Critical Impasse

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

"It's smashmouth football," complains Harris Silver, founder of City Streets, which advocates for pedestrians' rights. "You're putting people in a situation right now that's basically a street fight. It makes cyclists look like angry radicals as opposed to people who ride bikes and think there should be less cars."

Yet in Brooklyn, a permitless Critical Mass ride sets off from Grand Army Plaza the second Friday of every month without all the drama. Instead of making arrests, police facilitate the ride by blocking intersections so it can pass more swiftly. City attorney Robin Binder explains that the NYPD handles the Brooklyn ride differently because it's smaller and takes place over streets that aren't as busy. But it's also because the riders in Brooklyn have established a dialogue with police.

There's no set route, but they might tell cops where the after-party is, to give them a sense of where the ride will end up.

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

"They're very cool," says Kuonen says of the Brooklyn police. "The white shirt walks around at Grand Army Plaza and calms everybody's fears about being arrested, and tells you at most you'll be given a ticket if you run lights or violate traffic rules."

Kuonen and others can't understand why that approach wouldn't work in Manhattan—as it does in the nearly 400 cities around the world where Critical Mass also takes place. In Portland and San Francisco, monthly clashes between police and cyclists have given way to accommodation and greater recognition of cyclists' right to be on the road. In San Francisco, radio stations announce Critical Mass rides during traffic updates; in Portland, the new mayor has ridden on his recumbent.

Yet in New York, both sides keep digging in their heels. "There's no trust," says Sara Stout of the World Carfree Network, which has begun sending international observers to document police abuse.

Activists with Time's Up and the bicycle defense group Free Wheels are marshaling more legal observers and video teams for this Friday's ride in hopes that their presence will tone things down.

Civil rights attorney Norman Siegel, who has been helping defend Critical Mass in court, called on elected officials to intervene, and quickly. "Mayor Bloomberg needs to do something, because this has all been done in his name," charges Siegel. "He has to take responsibility and be held accountable if, God forbid, something really bad does happen. And if the mayor doesn't, City Council members should ride with Critical Mass or go to Union Square Park and see what's really going on. The silence on this issue is astounding."

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