The reason the NYPD has cracked down on Critical Mass bike riders is not because it lacks awareness of the virtues of non-polluting transportation, but because its aim is to strangle any public dissent that it cannot control.
Like the Giuliani-era’s infamous broken window policy of arresting on the notion that minor infractions such as public drinking or setting off fireworks were gateway crimes to general mayhem, the NYPD deploys maximum force against the smallest demonstrations to keep the larger public in check. The police thinking is that if a minor unauthorized protest were allowed to take the streets, then the door would be opened to mass dissent. The only demonstration allowed is the cattle-pen variety that isolates the protest virus from the body politic.
The recent past shows no lack of police attacks against peaceful political events: the crackdown of a march memorializing gay-bashing victim Matthew Shepard, hundreds of riot cops rushing the stage and attacking participants during the Million Youth March, cops going wild during the funeral of police-murder victim Patrick Dorismond, the disruption of the Feb. 15, 2003, protest of the impending invasion of Iraq, and the denial of Central Park to New Yorkers wanting to protest the Republican National Convention.
The police justify the harsh measures by flipping the script, claiming they are the ones protecting the protesters and the right of protest. Of course, when violence does occur during the event, it is usually at the hands of the police – charging into crowds on horseback, slamming scooters into bicycles, tackling peaceful marchers. Even in those instances where the police are peaceful their stance is to intimidate. There are countless demonstrations where police outnumber protesters and where they come equipped in riot gear, on motorcycles and horses, in helicopters, command vehicles and fleets of paddy wagons and undercover in plainclothes. The show of force is intended to frighten off all but the most diehard, which is precisely what is happening with Critical Mass.
The police are obsessed because the bike riders do represent a threat – the threat of a good example. They are exercising their rights, but in a city of massive inequality and racial divisions allowing people to define where and when and how they protest would threaten the established order.
Ultimately it is this order that the police serve. Their role is to keep New York safe as a business Mecca, a shopper’s paradise, a playground of the rich. Allowing the rabble to protest entrenched poverty, substandard housing, privatization of public space or police brutality would mar the cultivated image.
The end result is to squelch basic freedoms and replace them with the freedom to shop and consume. If there is hope it is to be found among the protesters, dissenters and civil libertarians who do not go quietly into the night and continue to fight for real democracy, not the display-window variety.