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Monday October 04, 2004, 02:25

Before it drifts totally out of mind, let's think back two Fridays ago to the first Critical Mass in New York after the mess that was the RNC ride. As it might be recalled, there was a bit of conflict between the riders and the police that in the end resulted in the arrests of about 260 riders and the seizure of bicycles galore. Throughout the RNC, cyclists were a perpetual thorn in the side of the police, which probably will not help the NYPD-city bike rider relations for the months to come.

And so, on the last Friday of September, the police once again issued a warning stating that they would be arresting those riders who violated traffic laws or otherwise were spoiled sports about the police busting up a six-year tradition in the city, or something like that. The problem of course is that the police warning once again served as a battle cry for all those who felt slighted by The Man and who then just had to turn out to protest the police statement by joining the ride, and the media, who wouldn't pass this up for anything all turned out, which in turn brought more people to the ride, and in the end, well wouldn't you know it, we had about a thousand people turn up.

These days, having a full-time job means actually needing to leave work early in order to get home, change out of my work clothes, grab my bike and head back up to the start of the ride. It's interesting for me, given that I've not had to schedule the rest of my life around work in the past three years. Until four months ago, work was something that was scheduled around my life, and as long as I got enough work to keep me busy and keep my bills paid, anything else that happened was my business. But now, with the direct deposit and steady paycheck, the implication is that life is something that happens outside of normal business hours.

I arrived at Union Square just in time for the riders to start streaming out, heading north on Park Avenue, up past the office that I had left just a half-hour earlier. I was tempted to call my coworkers to look out the window and wave at me as I rode past, but I thought better of it. They would hear the yelling from the office, and it was just as well to not be affiliated at the time with a group of people that was probably going to prevent them from getting to the subway to drag themselves home after another day at the office (the ride having the tendency to block pedestrian as well as vehicular traffic). Escorted by police scooters, we zipped up the avenue to midtown Manhattan, with spirits high and an intriguing lack of arrests. It would later be revealed that someone had worked something out with someone else at the NYPD to allow an "organized" route that would be escorted the whole way by scooters, but really, how on earth were we supposed to know this, especially when the police have escorted us numerous times in the past.

In midtown, still headed north, the ride abruptly stopped. Cyclists packed the avenue, and there was clearly a blockage up front, most likely the police on scooters, allowing cross-town traffic to pass by, but keeping a thousand or so people standing in the middle of the street, with police and news helicopters hovering overhead. When the lights started flashing at the tail end of the ride, a chorus of "oh fuck this" went up in the crowd around me and people started taking off west towards Times Square. The front of the ride still wasn't moving, and I followed that crowd off of the avenue, the idea being that it would be better to be far away from the large group being blocked in my police than inside of it. We meandered over towards Times Square, picking up one officer on a scooter again until, conveniently, we met up with the main group several minutes later, heading downtown on Broadway through Times Square. We rejoined the group and headed downtown until, once again, this time by Herald Square, we were stopped once again by the police.

With the helicopter once again over head, I turned to the girl standing next to me. She was wearing a skirt over cycling tights and was riding a fixed gear bicycle. "Looks like they're keeping an eye on us," I said, and gestured to the sky, "Sort of eerie." At that point, the police lights lit up again and the group that I was in once again broke from the avenue and headed east across 36th Street, away from the crowd and away from the police. Riding down the street from Sixth to Fifth Avenues, the riders in front of me suddenly came to an abrupt stop and started riding back. The end of the street had been blocked off by scooters and officers on foot. Riding back towards Sixth, the street had been blocked off at that end by the same, and we were now quite trapped. Some of the luckier riders rode out through a parking garage that was in the middle of the block that passed all the way through and let out one block down, but by the time I got back there, the gate had been closed and the attendant was standing on the other side, looking at the cyclists on the other side as if to say "I'm sorry I just screwed you, but this isn't really my fight."

