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October 29, 2007


A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.

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October 29 , 2007

Critical Mass Does Halloween

Radical bicyclists in costume make Albany drivers take them seriously

On the last Friday of every month, an odd collection of citizens with bicycles gather at the amazing Civil War monument, where Henry Johnson Boulevard enters Washington Park. The time is always five o’clock in the afternoon, when the automobile “rush hour” is at its most intense. These folks call the gathering Critical Mass.

There is no organization at work here, no dues to pay and there are no leaders. Anyone and everyone is invited. All you need is to show up with a working bicycle, any old piece of junk will do. And you need to be willing to get on that bike and plunge face first into the cascade of reckless SUVs and minivans frantically careening back to their unsustainable suburban wastelands.

Pretty risky behavior for a lone bicyclist, but there’s safety in numbers. That’s the point of Critical Mass. If the streets aren’t safe, then let’s all go out together and make them safe. And why not have fun at the same time.

Some Of This Year's Halloween Riders, Ready To Go
Some Of This Year's Halloween Riders, Ready To Go

You see, the simple reptilian brains of automobile drivers tend to see bicycles as insubstantial two dimensional pieces of road litter. Effectively made stupid by the demands of operating an automobile, these drivers often refuse to respect the fragile flesh and blood human beings who are astride their bicycles. As a result, the streets of Albany and the entire Capital District are regularly littered with battered bodies of dead bicyclists.

However, if bicyclists ride together in a group, the reptilian auto drivers have the illusion that the group of bicycles constitute a single mass, like an auto, or something bigger that they need to avoid hitting. The general thought is that four bicycles together equals one large SUV. That’s when the mass of bikes becomes a critical mass, safe from being bumped into a ditch. This is quite true, it really works that way.

(Of course, there is another, more eggheaded explanation of Critical Mass, “a sociodynamic term to describe the existence of sufficient momentum in a social system such that the momentum becomes self-sustaining and fuels further growth.” Yeah, that too. Whatever.)

Selina Sporting Her Hands-Free Camcorder, Click On Photo To See More Detail
See Her Video Of The Albany Halloween Ride On YouTube!

After enough bicyclists gather at the monument, somone yells “Are we going, or what?” Several more people take up the cry and mount up their bikes, and quit aimlessly circling the monument. And then, as if by plan, the whole bunch in one body pulls out into traffic and takes over the street.

“Whose streets?” “OUR STREETS!” They pull out into the driving lanes and act like they belong there. There’s a lot of pressure within the group to obey the traffic laws, often silly laws designed to give automobiles a decisive advantage over bicycles and pedestrians. The whole mass stops at traffic lights, uses hand signals, and shows respect for other machines on the road.

Despite such courtesy, the auto drivers all too aften shout and snarl and wave their middle fingers. Actual confrontations are rare, but there’s still plenty of road rage. “Get off the road, ---holes!” “We’re traffic, too,” the riders shout back. Forgive them Father, they’re reptiles from the suburbs.

The Wife As A Bat
The Wife As A Bat

The October Halloween ride is often the best attended of the year, sometimes attracting a hundred or more riders, many in costume. This year the weather was drizzling, so only twenty two bicyclists showed up at the monument. But thanks to runaway global warming caused partly by automobiles burning fossil fuels, the evening was unseasonably warm.

Critical Mass is not confined to Albany by any means, it’s an international movement that pops up wherever there is heavy auto traffic. In big cities sometimes thousands of riders gather and take over the streets for an evening. And sometimes the authorities get very, very upset. Sometimes they actually attack the riders and call them “terrorists.”

Seriously. The worst example of this silly official behavior is in New York City. Starting in 2004, Billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered his police to stop Critical Mass rides. The police actually threw bicycle riders en masse onto the pavement, handcuffed and arrested them. And they “confiscated” (i’e. stole) their bicycles.

Whatever for? According to police, Critical Mass riders were “holding a parade without a permission.” When asked to explain themselves, the police falsely claimed that any group of more than two bicycle riders needed to apply and pay for a parade permit!

WTF? NY City Critical Mass Attacked By Cops

Of course, the problem with this lame nonsense is that logically any group of two or more automobiles would also need to apply for a parade permit. Not to mention pedestrians. I’d love to see the cops round up the taxis and tourists on 42nd Street some afternoon. The parade of lawsuits would be hilarious.

Eventually, lawsuits were indeed filed, and local courts threw out the charges, effectively blunting Bloomberg’s baloney. But the sad result is that the NY City rides, which started back in 1992, are no longer happy family events attracting many hundreds of people. Only the serious radicals willing to risk being slammed around by irresponsible cops still gather to ride.

Inspired by the example of the big city authoritarians, the Albany Police began a campaign of terror and intimidation against our own Critical Mass rides. The Wife has described more than one ride over the past few years where the cops prowled around the riders, trying to disrupt them. With each ride, the threatening behavior of the Albany Police escalated.

Don't Mess With Mary Lou Nolan

The police crisis came to a head and burst in March of 2006, when the cops, apparently on orders from Albany Police Chief Tuffey, started rounding up law-abiding Critical Mass riders on Madison Avenue. Several of the more hot-headed younger riders allowed themselves to be goaded into the kind of verbal responses that got them arrested. Some of their bikes were “confiscated.”

These were false arrests, of course. The older folks, particularly Mary Lou Nolan, stared down the cops and they backed off. These are middle class, middle aged white people who can afford lawyers. But it looked bad for the future of Critical Mass in Albany.

