What's scarier than 6000 bicyclist?
Reflections on what occurred during the Critical Mass ride before RNC and what happened thereafter in the the police state of NYC.
What's scarier than 6000 bicyclists?
by B. Okie
Around 6:30pm on Friday, August 27, thousands of bicyclists were gathering
at Union Square in New York City for the monthly Critical Mass ride. This
ride was of course extra special because the Republican National
Convention was to begin at Madison Square Garden the coming week of August
30 through September 2. The Critical Mass (CM)ride was a kickoff for a
week of street protests, political gatherings and discussions,networking,
art, and public theater events inspired by a common disgust for the RNC
and a common hope for a better world.
The police were present at Union Square passing out flyers with
bike-related laws, trying to intimidate CMers from participating in what
has traditionally been a ride that follows its own rules instead of the
The ride was amazing, to have 6000 cyclists riding as a group through the
streets with people cheering on th sidewalks like a parade. As a cyclist,
it feels good to actually feel safe and get respect on the road instead of
always being forced to submit to automobile traffic.
We did not see any trouble with the police until the ride approached Times
Square, a temporary autonomous zone occupied by CM on every ride. We saw
increased number of cops, paddywagons, and police vehicles, and barricades
along the sidewalks in the area in and around Times Square. Who would
think the NYPD would go to such lengths to stop a bike ride? The ride
passed through gaudy Times Square surrounded by cheering pedestrians, the
bicyclists funneling in and out of stalled traffic. But a few blocks
south, the police blocked off Seventh Avenue at 34th street, ordering
cyclists to go back, against traffic, or be arrested. Many at the front
chanted "let us through!, let us through!" The police began arresting
When the police ordered cyclists to move back, I moved to the side.
Unable to move onto the sidewalk because of the barricades, I was grabbed
by a police officer who put the plastic cuffs on my wrists so tightly my
circulation was inhibited and my hands began to feel numb. At least three
of the arrestees on Seventh Avenue were National Lawyers Guild Legal
Observers, whose job it was to gather the names of arrestees and monitor
Most of the ride either passed through the barricades before they were
secured or turned back and continued west on 35th street, if they had not
already broken off into smaller groups earlier on in the ride. The police
again attempted to stop those dangerous bicyclists, this time with orange
netting. More criminal bicyclists were arrested, including a couple who
walked out of a restaurant with hot take-out food and bicycles in hand, a
couple who had gone grocery shopping and held bags of groceries on their
bikes, and a wall street businessman in suit who had just stepped onto the
street to ride to work, most of the Critical Massers escaped.
On 2nd Avenue in the Lower Eat Side, police continued with mass arrests of
the terrorizing cyclists. Some were arrested at 17th and the bulk of the
remaining arrestees at 10th street, the location of St. Mark's Episcopal
Church, which served as a convergence,resting,cooking and organizing
space. The ride was over and bicyclists were socializing and looking for
places to park their bikes. Some cyclists reported being ordered to
disperse in one direction only to be confronted by fierce riot cops ready
for a brawl when they did. Officers in riot gear corralled cyclists,
refused to let them disperse, threw them on the ground, on vehicles, and
generally did a terrific job of making the streets safe for automobile
The Criminalization of Bicyclists
At least 260 cyclists were arrested that night in Manhattan. Clearly, the
cops were looking for a reason to arrest any and all that had a bicycle
who happened to be near the Critical Mass ride. Although, the cops have
never given NYC Critical Mass trouble in the past, and have even at times
provided supportive escorts, on Friday, August 27, NYPD was inconsistent,
misleading, cruel, and unfair. At times on the ride the cops told
cyclists to stop at lights, at other times they stopped side traffic so
that the Critical Mass could pass. The incidents at 2nd Ave. and 10th
street, where cyclists were brutalized and mass arrested even though the
ride was over,
clearly shows that NYPD was looking for a reason to mass arrest cyclists.
On Saturday, August 28th, outside Madison Square Garden, Police
Commissioner Ray Kelly said "They chose to drive 5,000 bicycles through
midtown Manhattan. Obviously the government had to respond in some
fashion." What? What si so threatening to the government about 5000 happy
people on bikes and crowds of people cheering them on from the sidewalks?
When people drive
thousands of cars down Manhattan streets everyday causing wrecks,
injuries, and air pollution, thats not a problem? Why didn't the
"government respond in this manner to any of the previous rides that drew
more than a thousand cyclists?
