they're not ever going to shut us down.

Posted by Matt Ransford on 04/30/2005 | Permalink

Comments

While I've always appreciated the theory of Critical Mass, I question its actual effectiveness. Doesn't clogging the streets actually do more harm for the environment when cars are slowed down by a throng of bikers? And doesn't it piss more people off than make them think "bicycles are a grannd alternative to automobiles. I should ride my bike from New Jersey every day"? It comes off as an "us vs. them" bit of grandstanding that doesn't change minds or really seem to have a point of view any more.

Posted by: Joe Garden | May 2, 2005 12:19:16 PM

Nobody -- at least no one whose head is screwed on the right direction -- is saying that everyone should switch from cars to bikes right now, regardless of how insanely far they live from where they work.

However I agree that the critical mass has lost its way. This is not at all to excuse the absolutely criminal behavior of the cops (Bloomberg's cops, remember), but to point out that the worse the CMers are treated by the cops, the more they let themselves be pushed into illegal riding styles -- wrong way riding, running lights and so on.

I was in the CM during the RNC, and I was absolutely disgusted by the way that the self-selected leaders of the ride blew through red lights and terrorized pedestrians on the crosswalks. Not cars, mind you, but peds. I'm not averse to responsible, individual red-light running on a bike, but running 500 bikes at high speed through intersections is frat-boy pack mentality.

At Astor Place I had to stop and use my own bicycle to shield an frail, elderly woman who was caught in the crosswalk while the throng flew through. She was justifiably terrified. If she'd been hit it would have been tragic.

Again, this does not excuse the selective enforcement and false arrests that the cops carried out then, or later. But the people who ride in critical mass need to rethink their approach and start applying some social pressure to those who have made the CM counter-productive.

One suggestion, and I would follow it myself: Gather and leave for the ride legally. Walk your bike off the sidewalk, mount and ride with traffic, one by one or in a steady flow. And get it on video. If that gets us arrested, then we are in the right. But unless there's some kind of social contract that illegal activity, even by a minority, discredits us all, count me out.

Posted by: Rich Garella | May 2, 2005 12:45:41 PM

I can agree with Rich's sentiment that CM is losing its way, but I think that's due to the inherent lack of leadership and the fact that the whole idea is setup simply as a ride and nothing more. Now that this beast of a problem is literally chasing the riders, there's no framework in place to deal with it in any other setting than on the streets. Granted, Time's Up and people like Normal Siegel are doing what they can in that arena, but the ride itself is kind of on its own, unless the police finally kill it entirely or somebody decides to appropriate it under their banner.

That said, I don't approve of any of the wrong-way riding and weaving between cars that took place on Friday night. It really wasn't a CM ride; it was a race to outrun the cops. That's not any way to change peoples' minds. I wasn't at the RNC ride, so I can't speak to that, but all the rides I've ever done have been nothing but civil and leisurely. I've never worried about pedestrians being intimidated, let alone run down in the crosswalks. That end of things is bad, no question.

But the police aren't concerned with legal v. illegal riding. They're coming after CM for the assembling. Even if everybody were to ride in single file with the traffic, obeying the lights, I'd say there's a really good chance they're still going to break it up and bring people in, especially considering last month, when they brought out plastic netting and arrested people before anything even started.

As for the effectiveness of a mass anything these days? Well, in order for any protest to work, the people in power have got to be willing to talk and this administration seems pretty far from that, considering the convention was 8 months ago. Sure, it pisses off the jerks in the fancy cars (and believe me, it's almost always the guys in the most expensive cars yelling the loudest) but I've got to believe they're going to yell at anything in their way, bikes or not.

On the other side, there are just as many, if not more people in the streets cheering the ride on, or at least, there used to be. Are they cheering for alternative transportation? Or just because they see parade? I don't know. The thing is, CM never had a point of view. That's kind of the whole point. Yes, there's a kind of nebulous thinking that bikes are good and more cars are bad (only the most rabid think all cars are bad) and the ride is a kind of protest, but there aren't any meetings or minutes or mission statements to back anything like that up concretely.

I think of it as a really good time once a month after work where people can get together and have a nice, quiet ride through the streets of the city. You don't have to have a point to enjoy it. There's something unspeakably liberating about being surrounded by hundreds of other cyclists and the sound of clicking gears and cheering, not to mention not having any delivery trucks bearing down on you for once. That's just fun. Let Transportation Alternatives and Time's Up do the negotiating for bike paths and less cars. I want critical mass back because it's the best free entertainment the city has to offer. They used not to have any problem with it. I don't see how anything but their attitude has changed.

Posted by: Matt Ransford | May 2, 2005 2:49:40 PM

i agree with matt.

last night i joined the critical mass bike ride for the first time, and i had no real idea what i was getting into.

i just knew i liked to bike, and worried often about getting hit by car.

plus it can feel lovely to ride with a group, like a pack.

the ride was the most incredible thing i've done in new york, in the last year, possibly even the most incredible thing i've done in my adult life.

it felt free and liberating...
it felt fun. (which is something people forget to have these days it seems)

i didn't know anyone who'd ridden before, and i hadn't been following the arrest saga, so the whole time i kept thinking well i can't get arrested just for riding my bike.

when things started getting hectic i saw some older cyclists splinter off, i thought it'd be wise to follow them. (i didn't know if i could get time off from work for being arrested, and i didn't want to spend my vacation time that way anyway)

apparently the cops did arrest people and i felt that was a shame because for me critical mass did make a difference.


i rode in to work today proud and felt safer than i have yet biking in this whirlwind of a city.

Posted by: lindsey heddleston | May 28, 2005 5:12:47 PM

I spent the last 5 months in SF so I missed the NYC rides. The last one I went to being the Oct '04 ride, which I loved.

I like the idea we are blocking traffic and running red lights. In the 2 years of riding I have never seen any group of riders just recklessly run red lights, everytime cars are trying to drive by a few riders stop to block the cars from going. We don't just run without looking.

In terms of going the wrong way up streets, I do feel that is stupid, but the only reason that anyone is doing it is because they have no other choice because of the police's decision to arrest basically bicyclist's on sight.

In terms of not getting your bike back if you get arrested, I doubt that is true, espically if your bike is registered, otherwise the police are doing something illegal and you can sue them. Something I am sure Norman will help you out with.

I will be at this friday's Critical Mass, and I hope you will be there as well.

Steve

Posted by: Steven | Jun 20, 2005 5:56:41 PM

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