NY Police Chief: Sunnyside Bike Lane Terror Attack Was ‘Particularly Nasty’

Neither NYPD Commissioner James O'Neill nor Mayor de Blasio called last week's thumb tack assault an act of "terror," but both are taking it seriously.

Thumbtacks spotted in the 43rd Avenue protected bike lane. Photo: Office of Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer
Thumbtacks spotted in the 43rd Avenue protected bike lane. Photo: Office of Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer

SB Donation NYC header 2The NYPD doesn’t think last week’s thumb-tack attack on a Sunnyside bike lane is an act of terror — but the city’s top cop says his agency is taking its investigation into the “nasty crime” seriously.

Commissioner James O’Neill and Mayor de Blasio deflected Streetsblog’s contention that the attempt to injure innocent cyclists on 43rd Avenue was, in fact, terrorism, but the NYPD believes it will crack the case.

That’s not classified as a hate crime,” O’Neill said at a press conference on Tuesday. “I think you know I am a bicyclist [and] I think that is a particularly nasty crime. … I mean it’s, look, it was couple of blocks long, with hundreds of tacks. And not only are you going to flatten people’s tires, but you are going to get people seriously injured so we are taking it seriously.”

Mayor de Blasio (right) with Police Commissioner O'Neill on Tuesday. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
Mayor de Blasio (right) with Police Commissioner O’Neill on Tuesday. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

He added that detectives are “actively investigating” the case and asked anyone in the public to come forward with information. (The NYPD tips hotline is 800-577-8477.)

Streetsblog specifically asked de Blasio if he thought it was a terror attack “given that the person who did this was trying to injure innocent people” as part of a political protest against a bike lane that the mayor built over opposition by the community board. The mayor wouldn’t bite.

It’s a crime, period,” he said. “And it’s going to be taken very seriously and acted on. Look, there’s been controversies for sure over bike lanes and under Vision Zero. I’ve been very clear about the fact that the bike lanes that we’ve added are for everyone’s safety, for traffic calming, for reasons that support the Vision Zero philosophy and make us all safer.

“There’s any number of possible motivations and that’s why we have full investigations but the bottom line is it’s unacceptable, it’s a crime,” he added. “And I can say this about the NYPD … their ability to find people, particularly for the reasons we’ve stated before – more video, more folks in communities willing to come forward. It’s a rare situation where they don’t find the person who did it. And I am confident they will.”

A police spokesman told Streetsblog that non-commissioned officers at the 108th Precinct “will continue to monitor the location.” But the agency did not say it had any leads. Only one person has been known to openly call for violence along the protected bike lanes: A commenter on a Sunnyside Post article who wrote, “Bring on the carpet tacks!”

It is unclear why top city officials decline to define the incident as terrorism, which New York State penal code defines as “activities that involve a violent act or acts dangerous to human life that are in violation of the criminal laws of this state and are intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population.”

The city’s Emergency Management website calls terrorism “an intentional, dangerous act designed to create fear.” And the city tells nightlife establishments that “terrorists seek to commit acts of violence that draw local, national, and international attention to their cause. Terrorists … choose targets that symbolize the ideologies they oppose. Terrorists engage in violent behaviors … to create fear in people they consider enemies.”

Public officials may not use heightened rhetoric, but activists do.

“The all-out fear-mongering campaign waged by those who opposed the redesign was shocking. They promised there would be blood and mayhem,” said Tom DeVito of Transportation Alternatives. “They prophesied burning buildings and emergency responders unable to navigate the new street design. … The hysteria spread via social networks and local media coverage, which led to someone scattering tacks all over the bike lane on 43rd Avenue.”

It’s not the first time cyclists have been targeted, of course. In 2012, someone threw thumb tacks on the roadway in Central Park, injuring lawyer Steve Vaccaro, though that incident appeared to be connected to a general “bikelash” rather than the specific attack on the 43rd Avenue bike lane, which was installed this fall after a heated, year-long battle.

SB Donation NYC header 2

  • Thank you for this.

    So de Blasio and O’Neill say they’re taking this situation “seriously”, even as they refuse to acknowledge it as terrorism. Their comments are far from convincing.

    Taking this matter seriously would require that the mayor and the police commissioner consider how their previous acts have given encouragement to the terrorists. This examination would have to lead to a series of policy reversals, such as a fundamental change in enforcement priorities on the part of the police, and an end to the indulgence that the DOT has been showing to Community Boards in the process of rolling out bike lanes.

    There is no police investigation that could possibly reveal who placed tacks in the bike lane on 43rd Avenue. So O’Neill would need to take a broader approach, aimed at signalling to the sector of society that spawned these terrorists that they have gone too far and that they are now under scrutiny. If he were to announce that the police will henceforth take all steps necessary to protect bike lanes, including towing away those cars that park in the lanes, then we could believe that he really is taking the matter seriously.

    As for the mayor, evidence that he grasps the gravity of the issue would consist of his turning to the Community Boards and saying unequivocally to those aggregations of lunatics and half-wits: “We’re in charge here, not you.”

