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June 20, 2005

New York Critical Mass's troubling present, and iffy future

I came across a long, but informative piece that deals with the past, present, and future of CM in the Big Apple.

It begins with a thrilling description of the 20 block July 2004 ride as thousands of cyclists clogged the streets, and proceeds to discuss the turn of events caused by the politial radicalism of the RNC protest, and its aftermath:

“It was amazing,” says Kaitlyn Tikkun, a regular participant in Critical Mass, the leaderless monthly ride designed to promote bike culture and non-polluting transportation in New York’s car-choked environment. “We came out onto the FDR Drive and there was a moon coming up next to us, and I looked behind me and all I could see were bikes.”

The extraordinary scene that unfolded on July 30, 2004, was the culmination of six years of rides and community organizing. Coming four weeks before the Republican National Convention (RNC), last summer’s Critical Mass rides tapped into the political energy of a city waiting anxiously for protesters and conservative conventioneers to arrive.

Over the last nine months, however, what was once a “carnival on wheels” has degenerated into an ugly standoff between the New York Police Department and a dwindling group of cyclists, who are divided over what to do next. Mass arrests and the indiscriminate impounding of bicycles are now part of the routine. In the past three months alone, there have been 85 Critical Mass-related arrests. According to New York Newsday, the NYPD devotes “significant” resources to policing the ride, with officers drawn from multiple precincts across the city.

“What saddens me is that for a lot of people whose first Critical Mass was in August [before the RNC],” says Ryan Kuonen, a Brooklyn resident and frequent participant, “they’ve only experienced the police harassment, the drama, the arrests. They’ve never seen that giant party that Critical Mass is supposed to be.”

Yet another claim of CM being leaderless...

The writer then proceeds to contradict this claim, more than once, in the next few paragraphs. :-D

The Manhattan ride begins at 7 p.m. on the north side of Union Square Park. Chris Carlsson, one of the founders of Critical Mass, describes the early days of the ride as “exuberant, surprising, erotic, fun and utterly transformative.
“No one knew what to expect,” Carlsson adds, “and no one anticipated just how amazing and fun and open-ended it would be.”

“Critical Mass,” Ryan Kuonen states flatly, “is the most exciting thing I’ve ever done. It’s a carnival on wheels, and I love it.”

Some participants laud the ride’s transformative effect. “For a lot of the new people who join the ride, Critical Mass is fun,” says Bill DiPaola, a volunteer with the environmental group Time’s Up! (times-up.org) which helps promote Critical Mass in New York. “When people come on the ride though, they get a sense of freedom that they’ve never gotten before. They realize that you can ride a bike in New York safely. By the time folks get off their bike they start think about riding it to work, using it more and fighting to get changes in the infrastructure of the city that will make riding a bike in New York a safer experience.”
DiPaola is convinced that the growth in the popularity of bicycling in New York City has occurred despite the city, rather than because of it. “Manhattan is a flat city, and riding a bike here makes a lot of sense,” he says. “The problem is that riding a bike here is also incredibly dangerous. Critical Mass is one of the things people can do in New York that both lets them ride a bike safely and also makes a statement about where we think the city’s priorities should be.”

Making a statement about Bicycling is all well and good, and no doubt why many people think participating in CM is cool, but the RNC events are just the latest in a long list of occasions where people with other agendas co-opt the movement for their own causes, and detract from any positives CM may have in the eyes of city officials, the non-cycling public, and bicyclists, especially those who have participated in previous CM rides.

More police tracking of the rides, more arrests, and more court activity has resulted.

Many believe that Critical Mass participation has suffered as a result. “The ridership this spring has been way down,” says Kuonen. “Normally by this time of year you’re getting rides of 300 or 400. April’s ride was barely 150. Maybe it was the weather, but I don’t think so. I think the police tactics are working.

DiPaola admits that some of the pageantry and excitement of Critical Mass has been drained by the police. “The city has stripped the ride of families, of color, of people performing, of people on tall bikes, on artistic bikes. That’s for sure. But we also feel that the bike has survived the winter in the face of massive police intimidation and corruption.”

And whose fault is it that any "Family Friendly" aspect of the event has been lost?

Don't blame the cops ( most of whom do their job the way they should )  for doing their jobs in response to legitimate concerns during, and after, the RNC.

When politics, and anarchy, overwhelm the Bicycling Message no parent in their right mind would knowingly want to bring their child within miles of such an event.

The city is trying to have it both ways by pestering the NYC Ride, and being more receptive of similar events in other Boroughs and some politicians are staking out positions on CM.

CM riders, and promoters, are adapting.

Many CM riders are also urging more "good behavior" on rides as well, however:

With the future of Critical Mass in New York City hanging in the balance, participants are debating how to save the ride.
Bicycling activists are hopeful that the political winds are shifting. “Politicians are starting to come out in support of Critical Mass, community boards are voting to support us, the artistic community is rallying around us,” says DiPaola. “We feel like the only people in this city who don’t support Critical Mass are the mayor and the NYPD.”

