With Bike Month NYC coming up and Critical Mass celebrating its 12th birthday tonight, Gothamist thought we’d talk to a bike enthusiast. Matthew Roth has ridden in upwards of 35 Critical Mass rides, is a volunteer with Time’s Up and is one of four members of the organization named in a lawsuit brought by the city. Matthew is also working on Norman Siegel’s campaign for Public Advocate. We caught up with him hot on the campaign trail.
Occupation: Organizer in the Politics of Hope
Affiliations: Time’s Up, Norman Siegel for Public Advocate
Born: Santa Barbara, CA
Grew up: Nevada on a cattle ranch nowhere near a notable town
Current location: South Chelsea
Years in New York: 6
Relationship status: in love with my bike
Online guilty pleasure:Formerly friendster, now checking non-work email
You’re involved with the organization Time’s Up. What is Time’s Up?
Time's Up is a bicycle advocacy/environmental group in the city that has been around for 18 years. Its focus has been the way people carry out their daily lives, especially in terms of public space and transportation and how you get from one place to another particularly with bicycles.
The organization’s focus is extensive. They do a lot of workshops, bicycle repair, movie nights and community garden clean-ups. They do a lot of educational things around cycling in New York and outside of New York. They are also trying to bring heightened awareness to the need for safer biker conditions, and the improvement of environmental standards.
What’s your role in the organization?
I’m a volunteer. It’s an all volunteer organization. Over the last 8 months to a year I have been doing a lot of press and legal work, especially after the Republican National Convention (RNC). I’ve been responding to the harassment and the escalation of enforcement on the Critical Mass rides and the way they are locking up cyclists. We started a whole legal team and we were doing legal meetings twice a week after the RNC.
What is the relationship between Time’s Up and Critical Mass?
Time’s Up is an advocacy group that has always promoted the fundamental philosophy behind Critical Mass, that you need to be able to ride safely in the streets and you need to promote this vision of a group ride that is all about bikes. It’s an ideal of what our streets could look like if we were to reduce the use of cars and ride bikes more.
We’ve advertised Critical Mass, we’ve promoted it for a long time, 5-6 years at least, probably longer. Since the RNC and all the arrests, we’ve been defending it in the press. Eventually through the legal meetings, there was a lawsuit filed against the city for cutting people’s bike locks and taking their bikes. It was filed with Norman Siegel and has turned into this larger thing where the city counter-claimed and tried to shut down the rides in the courts. They took their argument, that you can’t ride a bike in a group without a permit, and tried to get a judge to agree. Ultimately the judge didn’t, but now that suit is coming back to us again.
What about the lawsuit the city filed on March 22 that you are named in…
They are specifically targeting four volunteers within Time’s Up and Time’s Up as a group. They are trying to pin on us this role of leader or organizer of Critical Mass.
Basically, we weren’t comfortable seeing the police arrest and take all these bikes for offenses that would normally just get a citation or a summons. They have been arresting people, taking their bikes, holding their bikes for long periods of time and holding people for a long period of time. We spoke out against this and we sent out press releases.
Time’s Up has always been intimately involved with the people riding in Critical Mass. People from Time’s Up ride, but there are also a huge mix of other folks. But, since we were speaking up and being very visible about it, we’ve been targeted as the ring leaders and organizers, which is untrue.
Who exactly is against Critical Mass?
The NYPD is the principle agent and then there is the City of New York and the Parks Department. I talked to people in the Parks Department recently, people who know the Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe really well, and they were like, this isn’t him. He’s an old progressive. We can’t imagine that he would actually do this, unless someone else were leaning on him or pressuring him to do it.
As far as we can tell, it’s the police and the Police Commissioner. Bloomberg is complicit because he is letting all these arrests happen. A lot of the arrests the last three months have been pre-emptive. They have brought orange netting out and closed down the entire Northside of Union Square and anybody that rode their bike out of the Square was arrested or fled. It’s gotten to a point where no laws are being broken by cyclists, there is nothing going on. The police have decided that anything that looks like a bike ride on the last Friday of the month is unacceptable.
What kinds of people come out for Critical Mass?
It’s a huge mix. That’s one of the things that always drew me to it, the cultural and class diversities. You have everyone from Latino kids and their bike crew from the Lower East Side, from businessmen in suits to families on tandems to the really crunchy granola hippie cyclists. It’s a wide variety of people. Honestly, it’s such a relief to be in a event where your only reason to be there is to bike and it’s not about who you are, what you make, what you do, it’s just a ride. It’s a bunch of people coming together based on this idea that you can have a ride that doesn’t have a leader, doesn’t have a route, that it just goes where people feel the inclination to go. It steers itself, which is one of the beautiful things about it.
Has the focus of the ride changed since these troubles have started happening?
We don’t get as many families out and you don’t see as many kids out on the rides. People are concerned, they don’t want to get arrested.