NYPD had prepared a warehouse/ processing station at Pier 57 on the West
Side of Manhattan to detain and process up to 1000 protesters each day of
the planned week of NoRNC protests. the Critical Mass ride was their
opportunity to put this warehouse to use and practice processing dangerous
protesters for the upcoming days of action. A large replica of a property
confiscation form behind the processing tables inside pier 57 demonstrated
to arresting officers how to fill out a property clerk's invoice for a
confiscated bicycle, further proving that NYPD planned to mass arrest
Critical Massers long before the ride began.
In the days that followed Friday, August 27, bicyclists were among the
most harassed and arrested of all the protesters. Throughout the week of
protests, the NYPD targeted cyclists with at least 400 arrests. They've
confiscated even more bikes, in some cases cutting locks and taking bikes
that were supposedly ridden by "protestors." On Sunday, August 29th,
without prior notification and without providing legal justification, the
NYPD instituted a "bike-frozen zone" between 34th St. and 59th St., west
of 6th Avenue. confiscated bikes are being held in a facility in
Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and many of them are not scheduled to be released
until court dates, in some cases months from now.
It is not just a matter of bicyclists being targeted as protesters. In a
country at war over oil, with a government administration of oil
executives, in a city hosting that ruling administration's political
convention, cyclists are targeted for political reasons. Because bicycles
used widely as a transportation option present a threat to the oil and car
industry in this country, they (and pedestrians, skateboarders, etc.) have
historically been given unfair treatment and infrastructure in city
planning. In NYC during the NoRNC convergence, the targeting of
bicyclists for arrest shows that they are seen as a real threat to the
powers that be. So let's not give up!
For many of the arrestees that night, being arrested was a first. It was
my first time being arrested, and although I did not enjoy the experience,
it was a learning experience, something that adds another dimension to my
understanding of just how messed up this system is. For the wall street
businessman and all the other privileged people arrested that night, they
now have a taste of what it is like to be among those people all too
frequently harassed by police and law enforcement for the color of their
skin, the neighborhood they live in, or the way they look.
Story of a Critical Mass Arrest
The other cyclists and I grabbed by the police on Seventh Avenue were
never told we were under arrest and never read our rights. When I asked
the officer that grabbed me if I was under arrest, he kind of shrugged.
Later he sayed: "You know why wou're arrested right? disorderly conduct."
While kept in a little pen on Seventh Avenue, reporters swarmed around us
asking questions and shoving cameras in our faces. "What's your message?"
"What were you doing?"
Gradually, buses showed up. The Arresting officers forced the cyclists
and their bikes on the buses. As I was boarding the bus, several
bystanders raised their fists in solidarity. It gave me some hope. As
the bus I was on headed toward the notorious Pier 57, it attempted to turn
right onto a narrow street lined with cars. The warning from the police
officers on the bus was too late, the bus hit the Cadillac Escalade parked
on the corner causing the vehicle to shake and the alarm to go off. How
ironic that the bus full of Critical Mass arrestees hits an SUV on the way
to the jail!
Once we arrived at the Pier 57 warehouse, an old bus depot, we were taken
off the bus with our bikes by the arresting officers. We waited in line
as each cyclist was photographed 3 times and then a photo was taken of the
bike. We were searched and our belongings were put in a bag. It felt
good to finally get the tight plastic cuffs cut off. We were placed in
chain-link cages with razor-wire, each containing two or three wooden
benches and a water dispenser. The floor of the warehouse was covered in
an oily residue that caused skin rashes on prisoners, respiratory
problems, and created filthy stains on everyones clothes that sat or laid
Orders form the top, frustration at the bottom
The police officers were visibly frustrated and unhappy with the warehouse
process that they were forced to go through by the NYPD police hierarchy.
As I watched the police officers fumble around with the paperwork, bikes,
and prisoners, unsure of what to do next, I thought about comments I've
heard people make about activist or anarchist groups being unorganized and
laughed to myself at the confusion of the police. When my name was called
to leave the first cage and go through the tables of paperwork and
property confiscation, I heard my arresting officer comment to another
that "there's no way this is going to continue like this tomorrow." The
younger cops and oftentimes the officers of color were frustrated and
disgruntled by bureaucratic process and the orders of the commanding
officers, who walked around, barked orders, and chuckled to each other.
It feels good to be free...or sort-of free
On Saturday, August 28th, I was released from jail on a Desk Appearance
ticket, with the promise that I would be back to see a judge in a couple
weeks. It was great to have jail support people waiting outside with
legal aid info, food, and support. Even though I was out of jail, it
still felt like a prison on the streets with cops on every corner, police
cars, vans, and trucks constantly passing by, police helicopters overhead,
and armed gangs of menacing cops on scooters and bikes patrolling the
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