For six years, bike messenger Shardy Nieves, 38, has organized the 4/20 Race and Bake relay bike race without any major issues with the NYPD. "At the finish line we have cookies, pizza, cupcakes, local bakeries sometimes sponsor it, it's just a way to bring the community together," Nieves told Gothamist.
But on Saturday afternoon, when Nieves arrived at the starting point for this year's race, Tompkins Square Park, he said he was greeted by name by an NYPD Lieutenant. "The officer had a manila envelope, and inside that envelope was screenshots of my social media and screenshots of the event," Nieves says. A few minutes later, Nieves was in handcuffs.
Nieves was told he was being arrested for an outstanding warrant stemming from an open container ticket he got in 2015.
"It was just a way to prevent this race from happening. It's clear that's why they did it," Nieves says, pointing out that he was pulled over last year for running a red light and the officers in that case made no mention of an outstanding warrant. "I've done plenty of these events. I've applied for certain permits, they just don't allow it. It's a relay race, it's not about mobbing the streets or whatever, it's about getting from point A to point B."
Nieves added, "We're not doing anything illegal, we're just trying to get people together to ride bikes." He said he counted more than 50 officers milling around Tompkins.
An NYPD spokesperson could not confirm Nieves's arrest, but a video taken by a bystander shows him in handcuffs.
Once the NYPD had arrested Nieves, they began ticketing the cyclists who had showed up for the race for not having a bell; in some cases, they confiscated their bikes.
Tipster Barbara Ross sent Gothamist a series of videos of the interactions.
Brandon Rosado, 20, said he and two of his friends showed up for the race when officers in the park asked them for their IDs.
"They took all three of our IDs, they spent the next hour writing down a ticket for not having a bell," Rosado said. "Then the sergeant came and said they had to take our bikes because we didn't have the bells. They didn't explain anything."
Rosado and his friends then went to the 9th Precinct stationhouse so they could retrieve their bicycles, where they ended up waiting several hours.
"We told the sergeant at the police station why we were there and she laughed, like, this is ridiculous, you guys shouldn't even be there for that."
A few hours later in Union Square, we witnessed the same group of NYPD officers issuing a ticket to a young cyclist, and then confiscating his bike. One of the officers at the scene, who is seen arresting Nieves and taking his bag from him, refused to tell us why the cyclist was issued a citation.
— Christopher Robbins (@ChristRobbins) April 20, 2019
We've asked the NYPD for more context on Saturday's enforcement actions, why so many police officers were involved, and why bikes were confiscated, but have not yet received a response.
Traffic fatalities in New York City this year have increased by 41 percent compared to the same time period of 2018, according to NYPD statistics. Most recently, on Saturday evening, 89-year-old Anastasia Diaz was killed by a hit-and-run driver as she crossed the street in Staten Island.
In February, Mayor Bill de Blasio was asked about the NYPD's practice of ticketing cyclists after a cyclist has been killed by a driver. "We need cyclists to obey the law, and of course enforcement is a part of that."
At a press conference on Monday, we asked the mayor if confiscating bikes was a good use of NYPD resources. "I don't know anything about that incident so I literally can't comment until I get more information but we'll look at that," the mayor responded.
Manhattan Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez, who is the chair of the council's Transportation Committee, told us that he believes "there's other priorities that the men and women of the NYPD should have, especially fighting crimes."
"Targeting cyclists should not be their priority. ...We don't have a history of cyclists being involved in crashes in a number that is alarming. So I hope the NYPD stops this type of practice and focuses their resources to fight crimes," Rodriguez said.
After he was arrested in the park, Nieves said he was taken to the Bronx, his home borough, to appear in front of a judge for his open container warrant; the judge dismissed it. He said he went back downtown, where he found a few cyclists who still wanted to race, so they did.
"We're grownups, we're all working, some of us are messengers some of us like to ride bikes, and cops are legit targeting us for whatever reason," Nieves says. "It's not about community affairs, I'm very easy to reach. It's not about wanting to make people safe, it's about shutting things down."
[UPDATE / 4:02 p.m.] NYPD spokesperson Detective Denise Moroney sent us the following statement:
On Saturday, April 20, 2019 l NYPD officers were assigned to a detail at Tompkins Square Park. The detail was in response to a large gathering of bicyclists called “420 Bake and Race” advertising smoking marijuana and traveling on New York City roadways to various locations. There was a total of four summons written for no bell on a bicycle (1236-B of the VTL) in the area of the park. There were a total of four bicycles were taken into custody for the violation and once the violation was corrected (bell affixed to the bicycle) all bicycles were returned in a 24-hour period. One person was taken into custody for an outstanding warrant. Members of the public and the NYPD have a shared responsibility to ensure safety for all navigating the streets of the city.
We've asked Detective Moroney to clarify what happened in Union Square and will update if we receive a response.
Additional reporting from Jake Dobkin.
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