The real change has been in the enforcement. The change has been in the way the police view it. It’s actually really troubling that you have such a crazy expenditure of police money on a bike ride. Last time there were three police helicopters deployed to it. They had tons of vans and scooters. They are spending tens of thousands of dollars every last Friday of the month on this. To keep an helicopter in the air for an hour is something like $10,000 in fuel alone. It’s just unprecedented for a bike ride.
Commissioner Kelly and others comes out in the press saying these extremists or anarchists are bent on destruction. He started following that line that was being sold at the RNC. But they have backed away from it, because anyone that comes out realizes that’s not the group of people that are out. Their argument is that this is so huge that we need a judge to help us. It dwindled to a hundred and they still arrested like 20 or 30 people. It’s not about size to them. Someone in the force is trying his or her darnedest to stop a ride that is really just an expression of an idea. It’s not an organization.
But the people that continue doing the ride since this crackdown, has their reason for coming out changed?
It’s interesting some people do get more politicized.
There is one guy, he had come out to a open forum meeting in late December/January. He said he didn’t understand, that it seemed like civil disobedience to him so why are people upset they are being arrested. We talked to him after and said he should come out to the ride, and come up near the front and see if he still feels like it’s that classic case of civil disobedience that he described. He came out and went up to the front of the ride and was arrested within a block. He hadn’t done anything but ride out of Union Square. He spent 10 or 12 hours in jail and came out and was enraged. He couldn’t believe what had happened because he hadn’t done anything. He came out to the next ride and the same thing happened. Now he is doing all this fundraising, trying to raise money for all these people’s court cases. He is completely charged in a way that he wasn’t two months ago. It’s a pretty wild shift. It’s all very positive, he is becoming an active member of the bike community in a way he wasn’t before.
It is clear that they are doing illegal, unconstitutional activity - literally cutting people’s bike locks and taking their property without charging them with any kind of infraction or crime. That’s stealing. It’s against the law. At the same time, people are feeling they have kind of weathered the storm. The Winter is over and Spring is coming, and they’re hoping that there are a lot more people that’ll come out and ride.
What’s going on with tonight’s ride?
It's happening and there is a group called Still We Speak holding a “speak out” before the ride from
65:30pm-7pm in Union Square Park South. Different people like, Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of NYCLU; Norman Siegel, former Executive Director NYCLU; City Council Member, Margarita Lopez and CUNY Professor, Stanley Aronowitz, are going to talk about free speech.
The troubling part about the lawsuit that is leveled at the four of us is that two of the complaints are directly related to either gathering in a park in a large group without getting a permit or riding in group without getting a permit. A third complaint is attempting to prevent us from advertising or promoting the ride. It’s a very broad and ambitious and terrifying attempt to silence first amendment protected speech. That part of it is what is drawing all this energy from outside the bike community, which is really important because it will bring the focus back onto how the police have been treating dissent and protests.
Another thing is that recent NYTimes article about the video tape taken during the RNC that had been doctored. The police lied in their sworn testimony and someone in the DA’s office had edited footage so that it matched the false accounts of what had happened. It’s systemic, it’s not a one time thing. It is something that continues every month with cyclists, so it’s important that a larger community speak out about it, beyond the cyclists. People who are concerned about rights to speech and assembly and how those are being curbed. There is also the issue with the great lawn, that they limiting the number of rallies that can be there in a year to 6. And with 5th Avenue, they aren’t going to allow anymore parades than the ones that have already happened in the last five years. They had revoked a permit on the Falun Gong, not allowing them to meditate in a group, until Norman Siegel got it back. They were pulling a permit on an anti-war group that was supposed to march on Sunday. It’s no coincidence. They are limiting any activity that looks at all like it’s a protest, or a demonstration.
How did Norman Siegel get involved?
Approximately 32 bikes were taken without any charges being filed. In a lot of cases the locks had been cut and the bikes had been taken. The police said that it was clear these were implements in this ride and somehow that justified taking private property. Then they were calling it abandoning property. By locking it up and leaving the scene - because they didn’t want to be arrested - these people were abandoning their property.
Norman helped us get our bikes out. He had called the DA because they were holding the bikes under the pretense that they were instruments of a crime, which is ridiculous. They are not going to wheel a bike into a courtroom on a case that’s not even criminal. We’re talking about citation level offenses like parading without a permit and disorderly conduct. They are the same as a speeding ticket or a parking ticket, they’re violations not criminal charges. It made no sense to hold onto the bikes except to serve as some sort of punishment. So he called the DA’s office and worked out getting the bikes released. Then after talking with him and telling him a bit about the history of it, he was curious to see the next ride, the September ride.
So all this had happened in August?
August was when everybody got arrested and they held the bikes for 3 1/2 weeks. They would have held them indefinitely or until people closed their cases. They were using the bikes as leverage so that people would not fight their cases. If they wanted to get their bike back, they should plea down or take an ACD, which is a scheduled dismissal. Then they could have their bike back.
