Volume 75, Number 15 | Aug. 31 - Sep 06, 2005

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

A bicyclist was arrested by The Cooper Union, one of several locations where police moved in on the Critical Mass ride last Friday.

At anniversary of Critical Mass crackdown, 48 arrests


By Jefferson Siegel


In August 2004, the Critical Mass ride before the Republican Convention saw 5,000 cyclists pedal out of Union Square. Two hundred sixty-four would be arrested, including many who gathered in front of St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery in the East Village. Subsequent rides have seen arrests totaling from eight to 37 cyclists each month.

A year later, one might think the last place someone would ride a bike would be in the monthly Critical Mass. But bike messengers, recreational pedalers, bike commuters and cycling advocates have proven to be a dedicated and obstinate clan of unswerving believers in their cause. Every month they continue to meet and ride. Their mantra, reflected in their stubborn refusal to back down from ongoing arrests, is also the title of a new documentary, “Still We Ride.”

Over the course of that year, tactics have morphed on both sides. Where the rides once left from Union Square and continued as a group, they now depart from various locations and often splinter into smaller clusters. The police, who would often lie in wait along the route and corral riders, now pursue the smaller groups in vans, unmarked cars and on motor scooters, often overtaking a group and forcing them to stop.

In addition, many cyclists and legal observers note the presence of undercover officers joining the ride, either to monitor its progress or facilitate arrests by calling in uniformed officers with their walkie-talkies. Bill Di Paola, founder of Time’s Up!, the East Village bike advocacy group, saw many suspect riders last Friday night. Di Paola is one of four Time’s Up! members who is being sued by the city for organizing the monthly rides; Time’s Up! claims they do nothing more than promote the rides.

Preceding the ride was another in a series of monthly Still We Speak pep rallies. Most notable of all the speakers was Norman Siegel, a candidate for public advocate, who updated the crowd of several hundred on the status of the Time’s Up! lawsuit. “Our position is, you do not need a permit to ride in the streets of the city of New York on your bicycles,” he said to cheers.

Last Friday’s ride left from several locations. The largest, with 300 cyclists, rode out of Union Square and headed south on Broadway. Lower East Side resident Barbara Ross got as far as Astor Pl. when, she said, “A whole group of police and scooters came out of nowhere and grabbed us.” She was one of the fortunate ones. Leaning her bike against a wall, she melted into a crowd of pedestrians and walked away.

Seventeen others were not as lucky. When the tail end of the group stopped at Third Ave. for a red light, an unmarked police car blocked their eastbound progress. Behind them, police on scooters appeared and surrounded them, ordering the riders to dismount and line up against the wall of Cooper Union.

East Village resident Michael Infranco has been on at least 10 previous Mass rides. “Waiting at the red light, perhaps foolishly,” he reflected, he was arrested for parading without a permit. Wearing a Transportation Alternatives T-shirt, Infranco stood in handcuffs while his bike was tagged as evidence and loaded onto a rapidly filling police truck.

Nearby, Claire Savage, a 25-year-old Hunter College graduate student, was on her first Mass ride. She said police told her to dismount and walk over to the wall. “I had no idea what was going on. I didn’t even know I was being arrested,” she recalled. “I wasn’t doing anything wrong.” Like other arrestees interviewed over the past year, she decries the unnecessary squandering of taxpayer money. “I think it’s an absolutely ridiculous waste of resources. It’s really disappointing.”

In the chaos of arrests on Astor Pl., a touching scene played out before bystanders and police. Philip Nayef and Catherine Ornstein, both employed in public health research, got engaged last month during a 500-mile bike trip through Alaska on a tandem bike. “We were meeting friends for dinner, we weren’t planning to do the ride,” Nayef said. They attended the rally and decided they would ride along as far as the restaurant. Just blocks from the restaurant, though, without warning, “the police just came in, essentially by storm, and surrounded us.”

