Critical Mass Bike Trials: Is It Worth It?


Seven bikers arrested during a Critical Mass ride last February finally got their day in court today. Retired Judge Herbert Adlerberg convicted them of blocking traffic and parading without a permit. They were fined $100 each and given time served in lieu of community service–in recognition of the fact that they were held for more than five hours, had their bicycles confiscated for three weeks, and had to show up in court 10 times just to get their cases heard.

“The process is the punishment,” said Blue Miner Young, a 31-year-old high school science teacher from Queens who gave up 10 sick days to contest his arrest.

At least these riders got some resolution. Three other bikers arrested in February were sent home yesterday because prosecutors weren’t ready to try their cases, a not uncommon occurrence that leaves folks coming back to court month after month if they choose to fight the charges. “I’m going to India,” complained Madeleine Nelson, 50, a former communications director for Barnes and Noble, when told that her trial had been postponed to next month because her arresting officer is now in Iraq. Nelson maintains she was riding in a bike lane, single file, when she was arrested. “This trip has been planned for six months. I can’t cancel it. What am I supposed to do, come back into the country with a warrant for my arrest?”

Three other riders arrested in February gave up months earlier and took ACD’s (Adjournment Contemplating Dismissal)–a kind of legal truce where your charges are dismissed as long as you don’t get arrested again for six months. Among them was a Canadian woman who hitchhiked to New York twice to make her court appearances, and a bicycle safety instructor from Portland who said she couldn’t afford to keep flying back and forth.

All of which raises a question about this unending conflict between the city and its cycling activists: Is it worth it? Is it worth it for riders to risk arrest to attend the monthly Critical Mass rides, believing that it is their right as cyclists to be in traffic and to demonstrate for a less car-clogged city? And is it worth it for the city to spend thousands and thousands of dollars to arrest and prosecute those who take part in these rides for violations that aren’t even classified as misdemeanors?

A spokesperson for the police department couldn’t be reached. Spokespersons from both the court and Manhattan district attorney’s office ducked the larger policy question underlying the city’s recent crackdown on Critical Mass, saying only that it is their “obligation” to try people charged with violating the law.

Yet prior to the 2004 Republican National Convention, the NYPD didn’t see the need for arrests. Instead, cops helped facilitate the ride by escorting the group and blocking intersections so the ride could pass through traffic faster and more safely.

But when the number of cyclists swelled to thousands on a convention-eve ride, police claimed that “extremists” intent on mayhem had hijacked Critical Mass and turned it into a public menace. Fearing hordes of bicyclists protesting the arrival of George Bush would jam the city, police swept up some 350 bikers during the RNC.

Since then, the NYPD has arrested 317 more Critical Mass riders. What began as a celebration of bike culture and way to encourage more people to bike the city has turned into a monthly game of cat and mouse, with cops deploying helicopters with high-powered search lights and an armada of scooters, vans, squad cars, and SUVs to head off the ride, just as the cyclists engage in their own evasive maneuvers, sending out scouts to warn of police traps, then scattering when the cops succeed in nabbing some.

There were a dozen arrests at each of the last two rides, all for low-level violations that typically warrant no more than a desk-appearance ticket.

Last week a judge threw out one of the city’s main tools for busting the ride when he ruled that the city statute of “parading without a permit” was unconstitutional. But two other judges have upheld the statute, and because it was a lower court ruling, Judge Gerald Harris’s decision does not set a precedent for the scores of cases still pending before the courts.

At Thursday’s trial, retired Judge Adlerberg praised Judge Harris, saying, “He probably knows more about criminal law than the other judges.”

But Adlerberg said he did not feel comfortable “telling the legislature they passed an unconstitutional law” because he is no longer a full judge but a judicial hearing officer. As a result, he decided to uphold the charges of parading without a permit for the riders arrested in February.

Though disappointed, the cyclists said they would continue to fight. “The decision is wrong and we’re going to appeal it,” insists Rebecca Heinegg, a 23-year-old law student from Brooklyn who has turned her Critical Mass arrest into a class project. “By stopping the ride, the city is trying to silence free speech. It’s a fundamental right, and it’s worth standing up for.

“Taking an ACD is just a passive way of saying you’re guilty, and we don’t believe that,” she added, when asked how it could be worth coming back month after month when she could have settled her case a year ago.

Far from deterring them, getting arrested has only made these riders more adamant. Many like Heinegg continue to ride in Critical Mass every month. Others like Blue Young have devoted themselves to providing legal support to other cyclists through the volunteer group Free Wheels.

“I ride to work every day, and every day some asshole tries to kill me,” says Young, when asked what motivates him to risk arrest just to ride in Critical Mass. “It’s the one time you can ride in Manhattan and not feel in danger–except from a cop, who might ram you,” he added, speaking of the scooter cop who, he claims, ran into him when he was stopped at a red light last February, then busted him.

But by the end of the day, at least one court officer was fed up watching bike cases slog through the courts. “It’s a total waste of your and my tax dollars. I blame both sides.”