Last Friday the NYPD smashed yet another Critical Mass bike ride seizing 50 bikes and arresting 37 people for the crime of assembling in Union Square Park on two wheels. It was a continuation of the crackdown that started during last summer's epic 5,000-rider Republican National Convention event. Despite a federal court order declaring the NYPD’s actions illegal, it doesn’t look like the cops are going to let up. As the weather gets nicer and the rides grow in size, the confrontations are likely to get worse.
Architect of the Critical Mass crackdown is NYPD Assistant Chief Bruce Smolka
. A little background: Before turning his attention to cyclists, Smolka was the commanding officer of the NYPD’s infamous Street Crimes Unit. It was his officers who, in February 1999, pumped 41 bullets into Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant guilty of nothing more than standing in the hallway of his own apartment building. Though the incident nearly sparked race riots and ultimately led to the disbanding of the Street Crimes Unit, it earned Smolka a promotion. Today he runs Patrol Borough Manhattan South and is chief for all of Manhattan below 59th Street.
The new job combined with the exigencies of the post-9/11 era has given the 30-year NYPD veteran the opportunity to practice his doctrine of overwhelming force and disregard of First Amendment rights on a bigger, more public stage. In February 2003, Smolka illegally ordered horseback-mounted police to charge into a group of peaceful anti-war demonstrators. In April, he confronted a group of about 100 demonstrators in front of the midtown headquarters of Carlyle Group with three times as many officers outfitted in full riot gear. “We were swept off the street like fleas,” Ben Maurer, an activist arrested that day, told a journalist on the scene. “I was illegally arrested, just for yelling at a building.”
But it wasn't until 2004 wwhen Smolka was appointed co-chair of site security at the Republican National Convention that he really hit his stride. Responsible for securing midtown and everything moving in and out of Madison Square Garden, the Chief could often be found standing on “his perimeter,” head clean-shaven, blue eyes squinting, chin jutting, arms folded across his chest like an urban Patton. A hands-on kind of guy, never afraid to dive into a crowd of demonstrators, Smolka personally oversaw the illegal arrest and detention of hundreds during the convention.
Smolka's civil liberties violations didn’t stop once the Republicans left town. Perhaps humiliated by his inability to predict or control the humongous Critical Mass ride of August, the chief seems to have made it his mission to completely destroy the ride. He continues to unleash his wrath and the full force of the NYPD on cyclists the last Friday of every month. Internet bulletin boards that post his photo inevitably fill up with messages or recognition like, "Hey, Smolka is the ******* who very deliberately threw me in the street then told me to get out of the street."
Justice may be catching up to Smolka. At a December 8, 2004 federal court hearing on Critical Mass, civil liberties lawyer Steven Hyman skewered the chief before federal judge, William Pauley. The day’s highlight was Smolka’s attempt to argue that seven bikes lined up on a New York City street are a “procession” requiring a permit while seven motor vehicles clogging the very same street are simply traffic. In fact, bikes have just as much right to be traffic as cars. Judge Pauley didn't buy it. He ruled that the NYPD acted improperly by arresting and seizing the bicycles of Critical Mass riders and he denied the NYPD's request for a federal injunction preventing people with bikes from assembling at Union Square Park on the last Friday of the month.
For anyone who has followed Bruce Smolka’s career, Judge Pauley’s ruling was not a surprise. The upside of being arrested in a Smolka street sweep is that you have about a 100% chance of being exonerated when your case finally comes before a judge.