Attention Bicyclists!

Apparently, once you displace whatever is in the road you are traffic. With this in mind 1000 cyclists gathered at Union Square in New York for the annual Halloween Critical Mass bicycle ride. Participants were rakish as ever but found themselves besieged by an enormous police charm offensive at Union Sq. Officers in fall-casual baby blue rain jackets handed out fliers affirming that riders should follow a designated route and that “bicyclists who do not follow the routeare subject to arrest.” The Flier also declared that bikes left locked on the sidewalk or street might be removed. A sound truck and white shirted officers with bullhorns repeated the same statement and caddishly wished participants a good time.

The current escalation on New York streets emerged out of events during the Republican National Convention in the city two months ago. The August 27th Critical Mass set off with 5000 participants and rode for two hours before ending up outside St Marks church on Second Ave. The ride was the biggest ever east of the Mississippi and was swollen by new people stepping up to unwelcome the republicans. At St Marks police attacked the crowd and arrested scores of bikers and passers-by. The tally of arrests for the night ran to 260. At the same time officers were using bolt cutters to take bicycles locked in the area. This tactic was repeated during the week of the convention but that night more than 40 bikes were seized. Many of the bikes belonged to neighbourhood residents who assumed their bikes had been stolen. 5 of the victims sued in federal court on the grounds that their fifth amendment right to due process had been violated when their property was seized without any charges being brought against them.

The city denied the claims of the bike owners and countersued seeking an injunction to prevent the Halloween Critical Mass ride from happening last Friday. On Thursday Lawyers for the city and the 5 aggrieved riders faced off in front of Judge William H. Pauley III. Civil rights attorney Norman Siegel, and co-counsel Steven Hyman argued for the bike owners that the NYPD could not confiscate property without bringing charges against anyone.

Skinhead police commissioner Raymond Kelly wrote in The Daily News on the morning of the hearing that Critical Mass had been taken over by extremists precipitating a police crackdown. Judge Pauley had earlier denied United for Peace and Justice Coalition’s application for a permit to rally in Central Park after the big RNC demonstration on August 29th, that may have encouraged Kelly in feeling anointed.

However, Pauley was sympathetic to the plaintiffs arguments in court. He granted a preliminary injunction preventing the police from seizing bikes without informing owners, giving a reason and indicating the course of appeal. Cops can take bikes that are obstructing sidewalks or streets but not punitively as a means of discouraging participation in rides. On the question of the countersuit by the City seeking an injunction preventing Critical Mass from happening on Friday, Assistant Chief Bruce Smolka outlined the Police Department’s rationale. He wrote that while the rides had been going on for several years they had grown in the last year from “fewer than a hundred’ to rides 4 or 5000 strong and “because the rides were so disruptive to normal traffic flows it was extremely difficult for the department to move around the mass to control the event.” For this reason the rides need to be permitted.

Norman Siegel argued that it was unfair to force the 5 plaintiffs whose bikes had been appropriated by the police to carry the burden of the permit issue. He also noted that the permit issue does not belong in Federal court and, in any case, Critical Mass is not illegal and so it doesn’t need a permit.

Judge Pauley had done some research and knew that unpermitted rides of 1000 or more bikes were relatively common over the last few years both in NY and elsewhere in the country. He wondered why the police were seeking an injunction now when they hadn’t had a problem with Critical Mass in the past. To ride in Critical Mass is, he pointed out, to engage in “expressive association” to wit “[T]he right to associate with others in pursuit of a wide variety of political, social, economic, educational, religious and cultural ends” which enjoys First Amendment protection. Therefore it would appear that Critical Mass is traffic and speech, in as much as the Boy Scouts is speech.

The Judge turned down the city’s application tp outlaw the Critical Mass because the rides had gone on in the past without objection. He added, “This court declines the City’s invitation to wander into a Serbonian bog before a state court has had the opportunity to illuminate the path”. A Serbonian bog relates to the lake of Serbonis in Egypt, which by reason of the sand blowing into it had a deceptive appearance of being solid land, but was a bog.

A gulf profound as that Serbonian bog . . .
Where armies whole have sunk.

– Milton.

So by Thursday afternoon it was 2 for non-polluting transport promotion and zero for the City. Cops couldn’t steal bikes and Critical Mass didn’t need a police permit to ride. Pauley did commit both parties to agree upon a route before the ride began though. Thus the police fliers at Union Sq on Friday. The ‘official’ route was not agreed by both parties, it was a unilateral order from Bloomberg’s enforcer, Commissioner Kelly. Nevertheless, riders in Halloween garb set off up Park Avenue accompanied by scooter mounted police outriders, police SUVs and three-wheeled traffic police electrocaddies. The mood was quieter than usual, a little nervous over the police intimidation. There were noticeably fewer older people along perhaps because people had been discouraged by the arrests and the bicycle thefts. But people meant to have a good time and 1000 bikes are hard to repress. By the time the ride reached midtown participants had had enough police interference. Officers blocked all the side streets expecting cyclists who wanted to leave the route to dismount and walk their bikes. Police tactics were reminiscent of demonstrations in the city where barriers are used to coral marchers and break them up into individual blocks. The scooter fleet purchased with RNC security loot worked as mobile barricades, but only in isolated pockets.

