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2005-03-28

NYPD Attempts To Criminalize Bike Riders Taking Part in Critical Mass

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On Friday, police arrested 37 riders and confiscated dozens of bicylcles. Last week, the city filed a lawsuit seeking to prevent the group TIME’S UP! from promoting or advertising events that the city alleges to be illegal. The lawsuit also states that TIME’S UP! and the general public cannot participate in riding or gathering at the Critical Mass bike ride. [includes rush transcript]

In 1992 in San Francisco cyclists started riding together monthly to assert themselves as traffic in a ride that became known as Critical Mass. Since then, the ride has spread to over 300 cities around the world.

Last August, when thousands descended on New York for the Republican National Convention, over three thousand bicyclists and skaters participated in a Critical mass ride on the eve of the start of street protests. That night, police moved in on the bikers and arrested hundreds. Over a week and a half surrounding the RNC, police arrested nearly 400 bike riders. Since then, activists and civil liberties groups say the City of New York has been targeting bicyclists and Critical Mass in particular.

Last week, the city filed a lawsuit seeking to prevent the group TIME’S UP! from promoting or advertising events that the city alleges to be illegal. The lawsuit also states that TIME’S UP! and the general public cannot participate in riding or gathering at the Critical Mass bike ride. It claims that any event whatsoever with 20 or more persons requires a permit. On Friday, hundreds of bicycle riders defied the city and participated in a Critical Mass ride. Police arrested some 37 riders and officers confiscated dozens of bicycles. The police say they made the arrests because they say Critical Mass was "parading without a permit."

Democracy Now! producer Elizabeth Press was at Friday’s ride. She was also arrested while filming Critical Mass during the Republican National Convention in New York. Here is a clip from a film she and others are working on about Critical Mass. It is called "Still We Ride."

We are joined now by one of the 4 people named in the city’s injunction against Critical Mass. Matt Roth is with the group TIME’S UP! We are also joined by veteran New York civil rights attorney Norman Siegel.

  • Norman Siegel, longtime civil rights attorney. He is former Executive Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
  • Matt Roth, member of TIME’S UP! and one of the four people named in the injunction the city filed this week against the non-profit.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Here is a clip from a film she and others are working on about Critical Mass, it’s called Still We Ride.

POLICE OFFICER: Step back on the sidewalk.

CYCLIST: In South America you don’t get arrested for cycling. In Europe you don’t get arrested for cycling. They have arrested 400 cyclists in the last half a year in New York City.

CYCLIST: There was one police officer grabbing my arm and telling me, "Drop the bike, drop the bike!"

REPORTER: Have you ever been in a criminal court case before?

CYCLIST: No, I haven’t even been a juror on a criminal court case.

REPORTER: Do you know why you’re being arrested?

CYCLIST: I don’t know.

REPORTER: Why are people getting arrested?

POLICE OFFICER: They’re breaking the law.

CYCLIST: It’s like all of a sudden a bicycle is a weapon.

POLICE OFFICER: It is dangerous and illegal to ride a bicycle in a procession.

CYCLIST: I saw my experience not so much as something that happened to me, but as a window of opportunity for greater suppression of rights in this country.

CYCLIST: We have documentation of them being aggressive, pushing before hand, and doing things that were less than friendly arrests.

NEWS REPORTER: Five thousand anti-Bush bike riders disrupted traffic, and police made 260 arrests.

CYCLIST: We are vehicles. We have a right to ride in the streets just like cars.

CYCLIST: They should have more space on the streets to be able to ride. It’s hard enough as it is to get from one place to another, why not have a bike?

CYCLIST: This is an enormous waste of money and resources.

CYCLIST: It seems to me that they probably have better things to do.

CYCLIST: No bicyclist that I saw were given their Miranda Rights and I heard no order to disperse.

CYCLIST: The city is not reacting too well.

CYCLIST: They have segmented the community.

CYCLIST: We’re going to be doing this the last Friday of every month for the next fifty years. And the cops are going to go back to ignoring it, because they’re going to stir up a hornet’s nest if they try to mass-arrest people.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of the movie being made, Still We Ride. This is Democracy Now! We’re joined now by one of the four people named in the City’s injunction against Critical Mass. Matt Roth is with the group, TIME’S UP! We’re also joined by veteran New York City civil liberties attorney, Norman Siegel. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

MATT ROTH: Good morning, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: So, why don’t we begin with you, Matt. Can you describe what happened on Friday night?