“Time’s Up! will never ask the city for a permit for Critical Mass because it’s not our ride,” he adds. “We don’t sponsor it, no matter what the city claims, and we couldn’t ask for a permit even if we wanted one.”

Many riders have begun launching Critical Mass from multiple points around Manhattan, a tactic recommended by Chris Carlsson, a veteran of San Francisco Critical Mass’s struggle to stay on the streets in the mid-1990’s. “Remember,” said Carlsson, “it’s not illegal to ride your bike, so we can always fall back on that.”

Other riders have taken the opposite approach, urging participants to obey traffic laws. “What if we didn’t blow stoplights?” asks Critical Mass participant James Bachhuber.
For her part, Kuonen sees promise in the Brooklyn Critical Mass. She’s actively working to increase knowledge of and participation in the event, and hopes that it can remain mostly trouble free.

Time's Up might as well stop with the fiction that "it's not our ride".

You promote it, you sponsor it, and if you don't want people to think so then you should stop all such activity on your website, and off.

Blaming George Bush, and Republicans, for the situation in NY is denying the obvious, and refusing to clean the CM House of its non-cycling elements will only exacerbate the problem, and hasten the decline of the movement in the city, and whereever else such a mix of participants occurs.

May 25th-- NYC INDY MEDIA. ORG -- Critical Condition by Chris Anderson.

June 20, 2005 in Critical Mass | Permalink


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So by the same token ("You promote it, you sponsor it, and if you don't want people to think so then you should stop all such activity on your website, and off"), are you really pushing for censorship on what every citizen says? You must be joking. It's called a grapevine and to even suggest that we, as NYC citizens, should not talk about anything for which we may be deemed "sponsors" is ludicrous. Everything that happens on these streets should be voiced by every means possible; we are all a witness to our own communities and responsible for them as a community. As far as removing misappopriation of an event--or as you have stated, "refusing to clean the CM House of its non-cycling elements," once the political right removes itself from the evangelical elements, then you can boast who should and should not be aligned with whom. But I guess that just confuses the issue, doesn't it. Ride on.

Posted by: piper | Jun 24, 2005 3:41:55 PM

Hello Piper,

No, I am not advocating censorship, but accountability.

Organizations, regardless of their politics, or the issues, can't have it both ways.

Doing all you can to promote an event, set it up, host it, speak at it, etcetera, and then refusing to take responsibility for what happens during it does your organization, and the things it fights for, no good whatever.

Just as we, as individual, ordinary, citizens, are responsible for our actions so are politicians, companies, organizations, and governments.

Ordinary citizens, spreading the word of a future CM, is not the same as an organiztion doing the above.

Such actions, by an organization, really put the lie to the notion that CM is a suposedly spontanious coming together, with no leadership, more than organizing by regular people does.

It's easier to claim spontanaiety, and leaderlessness, when organizations are not helping the cause.

I'm no Church goer, and have issues with Evangelicals, but they are NOT the threat to the world, America, Freedom, Democracy, and Capitalism that Communists, Socialists, Anarchists, and their fellow travellers are.

Certain Dictators, Governments, Terrorists, and Guerrilla fighters in the news these days, are the biggest dangers the world faces, not Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Republicans, or even Centrist, and Moderate, Democrats.

The history of the world, since the end of WW1, should have proved that to all but the willfully blind, and ignorant.

I used to be one of the blind, before I came to my senses, and left the Left to wallow in its anger, and resentment, and disinformation.

What did I get for my decision?

Anger, ridicule, public personal attacks by a former friend,,and fellow blogger, and demands that I publically apologize for my opinions, and beliefs, in order to keep that friendship.

Do not delude yourself into thinking that being associated, in the eyes of the public, and governments, with such people, and their causes, is good for the future of bicycling, and bicycling issues.

Well meaning cyclists are being used, and I'm not the only one to write about it ( You HAVE bothered to read some of the older CM stories I've posted about, and linked to, I hope ).

It is very instructive that few folks have dared to comment on most of those pieces over the years, especially in recent months, and that most of the railing about what I've written has occurred elsewhere, in the warm embrace of the complainers fellow travellers.

As the recent story about San Francisco, I linked to, shows CM can be a positive, and CM participants can move beyond street theatre to constructive participation in community affairs to the benefit of the promotion of Bicycling.

Even CM participants, past, and present, have expressed concerns about what now goes on during these rides, and when a formerly huge event dwindles to a shell of its former self then the events intended audience is sending a message that needs to be heeded.

Posted by: Kiril Kundurazieff | Jun 25, 2005 3:30:37 AM

"Don't blame the cops ( most of whom do their job the way they should ) for doing their jobs in response to legitimate concerns during, and after, the RNC."

I have talked with NYC cyclists and also read several accounts of police going way beyond 'doing thier job'. Last I checked, corralling cyclists with nets, running cyclists down with SUV's and cutting the chains to remove any bike not locked to an authorized rack are not supposed to be on the police 'do list'.
All of that is documented elsewhere on the web, and all of it continues well after the RNC.
Having recently discovered your fine blog, I will check out your other postings on CM, as you suggest.

Posted by: eric matthies | Jul 11, 2005 1:48:23 AM

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