Volume 74, Number 22 | September 29 - October 5 , 2004

Villager photo by Ramin Talaie

Bikers departing from Union Sq. at the start of last Friday’s ride.

Critical Mass rides again, vows to keep on rolling

By Lincoln Anderson

In an event deemed a critical test for the future of Critical Mass, the monthly group bike ride with an environmental message, about 1,000 bicyclists rode from Union Sq. to the 50s and back again last Friday night, for the most part not hindered by police.

Afterwards, members of Time’s Up!, a nonprofit, environmental, pro-bike group, hailed the ride as a success, despite the arrests of eight riders and seizure by police of about 40 bikes that had been locked to poles — some of these by riders who had feared arrest — after police sawed through the chains.

For the last several years, Critical Mass, which occurs in cities worldwide, has been held in New York the last Friday of each of month. However, in August, on the Friday before the Republican National Convention, 5,000 riders participated, and police made 264 arrests, many of these outside St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery at 10th St. and Second Ave., dubbed “Anarchist Central” during the R.N.C., where Critical Mass planned its after-party.

Speaking before the riders headed out last Friday, Brandon Neubauer, 26, a member of Time’s Up!, said that they wouldn’t be put off by the arrests and that Critical Mass isn’t going away. The mayor will just have to accept — as San Francisco and Chicago have — that fighting Critical Mass is a losing battle.

“The reality is they’re going to have to learn to live with Critical Mass sooner or later,” Neubauer said. “What’s happening now is what happened in San Francisco in ’97. Frankly, it just doesn’t look good to be arresting peaceful cyclists each month. We’re part of the solution.”

As for whether there would be arrests, he offered, “I have not idea what’s going to happen.”

Before the ride, police handed out information flyers noting it is illegal to ride in a bike procession without a permit and that “bicyclists must ride in usable bike lanes or near the curb or edge of the roadway, and not ride more than two abreast.” Violators would be subject to arrest and bicycle seizure.

The mayor had warned that arrests would be made, but Time’s Up! members said media pressure probably made him back off.

Although the bikers in their 20s and 30s may have resembled messengers, with hardened chains wrapped around their waists and sacks slung over their shoulders, many were professionals — who commute to work by bike.

Christy Thornton, 24, an economics researcher from Brooklyn, said she enjoys Critical Mass as a social event and for its message that bikers too deserve a right to safe streets. She noted that while commuting to work that morning a female pedestrian cursed at her.

“Obviously, she thinks I’m a messenger,” Thornton said. “She doesn’t know I have a master’s degree.”

Last month’s arrests were a deterrent for some.

A green tree tattooed on her shoulder, Sady Sullivan, 28, an N.Y.U. cultural criticism student, said, “I know about 60 people who didn’t come out tonight because they don’t want to get arrested.”

Reverend Billy was exhorting the crowd through a college-cheerleader-size white megaphone.

“This is a ritual event,” he observed.

One of the performance artist preacher’s disciples, Monica Hunken, 23, a member of Reverend Billy’s First Amendment Choir and an N.Y.U. graduate student in educational theater, was going on her first ride, and not looking forward to being arrested.

“I hope not, I have to work tonight,” said Hunken, a cocktail waitress at Asylum on Bleecker St.

In the end, the ride went smoothly for the most part. The riders departed to cheers from onlookers at Union Sq. Police on scooters blocked traffic on sidestreets for the pack as they wended up Park Ave., passing over the Park Ave. Bridge and through the tunnel under the Helmsley Building.

“Still We Ride,” read the back of a shirt worn by a woman on rollerblades. One man zipped along on a Razor scooter. Some rode custom-built, double-decker bikes that probably needed a ladder, or at least a step up on a lamppost, to mount.

The riders drew mixed reactions at one corner. “Yeah, bike maniacs!” one man yelled mock sarcastically. “Take back the streets!” a woman nearby shouted in support.

Police on scooters forced some of the riders to turn left on 53rd St., but this group later re-merged, with victorious cheering, with the main group as they both converged at Times Sq., then headed down Broadway back to Union Sq.

As the pedalers entered the home stretch, Reverend Billy urged them on at 17th St. with wild ululations through his megaphone.

At 14th St. and Union Sq. E., a police supervising officer in a white shirt told the bikers to wrap it up.

“Go back to the park,” he said. “Return to your rally point.”

However, not all riders had had enough. A group of 200 had splintered off and were making their way down Seventh Ave. S. at Bedford and Commerce Sts. Above them, a police helicopter with a searchlight tried to keep track. This group headed east on Eighth St., then over to Tompkins Sq. Park. The last remnants of the ride skirted furtively up Avenue A with a group of police on scooters in hot pursuit. The officer leading the scooters ordered them to turn left on 14th St. and return to Union Sq. Would there be arrests? “Enjoy your night,” the officer said, peeling off down Second Ave.

“Yay, we’re not going to get arrested!” the riders cheered.

Toward the end, there were some Keystone Kop-like interactions. Abby Wilson, press secretary for Councilmember Eva Moskowitz, recounted how one of the Critical Mass riders going up Avenue A had called out, “Where are we going?” To which one of the scooter cops retorted, “I thought you were supposed to tell us.”

Police generally seemed tolerant, though there was a report of one officer griping that because of the ride he was missing spending time with his family.

Yet, the clipping of the bike locks of a group of riders who had split off in the 30s when the ride stalled, then out of fear of arrest, chained up their bicycles, remains a hot-button issue. At a press conference at Time’s Up!’s new space on E. Houston St., civil rights attorney Norman Siegel condemned the police’s action, calling it unprecedented. Also at the press conference, Lieutenant Eric Adams of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement, said members of his group plan to ride along in solidarity on the next Critical Mass. October’s ride, always one of the more popular, will see bikers dressed in Halloween costume.

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