MATT ROTH: It’s similar to the Republican National Convention. This was the first time since the Republican National Convention, they brought out orange plastic netting to Union Square North, the meeting spot for Critical Mass and they surrounded the entire area with this orange plastic netting. As people tried to leave the starting area on their bikes or walking their bikes, some were ushered along 17th street and then basically closed in at the opposite end of the street on Sixth Avenue. They had blocked it off, and then they allowed people in, blocked it off much like I suppose cattle would be herded through blocks, and then they arrested 37 people. Some of the ride participants locked their bikes up to the scaffolding, to public street posts, and then the police went through and summarily cut every single lock of every bike that was on the street with power saws.

AMY GOODMAN: So, they closed off the different areas around Union Square, except for the one that they then arrested people when they tried to get out?

MATT ROTH: Yeah. Some people were able to get out other directions. They basically were attempting to prevent anyone from riding as a group out of Union Square.

AMY GOODMAN: What is TIME’S UP!?

MATT ROTH: TIME’S UP! is an environmental advocacy organization. It’s been in New York for 25 years. It’s been particularly focused on bicycle riding for the last 18 to 20 years. And it promotes — it has community workshops and classes. There’s bike repair workshops, community garden clean-ups. It focuses on a particular niche of New York City which is on the street, is focusing on environmental issues.

AMY GOODMAN: Now this latest bike ride came just a few days after the City filed suit trying to prevent TIME’S UP! from publicly talking about this Critical Mass bike ride.

MATT ROTH: Well, TIME’S UP! is simply one of many groups that has embraced Critical Mass in New York City. It’s probably the most vocal group, especially after the Republican National Convention when there were, like you mentioned, 400 cyclists arrested within six days. We started holding legal meetings and doing outreach to lawyers and advocates and trying to figure how we get our bikes back. That’s how we met Mr. Siegel. That’s how the lawsuits started. It was basically doing outreach and support for arrestees. And we have always been a vocal supporter of Critical Mass because it’s emblematic of what our streets could look like if we embraced bicycles and we embraced a healthier New York.

AMY GOODMAN: Norman Siegel, you’re a long-time civil liberties lawyer. What is going on here? What about the lawsuit saying that the group TIME’S UP! cannot publicly — or individuals cannot publicly talk about these events?

NORMAN SIEGEL: I think it’s very troubling. It’s the first time that I’m aware of where the City of New York is trying to enjoin protest activity. I think it has huge ramifications for activists, if the city can prevail on this. The implication would be that activists could not publicize any form of civil disobedience. Just think of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement not being able to publicize people coming together to sit in at the Greensboro lunch counters in the early '60s. I think we will prevail in the state court because it's a prior restraint on free speech, and the premise is vacuous. The premise is that they can’t publicize an unlawful activity. No court of law has yet said, one, you need a permit to ride in the streets of New York, or two, no court has said that you need a permit from the Parks Department for 20 or more people to just stand in the park. So, we’ll vigorously defend it, just as we did in the federal court, where the City was unsuccessful on the permit with regard to riding in the streets, but now this new issue should concern not just activists, but people all across the political spectrum. If the City of New York can get away with muzzling people from speaking about gathering to do a protest activity, we’ve lost something very precious in America.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe, Matt Roth, what a Critical Mass bike ride looks like, how it functions? I mean, I remember being one night in Times Square and seeing hundreds of cyclists racing down the road. Of course, no drivers, no people who were in cars could even be there, because there were so many cyclists. It was a very festive, even for the bystanders who didn’t know what was going on, this mass, this kind of organism that just took over the streets as people flashed by.

MATT ROTH: Yeah. Especially in Times Square. It’s a unique moment, because there’s so many tourists. There’s so many people around. The ride initially started as a symbolic gesture to get more bikes on the street and to say that bikes need to be visible. This was in San Francisco in 1992, and it spread worldwide. Basically people will start to publicize a meeting spot. In New York, it’s had various meeting places. Then as you start to have more and more cyclists getting excited about it and meeting up, it grows in size. But there’s no central organization that does it. It’s in cities all over the world. People are excited by the idea that they can ride their bikes together, and that that will have a visual and political impact in that they demand their rights as cyclists, as vehicles on the road. And so, you will see hundreds or thousands, depending on the city, riding together through the streets. And if you go to the front of the ride, you are the leader. If you drop back, you’re a follower. It’s as simple as that. People will turn this way or that, and if the mass follows, then it’s a Critical Mass. Otherwise, the people will fold back into it, and so, it really is an organism, it is an organic, temporary autonomous zone on wheels that moves where it will, at will.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you don’t have an itinerary charted out before?

