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‘It’s Not Your Bike Anymore’: Police Swipe Bikes at Black Lives Matter March

Three bikes awaiting their owners next to Borough Hall, after police cleared out Cadman Plaza. Photo: Ben Feibleman

Cops aggressively swiped protestors’ and reporters’ bikes during a peaceful protest Wednesday night in Brooklyn — a misuse of power by law enforcement that’s historically been used to stop people from exercising their right to protest, according a civil rights attorney and victims of the harassment.

"The cops seemed to see the bikes as an obstacle to what they were doing," said Armin Rosen, a reporter with Tablet, who had his bike taken by police even though he wasn't arrested. "They really wanted to get bikes off the street for whatever reason."

Hundreds of New Yorkers showed up in Downtown Brooklyn for the seventh night of protests and rallies throughout the city, in response to the killing of a black man named George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25.

Protestors told Streetsblog that things were tense, but peaceful, when all of a sudden for reasons unknown, armed officers — including some in riot gear — started rushing the crowd, tossing people’s bikes to the side and fully seizing others’.

“Police started to push us back, backing up, they had batons they kind of held them out and pushed them out in front of them. And then a white-shirt basically came and rushed towards me and grabbed my bike — and tossed it behind the line of police,” said Nick Legowski, who was in the crowd of protestors outside Cadman Plaza at about 9 p.m., one hour after the citywide curfew went into effect.

[Editor's note: A "white shirt" is common description for an NYPD precinct commander, who do, indeed, wear white uniform tops.]

Another protester at Cadman Plaza said he lost his bike while officers were marching the crowd backwards in an attempt to push them out of Cadman Plaza and that it was impossible to go back for it.

"There was a lot of aggression from the police, and a lot of fear and disbelief from the protesters," said Brad Cohn, who joined the rally at Barclays Center and marched to the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Cohn said his bike was knocked out his hands while he was being pushed back, and he was unable to maneuver it between the crowd, the police and a telephone pole.

"Police were pushing in, and my bike was ripped out of my hands. I couldn't comply with their orders and keep my bike at the same time," he said, adding that police "brutalized" any protester who was separated from the crowd.

Rosen said that he was standing off to the side of the crowd in Cadman Plaza with his back turned to the police, moving items from his pockets into a bag to keep them dry during Wednesday night's brief rain. Police then clubbed him in the shoulder, and the butt after he had fallen to the ground, and told him to go home. But that was made more difficult, Rosen said, because the police took his bike.

"I tried to explain as calmly as I could that I was a journalist who takes notes on paper and I was putting my notebook in my bag, but when I stood up, I got shoved a little bit more and told to leave," said Rosen. "I asked if I could have my bike back and one of the officers said, 'It's not your bike anymore' and called me a pussy."

Rosen said a white shirt was also no help when he asked for a phone number after police took his bike without telling him what would happen to it or where he could retrieve it. Ultimately, he said that the situation seemed too chaotic and dangerous to do something, like try to get a badge or precinct number from the police.

"These cops seemed really pissed. I'd already seen what they were willing to do, and they were pursing people down Fulton Street for no reason, so it felt actively dangerous to hang around and try to get more information like a badge number," he said.

Police cannot just take someone’s property if a person has not committed a crime or is suspected of committing a crime. It also defies NYPD policy to not provide paperwork for when and where suspects can retrieve their seized property at a later date, said Gideon Oliver, a New York City-based civil rights attorney.

Oliver added that the unjustified seizures are simply a means of asserting power by denying people their freedom of movement.

“It’s illegal. It’s as lawless as it looks. There’s no justification for cops taking property like that,” said Oliver. “I don’t think cops went around and stole people’s cars. They do it to bikes because they can."

Rosen eventually said he got his bike back, after another journalist found it early Thursday morning. A video by reporter Liam Quigley showed bikes left in the rain as the NYPD cleared out Cadman Plaza by arresting marchers.

Several of those bikes were still there as of Thursday morning, and people who found them are searching for their owners.

Videos of other marches from this week show cyclists leading the pack and acting as shields for marchers who were on their feet. Streetsblog also witnessed this tactic during a march that went into late Monday and early morning hours Tuesday.

In another video shared online by the New York City chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, a young woman starts yelling at an officer who had just snatched a bike from a protester and told her find another way home.

“What are you doing? What are you fucking doing? Why are you taking their bikes? How the fuck is anybody gonna get home?” a woman can be heard yelling in the video.

“Figure it (out) on your own. You have to ride the bus,” the cop responds.

And yet another protestor said the same thing happened to her and her friend last Friday near the 88th Precinct. 

The witness, who asked to be identified only as A, told Streetsblog that a cop tried to grab her friend’s bicycle who was just standing in the street at the time, and when she tried to intervene, got whacked in the leg with another officer's baton. 

“He tried to lift up her bike with both hands and a female officer moved in as well with club raised. My friend was tugging on her bike trying to hold onto it. I ran over and forced myself in between them, hugging her as a shield and kicked away the female cop’s club. Then got got clubbed in the knee,” said A. 

Oliver said what happened has historical significance dating back to Critical Mass rides, when cops similarly blocked protestors on bikes on 36th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, and made several arrests. Some cyclists locked up their bikes to street fixtures and fled on foot but cops came in with chainsaws and stole them anyway.

“The NYPD did not like that, so they brought in chainsaws, cut the locks, and stole them,” said Oliver. “Historically the reason they've done it is to punish protestors.” (Cops also used their own bikes as weapons against protesters in Soho last week.)

In addition to Critical Mass, police have used this same method of aggressive and unlawful enforcement before, especially when it pertains to policing people of color. Last April, dozens of armed officers swarmed Tompkins Square Park to confiscate bikes from young adults of color, who were then handed tickets for not having bells — harassment that the then-NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill admitted was used solely to stop what he believed would be an unruly bike ride.

City Hall did not respond to a request for comment and a spokeswoman for the NYPD said the incidents are "under internal review."

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