Volume 74, Number 43 | March 02 - 08, 2005

14 arrested, as Critical Mass crackdown continues

By Jefferson Siegel

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel
A National Lawyers Guild volunteer legal observer is arrested at last Friday’s Critical Mass.
As they have every month for eight years, bike riders from around the city and out of town gathered in the north plaza of Union Sq. Park last Friday night for the Critical Mass group bicycle ride.

Dave Bonon, a member of the Danbury Independent Media Center, came from Connecticut. On his backpack hung two license-plate style signs reading “Bicycling A Quiet Statement Against Oil Wars” and “True Automobile.” Eric Ferguson from Croton-on-Hudson drew attention with his replica of a “Pennyfarthing” bicycle with a huge front wheel and a tiny rear wheel.

Police handed out fliers stating “No permit has been issued for a bicycle procession. If you choose to ride in a procession this evening, you will be arrested and your bicycle will be seized.” However, a court ruling last December by a federal judge denied the city’s request for an injunction barring the monthly rides from occurring without a permit.

When the ride started just after 7:30 p.m., over 100 bicyclists pedaled out of the northwest corner of the park, heading west on 17th St. But the ride was promptly cut short one block later at Fifth Ave. Six riders, including a legal observer for the National Lawyers Guild, were arrested. They were escorted onto the sidewalk, where they were handcuffed, photographed and loaded into a police van. Another police truck removed their bicycles.

Civil rights attorney Norman Siegel had walked over from Union Sq. in time to witness the arrests. When asked about the legality of detaining a legal observer, he said, “They can’t arrest anyone. These arrests are illegal.”

An hour later another eight riders who had managed to continue on were arrested at 26th St. and Broadway.

One of the first to be arrested was West Village resident Madeline Nelson. The next day she recounted her ordeal. “At the point where I left Union Sq., it was a pretty thin stream of people. Police vans came, turning onto 17th St. pretty quickly. It almost felt like we were riding single file because these police vehicles were taking up the road. I got to the corner of Fifth Ave., looked across the street, saw, ‘Oh, people are getting arrested’ and I turned onto Fifth Ave.,” she said.

Nelson had been riding alone when a policeman ran in her direction and placed her under arrest. Along with the other five arrested cyclists, she was taken to the Ninth Precinct and held for three and a half hours.

When all 14 arrested cyclists were released at 11:30 p.m., Gideon Oliver, a National Lawyers Guild legal observer who has observed the rides since last August’s Republican Convention, was waiting for them. The next day, commenting on the arrests, he said, “What concerned me about last night was that the Police Department seems to be shifting their tactics and seems to be chasing the rides rather than facilitating them, which is obviously incredibly dangerous.”

Paul J. Browne, the Police Department’s deputy commissioner for public information, responded: “We’ve attempted, but were rebuffed, when we tried to escort them. Meet, have a route and escort it. Since then we’ve just asked people to observe the traffic laws. If they do they’re not arrested; if they break them, they are.”

The arrested cyclists were charged with parading without a license and disorderly conduct and were issued desk appearance tickets. A court date is scheduled for March 22.

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