MATT ROTH: No. There’s a — people tend to love certain areas of this city, and I’ve heard in other cities it’s similar. In New York, people love to go through Times Square, especially because of the reaction and the glowing permanent day that we have there even at night with all the neon signs. But it will often go to Columbus Circle, before there was construction there. It just depends on the feeling of the participants during that ride. You will see each ride has a different kind of a different energy depending on who is riding. Prior to the police crackdown, there were families. We often saw a particular father who had a tandem bike with his daughter. You’d see a lot of younger kids on the rides when they felt it was — they were going to be free of harassment and there weren’t going to be arrested.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, you’re one of the people, one of four people, named in the lawsuit by the city?

MATT ROTH: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And they contend you’re a leader of this Critical Mass bike ride?

MATT ROTH: I’ve been a vocal opponent of the police crackdowns since August, and I’ve been in the papers quoted. I’ve been doing a lot of media work and a lot of legal liaising. In the lawsuit, for example, they directly pulled an attributive that a press person had given me in a story as my title, Media And Legal Liaison for TIME’S UP! I mean, it’s very rudimentary. They don’t understand the dynamics of Critical Mass. They don’t understand the dynamics of TIME’S UP!, an all-volunteer organization. So when people stand up and resist this unlawful activity by the police, that kind of person is going to be singled out. I have tried my best to not take on a leadership role in any way or try and speak for everyone who rides. I speak for the principles, as I understand them, of Critical Mass, which is non-hierarchical, non-authoritarian. It’s all participatory.

AMY GOODMAN: So, where does this suit go from here, Norman Siegel?

NORMAN SIEGEL: We now have about 23 days to respond to the City’s papers. This time we go to the State Court. Previously, on two of the three arguments, the arguments with regard to the permit to ride in the street, the permit to gather in Union Square Park, the City made those arguments in the Federal Court. The judge did not accept their arguments and said if you want to make the arguments, go to State Court. So the City is now going to State Court. We’ll vigorously defend it, and with regard to the third claim, which I mentioned before, all New Yorkers, especially people in the middle of the political spectrum, must begin to speak up because once you allow the police in a democratic society to take the law into their own hands, arguing that you need a permit, when in fact no court of law has said that, we’re in trouble. The premise is, I have a right to go on a public street and make a speech because I have a First Amendment right to do that. I don’t need the government’s permission to make that speech on a soap box on the corner of the street or the City of New York. Likewise, bike riders don’t need permits to ride through the streets. They do have to obey the law, which means they have to obey traffic rules and regulations. If bike riders go through red lights, the police at that point can stop them and do what they do with a car, give them a summons, but all of this activity the last six months of arresting people, seizing the bikes, in my opinion, it’s without legal basis, it’s unconstitutional, and again, New Yorkers must begin to ask the Mayor of the City of New York and the Police Commissioner why are they engaged this campaign? Finally, Amy, we’re going to do a Freedom Of Information to find out how much this is costing the taxpayers, because the last Friday of each month, there are so many police officers. On Friday night they had had two helicopters. They had lots of scooters. They had vans. This just doesn’t make any sense.

AMY GOODMAN: We invited the New York Police Department to — the New York City lawyers, to join us. They said they would not come on because of the pending case, but in The New York Times, Robin Binder, a lawyer for the City, said the group doesn’t have the, quote, "right to advertise an unlawful activity."

NORMAN SIEGEL: Right, well to begin with, their premise is wrong. This is not an unlawful activity. No one has said that it’s unlawful. But even assuming hypothetically that it was unlawful, you still have a right to talk about an unlawful activity. In America, you are arrested for engaging in unlawful conduct. You don’t get arrested for intending to engage in unlawful conduct or talking about something that you are going to do tomorrow or the next day. Once we go down that road, you are talking about preemptive arrests, and we’re talking about losing something very fundamental in America. The idea of the people in the Boston Tea Party being arrested before they threw the tea in the harbor. The idea of blacks and whites being arrested en route to the Greensboro lunch counters. American history would be radically different and to the negative, in my opinion, if this premise that the City is advocating would prevail. Shame on the City of New York and shame on Michael Bloomberg for allowing this to take place.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you for being with us. Matt Roth, with the group TIME’S UP! and Norman Siegel, veteran New York civil liberties attorney. Thank you, both.

NORMAN SIEGEL: Thank you, Amy.

MATT ROTH: Thank you.

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