At this stage in my life, and for the rest of my life, I make it my business to obey the laws of my city and state, and of this country, always. That is because I am a community and political leader, and because I feel that we leaders need to be the examples we want to see in our communities. The only time I would ever disobey a law would be in my work as an activist when I am engaging in an act of civil disobedience.
Today, I was merely riding my bicycle in New York City. As a matter of fact, I have never owned a car in my life, don't know if I ever will because of my views as an environmentalist living in the Big Apple, even though I do have a driver's license and I do drive from time to time, outside New York, my adopted home town.
And I am such an avid rider of bicycles (since I was a child), that I obey every single bike law that I know of, including not riding on sidewalks, stopping at traffic lights just as we are supposed to, and I ride in a bike lane around New York, if there is one. Additionally, I am extremely careful and aware of pedestrians, to the point of almost injuring myself on several occasions, as I stopped short time and again so as not to run into someone not paying attention as they crossed a street.
Thus you can imagine my great surprise, then frustration, as I entered the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge today -- as I and thousands upon thousands of bikers have done for years and years -- only to be pulled over by a grim-faced police officer and told to dismount. My violation? "You are not riding in the bike lane, sir." "I'm not?" was my first reaction. Unlike the Brooklyn side of the Brooklyn Bridge, where it is very clear right from the start which side is the bike lane and which side is for pedestrians, the Manhattan side has no signage whatsoever, the markings on the ground are not totally clear on where bikers can or cannot start their trek to Brooklyn, and walkers and bikers routinely maneuver from side to side until we are up by the subway stair entrance on the Brooklyn Bridge where it is conclusively obvious which is the bike lane and which is the pedestrian lane.
To make matters even less humorous, the officer who halted me could not even articulate why he asked me to dismount my bike and to take a seat on a bridge bench. His partner came over, recognized me as "Kevin Powell who ran for Congress last year" because this cop, like me, is a Brooklyn resident, and he appeared visibly uncomfortable about the whole situation. For sure, I did not want any special treatment, just an explanation, as a citizen, for what was happening.
Turns out these cops are out there at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, I was told, for eight hours a day, ticketing random bikers for "bike lane violations." In fact, while I was awaiting my ticket, a couple from the Netherlands was also stopped, as was a gentleman from San Francisco. We were equally baffled together. Why, we wondered amongst ourselves, and to the officers, not simply tell bikers to no longer come this way? Why not just give folks a one-time warning? Why not put up clearly visible signs?
Well, the Brooklyn cop whispered to me "I am not saying it's quotas, but we do have to write a certain amount of summons each day." That sounds like quotas to me. And when I looked at the back of my ticket, there was not even a category for bicycles. So the officer who stopped me said my offense fell under "Most other vehicles." That fine amount would be $130, for riding a bike in a lane I did not know was the wrong lane until this afternoon.
The absurdity of all of this, of course, is that in a city that just witnessed nearly 50 shootings Labor Day weekend, including a few murders, we are wasting police officers' time and energy on monitoring bridge-crossing bikers. And this, also, is on the heels of the larger-than-life security measures around the 9/11 remembrances this past weekend. Are we bikers suddenly as big a threat to the security of New York as the terrorists?
I am fairly positive that as we all were being detained those very minutes a crime was happening somewhere in New York where these cops could have been put to better use. But this is what happens when you have a mayor of a city who not only bought his way into public office, but also bought himself an extra term, just because he and his bottomless wealth could. So if he feels that people who ride bicycles pose as great a threat to our fair city as actual criminals, then we will continue to get scenarios like what happened today.
And if that cop was definitely telling the truth about a particular amount of summons they must give out each day (why would he lie?), to bikers like me, it also says that here we are again asking regular working people of New York to pay for the fiscal mess that we did not create, with these insensitive and utterly disrespectful fines, like we are children.
Well, I am not a child, I am pleading not guilty to the fine, and certainly will fight it, even if it means the inconvenience of court for a day or two.
And you should too, if it happens to you.
Kevin Powell is an activist and public speaker based in Brooklyn, New York. A nationally acclaimed writer, Kevin is also the author or editor of 10 books. His 11th, Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, and The Ghost of Dr. King: And Other Blogs and Essays, will be published January 2012. Email him at kevin_powell, or follow him on Twitter @kevin_powell