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Chris Carlsson's statement in support of Critical Mass and the NY bicyclists

Following the recent arrest and harassment of CM riders some of the bicyclists filed a civil rights lawsuit against the NYPD. The police department responded with a counterclaim enjoining the plaintiffs from participating in CM without a permit.

Chris Carlsson, one of the founders of CM in San Francisco in 1992, has written this statement in support of CM and the NY cyclists.


Statement to the
United States District Court
Southern District New York


Chris Carlsson
San Francisco
October 2004

I have learned about the legal proceedings between Bray et al and the City of New York et al. I have read New York's Memorandum of Law and their Answer with Counter Claim, as well as Lieutenant Albano's Declaration.

I have participated in Critical Mass rides since their inception in San Francisco in September 1992. I have ridden in more than 100 rides in San Francisco, as well as Critical Mass rides in Berkeley, California, Minneapolis, Chicago, New York, Milan, Italy, Rome, Italy, and Mexico City. Critical Mass rides take place across the planet in over 200 cities on the last Friday of each month.

I have witnessed first-hand every imaginable police and municipal response to Critical Mass, from totally ignoring it to violent repression, with many variations between. In July 2003 I rode with over 1,000 cyclists through the glorious streets of New York, making our way on a meandering route through mid-town before finally crossing the Queensborough Bridge. It was a peaceful, balmy evening, the culmination of the BikeSummer month. The euphoria and vibrant urban pleasure of that July 03 Critical Mass will always be remembered by those who rode it.

A narrow interpretation of the law as presented by the City will ill serve the spirit of the law, the quality of life in New York, or this vital urban space for peaceful, creative dissent. As Lt. Albano notes, the guiding philosophy of Critical Mass is that there are no leaders, no organizers, and that for its duration it is self-organizing. Naturally some people are louder and more assertive in sharing knowledge of this remarkable experience, this unprecedented public space, and from the narrow point of view of the police department, that makes those people responsible. But this is to fundamentally misunderstand the new and profoundly democratic impulse that animates Critical Mass.

It is precisely impossible for Critical Mass, a non-entity, but a recurring organized coincidence, to apply for a permit. It is profoundly inappropriate for any individual or group to try to assume responsibility for a self-guiding social phenomenon. Critical Mass is a monthly experiment in direct democracy, in reshaping the city, in reconnecting New Yorkers with New York, a broad, occasionally wild, but always peaceful and pleasure-oriented exercise in living together creatively.

Lt. Albano's declaration is instructive and offers a relatively easy way out. After pointlessly building his case against Times Up! as the responsible party, he finally concedes the obvious in his point eleven, that

"Critical Mass truly is 'a happening of a group of people,' [and] does not present an impediment to the Department issuing a permit for the event."

But still the NYPD insists that this permit must be issued to an individual. Why? One presumes so that that person can be held liable for the actions of others. It would be unfair and morally wrong to expect anyone to assume that kind of responsibility for an event that moves through the streets, picking up and dropping off participants all the way, going to unknown destinations, shedding small groups from time to time who then ride off in groups of dozens to their own alternate destination. In a real sense, Critical Mass is a public gathering where friends meet, ride for a while, and go on to the rest of their evening. In that sense it appears much like the lost public commons of years gone by, with the added twist of being in motion. Thus it is the law's inability to adequately define this event that has led to New York City's Counter Claim.

As we've discovered in San Francisco, and nearly all cities where Critical Mass enjoys benign, even bemused tolerance, with or without a permit, the police have the choice to neglect, facilitate or repress the ride and its participants. The latter choice always leads to protracted legal battles, and so far has usually led to apologies and cash settlements from cities to the wronged riders (San Francisco, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Austin, Portland).

As Lt. Albano correctly suspects, the unwillingness to apply for a permit is central to the philosophy of Critical Mass. The police need a permit process so they have a bureaucratic mechanism of control. But the need to know a destination and to enforce a prescribed route is particularly antithetical to the spirit and experience of Critical Mass.

The New York PD should just issue a permit to itself to ride along with Critical Mass, preferably on bicycles. All Critical Mass rides I have been in have been remarkably quick to clear a path for emergency vehicles. It is rare for anyone to get hurt during Critical Mass, at least when the police refrain from physically attacking. Most Critical Mass rides I have been in have been greeted by cheers and horns by the vast majority of motorists and passersby. Critical Mass does NOT decrease safety. For the few minutes it takes to pass through, it turns streets filled with polluting, hurtling multi-ton vehicles into broad boulevards teeming with good cheer, tinkling bells, and interesting conversation. It is an unambiguous assertion of the right to peaceably assemble, and to engage in free speech. A strict application of the City's Administrative Code would effectively obliterate this form of social expression, violate basic rights, and set back the quality of life in New York.

There are a number of practical problems that arise. Is it now illegal to park bicycles in Manhattan? Can the police impound any "unattended" but locked bicycle at any time anywhere? Do they impound cars so freely? Other possessions? Why are bicycles being subjected to this selective enforcement? What about people who commute by bicycle and are riding home on a Friday evening? What if they find themselves with 25 other people who are riding home too? Will the police insist on a permit? Why do 1000 bicyclists need a permit but 1000 motorists do not? Is this not a political decision to reward the atomized and punish the socially engaged? Will this improve life in New York City?

Because finally Critical Mass is about much more than just bicycling. It is about how we live together, how we re-engage with each other in large anonymous cities, how we reanimate a basic democratic culture. It is also about reshaping the city itself, moving us away from blind dependency on a corrupt and wasteful use of public space for cars. If Critical Mass is subject to tight regulation by the police department, it will only further erode the credibility of policing in New York more generally. What could be more glaring than the hypocrisy of repressing bicycles out of a fake concern for public safety, while the condition of our streets considered "normal" and "safe" is the daily insanity that has earned New York its deserved reputation?

I hope common sense will prevail and the Court will dismiss this outrageous counterclaim by New York City against persons unknown and the poor bicyclists who had their bikes stolen by the police with no evidence, no due process, and a strangely politicized enforcement of administrative code. Critical Mass is a gift to New York. It breathes life into the wheezing lungs of a suffering city; it asserts a profoundly democratic and public sensibility against the growing tide of conformity, control, and passivity.


Chris Carlsson

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