A comprehensive report on the April Critical Mass
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Critical Mass tries new tactics, but not the police
By Lincoln Anderson
The Villager | 04-May-2005
The monthly Critical Mass started out differently than usual
last Friday night. There was a rally for cyclists' civil rights,
followed by a blessing of arrested cyclists. And instead of
one big departure from Union Sq., the riders left from four
different sites. But the city's response didn't change: Police
showed no signs of backing down from their hard-line stance,
making 34 arrests.
The night also saw what some called a "standoff" between East
Villagers and riot-gear-clad police officers at E. Sixth St.
and Avenue A, where police handcuffed and briefly arrested a
New York Times reporter.
Before the ride, a "Still We Speak" rally was held in Union Sq.
in response to the city's recent court action to try to bar four
members of the Time's Up! group from publicizing Critical Mass.
"We submit bike riding without a permit is not unlawful," said
civil rights attorney Norman Siegel at the rally.
Siegel said they plan to file a counterclaim in state court next
month against the city's lawsuit against the bicyclists. The
city is arguing that Critical Mass needs to get a permit to ride
and a permit to gather in the park. Siegel said they'll continue
to hold rallies before the monthly rides.
"We have to say, 'No way. We have a right to be here. We have
the right to speak,'" he said. "Critical Mass will not stop."
Councilmember Margarita Lopez, who represents Union Sq., the
riders' usual departure point, and other areas of Downtown that
the unscripted Critical Mass events often travel through,
announced she is introducing four pieces of legislation to close
administrative code loopholes police are using to arrest the
"We know that in this country selective use of the law is not
acceptable," Lopez said. "All of these pieces of legislation I'm
looking into have one thing in common -- it's protecting the
Constitution, the right to ride bikes, the right to stand in
here [Union Sq., a city park]. The right to private property --
you can't even lock your bike [without police cutting the
lock]." Lopez vowed not to allow "a single loophole" to remain.
In blessing the cyclists, Reverend Billy preached, "You're
pedaling your bodies out into a city that has forgotten the
First Amendment." He prayed to "the goddess that knows how to
fix bicycles" for their safety.
Police presence around Union Sq. was heavy. But the cyclists had
already planned to split up and also depart from three other
points -- Tompkins Sq., Washington Sq. and Madison Sq. Word got
out that police were waiting out of sight around Union Sq. and
planned to "arrest everyone with a bicycle" in the square. A
line of police mopeds were parked in front of Barnes and Noble
on 17th St. as a loudspeaker truck warned riders they would be
arrested for "riding in a procession without a permit."
The group of cyclists that left from Madison Sq. cruised east
then down through the East Village and across to the West
Village. Moods were high as police were nowhere in sight. There
was some opportunity to enjoy spinning through the city and
comment on the scenery, though not all of it inspired positive
Zack Winestine, a Greenwich Village community activist, could
be heard fuming about a "monstrosity" as the group passed the
new, mirrored-glass Gwathmey-Siegel tower on Astor Pl., angrily
muttering that a version of it was now being slated for the
Greenwich Village waterfront.
"This is where Edgar Allan Poe got his morphine and laudanum
fix -- the Northern Dispensary," announced Matt Levy, as they
whizzed along Waverly Pl. "It's my job to know this stuff. I'm
a tour guide," said Levy, sporting a kaiserlike moustache and
a Tyrolean hat.
Joel Pomerantz, a mural organizer from San Francisco, said he
delayed his flight to Europe for an extra day so he could ride
in the New York City Critical Mass. He's been riding in the San
Francisco Critical Mass since its start in 1992, he said. About
five years ago, police there gave up trying to rein in the ride
and realized it was easier to just let it happen, he said.
"They just have a few police ride along at the end -- to show
they have some control," he said.
The group spread out across avenues, forcing cars to slow down
for several blocks, then peeled off onto sidestreets. But as a
bus came up behind them, there were yells of "Bus! Left! Left!"
and they opened a way for mass transit to get through. The
rides block traffic to send a message that bikes have a right
to safety on the road, and to feel powerful, too. There was a
report of one cyclist being rammed by an angry motorist during
the event, but the biker was uninjured.
On Hudson St., the Madison Sq. group merged with the Washington
Sq. group to cheers -- the bikers communicate by cell phone
and text messaging to keep track of their own and the police's
whereabouts. Then they headed Uptown, all the way to Columbus
Circle, which they rounded twice, while shouting "Stop Shopping!
Start Biking!" as they flew past the Shops at Columbus Center in
the AOL Time Warner Building. "Stop Eating! Start Biking!" they
called out while speeding by restaurants.
But things began to be less fun in East Midtown after three
undercover officers on bikes tailing the ride radioed for police
mopeds to cut off and trap the Critical Mass at 46th St. and
Madison Ave. The pack was broken up and smaller groups of riders
headed back Downtown, with arrests being made as police picked
off riders at various locations.
Obert Wood, a banker who lives in the East Village, said when
they fled the police at 46th St., the officers yelled at them,
"What are you doing, girls?" Not very professional, he and a few
other riders with him who had managed to elude arrest, thought.
Earlier, Colin Moynihan, a Times reporter, was arrested after
he had been standing at E. Sixth St. and Avenue A interviewing
someone while covering the story. According to John Penley,
an East Village activist who witnessed the event, an officer
shoved Moynihan as police were clearing the corner and Moynihan
asked for the officers' badge number three times, after which
a group of officers threw him on top of a police car trunk and
Moynihan, who was released without any charges, declined
Penley claimed he had started things by yelling at police after
he saw them walking an arrested biker up Sixth St. Penley said
right before that he'd seen three vans full of police roar up
Avenue A and almost hit people, and he became indignant at the
idea of hundreds of police chasing around the cyclists. Soon a
crowd of East Villagers were shouting at the police, he said.
"Actually, it was me that started the whole thing going over
there," Penley said. "I started yelling at the cops about what
a waste it was of our tax dollars to have vanloads of cops and
helicopters following people around the neighborhood -- and that
people like the bikers in the neighborhood. It was just yuppies
and old ladies yelling about it. People clearly see it as a big
waste of time and money and don't support it." Apparently some
police might agree: "A white shirt [supervising officer] came
over and told me, "I'd rather not be doing this," -- Penley
Penley said three or four vanloads of police came in quickly and
cleared the corners, during which Moynihan was "shoved pretty
Meanwhile, Alina de Laforcade, an artist whose boyfriend runs
Holyland grocery store on St. Mark's Pl., said that in Paris --
as in San Francisco -- the city is taking a more cooperative
approach to a mass, human-powered event. Every Saturday in
Paris, she said, "20,000 people" rollerblade around the city,
up and down the Rue St. Germain and Champs Elysees, in a giant
pack and that police facilitate it.
"The police, like, stop traffic so this group can go and
rollerblade," she said, as she showed some of her psychedelic,
black-light murals to Noah Rider, a member of the St. Mark's
Pl. Art Commune. "So you have a car, you have to wait five or 10
minutes. But it's fun to see -- 20,000 rollerbladers. C'mon,
hello!," she said, as if to say this was obvious.
But New York isn't Paris, it's not even San Francisco, and
under the Bloomberg administration the police are still chasing
Speaking of Bloomberg, Bill DePaolo, a Time's Up! member, was
giving out stickers at the start of the ride: "I Bike and I
Vote," they said.