Critical Mess


Despite complaints from activists, the cops weren’t out of control at Friday’s Critical Mass bicycle demonstration. It’s impossible to say, of course, how violent this week’s demos may become. But there are already claims that a confrontational tone was set by police at Critical Mass. Those claims are untrue.

I saw trouble brewing when bicycle advocacy took the back of the banana seat to anti-Bush sentiment. Some people seemed to be more interested in standing and chanting than riding. That shift in emphasis, compounded by record levels of participation in a time of heightened security, sent the event careening into clashes with police that ended in 264 arrests.

The monthly Critical Mass rides in cities throughout the world raise awareness about biking as a cleaner means of urban transportation that also reduces oil dependence. This agenda dovetails with liberal and international objections to the Bush administration, which is intimately linked to the petroleum industry, has resisted and repealed environmental regulations, and invaded oil-rich Iraq.

But the anti-Republican mission of the ride was stamped weeks ahead of time by TIME’S UP!, the nonprofit organization that coordinates Critical Mass rides in New York City, when it listed the gathering along with other bicycle protests on TIME’S UP! is best known as a cycling advocacy group, but in fact it has demonstrated against things as diverse as cell phone antennas, the World Trade Organization, Chelsea Piers, fur, nuclear weapons, and honors for Christopher Columbus. The group has participated in other anti-RNC protests since the weekend through its Bike Bloc program.

There was ample reason to be concerned about Critical Mass. Authorities in New York City and Boston have corralled protestors into “free speech zones” and shunted them away from locations visible to delegates. The severe restrictions on movement have had the effect of unduly limiting free speech itself. Also, with resources stretched thin, many rookie cops would be facing their first massive protests. How would police manage thousands able to move rapidly and split up and reunite, coordinated by cell phone calls and text messaging?

Police at Union Square made no attempt to prevent the ride or disperse the gathering, which numbered at least 5,000 (some estimates put it at more than twice that number). Instead the police distributed a sheet of traffic laws.

Critical Mass riders routinely ignore red lights and stop signs, span avenues curb-to-curb, don’t have adequate lights on their bicycles, and deliberately block traffic by parking themselves in front of cars until all riders have passed. On several occasions during Friday evening’s ride, cars nosed into the avenues, trying to cross. Bikers aggressively surrounded those vehicles as others chanted, “Block it, block it!”

The activists seemed to become the kind of bullies they loudly despise. Before we’d left Greenwich Village I found myself toward the front of the group, tucked to one side to avoid being swept into potential street clashes or arrest sweeps.

Police officers have traditionally turned a blind eye to minor moving violations committed by Critical Mass riders, even escorting past runs. They did so with the understanding that the cyclists were a group in motion for about an hour, and so would obstruct any particular intersection for mere minutes. But the more aggressive tactics of recent rides have marked the event for greater regulation.

The ride uptown occurred without incident. Along the way, the NYPD blocked numerous side streets, per usual. At 42nd Street, police officers told riders to keep moving, but made no threats. “You can’t stop here,” was the only direct instruction I received.

Some riders in the front led the others north, up through Times Square. “We can make it a full circle!,” one young man shouted. Police on a traffic island yelled for the riders to continue south. Two male riders were tackled from behind when they defied (or did not hear) that instruction and sped past police officers, narrowly skirting them. I didn’t see clearly enough to determine if any other behavior precipitated the arrests.

I pulled over and asked a cop if he’d seen what led to his fellow officers to tackle the riders. He hadn’t. I also asked him if I might walk my bike across a traffic island and get back into the main stream heading south. He readily agreed and help part the bystanders for me.

A number of cyclists stopped to lift their bikes above their heads and chant in front of Madison Square Garden. In interviews afterward it seemed that riders from outside New York City were far more motivated by the chance to protest in front of the building that would soon host the RNC than to advocate for prosaic local issues, like bike lanes, by simply riding.

Bikers reported sometime later that a plastic barrier was stretched across Seventh Avenue and those behind it were arrested, while a few escaped through a parking lot at 36th Street. Other bikers told me that upon seeing the lockdown from a block north they asked police officers what they should do to avoid arrest. They were told, “Turn right and don’t rejoin the group.” Some riders from outside New York City, however, might have hesitated to break from the herd.

Other participants reported that fire engines were deployed to box in bikers. If so, this was the city’s biggest mistake. Emergency workers speeding to aid people elsewhere are always allowed through the Critical Mass flow without question. An erosion of that distinction could prove tragic.

Another wave of arrests occurred a short time later on Second Avenue in front of St. Mark’s. While most riders came off the avenue and dismounted, many lingered on the avenue to chat, chant, and greet friends. Two police officers attempted to disperse the crowd, taking two riders into custody. (Some reports say one of the riders may have thrown food or a beer can at the officers, but I didn’t witness the moments before the arrest.)

The crowd tightened around the officers chanting, “Let them go!” A line of police in riot gear then came down Second Avenue. One woman standing atop a wall and clinging to a fence called out, “The police are coming! Lock up your bikes!” A more useful instruction might have been for riders to enter the church or leave the area. Instead, some participants panicked and began throwing their bicycles over the fence in a bid to prevent confiscations. Further confrontations and arrests ensued as the arriving police officers tried to extricate their colleagues and the two arrested bikers.

When I stood a foot or two inside the curb and asked one officer how far the arrests would spread, he said, “You’re on the sidewalk and just standing with a bike. Why should I arrest you?”