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Commentary :: Human Rights
Ride and Be Free!
02 Mar 2006
This is a reprint of my article in the Student Underground. Be sure to check out the rest of the paper at
Around the world, in nearly four hundred cities, on the last Friday of every month, people gather. They meet in parks, plazas, and city squares. Most of them are on bicycle, some prefer other forms of non-motorized transportation. They gather in order to proclaim their right to the road, protest car culture, and assert their independence from oil and its wars. Most of all, they gather in a moving celebration of human-powered transportation and sustainable energy alternatives. They are called Critical Mass, and they generally ride in a peaceful, festive, fun manner.

But not in New York.

The trouble began in August of 2004, when the NYPD, anticipating an assault of "two-wheeled terrorists," arrested more than 250 bikers and confiscated well over 300 bikes. The arrestees were taken to Pier 57, an abandoned bus garage turned makeshift prison, where they were held for several days. The bikes were taken to a warehouse in Brooklyn, where many of them remain to this day. And with that, Mayor Bloomberg and the NYPD declared a war on bikes.

I wish to pause at this point in the narrative in order to clarify something for the reader. When I say bikes, I refer not to Harleys and Yamahas but to Fujis and Schwinns. That's right, cute little bicycles with wicker baskets and little bells that go "Ding-ding". On with the story.

In the months following that fateful August day, the NYPD continued to arrest bikers and confiscate their bikes, and their tactics have become even more aggressive. One particular tactic has been to sever bike locks and confiscate bikes that are locked up. The city has claimed that all bikes not locked to city-installed bike racks are abandoned property and subject to confiscation. Nevermind the fact that said bike racks are few and far between, not nearly enough to satisfy the needs of the city's estimated 120,000+ bicycle commuters.

In September of 2004, Federal Judge William Pauley III granted an injunction against the NYPD's cutting of locks and seizing of bikes. Judge Pauley also denied the city's request to attack the ride, agreeing with the defense's assertion that it is vehicular traffic, and is not organized by any group.

Of course, even a federal injunction is not enough to stop the police, and the harassment continued. In October of 2004, the NYPD announced that they had set a route for the ride, and arrested dozens of cyclists when the route was ignored. According to some accounts, the police and/or undercover agents within the mass led the ride away from the designated route, where they proceeded to arrest those who had "left the route." Later that night, undercover agents showed up at the Time's Up space on E. Houston Street, where an after-party for the Critical Mass was happening. The agents repeatedly attempted to start fights, as a pretext for the "officers of the peace" to stage a raid. When the police tried to force their way in without a warrant, partygoers barricaded the doors. Finding themselves unable to enter the space, police officers maced and arrested several bystanders. They then proceeded to cut the locks off of about twenty bikes in order to take them to Brooklyn for "safeguarding."

On March 22, 2005, the NYPD, along with the Department of Parks and Recreation, filed a lawsuit against Time's Up and four individual volunteers. The lawsuit seeks to prevent Critical Mass from occurring or gathering without a permit. This, of course, is impossible; since a permit requires a group leader and the Critical Mass is, as Judge Pauley has so graciously acknowledged, a leaderless group. The lawsuit also seeks to prevent Time's Up, the four individuals named, and "anyone acting in concert with them" from advertising the Critical Mass gathering unless a permit is obtained. This, too, is absurd; particularly the line about anyone acting "in concert," which implies guilt by association.

For the ride on the last Friday of April, 2005, the boys in blue had a whole new bag of tricks up their respective blue sleeves. According to a resolution by Manhattan's Community Board No. 2, bikers gathered at Union Square Park on that day for their regular peaceful ride through Lower Manhattan. As the cyclists began to assemble, 37 people were "preemptively" arrested and charged with violating a range of laws involving plans to bicycle. In addition, the locks on 50 bicycles were destroyed and the bikes were transported to their new home in the "National Bicycle Archives" in Brooklyn, NY. Several of the people arrested that afternoon were out-of-town visitors who simply happened to be in the park at that time. A number of that month's arrestees were charged with violating a city ordinance which prohibits "advertising the time or location of a meeting or group activity in a city park." This is another one of those insane laws, as it would technically criminalize anyone who arranges a meeting in a park, be it for a date, a game of Frisbee, a soccer match, or a friendly neighborhood orgy.

Speaking of pathetically stupid legal systems, let's not forget that our own fair city of Boston had on the books, until very recently, a law prohibiting any Native Americans from entering the city. But I digress.

The level of harassment varies by month. In October of 2005, Mayor Bloomberg called off his dogs on account of the following week's mayoral election, but this was to be a temporary respite. The November ride had only a meager three cyclists arrested, which many Critical Massers attributed to the extreme cold that night; apparently, yadda yadda insert "lazy cop eating donuts" joke here. At one point during the ride, the Mass found itself riding through Stuyvesant Town to the tune of a rent-a-cop in a squad car announcing repeatedly, "There is no bicycle riding in Stuyvesant Town." An as-of-yet unidentified voice responded, "There is now."

December showed the NYPD to be back on track, with a whopping twelve arrestees. One of those arrested that night was taken down to central booking, or "The Tombs," overnight. He was being detained as a "flight risk" because of an out-of-state ID. He was released Saturday evening, in time to participate in the New Years' Eve group ride organized by Time's Up, pedaling defiantly on a loaner bike. Call it Chutzpah, perseverance, or just sheer stupidity, the NYC Critical Mass motto rings true. "Still We Ride!"

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Re: Ride and Be Free!
03 Mar 2006
Show some balls, ride through the bronx.
Re: Ride and Be Free!
05 Mar 2006
I do.