Let the Races Begin

Election '04

A wild and wooly Critical Mass bike ride was New York's first major protest action surrounding the Republican National Convention. Thousands of the Critical Massers – police estimate approximately 5,000 – first gathered at Union Square North on Friday night for their monthly bike ride, and then traveled around Manhattan for more than 90 minutes, snarling traffic and infuriating cab drivers. The ride also garnered national coverage about cycling as a alternate form of transportation because of the high media presence in New York for the convention.

And before it was over, at least 264 bicyclists and those caught up in the chaos had been arrested for blocking intersections near Madison Square Garden and on Second Avenue in the East Village, along side St Mark's in the Bowery Church, according to police reports.

At least two busloads of protesters were taken to a temporary jail on the West Side Highway. Their bikes were confiscated, and loaded onto a flatbed truck. A large crowd had gathered at the scene of the arrests in the East Viilage chanting, "Let them go!" as a helicopter hovered overhead.

"They're trying to set the tone for the next week," suggested Annette Wilcox, 47, to the New York Daily News , as she watched the protesters being hauled off. "If you sneeze the wrong way, they're going to arrest you."

The NYPD had become concerned over the growing numbers of riders in recent months, and this week had sent a letter to Transportation Alternative's offices informing organizers that bikers who did not obey traffic laws – not stopping at red lights, or obstructing traffic – would be subject to arrest.

The ride was not organized by any one particular group. Rather, it was promoted through Internet announcements and leafleting by groups such as Times UP! and Transportation Alternatives.

The bikers on Friday night delivered a variety of messages during their ride, with most protesting the Bush administration's policies and the arrival of the RNC in New York. The ride got off to a slow start, but it picked up quickly as the ride traveled south – with cheers of support from pedestrians, general cooperation from the police, and grumbles and arguments from motorists. The bikers made a right turn, heading west in their route onto Houston Street, then north onto 6th Avenue and continued towards Madison Square Garden. Police officers deterred the route at 30th Street, pushing riders back east to Madison Avenue and then north to 53rd Street.

The ride continued back west and south onto 7th Avenue, through Times Square, and was greeted with the bemused and confused stares of the tourist Mecca. Many waved peace signs and fists in support; doormen in front of a Republican-delegate hotel waved and cheered the riders on.

Things turned ominous as the ride continued south towards Madison Square Garden, site of the Convention. At 35th Street, just two blocks north of the Garden, bikers were greeted by rows of police in riot gear. Some of the riders came to a halt, while others made a turn heading westward. Police stopped the riders who tried to continue south, and promptly arrested them, confiscating some of the bikes. The rest of the bicycles were left abandoned on the side of the street, where legal observers tried to determine to whom they belonged.

The riders who hadn't been stopped by the police by that point returned to riding in a southerly direction back toward the East Village. The riders headed for a post-ride celebration at St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery. Originally, the party had been scheduled to be held at the Frying Pan, a club located on a barge on the Hudson River. The club cancelled the event Friday morning after they were told by the NYPD that 4,000 riders would dangerously overflow the club and surrounding area. The Coast Guard informed the club that it could be a target for a terrorist attack, according to the event organizers, so the party was moved to St. Mark's Church.

The scene at St. Mark's was chaotic and intense. By 9:00 p.m. the church was overflowing and the grounds were full, with many people standing along the fence that surrounds it. Nathan Freitas, a non-profit technology consultant who was present at St. Mark's said, "There were hundreds of people milling around, with more arriving on bikes by the minute. When the grounds were full, people started filling up the sidewalks, and then the street, along Second Avenue." Freitas received an SMS text message from one of the SMS alert systems set up to cover RNC protests, warning him that the police were on their way to clear the traffic obstructions; within minutes, police were directing people onto the sidewalks.

Five police buses arrived soon after, and helicopters began panning the area with search lights. Stragglers who did not obey police orders to move onto the sidewalks were arrested; on the corner of 9th Street and 2nd Avenue, 30 people were handcuffed and sitting in the street. After an hour of listening to chants from crowds who had gathered, asking police to strike on Sunday and to free those detained, the police left the area and traffic was reopened onto Second Avenue.

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