Critical Impasse

With arrests growing and two cops hurt, Critical Mass gets messy

It was an accident waiting to happen.

Minutes into last month's Critical Mass bike ride in Manhattan, two cops on scooter patrol collided as they moved to head off the cyclists. One officer reportedly lost control while trying to grab a biker and slammed into the scooter in front, launching that officer several feet forward and onto the pavement.

The officers were briefly hospitalized for what turned out to be minor neck and back injuries.

Paulette Giguere gets arrested again at Critical Mass.
photograph: Dani Golomb
Paulette Giguere gets arrested again at Critical Mass.

But the scene, with the cops being carried away on stretchers under the glare of a police chopper's spotlight and 14 riders arrested that night for various offenses, signaled a new low in the crazy, two-year war between the police and Critical Mass.

The next skirmish is set for Friday, when the monthly demonstration for cycling rights takes to the avenues again. What was once a festive, liberating event that enjoyed the tacit cooperation of New York's Finest and attracted thousands of riders—including parents with children—has devolved into an ugly cat-and-mouse chase between pissed-off cops and adrenaline-jacked activists determined to hold their ground.

The NYPD declined to comment on last month's accident or on the high-speed chases that bikers say followed in midtown. But from the bikers’ descriptions, the cops and cyclists responded with stunts worthy of The French Connection. "There were two [undercover] black SUVs gunning it on the heels of 15 or 20 riders," reports Mark Read, a 38-year-old filmmaker and adjunct professor at New York University. "We took a left just to get away and went the wrong way down a one-way street, and the SUVs followed us into oncoming traffic and drove up on the sidewalk. It was fucking berserk."

Activists say police are escalating their tactics in an effort to break the ride. "They've been playing with fire," says Ryan Kuonen, a volunteer with Time's Up, the grassroots environmental group that is being sued by the city for promoting Critical Mass.

Last week, a State Supreme Court judge declined to restrict Time's Up and others from publicizing the event and refused to grant an injunction against the rides, chiding the city for not finding a better way to work things out with the cyclists.

The city plans to appeal.

But part of the problem with the city's legal strategy is that for more than a decade, the police tolerated the rides. Things didn't get nasty until the eve of the Republican National Convention, in August 2004, when the ride swelled to 5,000 people and police claimed that "anarchists" and "extremists" had hijacked the event and were intent on "taking over the city." It didn't help that cyclists had taken over lanes on the FDR Drive and West Side Highway the month before. Since the RNC, nearly 600 Critical Mass riders have been arrested for low-level violations like blocking traffic and parading without a permit—a city statute whose constitutionality remains in dispute.

The crackdown has scared off many riders. But it has radicalized others. For them, the bike seizures, undercover surveillance, and taxpayer expense of sending an armada of police cars and helicopters to hunt them down each month are all proof of the city's disdain for bicyclists.

"We're not terrorist splinter cells. I vote Republican sometimes," says Luke Son, a Columbia student and licensed EMT who rushed to the aid of the injured scooter cops at last month's ride. "We have a right to be in the road, and if we back down now, it's like saying we're doing something wrong."

City officials say mass rides create havoc for drivers and pedestrians and need pre-approved routes to ensure public safety.

"Believe me, if you had groups of motorists gathering once a month, with advance cars sent ahead to block intersections, and the rest driving multiple cars abreast as to obstruct other traffic, often running lights in the process, then the motorists would certainly be arrested," writes the NYPD's top spokesperson, Paul J. Browne, in an e-mail to the Voice.

He and other city officials complain that efforts to mediate the conflict by getting riders to agree on a route ahead of time have been rebuffed by the cyclists, who say they can't designate a route because Critical Mass has no leaders.

"The offer is now several months old, but a standing offer nonetheless: Cooperate with the police in devising and keeping to a route and we'll help make it happen," Browne says.

Bikers maintain that they are traffic and don't need a permit, and that having a fixed route would ruin the event's spontaneity. They say the few times they've tried to keep to a route, the cops corralled people anyway. At the July 2005 ride, volunteers from Time's Up passed out flyers urging bikers to follow all traffic rules, including stopping at red lights. "The people who stopped at red lights got arrested," says Time's Up founder Bill DiPaola. "It just made it easier to catch them."

And so the impasse continues.

In theory, the aim of Critical Mass is to create safer cycling conditions in the city. Yet activists complain the police crackdown is demonizing bikers and creating more hostility from drivers on the road. So what's the point?

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