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Critical Mass
by Kara Donnelly

Critical MassAsk anyone to name a part of the First Amendment and chances are there are going to be three main responses: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, or freedom of religion. However, recently Critical Mass, a professed unorganized movement of bicycles has challenged New York to uphold the most forgotten right granted by the First Amendment—the right to peacefully assemble.  This right has been used in labor disputes, civil rights and anti-war protests and now, Critical Mass is using it for what should simply be a bike ride.

Critical Mass is an event that began in San Francisco focusing on the rights of bicyclists and of pedestrians on streets. This movement made its way into New York City in April 1993, where bicyclists and police officers worked together to make the ride safe. It is an event where the only reason to be there is to bike and it’s not about who you are, what you make, what you do; it’s just a ride. It’s a bunch of people coming together based on this idea that you can have a ride that doesn’t have a leader, doesn’t have a route, that it just goes where people feel the inclination to go.

These rides were always uneventful.  Because of this, in their then eleven-year history, they had never been required to get a permit for their places of start (Times Square being one of them), or to inform the NYPD of their predicted route.  That all changed last year when the Republican National Convention came to New York and brought with it: a week full of speeches, major traffic jams, an increase in the already high security level of post-9/11 Manhattan, and of course, protestors.  What would a political gathering be without protestors?

Over the eight-day span of the Convention, the New York Police Department arrested over 1,700 people- more than 200 of them bike riders- and detained them in the contaminated Pier 57. The police then continued their attack on bike riders by removing locked bikes. This method was used during the convention, but the most, 40, were removed that night. The owners- mostly neighborhood residents- were not informed, and they assumed that the bikes were stolen.

A case was brought before federal court judge William H. Pauley III in October by five bike owners whose property was seized without any charges being brought against them~ a clear violation of the Fifth Amendment of Due Process. The city denied these allegations and countersued, asking that a court order prevent the Halloween Critical Mass ride from happening. On the issue of bike seizures, Judge Pauley issued an injunction, preventing the NYPD from cutting bikes without informing their owners. However, when it came to the injunction, the judge was confused. Why was it that the police was seeking an injunction now, when it hadn’t had a problem with Critical Mass prior to this event? He also stated that “[T]he right to associate with others in pursuit of a wide variety of political, social, economic, educational religious and cultural ends”  enjoys protection under the First Amendment. Translation: Critical Mass is traffic and speech.

Critical MassSo this means participants can ride without the threat of being arrested, as long as they do not violate the law. Right... This will get a little tricky because the mass usually ends up taking up a few blocks and traffic rules are bent as a result. But hell, cars and other motorized monsters violate laws every day too and the police don’t issue a ticket for every offense.

Pauley, however, did ask the parties to agree on a route before the Halloween ride began. To inform the riders, the police were handing out fliers with the picked route on it. Now anyone in New York City knows, if the police even have a little say in something, they will take over the entire thing. The route was not agreed to by Critical Mass~ it was an order by Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.
The riders, all dressed in Halloween costumes—and what a variety they were!—started out on Park Avenue surrounded by various formed police vehicles, attempting to keep them on the route. But, when people want to have fun, nothing can stop them. As soon as the riders saw the opportunity, they split up, creating about 10 splinter rides around Midtown. The police, aggravated by Critical Mass’s determination, attempted to corral the bicyclists and arrested about 30 riders.

Officials say that Critical Mass rides violate traffic laws. They probably did, but a New Yorker cannot walk five minutes and not witness a traffic violation by a vehicle in the five boroughs. And very rarely does the NYPD pull a car over for illegal lane changes, running red lights, parking in a bike lane, blocking intersections, not yielding to emergency vehicles, or honking their horns in “no horn” zones.   The police never seem to mind when cars cause traffic problems for bike riders and do nothing when parked cars continually park in the designated bike lanes on Richmond Terrace, right in front of the 120 police station.  The problem is that these cars are very likely to belong to police officers working out of the 120, and cops don’t give cops tickets.

I took it upon myself to go and see what really happened at these rides. I heard things in the newspapers, I heard accounts from friends of mine that were arrested; I wanted to see what was real.
You have everyone from Latino kids and their bike crew from the Lower East Side, to businessmen in suits to families on tandems. Honestly it’s such a relief to be in an event where your only reason to be there is to bike and it’s not about who you are, what you make, what you do, it’s just a ride. It’s a bunch of people coming together based on this idea that you can have a ride that doesn’t have a leader, doesn’t have a route, that it just goes where people feel the inclination to go. It steers itself which is one of the beautiful things about it.
To see people being thrown from their bikes- including those younger than me!- was something I never thought I would see with regards to bike riding..

I was also witness to about 15 vans chasing a splinter group up 8th Avenue, about 6-8 blocks behind them. It seemed they had no chance of catching the riders. There were also around 30 scooter cops who turned west onto 18th street, going against the right of way of traffic, in a seemingly chaotic display of carelessness. The scooters themselves seemed a much greater risk to public safety than the critical mass riders.
After seeing firsthand the abuse, the mistreatment the New York Police Department put the riders through caused me to lose whatever respect I had for the men in blue. Yes, I understand that they put their life on the line with their jobs, but to waste the city’s money over something as trivial as a Critical Mass ride seems foolish.

In other words, it’s just fine for cars and vehicles to act however they like, but some people that want to get together and ride their bikes, is criminal. Cars jam up the streets and they call it a traffic jam. Bikes jam the streets and it’s a crime. Yeah, the American justice system makes perfect sense.



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