At Critical Mass, Reverend Al Calls for NYPD Accountability

The Reverend Al Sharpton, the family of Sean Bell, and an all-star cast of civil liberties advocates joined cyclists in Union Square last Friday for one of the more anticipated Critical Mass rides in recent memory. The gathering, which filled up the south end of the park, came three weeks after the Reverend led hundreds of supporters in an attempt to shut down major bridges and tunnels, protesting the acquittal of the officers who shot and killed Bell.

After a roster of speakers addressed topics ranging from parade rules to police violence to gay marriage, Sharpton tied up the disparate strands with a call for mutual support in the face of NYPD misconduct:

When we can come together as Critical Mass, if we can ride together, if we can protest together, we can make this city livable for everybody together. This is the picture they don’t want to see — people of all ages and all
backgrounds and all races that will stand together. Because as long as
they can play one community against each other, they get through the
middle. It’s when we gather as historically has happened at Union Square that the
powers that be have to turn and buckle… When you demand the right to ride, that is all Sean Bell was doing that night, is trying to ride. And we are going to work together to have a critical mass in this city, where we can ride in justice.

The question is: What is wrong with the morals of a city that thinks there’s something wrong with men going home from their bachelor’s party? They’re suspect. But it’s the same mentality that tells us we can’t gather in a square or a park, and read and talk and discuss.

After Sharpton’s remarks, Sean Bell’s father, William Bell, said what must have been on many people’s minds: "I really came to see Reverend Al ride that bike." Sharpton didn’t disappoint, eschewing a pedicab that had been reserved for him in favor of his own ride. With the way clogged by photographers, Sharpton got off to a halting start before hitting his stride and riding a circuit from 14th Street, down Fifth Avenue to 12th Street, and back up University Place to the square.

Before the event got underway, I had a minute to speak with civil rights attorney Norman Siegel, who has been involved in the Sean Bell case and in the defense of cyclists’ rights. I asked Siegel what he saw as the link between the two.

"There’s a huge difference between Critical Mass and Sean Bell," he said, "but there is a need for oversight of the NYPD. When the police abuse the civil rights of Sean Bell, and when they abuse the rights of cyclists, there’s common ground." He outlined three steps that could serve as unifying goals: having a permanent special prosecutor for police conduct (currently, NYPD lawyers prosecute cops); putting some more teeth in the Civilian Complaint Review Board; and improving the training of police officers.

On this last point, he said: "This job is so stressful, after 10 or 12 years, you could have someone ready to explode… the cop loses it in some situations. In the Sean Bell situation, they could have handled it differently. And it’s the same here. With bicyclists, they’re hostile, they grab ’em. There has to be better training."

As for the ride itself, the police showed no inclination to start changing their standard approach to Critical Mass. "There were a lot of tickets given for not having lights and not being in bike lanes," said Mark Taylor, an attorney with FreeWheels, the group that organized the rally. "Those aren’t real tickets."

Nicole Bell, Sean Bell’s widow, addresses the crowd.

The crowd filled up most of the south end of Union Square.

Reverend Al gets ready to ride.

Video: Jen Chung / Gothamist

Photos: Ben Fried