Following the lead of others, I hopped off my bicycle and began to walk towards Fifth Avenue, as did many others. I hung back a bit and watched as the first of the riders approached the barricade, and were pulled to the side and handcuffed. That, it would appear, was not the right approach to extracting oneself from the situation at hand. After a brief assessment of the situation, and a moment of self-deliberation, I found two bicycles chained to a lamp post, leaned mine up against them to make them appear as though it belonged there, and walked away. As I walked, I noticed that the deli on the corner was having its floors redone, and standing in the doorway on the street was a group of contractors, looking out at the crowd and wondering what circus, exactly, had drifted onto their street.

"Hey man, can I use the bathroom?"

"I can't, no, I can't let you in, we, no..."

"Come on man, I really need to go, can't I please just use the bathroom."

"He doesn't want to use the bathroom, he just doesn't want to get arrested - just let him in."

Of course the irony of the situation is that I really did need to go to the bathroom, but the guy behind me didn't. He followed me in with his bicycle, and while I used to the toilet, he negotiated our release out the avenue-side door to the deli. Walking out onto Fifth, I found myself without my bicycle, but standing behind the crowd that had gathered on the sidewalk to watch about two dozen police arrest eight kids on bikes. After getting shoo-ed off of the corner with the rest of the onlookers, I circled the block in order to kill time. My bicycle was leaning against a pole, unlocked, on a street where the police were enacting their department-wide vendetta against two-wheeled forms of human-powered transportation and while this was not my brand new road bike, it still would have been nice to not have to wander downtown and try to explain how I was not at fault at all, but my bike just happened to appear in their impound, somehow.

I circled back around again to see the officers wheeling the eight bicycles of those arrested into a repurposed city bus. I then heard someone in charge telling the other officers that they were now going to collect the rest of the bikes from the block and I watched as those officers wandered down the block and walked back with another dozen or two bikes from down the block. Though I had heard it at the time, it was later confirmed that the officers had actually gone down the street and cut the chains off of bikes that were chained, presumably for evidence from the night's grab bag of festivities.

By this time, the street was starting to clear, and as I stood on the corner, I began talking to a man and his young daughter. He was explaining that breaking the law would lead to the police swooping down to arrest you, as she was witnessing before her. He was also explaining to her that it was very interesting that the white people were getting arrested, because he rarely saw that happen, and he seemed particularly pleased with that particular aspect of the situation. As we walked away (again told to leave by Officer Cheerful), I told him to stay out of trouble. He wished me the same.

Ignoring his advice, I wandered back down the street where my bike had been left, to see what the situation was as far as the whereabouts of my bicycle and the helmet that I had left on the handle bars, as well as the situation involving the number of officers collecting "evidence" or otherwise on the lookout for troublemakers. The "disturbing the peace" charge that was used against the eight who were arrested could probably have extended to someone who was caught riding away with a bike that was being confiscated by the police department. But to my surprise, my bike and helmet were still there, leaning alone against the telephone pole as the two bicycles against which I had originally leaned mine were no longer there. It could be that I was extremely lucky that I wasn't able to lock my bike to anything and thus removed suspicion that it was actually a bike that had been used in Critical Mass.

I waited until the block was relatively clear, when the officers who were wheeling back their evidence bikes had passed by, to walk over to my bike. The helmet was still there, looped over the handles. I looked up and down the street, and seeing nobody eyeing me, grabbed the helmet, and put it on on my head. As I was doing so, I was running through numerous scenarios, wondering what, exactly, was would have done if someone had come along and asked what I was doing. How I would explain that this was my bicycle, but that I was just now coming back to get it, and how I didn't have a lock for it and what, exactly, the excuse was going to be for jumping on this bicycle and riding away.

As it turns out, the planning was unnecessary. As cars drove past me, I grabbed my bike, rode off of the sidewalk, and followed them out past the remains of the barricade. Nobody even gave me a second glance.

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