Once the official route broke down the ride split up into smaller groups and kept moving. Police scooters flew around trying to block riders and began making arrests, 30 in all before the ride wound down a couple of hours later. By then there were up to 10 different splinter rides around Manhattan between Midtown and Union Square, they split up to regroup spontaneously at a different junction later on. The ride was a big success and participants thrilled pedestrians and on-lookers. As is customary an excess of police force was frustrated by the agility and creativity of Critical Mass.

Critical Mass has been seizing US streets for more than a decade. During the Summer of 1997 Willie Brown of San Francisco was traveling in his Mayoral limousine when he became ensnared in the middle of a passing ride. It was a slow news Summer for the Mayor so he decided “to declare war over this”. Chris Carlsson, one of several Critical Mass originators in the city recalls the Mayor convening a meeting to which participants were invited. Carlsson declined to attend but those who did were harangued by City functionaries. Immediately afterwards one of Browns PR men appeared before the press claiming that there was agreement and that Critical Mass would apply for permits from then on. When rides continued without approval Brown instructed the police to stop them. SF police were unsure what to do so they attacked riders and arrested more than 100. No arrestees were convicted of crimes and one of them, Howard Besser, sued the City for unlawful arrest and won. He beat the City again when they appealed to a superior court.

Afterwards the Police backed down and Brown moved on to other targets but 7 years later Critical Mass is booming in San Francisco. Last weekends Halloween ride had more than 2000 cyclists who visited the picket lines of locked out hotel workers from Local 2. The details of this most recent SF ride bear on whats happening in New York. Because the event is established in these cities (as it is elsewhere) it is a simple matter to coordinate it with issues happening locally, like the hotel lockout in San Francisco or the Republican Convention in New York. On his website Carlsson continues,

All this is to say that the new composition of work and production, spread widely through temporary and precarious employment (the hotel workers of Local 2 themselves are almost all immigrants from South America or East Asia), is giving rise to a new set of tactics for resistance and revolt. Rather than workplace occupation, the diffused nature of economic organization-globalization in a word-has moved our collective power from specific worksites to the arteries of economic life, the roads.

Its clear that New York cops became preoccupied with Critical Mass in the lead up to the RNC. Commissioner Kelly is a Marine Corp Vietnam Vet and probably remembers all that better than most of us. It wakes him late at night to dream of a late Spring evening with 10 or 50 000 bikes against the war in Iraq seizing the city’s thoroughfares willy nilly. As with Iraq “to control the event” becomes more and more improbable. The defeat in court simply compounds the issue, Judge Pauley’s mention of “expressive association” opening a Pandora’s box of inference and precedent that makes any legal remedy inaccessible. If Britain in the 90’s invented Reclaim The Streets parties as a way out of ever retrenched opportunities for political and social expression then Critical Mass has created a similar outlet in the contemporary American scene.

On Friday night in New York the police, having no other option, reverted to force and attacked the after party in at the Times Up non-polluting-transport-promotion-space on Houston St. Police later claimed that an undercover lieutenant had been struck in the face when she confronted people with open containers at the storefront. There was “no sign of injury” and the assailant was “a person unknown” but the policewoman and her colleagues called for backup when they found themselves “surrounded”. Reinforcements closed down Houston St. and its sidewalks for several blocks. 7 people were arrested on the street as events unfolded. A cop appeared brandishing a shotgun pointed skyward and at one point undercovers tried to bum rush the party but were kept out by revelers blocking the door and others singing “we do not consent to a search”. Outside police behaviour was becoming dangerous while inside some people were fleeing over the back wall as others, oblivious to events at the door, continued dancing in the basement.

The police laid siege to the store for almost 2 hours. Negotiations allowed people to leave but when Mandy Hu did a cop pushed her as she walked away, she objected and was arrested. She spoke at a press conference at the space on Sunday afternoon. Tahura Faune Alfword who was videotaping outside and “obeying police orders” by walking backwards as she taped, was lunged at by a female undercover as other uniforms tried to take her camera by striking her hand. According to Norman Siegel the police were “extremely agitated” displaying “outright hostility” and that “there appears to exist selective enforcement of law targeting Critical Mass Bike riders.”

Siegel was summoned from his bed at 1.30am on Saturday morning by Times Up volunteers. He came and negotiated with the police to allow the last of the party goers leave unmolested locking the shutters behind them. No doubt all this will come before Judge Pauley in federal court before next months ride. And there may be a few more charges on the docket. As soon as the Times Up space was empty cops began clipping the locks off bikes parked on the sidewalk. These guys never learn. The police don’t have a whole lot more to throw at Critical Mass in New York, short of large scale repression. They are tactically baffled and incapacitated by tight turning and by Deleuze. As Chris Carlsson has it,

“Young urban bicyclists, many of whom survive as members of the burgeoning ‘cognitariat’ and/or at the margins of steady employment, come together monthly to affirm a new way of living, a new way of being together in city life.”

This doesn’t mean that the police are likely to back off in NYC any time soon, but Critical Mass has displayed a rare intelligence and it remains several moves ahead of any net that might be cast to capture it. Next months ride will be significant in this regard. In the past during similarly tense moments rides have sometimes ‘ridden to rule’, obeying all traffic signals and directions scrupulously. Critical Mass’s ingenuity and energy mean that it has lots of options. Lets Roll!

JAMES DAVIS is a film maker living in NY. Contact poucajim@yahoo.com


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