Motor-scooter police tailing cyclists at Union Square at the July 28, 2006, Critical Mass ride.
Critical look at Critical Mass by cop who covers it
By Jefferson Siegel
For the 10 years of Critical Mass in New York City, the police paid scant attention to the monthly bike ride. That changed with the Republican National Convention in August 2004, when hundreds of cyclists were among the 1,800 arrested that week.
In the years since the R.N.C., the rides Union Square starting point has often resembled a military zone, with the cyclists surrounded by police. When the riders would depart from the square they were chased by helicopters and hundreds have since been arrested and ticketed.
Earlier this month, as the third anniversary of the convention approached, a police officer who has been present at many recent Critical Mass rides agreed to give an interview about his thoughts on policing Critical Mass and the event, in general.
Q. Its the last Friday of the month and that evening is Critical Mass. Whats going through your mind?
A. Generally speaking, we know its going to be a night with a lot of confrontations, somebodys going to be unhappy, theres going to be some form of enforcement action. In the beginning it was arrests that were done, and that was when Critical Mass decided to make itself a problem in the eyes of the department, before the R.N.C., especially.
Were expecting were going to arrive and that theres going to be the usual epithets, police state shouts and chants and that were all nazis, so we kind of brace ourselves mentally for that.
Q. For several years after the convention, a lot of riders worried that, with the police chasing the ride, somebody might get hurt. In January 2006, those two officers collided on Third Ave. and 13th St. while chasing the ride.
A. That falls into kind of a tough spot. You dont want to go chasing the bicyclists unnecessarily. However, if you request a bicyclist to stop and they refuse and you let them go and you ask another bicyclist to stop and he refuses and everybody sees, You know what, the cops arent going to chase us at all, well just take off and well never get a ticket, well never get stopped, that sets up a more dangerous confrontation.
Its give or take. The bicyclists have got to understand that youre requested to stop, youre going to have to stop. You are permitted to pursue up to a point, but not for miles and miles.
Q. Before that collision the bicyclists were being arrested and after that there were more tickets being issued and fewer arrests. Is that accurate?
A. Yes. That came about from the departments change in policy from arresting to going to traffic enforcement summonses. The department found, in general, that because there were constitutional issues involved with arresting people on a statute that was loosely interpreted, that parading without a permit statute, that we were losing those cases.
Q. What do you think of the Critical Mass bicyclists?
A. I look at them as idealists. They want to have their quote freedom of speech, First Amendment rights, but I would speculate a lot of them are also very much in favor of gun control, which is another Bill of Rights guarantee. You cant cherry-pick which ones you do want and which ones you dont.
The same people are saying, freedom of assembly, freedom to do whatever they want, period, regardless. It doesnt fly. We have the gun control laws in New York City for a specific reason, for public safety. We have, even though I dont particularly agree with how its set up, the parading without a permit laws along the same lines. You cant have 5,000 cyclists riding up and around Sixth Ave., Broadway, tying up the streets. Even if you do things exactly right, it takes time for all those people to pass through an intersection. That creates a problem. To say that it shouldnt be much of a problem if there were fewer cars doesnt fly.
Q. Bicyclists have claimed that theyre not blocking traffic, they are traffic.
A. They are traffic. However, when the [traffic] light cycle goes against them, now theyre passing through a steady red light, which was the rule in the past, that somebody would hold traffic and then the several hundred riders behind them, so as not to break up the Mass, which was the whole point of the ride. Now youve got this large group passing through a red light basically doing traffic infractions. It just turns into chaos.
Q. Do you think the citys doing enough for bicyclists?
A. Theyre starting to. Its been a long time coming. Ive seen bicycle lanes cropping up where there were none before. I think thats a good move.
Q. What do you think about bicycling, in general?
A. I have no problem with it. If they want to get around on a bicycle, thats fine. But dont try and force what you want on what somebody doesnt necessarily want to do, or isnt able to do. Ive seen some pretty serious bicycle accidents. Nobodys innocent. No bicyclist is innocent, no cop is 100 percent innocent. We do what we have to do. Supervision tells us, were going to enforce Critical Mass, this is what were going to enforce. We deal with what is written on the books. The parade without a permit law currently is written law. Until it gets overturned by the court, then we have to obey that.
Q. The bicyclists have said that its easier for the bicyclists to scatter and make room for an emergency vehicle as opposed to cars in gridlock.
A. To a point. Ive seen instances where emergency vehicles have been stuck behind a huge group of Critical Massers, where the people in front, two, three blocks ahead, cant hear the siren until the vehicle is on top of them. With the route known to the department, we can reroute emergency vehicles.
Q. Do you follow any of the Web sites?
A. Oh sure, mostly out of curiosity. I follow several of the sites to see whats going on with Critical Mass in other cities, like San Francisco, and some of the European sites, Berlin, Warsaw.
Q. Any of the local Web sites?
A. I see a lot of postings about the nazi cops, the police state, a lot of postings along those lines.
Q. Do you think all the bicyclists feel that way about you?
A. Not all of them. A lot of them do, Im sure. Especially now that weve enforced it so hard over the last 12 months that the normal ride turnout is only a couple of hundred. I think theyre the most die-hard of the group. Just because Im wearing a uniform, to look at me and say Im a nazi and I dont support the First Amendment is a laugh. They dont know who I am. Im doing my job. Believe it or not, its helping them maintain their First Amendment rights, their ability to do this.
Q. Are you familiar with the Times Up! group? They claim to be, not organizing, but promoting an environmentally beneficial mode of transportation.
A. More power to em. But again, they deny everything to do with Critical Mass. Weve removed fliers with Critical Mass and underneath it you have the X with the up arrow [Times Up!s symbol]. O.K., we know what theyre associated with. Thats fine, I have no problem with cycling as an alternative means of transportation.
Q. Any advice for the bicyclists in Critical Mass?
A. Somebody, just once, get the permit its only $45 and do an organized ride. Get as many people as you possibly can, 10,000 bicyclists, for the ride. But get the permit first, and watch what happens. Youll get to ride your route, theyll get any route they want, short of riding on the F.D.R. Drive or the West Side Highway. Therell be a detail of officers to hold traffic. They will ride unencumbered, unhindered, unsummonsed and unchallenged. Just like the St. Patricks Day Parade, the Puerto Rican Day Parade or any other parade.
Therell be no issues. Therell be no problems. And even if they dont get the entire street to themselves, they will have at least two lanes reserved for them. Maybe theyll be escorted by mobile officers or foot officers, but they will get to ride their route. Theyll get to do pretty much what they want to do.
Have them do it by the Police Departments rules just once and if its not to their taste, fine, youre out $45.
You have the right to freedom of speech, no problem. But you cant do it at the expense of the day-to-day business or the liberties of the other people who are in the city. The Critical Massers arent the only ones who are here.