- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 7, 2004

NEW YORK (AP) — On the last Friday of every month, the city’s yellow cabs, buses and delivery trucks are briefly forced to yield to a phalanx of bicycles — a gridlock of pedals and handlebars known as Critical Mass.

The monthly takeover has been a ritual in New York for the past few years, closely monitored by police but rarely controversial — until August.

That’s when more than 250 cyclists were taken into custody during a ride days before the Republican National Convention.

The police department now is trying to block the rides unless cyclists get a permit. But participants say there is no formal organization to apply for one and that a permit isn’t needed because bicycles have the same right to the streets as cars do.

The unresolved issue has led to legal battles, and another court hearing was scheduled for today.

“After six years, the city has decided to target them, and that’s wrong,” said lawyer Norman Siegel, who is representing five cyclists whose bicycles were seized during the September ride.

Critical Mass was started in San Francisco in 1992 with the goal of making a statement about cyclists’ rights. It has since spread to cities around the world.

The rides, which begin in Union Square, have been taking place regularly for several years. Although there were some tangles in the past, police and participants largely agree that they had reached a kind of unspoken truce until this summer.

Matthew Roth, a volunteer for the environmental group Time’s Up, which promotes the rides, said he recalled friendly banter between participants and officers on scooters. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, in an opinion piece in the Daily News on Oct. 28, said that in “years past” participants stopped at red lights, used bike lanes when they existed and generally observed traffic laws.

But the August ride came just beforethe Republican convention, when city streets were the setting for dozens of demonstrations. Thousands of cyclists came to the Friday night ride, including many there to protest at the convention. By the end of the evening, 264 had been arrested.

Police and participants disagree on how the trouble began.

Mr. Kelly wrote in the Daily News that the events had been “hijacked by groups of cyclists intent on disruption and on violating the law.”

But Mr. Roth said he thought the police — not the riders — became confrontational. “I think the radical change has come from One Police Plaza,” he said.

A month after the convention, at the September ride, nine persons were arrested and 40 bicycles were seized. Five cyclists then sued the city, claiming the bicycles were wrongfully confiscated. A federal judge ruled that police could not take bicycles unless their riders violated the law.

The city also asked that cyclists be required to get a permit for the rides, but the judge said the request was not filed in enough time to affect the October ride, which resulted in 35 arrests.

On Nov. 15, the city once again asked a judge to block cyclists from riding without a permit. The city also asked that they be prohibited from gathering in Union Square Park before the ride.

The issue remained unsettled for the November ride, and police told cyclists who gathered in Union Square that they would be arrested if they rode in a group. Seventeen were arrested.

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