Norman talked to the DA and the DA released them and it ended up not being as much of an ordeal. He came out to the next ride because he was curious to see what was going to happen. After the ride I called him and told him that he should look in the Times tomorrow, that there was going to be a story on this. The next day we held a press conference and Norman urged Commissioner Kelly and Michael Bloomberg to investigate and provide an answer to it. Of course they didn’t. He said there might be grounds for a lawsuit if there isn’t some kind of investigation or explanation. They didn’t do anything.
The cyclists asked for a lawyer for their case. It was about violating constitutional rights by taking property without charging. The judge ultimately, 5 months later, ruled in favor of the cyclists. The summary judgment comes down pretty soon. Hopefully the cyclists will get a reward for their troubles.
And the city counter-sued?
Yes, they tried to expand the case. The case that Norman and his co-council Steven Hyman brought was very narrow. It was that you cannot take people’s property without charging a crime. That’s violation of due process. The city turned around and said not only can we do this, but since these people are engaged in this illegal parade, we also need to get an injunction from a federal judge to prevent them from even riding in this. Basically, they were trying to up the ante and make it a deterrent, so that if you rode you could face steep fines or potential jail time.
As the judge was questioning Assistant Chief Smolka about the logic behind requesting this injunction, he asked, “You are supposed to show irreparable harm, and where is the irreparable harm in this?” Smolka said, “Well, it’s a public safety hazard, it would help us.” And the judge was like, “If you’re the police you can arrest. You can give tickets. You have remedy of law.” And Smolka came back, “It would be a deterrent. If we raise the stakes, maybe they wouldn’t come out.” The judge then said, “That’s not what an injunction is.” He got pretty upset at how candid the Assistant Chief was and ultimately he didn’t grant them their injunction. But, the city had counter-sued, expanded the lawsuit and turned it into a long series of court cases and trials.
It wasn’t related to the Critical Mass ride, but you were arrested during the RNC…
Yes, for a smaller group bike ride, maybe there were 150 of us in the streets obeying the traffic signals. We just got swept up in a mass arrest.
Where did they take you?
They took us to the pier which was nasty and dirty as hell. Then they took us to central booking. I got out relatively quickly, within 24 hours. There were people arrested a couple days later that were in jail for 50 and 60 hours. It’s no fun to be arrested. It felt so arbitrary and vindictive. They were just targeting bikes and coming after us for riding.
It was a good experience on one hand because it got me to work with these people and to organize these meetings and to eventually not just rollover but rather turn it into something quite significant. Already at CUNY and Brooklyn Law they are studying the case Bray vs. the City of New York in their constitutional law classes and also looking at in terms of the jurisdiction between federal and state courts.
What were you charged with?
I was charged with two counts of disorderly conduct. One class B misdemeanor called illegal bicycle riding for riding on the sidewalk. I was never on the sidewalk except when I was off the bike at the beginning of the ride. Obstructing administration which is a misdemeanor. I was also charged with reckless endangerment, which is another misdemeanor. And then, running a solid red light and parading without a permit. There were eight all together. It was only six at first but when I pleaded not guilty, they uped it to eight. They added a couple more charges which I didn’t realize they could do, but they can.
Getting back to the ride tonight, why do you participate?
For me, it is one of the few authentic experiences that I’ve had in a group setting. It’s not an overt expression - unless you want it to be - of any sort of political anything. It’s a sense of community. It’s a coming together of a large group of people around an idea, that you should be able to ride your bike in the city. Some people take it farther, that it is a sane alternative. We have problems with obesity and pollution in our country and it is a really good way to get from one place to another. I agree with some of those things. But initially it was such a rare and wonderful feeling to be surrounded by 1,000 people that I didn’t know all giggling and laughing and singing and riding through the streets. There was no cause to it, you can have this experience, period.
Does discussing the ride with a publication like Gothamist count as publicizing it? Could we get in trouble?
That is funny. A New York Times reporter told me that after he had written a story on the lawsuit he asked Paul Brown, the spokesperson for the cops, if when he referenced that the ride meets the last Friday of the month in Union Square at 7pm, if that constitutes advertising or promoting it. Brown didn’t have an answer, he said no comment.
The basic gist of it is, you can report on it, but the problem is advocating imminent lawlessness. Who knows with the state of this country, maybe given another year if we are still here fighting it, you might not be able to do this interview.
Editor's note: Critical Mass is set to take place tonight at 7pm in Union Square. Prior to Critical Mass there will be a rally to protect free speech and 1st Amendment rights in Union Square Park, South, 14th St at Broadway, from 5:30pm-7pm.
Norman Siegel, who Matthew is working for, will be holding a press conference to discuss the Williamsburg/Greenpoint re-zoning in McCarren Park in Williamsburg on Saturday April 30 at 1:30pm. This event will run inconjunction with Paula Revera's ride down Bedford Avenue proclaiming "The Developers are Coming!"