Volume 74, Number 34 | December 29 - January 04, 2004


Villager photo by Lincoln Anderson

Barbara Ross pumped up her bicycle tire after Dec. 24 press conference held by Critical Mass and its attorneys.

Critical Mass gets ‘ride of way;’ injunction denied

By Lincoln Anderson

It looks like it may be a happy new year — or at least New Year’s Eve ride — for Critical Mass. On Dec. 23, U.S. District Court Judge William Pauley III denied a request by the New York City Police Department for a federal injunction to stop the monthly Critical Mass rides in Manhattan unless they get a permit.

In his decision, Pauley noted that the city had been allowing the group bike rides for the past 10 years, but now is demanding that they obtain a permit. That and other questions about the sudden crackdown on the event led Pauley to feel that the situation was too murky to issue an injunction. Also, citing the judicial principle of comity between the state and federal courts, Pauley did not want to intrude in what he considers to be a matter for the state courts.

“After allowing the Critical Mass rides in Manhattan for 10 years without permits…the Police Department has acquiesced to the very conduct it now seeks to prohibit,” Pauley wrote in his decision. “To issue an injunction on such a gossamer thread would stretch this court’s jurisdiction beyond the limited elasticity of [the law].”

Pauley also ruled against the city’s request that the riders get a Parks Department special events permit to gather at their usual departure point, Union Sq.’s north plaza.

Since the August Critical Mass ride before the Republican National Convention, when police arrested over 250 of the bicyclists, the police have taken a tough stance against the event. Each ensuing month, the police have made arrests, sometimes as many as 40, at the rides.

Participants in the local Critical Mass ride — an event that takes place in 400 cities worldwide — hailed the decision and said it’s now time for the city to stop “targeting” the riders.

“It means the N.Y.P.D. cannot continue to take the hard line,” said Norman Siegel at a Dec. 24 press conference. “Second, I think it means that the hostility will abate.”

Assistant Corporation Counsel Sheryl Neufeld of the city’s law department said in a statement: “We are disappointed with the court’s ruling…. The city is considering its legal options, including whether to appeal.”

The city’s law department noted that in his decision, the judge wrote: “ ‘to the extent that Critical Mass participants violate city laws, this ruling does not condone their conduct.’

“The court simply found that the city’s claims against Critical Mass belong in state court, not federal court,” the law department said.

The case was in federal court because the city filed a counterclaim to a federal lawsuit by five riders who sued the city over their locked bikes being confiscated by saw-wielding police at the Sept. 24 Critical Mass ride.

Asked if the city planned to have police keep arresting the bikers, Kate Ahlers O’Brien, a law department spokesperson, said, “My general sense on that is police will continue to police the ride as they have been doing.” However, she added, “It’s a ride — they got a court order to let them proceed. There’s no reason to inflame it. They’re going to ride and we hope it will be peaceful.”
A police spokesperson issued the following statement on how police will respond to the upcoming ride on Dec. 31.

“Like everyone else, bicyclists are still required to obey the law and we’ll still enforce it. That includes stopping at red lights,” the spokesperson said. He wouldn’t say if police plan to ask the riders to follow a set route. “That’s our statement,” he said, declining to provide more details.

Attorney Siegel said the “difficult issue” that remains is “How do you have a semi-planned event — that the police are trying to expedite so it doesn’t take all night?”

Siegel said making the riders stop at every red light would just make the ride last longer. Currently, the riders stream through intersections at red lights, blocking, or “corking,” car traffic. The rides usually last for more than an hour.

“Hopefully what happened in San Francisco will be repeated here,” Siegel said. In that city, police escort the riders, he said, under a policy worked out under Mayor Willie Brown.

“The N.Y.P.D. has the chance in the next week,” Siegel said, “does it stop, does it continue or does it get worse?”

Leah Rorvig, 22, a volunteer with Time’s Up!, the group that publicizes the rides, said a key aspect of the event is that it continues to be “decentralized,” with no leaders and no set format.

“Critical Mass, the real joy of this is it’s a decentralized event,” Rorvig said. Rorvig, an East Village resident, said she, personally, will stop at red lights — but that she couldn’t speak for how others will behave. “We are committed to maintaining the spirit of Critical Mass, which is decentralization,” she said.

“What we’d like to have is a police escort. That really facilitates rides very successfully,” Rorvig said. Under this scheme, the police would follow along with the ride on scooters or in cars, insuring safety. “I think the cyclists would be willing to accept some limits — like don’t go on the F.D.R.,” she added.

Rorvig and others said that the police, in fact, did provide escorts to Critical Mass for the last 10 years. She said she would follow a route if police gave one, but again, couldn’t say what the rest of the Critical Mass bicyclists will do.

In addition, the riders argue that they should merely be given summonses if they break traffic laws, not be arrested.

Barbara Ross and Judy Ross, two sisters who attended the Dec. 24 press conference, said they have been doing the Critical Mass rides since when the rides started at Astor Pl., then Union Sq. S. They said in the last two years the rides have gotten larger, averaging 500 to 1,000 bikers, depending on the weather and circumstances.

Barbara Ross said she commutes to work from the East Village to Midtown by bike and appreciates the feeling of safety in a large mass of bicyclists that the monthly group rides provide.

They said in the past the police were cordial with the riders. There was even a special unit assigned to follow the ride.

“We started to get to know them. It was like the same group,” said Barbara Ross. “If they rode on bicycles, it would be even better. We kind of missed them when they weren’t there anymore.”

Siegel said it’s time for Mayor Bloomberg to get involved and tell the N.Y.P.D. to back off of the ride.

“The mayor has been terribly quiet on this controversy,” he said. “The mayor is pro-environment. If he doesn’t want this to turn into an election 2005 issue, he’s got to tell the police to chill out.”

One woman at the press conference wore an “I bike. I vote.” button.

“There’s over 100,000 bike riders in the city of New York,” Siegel noted.

A call to Ed Skyler, the mayor’s press secretary, was not returned.

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