Bicycling activists don’t take a summer vacation


By Jefferson Siegel

As summer sets in, vacationers are driving out of the city in droves. Many cars sport bike racks for those weekend cyclists who enjoy pedaling down a deserted country lane. For those in the city who commute to work and those who work on two wheels, the past two weeks have been anything but relaxed.

The June 24 Critical Mass ride saw only a handful of police in Union Square, unlike previous rides when squads of helmeted police surrounded the park. As hundreds of cyclists congregated for a rally before the ride, Norman Siegel, a candidate for public advocate who also represents bicyclists in court, kissed a copy of the First Amendment to emphasize the concept of freedom of expression of bike riders.

At previous rides, police had distributed fliers that warned, “It is dangerous and illegal to ride a bicycle in a procession” and “…you will be arrested and your bicycle will be seized.” The June flier changed “dangerous and illegal” to “unlawful” and a more tentative “…you may be arrested and your bicycle may be seized.” Despite a dozen arrests around Times Square and the 59th St. Bridge on the last Friday of June, the revised wording may indicate the city’s concession that riding a bicycle on public streets is not a crime.

Last week, in a victory for the several hundred bicyclists arrested since last year’s Republican National Convention, a key case against a Critical Mass participant was dismissed on Tues., June 28.

Liz Shura learned to ride a bike less than two years ago. She was not a cycling activist and primarily used a bike to commute between home and her job as The Wall Street Journal’s senior art director. Last year, after participating in a smaller Brooklyn group ride, she decided to try the Manhattan Critical Mass last October. The Halloween-themed ride that night filled Union Square with costumed bicyclists.

“It was the Critical Mass where they announced a route,” she recalled, “but I didn’t know what the route was.” Shortly after the Mass left the park, Shura was diverted off the route by police at Sixth Ave. and 12th St. “I saw a woman dragged off her bike, and got frightened,” she said. The bike advocacy group Time’s Up! had earlier advised riders concerned about arrests to divert to their E. Houston St. headquarters.

Shura decided to leave the ride and pedal to Time’s Up!. She headed west on 11th St., dismounted and walked onto the sidewalk when, she said, “A female officer told me to get back with my group and pointed ahead to the next intersection, where they were arresting cyclists.” The arrest procedure raised eyebrows when her case was finally heard in court last week.

“Someone said, ‘We need a third female.’ I was handcuffed and taken over to two other women,” Shura recounted. Thirty-two other riders were arrested that night.

In court last Tuesday, a statement by the arresting officer claimed he had witnessed Shura riding with 100 other cyclists. Under questioning, the officer admitted that Shura had only been handed off to him for processing. “The judge interrupted the questioning and stopped the trial,” she recounted. The assistant district attorney said she wasn’t finished asking questions. “Yes, you are,” the judge replied. After brief closing arguments, Shura’s case was dismissed in a trial that lasted all of 30 minutes.

“I ride my bike a lot, and I didn’t do anything wrong when I was arrested,” she concluded. “It seemed arbitrary; nothing I did contributed to it. Which is a bad sign, when you don’t have to do anything to be arrested.” The other 32 cases were dismissed with adjournments in contemplation of dismissal, or A.C.D.’s. If the defendants are not arrested in the next six months, their records will be sealed.

On Wed., June 29, there were several tributes to bicyclists who were killed recently in collisions with trucks. The most recent victim, Andrew Morgan, 25, lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and was riding to work at the Blue Ribbon Bakery Market in the West Village on June 22 when he was killed by a delivery truck at the intersection of Elizabeth and East Houston Sts.

A tribute ride was organized by bike advocates and co-workers and escorted by Police Department bike officers. It began at the Williamsburg Bridge, traveled through Downtown Manhattan to Battery Park, then north along the Hudson River and into the Village. Police officers closed off Downing St. as the band of riders arrived in front of the bakery at noon. Among those watching the scene was Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, a group that advocates for safer biking, walking and public transit. With him stood Noah Budnick, T.A. projects director, who recently recovered from a serious bike accident.

