Freedom to Ride

Biking in the Big Apple can get you arrested

| January / February 2006

Rebecca Heinegg isn't waiting for graduation to take on giants. Heinegg was one of a dozen bikers arrested last February at a Critical Mass, an anarchic bike ride that takes place in some 400 cities worldwide on the last Friday of every month. Now the 23-year-old law student, bike enthusiast, and co-founder of Freewheels Bicycle Defense Fund is up against the legal muscle of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's New York City.

An 'organized coincidence,' the ride has no central leaders and no preplanned route. New York authorities have battled the bikers since just before the 2004 Republican National Convention, when visitors swelled the Manhattan event from its typical few hundred cyclists to nearly 5,000. Police arrested more than 250 and seized their bicycles. Four months later, a federal judge rejected the city's request for an injunction declaring Critical Mass illegal, stating that cyclists have just as much right to the road as their four-wheeled friends.

Unbowed, the police have continued making mass arrests and confiscating bicycles every month. And last March, the city's attorneys filed suit in state court against Time's Up!, a local environmental group that promotes the ride, charging that the organization can't inform the public about an event the city deems illegal.

When Heinegg and some law school friends were caught in the net last winter, they launched their effort to provide funds and legal support -- as well as loaner bikes -- to arrestees. 'Not a single cyclist has been convicted in connection with Critical Mass,' she says, adding that the city drops most charges on the courthouse steps.



The Time's Up! case, which was awaiting trial as we went to press, raises serious First Amendment concerns. According to the city's game plan, merely contemplating civil disobedience would be a crime.