Critical Mass, the monthly parade/protest/ride/celebration/cycling phenomenon has for years been billed as “bicycling’s defiant celebration,” but recently in NYC, it’s been getting more defiant and less celebratory.

Ever since last year’s truly huge Critical Mass ride during the Republican National Convention — which attracted thousands and thousands of cyclists and worldwide media attention — snarled traffic and resulted in 250 arrests and scores of bicycle seizures, NYC cops have been increasingly arrest-happy at NYC Critical Mass events, throwing over 500 cyclists in the slammer in just one year.

At issue (aside from the flaws of the whole government apparatus and its endemic biases, of course) are permits. Critical Mass, being essentially a spontaneous (though roughly scheduled) event, is also simply a bunch of people on bikes riding around at the same time. The cops still insist it requires a permit. No permit results in arrests and scads of no-fun bike seizures.

As the Village Voice recently reported:

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Assistant Chief Bruce H. Smolka, head of NYPD’s South Manhattan Borough Command, has declared in court that he regards seven cyclists or more as a ‘procession,’ requiring a special permit.

So watch out, road racers: you and six friends make a ride; you and seven friends are going to need a permit. But whatever you think of the legal argument, the equation it establishes seems a bit unfair.

7+ people on bikes = illegal without a permit

7+ people in cars = traffic

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Yesterday, the NYT Magazine, commenting on Critical Mass’ media mentions, called the RNC ride “a kind of branding event” through which NYC Critical Mass asserted its presence and ‘tude. But the mag argued that CM has basically been squandering its 15 minutes:

The resulting steady press coverage has made Critical Mass far better known than it was before the Republican convention, but it has not done much to clarify the meaning and message of the rides, let alone any particular political agenda.

Silly anarchists, you need a good press secretary — not to mention leaders and a team of lobbyists!

But much of Critical Mass’ popularity and strength as a movement, the NYT Mag predictably overlooks, has been in its anarchist roots. It has no real leaders, no press agents, no one imposing their agenda on the rest of the group. People are there, and keep coming, for a variety of likely ever-changing reasons. Some ride to be noticed as cyclists, others for bike/pedestrian advocacy, others just to be in a rolling party, others to stick it to The Man, and on and on.

Critical Mass means different things to different riders; that the NYT Mag and others don’t really seem able to fathom a movement that isn’t lobbying politicians for influence isn’t exactly surprising. But with everything that CM does, arguably the most important function is simply providing a recurring forum for cyclists to assert their right to the road, in numbers that force car-folk to pay attention. And because of that, Critical Mass is likely to endure despite the institutional bias in NYC and around the world. Misguided crackdowns be damned!