    Absent such acts, it is clear that the mayor and the police commissioner are merely offering empty platitudes.

  • Past Donor

    I have to say, I find this line of “reporting” quite distasteful. I believe Streetsblog’s recent further lean to tabloid sensationalism hurts the serious agenda, and at times, some hard hitting reporting that the site has been known for. I don’t think I’m alone in this. I’ll be skipping my annual end of year donation as a result.

  • MatthewEH

    fwiw, this serial thumbtack vandal gets my dander up a lot more than this one does:

    https://www.almanacnews.com/news/2015/09/22/threat-to-cyclists-tacks-scattered-on-woodside-roads

    At least 43rd and Skillman are on level roads, with riders generally going somewhere around 15mph or less.

  • benbensons

    Agreed. So, OK, you can find a definition of “terror” that this fits into. It’s not the kind of “terror” that the vast majority of people are talking about when they use that word. It makes StreetsBlog sound batty.

  • You’re not alone in this.

  • Wilfried84

    I agree that calling it “terror” is way overblown, and undercuts Streetsblog’s credibility. Much of the reporting has become increasingly shrill. If The stories make me, someone who supports almost all of Streetsblog’s agenda, roll my eyes, how would it make someone less convinced react? The facts can speak for themselves.

  • AMH

    It feels overblown, but perhaps it’s worthwhile to remind people of the broadest definition of terrorism, rather than sticking to the stereotypes that most often come to mind.

  • Jesse

    Agree. I think it’s enough to state that this is a crime and the person who committed it was recklessly indifferent to the risk of injury that they created. I don’t think it does anyone any favors to elevate it to terrorism. It’s not at all clear to me that the person who did it actually intended to provoke terror in their victims (notwithstanding the fact that some people could get hurt). More like annoyance.

  • Gersh Kuntzman

    Overblown? I respectfully disagree (and I’m not saying “respectfully” to be condescending).

    I think it’s important that victims get to define how they feel about the crime committed against them, not be stuck in a narrative written by the perpetrators. Cyclists are oppressed by drivers in this city — and changing that equation means aggressive advocacy that lets us as a group meet the oppressor’s violence with rage of our own. Public officials love to surround themselves with victims of terror or hate crimes, but won’t do so in this case because they don’t want to alienate drivers.

    I was a huge supporter of ACT-UP back in the day — another group that some said was too shrill.

  • qrt145

    Do you feel terrorized by the thumb tack attack? Does anyone? I am an everyday cyclist so I guess that makes me a potential victim of this crime, but I don’t feel terrorized. Annoyed would be more like it. I would call this a reckless prank, not a terror attack. Reckless because it has the potential to hurt someone, but the probability is very small, and I don’t think hurting someone was the intent of the perpetrator. In all likelihood, this won’t cause anything worse than a few flat tires, which are are an annoyance (and also damaged property, which is a crime), but nothing to feel terrorized about.

    Considering that what are commonly considered “real terrorists” do actually try to kill people, and often succeed at it, don’t be surprised when people laugh at you for calling this an act of terrorism. Taking control of the narrative is one thing (a good example is by emphasizing that crashes are not accidents and that people, not cars are responsible for them), but turning the narrative into a joke is quite another. I say this respectfully, as a longtime Streetsblog reader and occasional donor.

  • If the victims are calling it a terror attack, Gersh, by all means, call it a “terror attack.” In quotation marks. It’s their narrative, not yours. Advocacy journalism stops advocating for anything when it alienates those who could help us bring change.

  • Rider

    Seriously? ACT-UP? You’re comparing an isolated incident of thumbtacks in a bike lane to the HIV epidemic?

  • Gersh Kuntzman

    Understood and agree. But I am not the only person who considers this a terror attack. Many victims and potential victims don’t always come forward publicly, but that doesn’t make their concern and fear less valid.

  • Gersh Kuntzman

    Again, I appreciate what you’re saying, but would only add that I feel outraged and, indeed, terrorized by some of the opponents in Queens, where I ride regularly. Opponents there have lied, created false narratives, manipulated evidence and are now resorting to violence. My job was to put this on the radar screen of the Police Commissioner and, by doing so, may have played a tiny role in having the agency take crimes against cyclists seriously. We all agree that the thumb tack attack is wrong, right?

  • qrt145

    I do agree that the attack is wrong, and you are right that you definitely put it on the radar of the Police Commissioner and the Mayor and for that, I commend you!

  • Joe R.

    While I agree calling it a terror attack is a bit of a stretch (i.e. I think vandalism is good enough), let’s look at this in the context of the stuff those on the other side regularly do. Besides the usual parking apologists, there are people who act like bicycles were spawned from the depths of hell itself. Few topics seem to elicit such vitriol from the side opposed. I remember nonsense like “cyclists have killed untold numbers of people and pets”, “bike lanes don’t belong of streets with schools”, “bike lanes cause congestion”, “bike laws hurt businesses”, and so forth. Then you have the e-bike stuff which took on a life of its own. The irony is a lot of this garbage comes from progressives and liberals who chide the intolerance of Trump supporters. It seems these people only tolerate things and viewpoints they happen to agree with. Anyway, calling thumb tracks in a bike lane a terror attack is small potatoes compared to the massive disinformation campaign the other side has engaged in.

