There are two ways to read the NYPD's decision to put
"Courtesy, Professionalism, Respect" on the side of their
vehicles. They're either wholly out of touch or - which I
prefer - have a brilliant satirist in their image department
Sunday, 25 May 2014
An angry off-duty policeman, a rainy night - and why the suburbs are coming for your bike lane
It was 8.30pm on Friday and I was battling my way home from Greenpoint, at Brooklyn’s northern tip, through a thunderstorm of the kind that reminds one New York’s weather arrives partly from the tropics. I’d just got south of the
on Williamsburg Bridge Kent Avenue when, looking ahead, I could
see there was a car parked blocking most of the bike lane.
I naively assumed for a moment that perhaps the driver had made a mistake. Perhaps, despite the clear markings, in the torrential rain the driver just hadn’t spotted the bike lane.
Instead, I was about to discover an almost beautifully distilled summary of what remains wrong with attitudes to cycling and road law enforcement in
New York City.
Some of those attitudes are peculiar to this big, crazy malfunction of a
metropolis, while others are frustratingly widespread across the industrialised
world. Cyclists, according to this attitude, are an odd, fringe group whose
concerns needn’t be taken seriously.
But that’s putting the cart of theorising before the horse of anecdotal evidence.
The car stood out because it was so obviously in the wrong place. The parking spaces along
Avenue are all in the road, while a two-way bike
lane runs along the kerb. The car’s headlights were glaring back at me, through
the rain, more or less right in my path. Every other car for blocks was neatly
parked outside the bike lane. As I approached, I expressed my irritation by
waving to the motorist to move. It was a waste of effort. Even so, I might have
said nothing if the motorist had not, as I rode slowly past in the remaining
portion of the southbound bike lane, rolled down his window and said something,
which I didn’t catch, but sounded abusive.
The insolence of the gesture switched me into “Invisible Visible Avenger” mode. I rapped sharply on the now-closed window and told the driver, “Shift! You’re in the bike lane.”
When the window rolled down again, the face looking back at me was a man, probably in his thirties, solidly built and wearing a baseball cap. He looked unimpressed with being asked to move.
“I’ll park wherever I want,” he replied.
“It’s illegal,” I said. “You’re blocking the bike lane.”
His reply alone would make a fascinating blogpost on its own – and certainly a fascinating contribution to Sarah Goodyear’s recent piece for the Atlantic Cities about cycling and masculinity.
“I’m picking up my baby,” he said. There was a child in a car seat in the back.
“What’s more important – my baby or your faggot-assed bike?”
The weight of his cultural assumptions was suddenly crashing and swirling around inside my head as frantically as the rain was lashing down outside it. There was the tone of injured innocence, so typical of a certain kind of self-righteous motorist. “I’m trying to go about my life the way normal, respectable people do,” he seemed to be telling me. “Yet here you, cyclist, are trying to intrude and ruin it.”
The assumptions behind the “faggot-assed bike” comment are even more breathtaking. He was driving a Dodge Avenger – a mid-size sedan with a more powerful than normal engine and an aggressive look. The car was an embodiment of his assumption that real men drive fast, aggressive cars. I, in my human-powered earnestness, represented weakness so transgressive as not to be fully male. My behaviour was so strange that even my bicycle suddenly assumed a sexual orientation.
And, of course, his attitude was turning this into a battle of wills, which I wasn’t prepared to lose.
“What’s important is that you’re blocking the bike lane,” I told him. “Look. I can call the police if you like.”
It was a bluff, based on my knowledge that no NYPD officer would deal with a call about a driver's obstructing a bike lane, particularly in a thunderstorm. But it opened up a whole new front in the battle.
“Call the police if you like,” he said, grabbing a sheaf of papers from his dashboard and shoving them towards me. They bore the logo of the New York Police Department and looked like some internal police directory. “This is the police right here.”
It would be reasonable to ask at this point why I believed him to be a police officer. Suffice it to say that I had a run-in once in
London with someone who
claimed to be a Metropolitan Police community support officer. His claim never
rang true and, sure enough, when I complained to the police they said he was
nothing to do with them.
