Hell on wheels: Bike riders recount harrowing arrests

By Roslyn Kramer

Helicopters were grinding overhead, but they were drowned out as police and bicyclists mingled at Seventh Ave. near St. Vincent’s Hospital. Occasionally the chant “Let them go” arose from sidewalk observers who were able to figure out what was happening. Depending on your view, the police were either enforcing traffic laws or harassing bicyclists, who in turn were, depending on your view, out for a last-Friday-of-the-month Critical Mass bike ride from Union Sq. or demonstrating against Republican policies about to unfold at Madison Sq. Garden. Police had been blocking bikes unpredictably, creating massive traffic jams. On the other hand, there were indisputably more bikes this Friday night, causing more problems. Police often escorted the Friday night bikers, but not tonight.

On the sidelines, green-capped volunteer observers from the National Lawyers Guild were taking notes and taping, obviously primed for run-ins with the police. Younger volunteers were tense and serious; older veterans of political demonstrations approached their work with a certain relish, as if enjoying being in protest mode again.

Reports poured in from passersby and observers with cell phones: Police were ripping people off bikes “rather violently,” said one man. “They were yanked by the arm off their bikes, even though some were still moving.” This incident reportedly happened at 18th St. and Seventh Ave. Someone estimated 2,000 bikers and seven arrests. Very roughly, very early in the evening. Minutes later, at 9:45 a cell call raised the arrests to about 200 at Times Sq. Or perhaps at 35th St and Tenth Ave: Same report; two different locations.

“It’s illegal to corner people, right?” a woman’s voice inquired.

Joel Kupferman, an environmental lawyer volunteering yet again as an N.L.G. observer, had noticed a lot of “undercover cops on motorcycles.” Kupferman knows undercover when he sees it: “They always have a crease in their jeans.”

More troubling to Kupferman was the huge amount of “federal money out there.”

Sooner or later, arrestees were going to show up at Pier 57 at 15th St. and the Hudson River. And so they did, but not quickly, and not many. Getting buses to the pier seemed to take a very long time. It was close to 1 a.m. when the first arrestees started showing up in assorted police vehicles, but also in public buses. Until then, Randye Bernfeld, an N.L.G. observer, took down information from bikers who had come to report the names of friends who had been arrested.

Pier 57 was impenetrable. A few buses and vans came and went — as did two people from the Republican National Committee — only to be swallowed up in the huge former shipping pier. As the arrestees started to come in, their forms were barely visible through the dense, white, metal mesh covering the police buses’ windows; others in their teens and 20s could be seen clearly with the shoulders-back perfect posture of the handcuffed. Apparently some protesters were allowed to take their bikes along with them; for them, no handcuffs.

More news: Arrests were taking place at St. Mark’s Church, at 11th St. and Second Ave.

About midnight, a N.L.G. defense committee old hand, Franklin Siegel, replaced Bernfeld and proceeded with a rundown of likely events. After preliminary processing at Pier 57, including a photo with the arresting officer, protestors would be brought to central booking at 100 Centre St. where they would be fingerprinted, their identities checked with Albany computers for prior arrest records — a process that would take several hours several hours, keeping arrestees overnight — and finally released after getting a date for a return court appearance. The charge, Siegel assumed, would probably be obstruction of governmental administration. It’s not serious: a disorderly conduct violation. (In more complicated cases, the protestor goes through the system, appearing before a judge.)

Most arrestees were expected to get out Saturday morning or afternoon. Siegel promised there would be greeters to meet them “who give you a hug when you get out.” A slight exaggeration, but not by much. Saturday morning there was an N.L.G. representative, a greeter, a medical team, and for a brief pit stop, a Seeds for Peace bike rider delivering fruit snacks.

And then there was Jane — no last name given — who had left her apartment occupied by visiting protesters she didn’t know, in order to find her 17-year-old daughter who had been arrested. “I was 54 last night and now I’m 101,” she quipped. Jane had walked from Pier 57 to Central Booking and had been waiting since before dawn, sitting on a park bench, for the building to open. With wry, be-careful-what-you-wish-for irony, Jane explained she had raised her daughter to be independent and an activist. She succeeded. Her (nameless) daughter had organized “kids to go to Washington.” Still Jane found “it was so comforting to have someone” — that would be Siegel — “on the pier last night.”

Two Battery Park City mothers also showed up at Pier 57 Friday night, both with daughters who were swept up in the arrests. Saturday morning they were back at Central Booking.

Jail did not get high marks from the few demonstrators who trickled out in early afternoon. One young man had been in three different locations, handcuffed in chains or in plastic strips that cut his blood supply, he remembered grimly. Moved from one cell to another, he had no access to an attorney or a phone (This was not universally true — aside from cell phones, public phones were also used.) They weren’t told what they were charged with. “The police hemmed us into the end of a police riot,” the young man said. “We weren’t allowed to move one way or another. People were charged with obstructing traffic or resisting arrest when they were just trying to get home.” He also saw “several peoples’ faces pushed to the ground, and one guy was maced.”

Feeding times at Central Booking were 4 a.m. and 10 a.m., although at least one demonstrator had to wait until noon for the universally served peanut butter sandwich.

Everyone emerging from Central Booking was distracted by grime and hunger.

Released bicyclists confirmed a police entrapment scenario. “Police hemmed us in so that we couldn’t move one way or another,” said one man.

The whole process was confusing. “We’re trying to figure it out,” said greeter coordinator Kim Hill. “It behooves them to make it confusing.”

Contacted later, a Battery Park mother reported that her 16-year-old daughter had run into the same frequently reported police-created traffic jams, where “people just trying to get home were arrested.”

Around 34th St., bicyclists, seeing people get arrested wanted to get away but were rounded up by the police. “That’s outrageous,” said the Battery Park mom, who was emphatic that her child had gone for the bike ride, not the protest.

“Amazingly, all the kids came out O.K.,” she finished. “I guess because there were so many people, it was almost like a party.” It also helped that older arrestees in jail took special care of the younger ones.

Jane gave up her vigil about noon. She reported that her daughter was released about midnight.

“And,” Jane added, “we were out protesting on Sunday.”