Police keep riding Critical Mass, make 36 arrests


By Jefferson Siegel

Last Friday night, bicyclists participating in the monthly Critical Mass ride met with support from motorists and police. There were no arrests and an organizer felt the evening had been a success.

The above description is not some hyperventilated cyclist’s reverie; it happened in Bethlehem, Penn.

In New York City last Friday, there were 36 arrests during the course of the ride.

Just hours before cyclists started the monthly ride from various locations throughout Lower Manhattan, a federal judge issued a ruling on a case dating back to the September 2004 Critical Mass. Justice William H. Pauley handed down a split decision, ruling that five cyclists whose bikes were confiscated during that ride were not denied their constitutional rights. However, the judge also ruled that the city did not offer three of the riders due process by first notifying them of the reason for the bike seizures.

The incident on the eve of the Republican National Convention occurred when cyclists on Seventh Ave. turned left onto 36th St. When they arrived at Fifth Ave. they dismounted and started walking their bikes, which were then confiscated by police.

Before the start of Friday’s ride, civil rights attorney Norman Siegel applauded the due process portion of Pauley’s ruling. “It holds the police accountable for why [the cyclists’] bikes are being taken,” he said, adding that although it said there was “no evidence [the police] were targeting Critical Mass,” the ruling said riders must receive advance notice of any charges before bikes can be confiscated.

As in recent months, the ride departed from several locations, including Tompkins Square Park and Washington Square. Again, the largest group, about 150 cyclists, pedaled west on 14th St. from Union Square. It took several minutes for all the riders to leave as each group stopped for red lights at University Pl. Several blocks later, riders would find themselves literally cornered and arrested while obeying traffic signals.

Bicyclists under arrest on 14th St. near Seventh Ave.

Margaret Wiatrowski, a volunteer for FreeWheels, the bicycle defense fund, opted to follow the ride on foot. She recounted the scene as she approached Seventh Ave. “I saw a line of [police] scooters riding alongside with the bicyclists. There was a cop car that zoomed in front down Seventh Ave. and all the scooters just sideswiped to the right and made a little circle and encircled everybody.”

There were 21 arrests as the tail end of the ride stopped for the Seventh Ave. light.

“A lot of people were trying to get off of their bikes and walk away and that was making it easier, I think, for cops to grab people,” Wiatrowski noted.

As a police helicopter circled overhead, Natalie Bell, a philosophy student at Barnard College, stood in handcuffs in the middle of 14th St.

“I was not aware that riding a bicycle with an organized group counts as civil disobedience these days,” she said after her arrest for parading without a permit.

Also standing nearby in handcuffs was Alexis Cole, a jazz singer who often performs at clubs in the West Village. Cole has been in four Critical Mass rides in the past two years. “I think it’s illegal and unconstitutional,” she said of the arrests. “We’re just people getting together to ride our bikes.” She recalled a time before the Republican National Convention when police facilitated the rides. Asked if her arrest would dissuade her from future rides, Cole replied, “I’ll ride next month. I’m never going to miss another one.”

Attorney Gideon Oliver is representing numerous riders who were arrested over the past year. “I think the Police Department is making choices about policing this event that are dangerous and that endanger the safety of the bicyclists,” he said. “I’m referring specifically to the tactic of driving motorcycles and cars into groups of bicyclists without any warning.”

Paul Browne, deputy police commissioner for public information, replied, “We’re not looking to injure anybody.”

Other arrests took place along 14th St. at Third Ave. and on Avenue A; at 23rd St. and First Ave. and along Bleecker St. Arrestees were taken to the Ninth Police Precinct in the East Village and released by 3 a.m.