The arrogance, self-confidence and sense of entitlement of the Angry Avenger Driver of Kent Avenue struck me as far more convincing.
It would be still more sensible to ask why, faced with a homophobic, cyclist-hating police officer who thinks his role entitles him to break the law, I didn’t cut my losses and leave. That, I imagine, is how a more balanced, contented person might have behaved.
Yet by now the Invisible Visible Avenger was in sole charge.
“What’s your badge number?” I asked.
“You got room to pass, don’t you?” he asked. “I ain’t stoppin’ you.”
“Are you a police officer?”
“Yes, I am. You shouldn’t be riding in the rain.”
“Tell me your badge number.”
“Stop ridin’ in the rain.”
“What’s your badge number?”
“I don’t have to tell you shit.”
It was the last I heard from him. Silently, recognising reason wouldn’t work, I strode over to a nearby wall, leaned my bike against it and started to get my camera out of my pannier bag. Recognising, I suppose, that his bosses might take a dim view of discovering his views on a whole range of matters, the officer made off into the dark, rainy night. My sole sliver of victory was that I’d got him out of the bike lane. I felt far less fearful than after some previous confrontations with recalcitrant motorists.
But, as I headed on homeward, water squelching in my waterlogged shoes, I felt depressed. The previous morning, I’d been delighted as I rode to work to see a police officer ticketing a driver parked in the bike lane on Jay St in downtown Brooklyn and had shouted my thanks to him. The Kent Avenue encounter made me think that other reports I heard last week – of the police ticketing cyclists for relatively harmless breaches of Prospect Park’s one-way rules, for example – were more representative of current police attitudes.
The officer’s self-righteousness bothered me most. The comment about how I shouldn’t be riding in the rain suggested a strong underlying assumption that cycling was a trivial, leisure activity while driving a car was the serious act of a responsible person. Illegal driving consequently trumped perfectly legal cycling.
My mind went back to when two City of
police officers stopped me in London,
accusing me of cycling dangerously by squeezing past their vehicle. They and
other motorists had been illegally blocking an intersection where I had the
light. In both that and Friday’s incident, there was the sense that the police
officers, in their car, were implicitly the responsible grown-ups.
The officer’s arrogant assertion of his right to park wherever he liked spoke to something similar to the previous day’s ticket blitz in
. The traffic rules for some police
officers seem unimportant on their own terms – as a means to prevent people’s
being harmed – but a series of traps, like the Russian tax code. They’re there to
use as a stick to beat whatever group one wants to beat today or to fill up an
unfilled quota of tickets. Prospect Park
The proliferation on New York City cars of stickers showing the driver’s allegiance to this or that police benevolent association – lucky charms to ward off the evil eye of an arbitrary traffic stop – suggests others share my perception of police attitudes.
Not that, for me, the consequences were ultimately important. As a middle-aged white professional, I’m self-evidently a poor target for a harassment arrest. Had I been a younger black or Hispanic man, I would probably have made off the moment I realised I was dealing with the police.
Blacks, Hispanics, gays and many other minority groups face far worse than cyclists generally do at the hands of the NYPD. I’m certainly in a far better position than the 28-year-old mentally ill man who used to live round the corner from me. After he stabbed – but only lightly wounded – his uncle, the police pumped seven bullets into him, killing him.
Yet I don’t think it’s a stretch to see in the dismissive attitude of police in
London and New York to cyclists’ complaints a symptom
of the disconnect between police and policed. In both cities, officers live in
outlying, suburban areas where car use is a symbol of a certain kind of
conventional respectability. It’s not hard to imagine such officers are
fundamentally at odds with much of the reality of the urban life they’re policing, from casual, harmless use of illegal drugs to rising levels of
Both cities’ residents have fought long battles with their police forces – over their racism, their homophobia, their sense they’re above the law. Yawning gaps persist between police and public attitudes. This year in
started with bold declarations about eradicating road deaths. I arrived home on
Friday discouraged, feeling that some of the police who should be helping towards that goal are part of the problem rather than the solution.