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Monday August 30, 2004, 02:12

There is a half-written piece about drowning that is sitting in the inbox at work, waiting for a block of free time in my Outlook calendar when I can actually sit down and say something reasonably intelligent on the subject1. There was this idea that getting a full-time job would free me from the constraints of programming all the time and would free my brain to begin thinking the way it used to, on subjects about which I might have passion or interest or the desire to write at length. This has not happened and I have been continually told at work that I am too verbose and that the client would much rather hear me speak and write succinctly which is, in fact, one of the main reasons why I decided to get a full-time job. And despite the fact that said job looks on the clock in the upper-right corner of my screen, drawing closer with every passing minute, I really must take this time for a bit of reflection on the insanity that has befallen my city in the past couple of days.

On Friday night, after rushing home from work, tearing off my Banana Republic-issue non-jean pants and shirt-with-collar-and-buttons, and donning jeans and a black t-shirt, I grabbed my bike and headed down to the street to the sounds of bells and whistles, hoots and hollers from the street adjacent to mine. What promised to be one of the largest Critical Mass rides the city has ever seen had already begun and it was headed downtown past my apartment.

Ah yes, Critical Mass, that monthly expression of peaceful-yet-inconvenient protest that takes place in cities around the world in which cyclists congregate at a certain place at a certain time and, when they feel like it, start to ride through the city to chants of "More Bikes! Less2 cars!" and "Whose streets? Our streets!" Now technically speaking, the message is "Bikes don't block traffic -- they are traffic," and yet there is nobody who would argue that Critical Mass obeys strict traffic laws by any stretch of the imagination. Ok, well there actually is one guy who stops at red lights and has a sign taped to his back reading "I'm stopping at red lights. Ask me why." or something along those lines, and I am honestly still unclear how I feel about that sentiment.

The thing is that Critical Mass, as much as it is just a fun community ride, is also a form of protest, of civil disobedience against the automobile traffic in the city. This past ride, given the fact that the GOP convention is in town, turned more anti-Bush than anti-car, but there was still plenty of the latter involved. The fact is that cycling is a great way to get around New York and I for one would love to be able to ride around without having to worry that some yahoo in a delivery truck is going to run me down because he really wants to make that red light. Do the cyclists of the city have a set of demands that, if met, would end the mass once and for all? Doubtful. And only because there is no way that a city built for cars can ever fully accommodate bikes, and I think that we understand that (though this is certainly my opinion only, folks). But the disruption serves two purposes: 1) it makes people slow down a little for a couple of minutes in their lives and 2) it makes people think about cyclists and how many of them there actually are in the city.

There are some blow-by-blow accounts of how this past Critical Mass went (a little over 250 arrests in all) and to be honest, I wasn't witness to any of the actual arrests. I did pass by as a dozen or so officers in riot masks held orange plastic fencing off to the side of the road, waiting to block off Seventh Avenue to break up the ride, and I was down the block when I saw a couple of dozen officers rush down Tenth street, again wearing riot helmets and carrying nightsticks, circling another group to haul them off to the temporary detention center that's been set up in anticipation of this week's convention-related protest activities.

So, did these riders "deserve" to get arrested, as I've heard many say? After all, police are citing disorderly conduct and the inability for ambulances move quickly through the streets as explanations for arrest, and there is something to be said for the give and take of democracy -- that is, I am allowed to peacefully break the law, and the cops are allowed to arrest me for doing so. What remains to be seen is whether or not dealing with an offense that normally receives a summons with a nightsticks instead is actually the way we should be expecting our society to be heading. The truth of the matter is that Critical Mass was given mixed messages by both being escorted by the police through red lights through the city and then subsequently and startlingly violently beaten down when it seemed appropriate enough. The truth is also that there were 5,000 people riding through the streets, blocking traffic and potentially impeding the flow of emergency personnel through said streets. Warnings were issued in writing ahead of the ride. And yet no warnings were given (from what I can tell) before arrests were made.

While it is not the duty of law enforcement to give those who break the law a second chance, it strikes me as odd that there would be no attempt for a cruiser or two to ease through the crowd of cyclists stopped in the street outside the end-point of the ride, lights flashing and siren all "boop boop-ing" shouting "get the hell out of the streets or we'll arrest the lot of you." Perhaps this does not work as documented in the "how to clear a crowd" playbooks, or maybe they were told to get arrest-happy on the eve of the convention and before the anti-anything that vaguely reeks of Republican rally that happened earlier today in order to make people think twice about acting up, but given the relative innocuous nature of the legal altercations, it just seems to me that it would have show far more good faith in the arrangement that the ride and the police have had for several years running rather than smash that good will under a pile of confiscated bicycles.

Though I must say that the thrashing cyclist shouting "They're my streets! They're my streets!" as officers tried to detain him was probably doing neither himself nor Critical Mass a favor by resisting arrest. His right again, to be sure, but it just makes it that much easier to paint a ride that is, traditionally, more pro-community than pro-ruckus as a bunch of troublemakers who just deserve to be taken off the streets good riddance and all that.

I do have problems with Critical Mass at times. I am still not sure how I feel about making a point that bikes should be respected as fellow travelers of the road by being 110% antagonistic towards cars. I have a problem with cyclists yelling at pedestrians and I have a problem blocking buses with serve to both get more cars off the street and are most likely filled with people who want nothing more than to get home after a long week of work (seeing as how these rides are held on the last Friday of the month). And I have a problem with some of the riders, whose antagonism towards our four-wheeled friends seems that much more amplified when in a large group and who bring a world of hate along with them to the rides.

At the same time, I think that Critical Mass is a wonderful respite from the insanity of the city, and for the most part, people really do like seeing the mass ride by. I think that there is power in seeing the types of people who ride bikes in the city and the prevalence of this mode of transport (at least in the eyes of all those who don't partake in the bicycle love).

I take taxis and I walk. I am a New Yorker after all. But I also ride my bike. And once a month, I like to feel like I own these streets. And I think that that's my right.

Police presence at Critical Mass (photos)
NYPost coverage
CNN coverage
NYC Indy Media information, photos, video, audio (audio/video begins playing when page is loaded)

1. So I've got the first paragraph of this thing written, and I think that it might actually go somewhere, and it's definitely the type of thing that I've always liked writing and I feel like might have some relevance to my world today (as opposed to just some sort of nostalgic stylings about growing up in Japan or whatever) but I don't really know where "drowning" can lead and so I'm just sitting on it until I have a chance to really give it some thought. Or at least a chance where I have enough time to sit and write and ramble for a while until I get somewhere. Now is not that time, and so in my inbox it sits. Waiting.

2. I know. I know. But "More bikes! Fewer cars!" just doesn't have the same oomph that you need for a protest chant. A couple of months ago, when the mass took place on a rainy summer night, the chants were more along the lines of "More bikes! Less rain!" (which was far more grammatically correct) and the ever popular "Less wet! More dry!"

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