The couple stood against the wall holding hands until police handcuffed them. As they waited to be processed, Ornstein occasionally leaned her head against Nayef’s shoulder. They would stay by each other’s side until reaching the Ninth Precinct. Shortly after midnight, they were reunited and greeted by members of Free Wheels, a group organized to provide aid to arrested cyclists. The pair was given fliers with legal information and loaner bikes for the ride home.

Nayef offered that police were patient and sympathetic. One said he was “just following orders,” he said. “We had conversations with them about how absurd the situation was.” Nayef noted one officer went so far as to criticize how manpower, time and resources were being wasted on the arrests.

Unfortunately, their ordeal wasn’t over. On their ride home to Brooklyn, Nayef was sideswiped by a speeding S.U.V. The auto sped off, but Nayef managed to have police catch the driver. Nayef was uninjured and the police were hesitant about filing a report but eventually did write up the driver. The couple were delayed another several hours by paperwork, finally arriving home at 3 a.m.

Another case of road rage was reported by Graeme McDonnell. Riding in the back of a group of cyclists approaching 43rd St. and Madison Ave., he was hit by a taxi. McDonnell was not injured but his rear wheel was crumpled. He walked to his nearby office and attached a replacement wheel. Later in the evening, he explained how he used his bike for work and commuting. Holding up his Bianci Eros, he proclaimed, “This is the company car.”

East Village musician Helen Stratford narrowly escaped the dragnet twice. She left Astor Pl. just before other cyclists were blocked in, and after continuing south on the ride, she pedaled away from another scene of arrests on E. Houston Street and Second Ave. “We’re out here endorsing a notion of transportation that’s environmentally and ecologically friendly,” she said after returning to Astor Pl. and watching the arrests with other bystanders.

Rachel Ekstrom, also of the East Village, was riding in a small group through Chelsea. They had been pedaling for only 15 minutes when, on 18th St. between Seventh and Eighth Aves., “I noticed a lot of cops on bicycles, but they weren’t dressed as cops,” she said. “They were standing by the other police cars. At the other end of the street the scooters blocked off the street and started arresting people.” Turning around, she saw that police had blocked off both ends of the street, effectively trapping the cyclists. “I hopped off my bike with a handful of other people. We went into a parking garage and hid behind some parked cars.” Her group avoided arrest but six others were arrested on the block.

At the ride after-party at St. Mark’s Church, East Villager Spike Appel screened a videotape for The Villager that was recorded as bicyclists continued down Avenue A. At Fifth St., an unmarked car pulled alongside the ride and a passenger pointed a video camera at the riders. When the ride reached Houston St. and Second Ave., police vans and unmarked cars were seen overtaking a group of riders. Police then jumped out of their vehicles and placed several cyclists under arrest.

In all, 48 cyclists were arrested Friday night, the largest number of arrests since last August’s Critical Mass arrests of 264. During last year’s convention week, a total of 410 bicycle riders were arrested.

The Police Department did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Last week’s ride came at the conclusion of two weeks of bike events. The Bike National Convention, organized by Time’s Up!, consisted of workshops, meetings and, of course, rides. One of many notable events was the Aug. 15 Ride of Silence. Participants stopped at several locations where cyclists have been killed the past year in auto accidents, including along Houston St. at Elizabeth St. and at Avenue A. So far this year, 12 riders have been killed in the city, more than all of last year.

On Aug. 23, cyclists dressed as clowns held Bike Lane Liberation Day, “ticketing” any vehicle blocking a bike lane.

On Aug. 25, Freewheels held a press conference by the courts to announce a letter-writing campaign to the mayor, asking him to address the rationale behind the ongoing monthly arrests of cyclists. Parked near the podium was a pedicab, which Free Wheels had arranged to be at Critical Mass for the mayor to ride in so he could observe the popularity and benefits of bicycling on city streets. An inscribed invitation and a DVD of the “Still We Ride” documentary were delivered to a city office in the Municipal Building. There was no response to the invitation.

The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

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