A beautiful warm night

A beautiful warm night

Police vehicles take position near cyclists pre-ride

Police vehicles take position near cyclists pre-ride

Police observe then approach cyclists pre-ride

Police observe then approach cyclists pre-ride

The light and crosswalk in question

The light and crosswalk in question

Safe for pedestrians

Safe for pedestrians

"Oh! That non-flashing light..."

"Oh! That non-flashing light..."

"Look, I've seen you before..."

"Look, I've seen you before..."

The scene of the crimes

The scene of the crimes

Getting paid and burning fuel

Getting paid and burning fuel

Another dangerous intersection

Another dangerous intersection

October 9th, the second Friday of the month: Brooklyn Critical Mass, a leaderless and route-less group bicycle ride celebrating community and non-polluting transportation experienced a sudden reversal of tactics from NYPD. Police in Brooklyn for years have typically respected the riders, only monitoring and following the ride with numerous motor vehicles, even at times facilitating the safe passage of cyclists and other non-polluters through the hazardous motor-dominated streets. This month a ride through Prospect Park resulted in dangerous conditions, multiple summonses and one arrest in a calculated strategy of entrapment by formally-friendly police.

While a rainy forecast reduced the number of cyclists who gather at Grand Army Plaza in Prospect Park at 7pm on the second Friday of the month, police and numerous vehicles arrived on the scene as usual. The evening turned out to a very warm and pleasant one. By twenty minutes past the hour, approximately twenty cyclists had gathered. While a sole unmarked police car was present at 7pm, it was soon joined by no less than three paddy wagons, a dozen scooters and interceptors vehicles, and several other black unmarked cars and SUVs. One such SUV sped through the gap between the freshly-erected car barrier (Prospect Park is closed to motor vehicles after rush hours) and the sidewalk where cyclists had gathered, nearly hitting a mother and young child whom were traversing the crosswalk.

As has been the case in the past, around 7:25pm, commanding officers approached the group asking questions about routes, destination, and other potential riders. Critical Mass is not organize by any one person. Its participants come and go freely as individuals, and the ride typically follows whomever is in front or wherever the majority of riders decide to go. As such, the police inquiries went largely unanswered. When asked for a general direction, one vocal rider cautiously guessed "Maybe North?", which is typical of past rides. The rider went on to suggest to the inquisitive law-enforcers that they did not need so many motor vehicles and officers to join such a small ride. Brooklyn Critical Mass rides during the summer averaged 50-75 participants. Police seemed uninterested in the cost- and pollution-cutting suggestion.

The First Amendment of the Constitution does allow people the freedom to peaceable assembly, while typically cyclists and people enjoy public parks and public streets do not receive such focused attention from the police. The presence of so many police for a small group seemed to create an antagonistic attitude in some of the cyclists, and there were several suggestions of routes that might specifically frustrate police efforts to parade behind the ride as usual.

The ride departed southward into Prospect Park shortly before 7:30pm, leaving police behind as the vehicular barrier slowed their caravan. Exiting to cross Prospect Park West, upon entering the roadway and attempting to cross to proceed downhill into Park Slope via 4th street, an unmarked black police car placed itself in the pathway of the riders, splitting the ride, which became stretched out over several blocks. Riders slowed and re-grouped upon reaching Seventh Avenue and made a left turn. The many police vehicles also caught up to the ride and followed the small group as they proceeded south. The ride did cross a few intersections, against red lights, without inconveniencing any pedestrian, bicycle or motor traffic which would have had the right of way, as the traffic in Park Slope at this time of evening was very light, and the train of police kept cars traveling behind the group of cyclists at a great distance from the group.

This distance was highlighted shortly after the ride proceeded uphill back towards the park, along Prospect Park West and south to the traffic circle where that street meets Prospect Park Southwest. Cyclists, occupying perhaps 25 feet of a single lane of roadway, proceeded into the circle followed by their police escorts. The parade of motor vehicles filled about 2/3rds of the traffic circle, with cyclists and civilian autos closing the loop. The ride took advantage of the newly-closed-off circle to enjoy a few of the tight laps to the amusement of nearby pedestrians, who were confused by the massive police presence. When these bystanders inquired to cyclists what the event was, they were told by one cyclist that it was a Critical Mass ride, and that the police were "your tax dollars at 'work'!" Police briefly stopped auto traffic from entering the circle at any point until the cyclists exited it.