    Sure, two wrongs don’t make a right, but I take a lot the headlines and tone here lately as rightful venting in the face of unmitigated stupidity. At some point enough is enough, and it’s time to let the other side know you’ve had it. I honestly commend Gersh for his restraint, especially when he has to deal with some of these people face to face. I’d be very tempted to land them in an emergency room. I have no patience for adults acting like petulant spoiled children. Sad to say, that’s exactly how many of the loudest voices against us behave. If someone wants to make a reasoned argument against a proposal based on facts and statistics and engineering realities I’m all ears. On the other hand, if they’re going to remain in an emotional, fact-free zone, trying to retain the status quo just because they’re afraid of change, or even start with the hyperbole, well, I’m going to let them have it.

    From my vantage point, livable streets advocates (who are also usually transit advocates) have been patient to a fault. We’re tired of the bullshit from the anti-bike brigade, and we’re even more tired of the bullshit from the MTA. Enough is enough. I sometimes feel like screaming out the window “I’m sick and tired of this and I’m not going to take it anymore.”

  • cjstephens

    And, frankly, ACT-UP may have done more harm than good by associating people with HIV with a radical, hostile and often violent set of protesters. When your tactics make it more difficult for people to feel compassion, it is time to reassess whether the means justify the ends you are trying to achieve.

  • cjstephens

    I disagree with this premise. “I think it’s important that victims get to define how they feel about the crime committed against them, not be stuck in a narrative written by the perpetrators.”? No, not all victims should be defining how they feel about the crime committed against them. If I get jostled on the subway, I don’t get to claim I’ve been the victim of a hate crime, just because that’s how I “feel”. Better example: if a senior citizen is passed on the street by a bike going faster than she is walking, she doesn’t get to say she was “nearly hit by a bike” just because that’s the way she feels when she was never in any danger. And yet you and other Streetsblog writers constantly complain when that narrative gets dragged out at community board meetings, etc.

    And how is describing this as reckless vandalism (and not terrorism) “a narrative written by the perpetrators?” We haven’t heard from the perpetrators, so how do we know what kind of narrative they were trying to present?

  • cjstephens

    Maybe all you wanted to do with your hyperbole was get this “attack” on the radar of the Police Commissioner, but the way you did it means that you’re on his radar as a nut job with a victim complex, not as a grown-up advocate. You only get one chance to make a good first impression, and I think you blew it. For all their faults, the NYPD brass really does deal with honest-to-goodness terrorism. They can tell the difference between that and garden variety reckless endangerment.

  • jcwconsult

    Maliciously trying to hurt or impede a cyclist, pedestrian, or vehicle driver is a criminal act that should be punished.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Reminds me of that whole retarded “Is a hamburger a sandwich?” debate–suddenly everyone thinks they are a linguistics expert. People thinking their own personal definitions or connotations actually matter in a public discussion. Listen, the dictionary is very clear about the word “terrorism”. Just because something doesn’t “feel” like “terrorism” to you, that does mean you have a legitimate argument. “Well, why isn’t a hamburger a sandwich?” “It just… isn’t!”

  • fdtutf

    I lived through that era and saw my friends dropping like flies while most people were disgusted by PWAs. Before ACT UP became active, no compassion was in evidence among the general population.

    ACT UP’s actions helped bring attention to the fact that people were actually dying while a callous federal government and a mostly callous population looked the other way.

  • cjstephens

    Stunts like disrupting mass at St. Patrick’s may have brought attention to ACT-UP, but the wrong kind of attention. No one’s mind got changed, at least not in the way that the protesters may have claimed they wanted. And far more minds got turned off. Their tactics set back their cause rather than advanced it.

    But to bring this back to the topic at hand, the more direct comparison here with ACT UP is not the Streetsblog activists but rather the Thumbtack Vandal: doing something that pisses people off to protest something he doesn’t like. The Thumbtack Vandal hasn’t changed any minds towards his cause, and he has made it more difficult for those in charge to support his distaste for bike lanes.

    Long story short: not all activism is productive. Doing something outrageous does your cause more harm than good. Don’t be like Thumbtack Vandal (and don’t be like Gersh and say that everything you dislike counts as “terrorism”).

  • fdtutf

    You’re full of shit about ACT UP. Regardless of your personal reactions to their protests, they did more to fight AIDS than anyone else except the researchers who were directly involved in finding effective medications to slow the progress of the disease.

    “All activism is productive” is your strawman.

  • cjstephens

    I’m still not clear on what ACT UP actually ever achieved other than alienate people who otherwise might have been inclined to show compassion for people with AIDS. When a group’s tactics are indistinguishable from hooliganism and vandalism, then they aren’t really being effective advocates. Thumbtack Vandal probably thinks he’s being a creative advocate for change, too. Doesn’t make it so.

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