Lost in History, Vol. 16 

Don’t Permit on my Parade

Who doesn’t love a parade? The cheers of approval from the pedestrians, the smell of the open city on a beautiful Friday night, the humanity bursting at the scenes, the $85 ticket for running a red light . . . wait a second. If this sounds familiar, then you are either a bicycle-riding participant in one of the Critical Mass bicycle “protests,” held on the last Friday of every month at about 7:30; or you are a New Yorker, out and about the city on your errands and businesses, cheering (or cursing) the phalanx of bicycles that descend upon your neighborhood at the same time every month. Taking into account the general readership of this column and The L Magazine at large, we’ll safely presume that the majority of you fall into the first two categories — no cursing please, this is a family-oriented column.

Critical Mass, a leader-less group ride that “focuses on the rights of bicyclists and the rights of pedestrians on our own streets” has been around in San Francisco since the early 1990s, and made its arrival in our city shortly thereafter. Drawing hundreds of bicyclists on all sorts of wheels (rollerblades, strollers, unicycles and more) the rides existed in relative peace and exuberance until the 2004 RNC protests, during which our boys in blue exhibited a series of nasty and overly aggressive tactics: illegal use of video cameras as well as infrared helicopter shots, plastic orange netting used to capture bikers, billy-clubs, even the horrific attack of “dooring” bicyclists — the act of opening an automobile door to directly impact a cyclist in the way. Two hundred sixty-four bicyclists were arrested during the Mass in August, and since then, scores of riders in the monthly Mass have been detained, handcuffed, placed in paddy wagons and brought to nearby precincts, although lately, the NYPD has just been handing out fat tickets, mostly for minor charges such as improper lighting on bikes, riding on the sidewalk, even straddling a bicycle while standing still.

Problem for the cops though — those pesky legal groups, arguing for civil rights and freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, etc. The ACLU, as well as bicycle advocacy groups like FreeWheels, Times Up and Transportation Alternatives, has, on numerous occasions, stepped in to defend bike riders as well as take the cops to court. In February, 2006, State Judge Michael D. Stallman ruled that the NYPD was acting too harshly; from his 24 page ruling: “Mutual de-escalation of rhetoric and conduct, and a conciliatory attitude, may help the parties and the Critical Mass riders resolve the litigation and arrive at a workable modus vivendi.” Bike riders took this as a victory, but took it a bit too soon — the NYPD only needed to re-write the rules governing public processions in the streets of NYC. That’s why there’s been so much noise lately about permit rules and regulations between the cyclists and the powers that be.

On Friday, the NYPD released a new set of rules (the third or fourth revision of such regulations, after previous versions were deemed too narrow a restriction — permits required for a procession of two?!?) that clearly states that any collection of fifty or more pedestrians and/or cyclists, traveling together with the intention to defy traffic laws, need a permit from the city to proceed. The rules become law within thirty days, unless some lawsuits can be thrown into the system to halt the process. Regardless of whether this city becomes a bike-hating, freedom-of-assembly-crushing no-go zone, there will always be bicyclists, always be critics of the police force, and rest assured, this isn’t the final stop sign on the parade permit regulations.

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