The ride then proceeded into Prospect Park, and while some riders suggested going against the normal flow of traffic, (which had not occurred at any point in the ride), the majority of cyclists opted to proceed safely with the normal direction of traffic, eventually cutting across the park via Central Drive. Police vehicles, while briefly being hindered again by barriers to the "auto-free" park, soon regrouped behind the ride. Emerging from Central Drive onto East Drive within the park, the ride did briefly go against the direction of traffic (mostly other bicycles and joggers at this time) to enjoy a local community marching band which rehearses near the carousel off of Flatbush Avenue. Drums, brass and dancers were making wonderful music which many pedestrians were enjoying as cyclists cautiously half-rode, half-danced through the scene, followed by the many police vehicles.

Upon hitting Flatbush, cyclists made a U-turn to head back to East Drive and back up to Grand Army Plaza. As they pushed hard against the incline, the group again spread out a bit across the two car-sized lanes and bicylce/jogging lanes, as they were in the park and there was little need to form a tight group to prevent autos from dangerously mingling with the riders. An Interceptor (meter-maid type) cart came speeding against traffic downhill in the lane reserved for walkers and joggers, nearly colliding with several cyclists as it struggled to quickly turn itself around to join the other police vehicles which were close behind.

At approximately 8pm, as the riders approached Grand Army Plaza, a number of both plainclothes and uniformed officers on foot began to step out into the intersection into the cyclists path. Upon proceeding through the crosswalk and traffic signal to the area outside the entrance, which is typically vehicle free outside of rush hours, several cyclists were physically stopped or verbally commanded to stop by the police, who then began to issue summonses for running the red light and not having proper front and rear lights on their bicycles.

Lieutenant Daniel Albano of NYPD's legal bureau and a frequent fixture at Critical Mass Rides in both Manhattan and Brooklyn was directing lower ranking officers in the issuance of tickets, particularly targeting a specific riders. He was heard saying "this one, here," referring to one rider who was certainly not the only one to run the light. That rider, unable to provide proper identification and verify his New York address, was then threatened with arrest. Lt. Albano, attempting to get the man's address information to issue the summons stated "I know you've been in New York for a while, because I have seen you at other rides." This cyclist was eventually handcuffed and taken to the 78th precinct, where he was held until he was able to provide verification of his New York address, thanks to friends he was able to contact. He was at that point issued a ticket for disobeying the solid red light in the closed-off area of the Park entrance. Six or seven other cyclists were issued tickets for not having proper lights. This offense can be voided if the offender purchases the appropriate equipment and presents that receipt with his or her summons at the precinct the next day.

The traffic signal in question is an especially long one of about two minutes, as it is in sync with the light leading to the large traffic circle which is Grand Army Plaza. The area between these two signals is traffic free except for emergency vehicles and brief periods during weekday rush hours. A farmer's market was held in that very space the next day, with many more pedestrians and bicyclists crossing paths and little attention paid by either to its red and green lights. No police were on hand to enforce this light at that time. Security personnel for the farmer's market said they had never seen any conflicts between cyclists and pedestrians at that traffic light. A police officer near a signal within the park near the Lincoln Road exit stated that while he had never heard of police enforcement of such lights within the park, he admitted "it's a gray area."

While Brooklyn Critical Mass participants were left scratching their heads as to why this "gray area" had been used against their small, peaceful and largely law-abiding ride, one anonymous participant who had shown up late on the scene spoke to one officer, who let slip that "they were having to crack down on the ride after being pressured by the Manhattan bureaus, who were, in his words, being made to look bad because the rides were treated more leniently in Brooklyn."

Manhattan Critical Mass, which occurs Friday the 30th of October at 7pm in Union Square North, has been consistently harassed by police since August 2004 during the Republican National Convention when several hundred cyclists were arrested. Police have since shifted tactics from arrests and bicycle theft in the months following that to ticketing for parading without a permit (a regulation created by police, currently being challenged in federal court as unconstitutional by the 5 Borough Bicycle Club), and in recent months for infractions such as not having proper lights, bells, or failing to keep to the far right or left of the road (an interpretation of City of New York Rule ยง 4-12 which states that bicyclists may ride on either side of one-way roadways that are at least 40 feet wide and that bicyclists should ride in usable bike lanes, unless they are blocked or unsafe for any reason).

It remains to be seen how this dramatic shift of policy in Brooklyn will affect Critical Mass attendance or the obedience of rarely- and selectively-enforced laws against cyclists. Mayor Bloomburg and the city have recently touted its "green, bicycle-friendly" policies, pointing to many miles of new bicycle lanes painted on streets and a few protected bike paths that have been created. Law-enforcement seems out of sync with these alleged policies at the cost of safety for the growing number of cyclists on the streets of New York.

Upon leaving the 78th precinct on Friday, Lt. Albano was asked how he was going to regain the trust of the cycling community. He replied, "Tomorrow morning, I am going to ride my bike in the park!" No doubt he stopped at all the red lights.