“It’s unfortunate that we gather together under these circumstances,” Budnick observed, as the street filled with Morgan’s family, friends and co-workers. Many of the riders wore the blue, red and yellow colors of the Blue Ribbon Bakery semipro bike racing team, which is sponsored by the restaurant’s owners, brothers Bruce and Eric Bromberg. Shortly before his death, Morgan, a serious cyclist, told Bruce Bromberg he hoped to make it onto the Blue Ribbon biking team.

Small groups of people were spaced along the street; some talked quietly, some hugged, others stood crying. Morgan’s father, Clayton, circulated through the crowd, greeting some, embracing others. He wore a blue T-shirt with the words “Once Is Forever” printed on the back. The quote was a saying from his son.

People then slowly filed into the Blue Ribbon for refreshments and conversation. Just inside the door was a table arranged as a memorial to Morgan. Childhood photos, flowers, candles and a Boston Red Sox baseball cap were displayed.

Later that night, Time’s Up! organized four memorials at locations in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Staten Island. Four bicyclists were killed in the last two months and, despite the rain, people gathered at each site to lay flowers, light candles and pay their respects. At 7:20, a moment of silence was observed, then a stenciling project to memoralize the ongoing tragedies sprayed the outline of a fallen cyclist on the street with each victim’s name and the words: “Killed By Automobile.” So far this year, 10 cyclists have been killed. Since 1995, a staggering 205 have succumbed to the hazards of city streets.

On Thursday morning, 10 of 14 bicyclists arrested in the February Critical Mass appeared in Criminal Court. Before their case was called, several voiced indignation at being arrested for riding a bike.

Blue Young, a high school biology teacher, said of the Mass ride, “It’s the one time I could ride in the city and not feel in danger.” After his arrest, he channeled his energies into creating Freewheels, the Bicycle Defense Fund that is helping cyclists arrested for riding in the Mass. “That’s the one thing I hope comes to light very soon; how much is this costing the city?” he wondered, referring to the large sums spent to mobilize police for the monthly rides.

Gideon Oliver is the tireless lawyer who, when not representing bicyclists in court, is observing the Mass rides, witnessing arrests and spending the night outside police precincts, waiting for cyclists to be released. He is worried by what he perceives to be abuses of the rider’s constitutional rights. “Based on the evidence I’ve reviewed, I certainly don’t think they [the bicyclists] did what they’re accused of doing,” he said.

In the courtroom, the 10 riders approached the bench as a group. Justice Abraham Clott addressed each by name, asking if they wanted to proceed; nine replied with a firm Yes. The 10th, a resident of Portland, Ore., opted for an A.C.D., due to the logistical difficulties of a cross-country trial. The judge set a trial date of Sept. 13.

Later that Thursday, the Cycle Messenger World Championships were in fourth gear. After a party the night before, bike messengers from around the world came to the Time’s Up! space in the East Village to register for races, meetings, art shows and film screenings. Co-organizer Ken Stanek said over 1,100 messengers from as far away as England, Japan and Australia had registered to participate in the series of events that also included track bike racing, “skids & sprints” and “the ultimate bike race” in Jersey City.

As messengers continued to fill the ground floor, a brainstorming session was underway downstairs. East Village activist Lin Wefel led a discussion on ways to make streets safer for all bicyclists. Holding up one of Mayor Bloomberg’s campaign flyers declaring New York the “Safest City in America,” Wefel said, “The city needs to be forced to educate drivers” to the hazards they impose on pedestrians and bike riders. “The number-one reason people don’t bike is because they’re scared,” she noted.

She discussed pro-bike cities like Denver and Amsterdam, and said New York needs to follow their examples. One way to call attention to bike safety, she suggested, would be for cyclists to fill a bike lane all day to call attention to its existence.

One rider is being more proactive. Jameson Edwards created bright red stickers reading “I parked in a bike lane.org” intended to be affixed to cars and trucks that block bike lanes when making deliveries or double-parking. As to how a sticker would make streets safer for bike riders, he said, “Hopefully it plays off the public’s guilt.”

Wefel concluded the meeting by proclaiming, “It’s a David and Goliath thing, but you have to try. It’s a safety issue, it’s a quality-of-life issue.”

In a week of legal triumphs and somber reflection, the cycling community’s slogan seems an appropriate coda to the cascade of recent events: “Still We Ride.”