Journalist Miriam Axel Lute, writing in the weekly newspaper Metroland came to the rescue. To the supreme embarrasment of the Albany Police, Ms. Axel-Lute accurately described the behavior of the cops:

While [Christian] Schider was in the [police] car, he and [David] Oehl said they saw an officer riding around the street on Schider’s bicycle, an antique Schwinn. Schider said that was not the only “unprofessional” behavior he experienced: “I’m in handcuffs, I’m trying to be calm and [I’m] talking to [a police sergeant] who is leaning in the window and saying ‘Did you make your point? Are you saving Iraqi children? Do you own a car? Are you a hypocrite?’ ” Then, Schider said, the sergeant asked him how many tickets he’d like to have written for him. “I said ‘I didn’t do anything wrong . . . but you have the power, you can do anything you want’ and his response was ‘That’s right, I have the power.’ ”

When I hear about something like this, all I can think about is the years of denial of service by the Albany Police. From the late 1980s to the early 2000s, those of us who lived within the redlined areas of downtown Albany could not get the police to respond to calls for help. A lot of crime built up in our neighborhoods during that time. Don’t the police have some catching up to do, instead of picking on bicycle riders?

The root of the police problem is the same old same old. More than ninety five percent of the Albany officers are suburbanites who do not live in the City of Albany. Being typical suburbanites, they consider bicycles to be toys. From their outsider anti-urban point of view, no serious adult would ride a bicycle on a street.

As evidence of this assertion, note the photo published in Metroland of the cops happily playing with one of the “confiscated” bikes.

Taking A Shortcut After Dusk

Even the Albany cops who ride bicycles on patrol have little idea of the law. Riding a bicycle on the sidewalks is illegal, but the bike cops do it all the time. I’ve watched them ride against the traffic. Early this past summer, I watched with hanging jaw as a pair of bike cops slowly crossed the intersection of Lark and Madison from the sidewalk, and proceed down Lark facing the oncoming autos. Someday, I’ll have my camera...

Our friend Perry Woodin, a solid, reliable fellow, likes to repeat a story from several years ago of how some woman behind the wheel threatened him while he was on his bike. “You better watch out or I might kill you,” she snarled. Being a good citizen, he pulled out his cell and called the police. The woman took off fast.

The cop who eventually responded was not interested in the threat or the car’s plate number. “You belong on the sidewalk,” she bellowed. “If I see you on the street again I’m going to give you a ticket.” Perry held his ground and explained to the officer that she had the law backwards. After some more bellowing, she decided she’d better call into headquarters to learn about basic traffic law!

Perry Woodin And Bert Schou Ready To Roll
Perry Woodin And Bert Schou Ready To Roll

But the deadliest part of this ignorance by the Albany Police officers occurs when drivers mow down bicycle riders. The Albany cops, acting as judge, jury and prosecution, usually let the killers off without even so much as a citation for reckless driving. Even stranger, the Department follows a strict policy of concealing the identity of the killers.

And Albany Police spokespersons always blame the bicyclist for getting murdered. Is it any wonder that the Albany Police have a persistent public relations problem?

The police in Colonie and Giuilderland do not conceal the names and details of drivers who kill bicyclists. They treat these incidents as they would any other deadly incident. What motivates the Albany Police to protect bicycle killers?

Well, at least the cops have stopped harrassing the Critical Mass riders. Some of us older pillars of society made a series of overtures to the police, inviting them to come on rides. The Albany Police declined, but the SUNY Police gladly participated in a formally scheduled ride sponsored by the New York Bicycle Coalition.

I’ve observed that the individual officers seem to have a real problem with the nature of Critical Mass. They can’t seem to wrap their minds around the idea that there is no organization involved, it just happens. There are no leaders with whom they can negotiate. You know, anarchy.

The Wife brought up the harrassment of Critical Mass riders with Chief Tuffey at a public meeting. He brushed her off. “There was some kind of protest,” he said. “I’ll be looking into it and I’ll get back to you.” He never did. But the bad publicity and the various appeals to reason appear to have caused him to have second thoughts. There have been no more police incidents against the riders since that time.

Expensive Hand-Crafted Costumes

The most confrontational part of this year’s Halloween ride occured when the mass of riders decided to ride along Clinton Avenue through Arbor Hill. Noting that all of this year’s bicycle riders were white, several black people snarled at them. “What you white people blocking our traffic,” yelled one woman from behind the wheel. “Get off the road.”

But according to The Wife, a lot of young kids were excited, running alongside the bicyclists and shouting. She thought that the riders should have brought Halloween treats to hand out to the kids.

Hmm, well, maybe it’s just as well that they didn’t. Perhaps it’s time to for somebody or other to actively encourage the City’s numerous ethnic minority bicycle riders to join Critical Mass rides. Maybe next Halloween it won’t look like the white overlords are invading the ghetto.

Finally, the ride ended up at the venerable Madison Grill to drink and eat pizza. And drink some more. After all that pedalling about town the Critical Mass riders have to replenish those calories. As can be seen from the photos, most of these folks tend to have little in the way of fat reserves.

Yes, Critical Mass goes on through the winter. If you don ‘t mind the cold, there are always a few hardy souls ready to gather at the monument in all but the most extreme weather. And maybe come spring you’ll see me riding with the mass. Maybe.

Dave Oehl With His Folding Bike At The Madison Grill


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