August 15, 2005
By: Liz Elliott and Shay Sanchez :: C.I.C.L.E.
Photography: Peter Meitzler
As a landmark court case threatens to shut down New York’s popular Critical Mass ride, and forces one organization to take the blame, we take a look at the last year of controversy surrounding the ride and at the case brought against TIME’S UP, a pro bike environmental group caught in the middle. This is a case that not only threatens the continuation of the ride itself, but also New Yorker’s First Amendment rights to free speech and free assembly due to the case’s far reaching implications.
Inspired by the tremendously successful CM ride in San Francisco, a handful of cyclists in New York City form their own CM ride in 1993. As the ride increases in popularity over the years, there are occasional incidents with police resulting in small chases and a few random arrests; these occur mostly during Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s term in office. But once Michael Bloomberg is sworn in as New York’s new Mayor, the ride, despite its ever increasing numbers exists without incident for several years prior to the 2004 Republican National Convention. The Police even help to facilitate the ride in summer when the ride participation jumps. Police often assist in what is known as "corking"-- blocking intersections to allow the riders to safely pass through, even through red lights, in an effort to keep the ride together and moving through the streets quickly. The relationship between the riders and the police during this time is mostly friendly.
Bike Summer 2003 in New York proves to be a tremendous boon to Critical Mass as ride participants number in the thousands both during and after the event. The large numbers diminish as winter approaches, but participation once again returns to the previous average of 1,000 to 2,000 riders as the weather warms several months before the RNC convention. Shortly before the convention is to take place, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly orders a crackdown on Critical Mass and the ride falls victim to systematic harassment and arrests due to this sudden policy shift.
Many out of towners and New Yorkers take to the streets on their bikes in protest just days before the RNC and Critical Mass swells to over 5000 riders. Hundreds of CM participants are arrested for minor traffic infractions that would normally only warrant a traffic ticket for a motorist. Bikes are also illegally confiscated without notification. Police use bolt cutters and power saws to remove the bike locks of bicycles secured within the area where the ride and protests take place. However many of the bikes confiscated belong to neighborhood residents, not CM participants or protesters, who then assume that their bikes have been stolen.
The police take aggressive and questionable tactics to drop bicycle ridership in NYC, even in the face of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s request that New Yorkers use their bicycles to get around town in order to ease traffic congestion during the RNC. But it seems to have the reverse affect, the CM rides may have seen a decrease in ridership due to the police harassment, but New York City has seen a substantial increase in bicycle commuting in general.
Regardless of the many cases that are dropped, or the many judgments that are ruled against the city and the police, the same tactics and false arrests continue, well over a year after the RNC. Individuals still find themselves in extended court battles or waiting months to retrieve their confiscated bicycles. But an unexpected new tactic is to hold TIME’S UP, a non-profit all volunteer environmental group, accountable for the CM ride, due to the groups active participation and promotion of the ride. Though Critical Mass is not an organized ride and no single person or group represents the ride, the city still seeks to hold TIME’S UP! responsible.
TIME’S UP! has been very active in promoting sustainable transportation in New York, and like any individual or group, can and does advertise the ride. The city argues that the ride is illegal and that TIME’S UP is promoting an illegal event. This argument flies in the face of reason, because no law in New York City supports this bogus claim, nor can the city, so far, find any Judge to agree with them. The unfortunate thing is how much this financially drains an important group like Time’s Up monetary resources -- spending precious money to defend themselves instead of being able to concentrate those diverted funds into building and promoting a more sustainable and cleaner city as they have done for well over 15 years. The city has spent an estimated several hundred thousand of taxpayer dollars in their effort to stop CM and TIME’S UP. Just imagine what those funds could have gone to? Doesn’t New York City have a lot more serious problems to focus on then a festive once a month bicycle ride?
We wanted to gain an insider perspective of TIME’S UP!, the group, and the City’s case against them. Having heard Ryan Kuonen speak in Los Angeles at a TIME’S UP! fundraiser, we contacted her for this interview. Ryan is a very active member of TIME’S UP!. She, like everyone involved in TIME’S UP!, is an avid bike commuter, commuting from her job as a nanny on the upper east side to her home in Brooklyn. The nanny gig she says is for paying the bills, but on her off time she loves to write sci-fi comic books and stories as well as spend time working with TIME’S UP! One thing Ryan pointed out at the L.A. fundraiser was that even though most of the legal representation is pro bono, fees involved in defending the group are racking up, and expected to continue to do so if appeals have to be made. Already the legal battles have been drawn out by the city, draining TIME’S UP! of valuable time and money.