Fellow bike messengers, racing teammates, and family members of Robyn Hightman rode en masse through Manhattan on Thursday night, three days after the young courier was killed by a hit-and-run truck driver while biking up Sixth Avenue.
Several hundred people participated in the memorial ride, which took over full blocks of Delancey Street and Sixth Avenue early in the evening, and culminated with a tearful vigil at the site of Hightman's death near 23rd Street.
As organizers unveiled a freshly painted ghost-bike, friends and family shared memories of the 20-year-old victim: "a blur of braids and a giant smile" who was passionate about biking, volunteering with young children and vegan food. Multiple people spoke of Hightman's skill as an endurance rider, noting that they made the move from Richmond to New York City last year on a bicycle, and quickly latched onto a community of messengers and track cyclists. (Hightman used they/them pronouns).
Rideout for Robyn Hightman begins pic.twitter.com/Boj9JLcJtQ
— Jake Offenhartz (@jangelooff) June 27, 2019
"We know it's not lack of experience or lack of skill that brought us here," said Max Pach, a 28-year-old delivery cyclist. "It was a failure on the city's part to provide us with roads that are safe for us to work on, for us to live on, for us to commute back and forth to our jobs."
Referring to the 25-year-old bike messenger, Aurilla Lawrence, who was struck and killed by a hit-and-run truck driver earlier this year, Pach told Gothamist afterwards: "Two in one year is a real wake up call for a lot of us. We're not going to sit here and be wounded like this over and over again without doing something about it."
Hours later, 57-year-old cyclist Ernest Askew was killed while riding in Brownsville. He is the 13th cyclist to lose his life on city streets this year, compared to 10 in all of 2018, according to police. The vast majority of the motorists involved in those crashes have not faced charges, including the hit-and-run driver who killed Lawrence in February.
— Charles Komanoff (@Komanoff) June 28, 2019
As they chanted "end legal murder," many in attendance on Thursday voiced special frustration at the circumstances and handling of Hightman's death, which they blamed on the NYPD and Mayor Bill de Blasio. They pointed out that the truck driver—who later returned to the scene, claiming he hadn't realized he'd hit a person—was not issued a single citation for the fatal crash. He received five summonses, all of them related to his truck not meeting inspection criteria.
The following day, police officers issued dozens of tickets to cyclists at the site of Hightman's death. Officer Carlos Negron told Gothamist the sting was aimed exclusively at people riding bikes, and added: "Maybe if she had been on the bike lane, maybe she'd still be alive."
There is in fact a bike lane on that stretch of Sixth Avenue. It remains unclear why Hightman was not using it, but cyclists are legally permitted to ride outside bike lanes on city streets when the lanes are unsafe or obstructed, which they often are.
NYPD Chief of Department Terrance Monahan told reporters on Thursday that the longstanding practice of ticketing cyclists after a cyclist's death was something they were "looking to adjust." Officers also said they issued 100 summonses to drivers in the area in the wake of the fatal crash.
White shirt lieutenant tells someone to get off the scaffolding or he'll get arrested. "Y'all didn't even arrest the guy who killed Robyn," someone points out. pic.twitter.com/TT3b0scfZ5
— Jake Offenhartz (@jangelooff) June 27, 2019
For some, the comments underscored the NYPD's general attitude toward cyclists, and working cyclists in particular. "We're just low-hanging fruit to them," Xavier Diaz, a Bronx-based messenger, told Gothamist. "If it was one of their own, they'd make sure they had those issues fixed up right away. But if it's someone on a bike they don't give two fucks about us."
Cheylene Tattersall, a 33-year-old Bushwick resident who helped organize the ride, said she'd been trying to find information from detectives about the case, but was told that it'd be at least three months before they could share security camera footage from a nearby bank (the NYPD did not immediately respond to inquiries about this).
"I hope that our anger can be put into something productive," Tattersall added. "Some kind of legislation requiring commercial vehicles to have dashboard cameras, something like that."
During the ride, the victim's younger sister, Rachel Hightman, pulled their mom in an electric pedicab provided by a messenger who knew the victim. Before placing a candle at the base of the ghost bike, the younger Hightman told the crowd she was grateful her sibling had found such a welcoming community during their short time in the city.
"My sister and I grew up braiding each other's hair," she said, through tears. "Robyn was so much more than just a cyclist. She was an artist. She was a musician. She was my sister."
With Scott Heins and Alexandra Feldhausen
Listen to WNYC's segment about last night's ride:
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