On a recent night in Brooklyn, a few thousand New Yorkers brought their bikes out to a Black Lives Matter protest. That night, the cyclists were not there in solidarity with protesters on foot — rather, the cyclists themselves were the protest. The ride, organized by StreetRidersNYC, was one of many around the country in response to a police officer killing an unarmed Black man named George Floyd in Minneapolis where a protest is made up entirely of people on bikes.
At the protest, organizer Orlando Hamilton told the crowd, “You guys all risked it with us, so thank you, first of all, for coming out.” And there certainly was a risk. Even outside of COVID-19, protesting on a bike can be a risky endeavor. From 1970s “bike-ins” to Critical Mass in the 1990s and 2000s, there is a long history of using bikes to create hyper-mobile protests, and an equally long history of police suppression of these protests.
To help you feel safe while protesting on your bike, Transportation Alternatives spoke with lawyer Steve Vaccaro, who specializes in the legal challenges to cycling at the Law Office of the Vaccaro and White, where he has represented cyclists injured by negligent motorists, harmed by negligent and abusive police officers, and who have otherwise had their rights violated. He provided some insight into what a protester on a bike should know about their rights to ride and resist.
Is it safe to bring my bike to a protest?
“There is absolutely nothing illegal or wrong with participating in a demonstration on a bike,” says Vaccaro. “Bikes can help you cover more distance and protest for longer. The First Amendment provides the same protection against government interference to bike-mounted and walking demonstrators, and the police should treat the two similarly.”
However, he cautions that the police often single out cyclists for targeted enforcement, even outside of demonstrations. “The police training materials that I read teach that bicyclists are likely serving as couriers or lookouts for gangs and drug dealers,” he says. “Police officers aren’t trained to see bicycles as a form of transportation or a legitimate component of traffic. It’s no more unlawful to bring a bike than a wheelchair to a demonstration, but cyclists are usually higher on cops’ radar.” According to Vaccaro, officers are trained to view cyclists as a source of criminality, misconduct, and chaos.
Police also may not distinguish between protesters and passers-by on bikes. “Cyclists accompanying and mixed in with a largely pedestrian demonstration can become a focus for police, and any cyclists in the vicinity should be aware that they may be corralled in with the protesters.” Essential workers or otherwise police-vulnerable people who don’t want to risk arrest should avoid the area.
It is often a situation of you’re good until you’re not. “Police may escort a bike demonstration as if it were a parade, even stopping vehicular traffic at intersections to let the cyclists through,” he warns, “but then suddenly begin to contain, forcibly dismount or otherwise brutalize or arrest demonstrators. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of safety, keep an eye on the police.”
Does being on a bike change my rights or status as a protester?
With the exception of traffic laws, like not riding on the sidewalk, all laws that apply to a person on foot apply on a bicycle. Given that the laws the police are enforcing are generally not traffic laws, there should be little technical legal difference.
However, the Critical Mass rides in the mid-2000s taught the police that bike-mounted demonstrators are nimbler and harder to control. In particular, cyclists must be dismounted before they can be contained with metal barricades, as police like to do with demonstrators on foot. Police controlled Critical Mass cyclists by targeting individual participants for traffic stops and issuing them multiple traffic summonses, sometimes forcibly dismounting them to do so. Vaccaro led a legal challenge against NYPD’s crackdown on grounds on selective targeted enforcement intended to chill First Amendment activity. The courts failed to rule clearly, on the one hand declaring that police were as a general matter allowed to issue traffic tickets to cyclist demonstrators, but on the other hand awarding nearly a million in damages to the cyclists for wrongful summonsing activity.
If I do bring my bike to a protest and an officer targets me, what should I do?
If you have a clear, safe escape route, use your bike to disperse from the demonstration. If there’s no clear path out, try to lock up your bike and come back to retrieve it later.
At the very minimum, get off your bike. “I really don’t think you want to engage the police with your bike,” Vaccaro says. “If you’re on a bike, you’re more vulnerable than you are on foot. Cops will have no compunction about knocking you off the bike and possibly causing a much more serious injury than they otherwise might. You don’t want to get into a tug-of-war with a cop over your bike. It’s just going to turn into you getting beaten up. And if your moving bicycle makes contact with a cop — even if the cop is chasing you — you may well end up facing a felony assault charge.”
Recent footage of police assaulting demonstrators on bikes with billy clubs reminds Vaccaro of an old case in which a participant in Critical Mass was body-checked by a police officer named Patrick Pogan. Pogan went on to arrest the cyclist, Christopher Long, for assault. It was only when a tourist’s video footage was found a week later that the charges against Long were dropped. “It’s a good reminder,” says Vaccaro, “of how many cops deal with cyclists, how they lie, and how they deal with demonstrators, all in one.”
If a police officer does grab my bike and take it from my control, what should I do, and what should I know?
If your bike is improperly seized, get the identifying information for the officer so that you can make a complaint — and do this whether or not you get the bike back in the moment.
Unless you’re being arrested for violating a law, seizing your bike would be deprivation of property without due process. This exact issue was ruled upon in a 2004 court case in which a court held that police could not just confiscate bikes without recourse, except as part of a full-blown arrest.
Can I be arrested for blocking traffic?
You can be charged with disorderly conduct for obstructing vehicular or pedestrian traffic, or for refusing a lawful order to disperse, but it must be with the intent to cause, or recklessly creating the risk of, public inconvenience, annoyance, or alarm.
“There is an unclear boundary between exercising your rights to travel in traffic and exercising your right in the public right-of-way to engage in First Amendment-protected political activity,” says Vaccaro. A large demonstration will certainly alarm and inconvenience some members of the public, but if all participants were charged with disorderly conduct, the vagueness and overbreadth of the law itself would come under fire as a violation of constitutional rights.
“Every person in traffic obstructs every other person in traffic,” Vaccaro explains. Much like many cities’ recently-enacted protest curfews, “these sweeping restrictions describe conduct that’s so widespread that they could never be fully enforced, inviting arbitrary, selective, and discriminatory enforcement. What is important to remember is that a cop can charge a person with disorderly conduct or a similar charge under virtually any circumstances, as long as they’re not keeping out of everyone else’s way or not doing exactly what the cop tells them to do.”
Can police officers use their own bikes as battering rams or weapons?
It’s unclear, because this behavior is new.
“I found it disturbing to see cops using bikes as weapons in a manner suggesting they had been trained to do so,” he remarks. There are reasons why cops don’t use hidden weapons. When a police officer carries a nightstick or a gun, it’s in part to signal the potential for use, and with the hope that the threat will help avoid the weapon’s use.
“People understand that if that weapon is out, it could be used on them,” Vaccaro explains. “This isn’t the case if a cop approaches with a bicycle. There’s a fundamental issue in terms of escalation and de-escalation that the police seem to have forgotten here.”
Vaccaro also notes that when bicycles are used as battering rams, they could injure protestors more than a smooth shield.
“We don’t allow cops to use knives, so we shouldn’t be giving them big, complex equipment with sharp parts and then instructing them to slam them into people,” he says. “If the purpose is to try to de-escalate or contain, someone could get caught in a cassette or a chain, perhaps become entangled with a bike that’s being used as a weapon.”
There is a lot to take in here, but it won’t stop us from showing up to the protest with our bike. Transportation Alternatives stands against police brutality and overreach in all its forms and believes in the power of protest and the rights of protesters, on and off bikes. We hope we will see you out there.