Volume 74, Number 26 | October 27 - November 03 , 2004

City: Permit is critical for mass ride

By Lincoln Anderson

In an effort to rein in the freewheeling, monthly Critical Mass bike ride, the Bloomberg administration on Monday filed a lawsuit in federal court, asking a judge for an injunction against this Friday’s Halloween-theme sortie on the grounds that the event does not have a permit.

The bike-advocacy rides — drawing 1,000 to 3,000 participants each month — have no set route and last about an hour to two hours, wending through city streets, while blocking automobile traffic.

The previous Wednesday, civil rights attorney Norman Siegel filed a lawsuit in federal court against the city and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. The plaintiffs include five individuals whose bikes were confiscated at September’s Critical Mass after they had dismounted and locked them to poles and police sawed through the locks. In total, nine people were arrested at last month’s ride and 40 bikes confiscated.

The bicyclists’ lawsuit seeks an injunction against police seizures of locked bikes.

Siegel said the city has taken what was a specific complaint — the confiscation of locked bikes — and opened up a much broader debate.

According to the bikers and Siegel, monthly Critical Mass rides happen in six continents in 400 cities.

“This is a worldwide event and only in New York is the city asking a federal court to enjoin it,” Siegel said on Monday two hours after receiving the city’s legal papers. “This ride has been going on for six years. What’s happening in New York City that is so different from the rest of the world — and why is the Bloomberg administration requiring a permit for bicycle riders to ride through the streets of New York City?”

“It’s totally unbelievable that they would come back and bring a class-action lawsuit,” said Michael Roth, a volunteer for Time’s Up! a pro-bicycling group that publicizes but does not organize or lead Critical Mass rides. “It’s intimidation tactics. It’s trying to criminalize biking. The mayor’s saying that New York is one of the most bike-friendly cities, but he’s attacking one of the traditions that’s most important to bicyclists around the world.”

The cases will be heard by Judge William Pauley, III, on Wed., Oct. 27, at 3 p.m., at the U.S. District Courthouse at 500 Pearl St. Bicyclists plan to pack the courtroom. Pauley denied a permit for use of Central Park’s Great Lawn for a protest during the Republican National Convention by ANSWER and the National Council of Arab Americans.

Calls to the Mayor’s Office and Police Department were referred to the city’s legal department, the Corporation Counsel. Asked to clarify the city’s action, Robin Binder, deputy chief of the Corporation Counsel’s Administrative Law Division, in an e-mailed statement, said: “The City is seeking an injunction against the Critical Mass bike ride to require them to get a parade permit. In recent months, the Critical Mass bike rides have grown tremendously in size: in July there were more than 3,000 participants, in August there were approximately 5,000, and in September, there were more than 1,000 bike riders. During these rides, cyclists take to the streets en masse, in violation of traffic laws, interfering with vehicular and pedestrian traffic and causing other safety problems. If a parade permit were issued, the group would be given a prescribed route and would be allowed to proceed en masse through traffic signals with a police escort. However, the Police Department has been unable to find a ride organizer with whom to negotiate a parade permit. Moreover, information disseminated to the public over the Internet suggests that it is the group’s philosophy to resist getting a permit. Because these rides have gotten extremely large and out of control, the Police Department is seeking an injunction requiring the group to get a parade permit.”

Binder said that under the state’s vehicle and traffic law, bikes must either ride on the right-hand side of the road or the edge, and if they ride in the middle, must ride no more than two abreast.

“If they asked for something that would work, the Police Department is willing to work out the details of the permit, including the route,” Binder told The Villager. She added that, as is done for parades, avenues would be blocked off for the riders.

If the city wins the injunction and the bikers ride they could be held in criminal contempt, a misdemeanor, a higher charge than the usual disorderly conduct, Binder said.

However, Roth countered that the rides have been this size for about a year and police have often facilitated them. It was at the August ride the Friday before the R.N.C. that police first cracked down, making about 254 arrests of the bikers, many at Second Ave. and 10th St. outside St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery where Critical Mass’s after-party was planned.

Also, there is no leader to negotiate a permit with, Roth noted. Three days before last month’s ride, according to Roth, a Lieutenant Albano came to Time’s Up!’s E. Houston St. headquarters and tried to convince Time’s Up! members to get a permit for the event.

“It’s not going to work, because we don’t organize the ride,” Roth said. “They were trying to get someone from Time’s Up! to say they were responsible for Critical Mass and that’s not the case.

“This isn’t a procession, this isn’t a protest — this is traffic, riding on a road…. This is BMX crews, messengers, lawyers, dads and moms, people enjoying that sense of community you get so few other places in New York.”

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