Shortly after the 8 p.m. curfew on June 3, journalist Armin Rosen was following a protest that was making its way through Downtown Brooklyn. The NYPD had rushed the crowd a few times and made some arrests, but the demonstrators had continued peacefully until they got to Borough Hall. That was when the rain came. “It went from nothing to a monsoon in like 30 seconds,” Rosen recalled. “It was just total confusion. There were people flipping and running into each other.”
He wheeled his bike to the sidewalk and leaned it against a metal box to take notes. He turned his back to the crowd, opened up his backpack, and took out his notebook. Without warning, something hard hit his shoulder. “A really heavy blow, but well-placed.” He collapsed. The next thing he knew, there were a number of cops restraining him while one was looking through his backpack. When he told them he was a journalist, the officer threw the bag at him and said, “Take your shit and get the fuck out of here, pussy,” Rosen recounted. Rosen asked if he could get his bike. “No,” the cop said, “it’s not your bike anymore.” He asked another policeman if there was a number he could call to get it back. His response: “Don’t fucking talk to me.” Rosen walked away, shaken, heartbroken, and drenched.
NYPD officers have been seizing and attempting to seize the bikes of protesters all over the city, without arresting the protesters themselves. Isabelle, who attended another march that same night at 50th Street and 3rd Avenue (and wanted to keep her last name private fearing police surveillance), says she witnessed officers running up to protesters and grabbing their bikes without arresting them. She began filming, asking police how those without bikes were supposed to get home. “Figure it out on your own,” one responded. “You have to take the bus.”
The officers placed a number of bikes in a van. Isabelle saw one man approach officers standing outside the van and ask for his bike back. Then, she says, they arrested him and put him in the van, too.
According to some demonstrators, officers themselves seemed confused about whether they should be seizing bikes. Another cyclist at the protest that night, who wanted to remain anonymous, said he’d been walking away from the protest when an officer grabbed hold of his bike. This started a “tug-of-war” that only ended when a white-shirted police commander told the officer to let go. “What are you doing?” he recalls the commander telling the officer. “Only those we’re arresting!”
It is within the NYPD’s authority to seize property of someone they have arrested if they believe it is evidence or could be used to commit future crimes. Seizing the property of someone who has merely been questioned, if it isn’t contraband or evidence of a crime, is not.
The NYPD has in recent years come under criticism and faced lawsuits for seizing property during arrests and then making it difficult or impossible for the original owners to retrieve it, even in cases of wrongful arrest. In 2012, police arrested a man in his Bronx apartment without a warrant and confiscated $4,800 in cash. When his case was dropped a year later, he found that the money had already been deposited in the police pension fund.
When it comes to repossessing bicycles, the NYPD has a checkered history. In 2004, the police began cracking down on monthly Critical Mass bike rides, where large groups of bikers effectively take over the streets for a night. In an attempt to stop one ride in September of that year, the NYPD systematically sawed through locks securing bicycles to parking meters and lampposts. Bikers later sued the city, and a federal judge ruled that the police could not seize bicycles if the owners had not been given charges. Despite this, the police continued to seize bicycles during later rides.
Pulled two bikes off the street at Nostrand and Montgomery after arrests! A white Bianchi and a blue Panasonic. Please amplify to help find the owners! #blm #BlackLivesMatter #brooklyn #brooklynprotest #brooklynprotests pic.twitter.com/vgyE6tjsMO— Alexandra Gekas (@zenwitchcraft) June 6, 2020
Bedford + Bowery asked the NYPD if they had specifically targeted bicycles for seizure at protests, but they did not respond. One protester, who wanted to stay anonymous, claimed that conversations she heard over the police scanner have “so focused on people with bikes.” Many of those whose bikes had been taken speculated that police intended to thin protests by impeding potential protesters from reaching them. At many protests, a column of bikers stays at the front to block traffic from cutting off or hitting marchers, and others proposed that police may have wanted to take bikes to make this tactic less effective.
The loss of a bicycle, which can cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars, can be devastating. After Rosen’s bike was taken, he walked home in shock. The bike “had been enough of a part of my identity that I’d had nightmares about it getting stolen before,” he said.
But some need bicycles just to get around. One protester, who also wanted anonymity out of surveillance fears, has a disability which limits her mobility. Her bike allowed her to move throughout the city safely, until it was taken by police at a protest.
The NYPD is supposed to impound property they seize during arrests. But in the case of bicycles, according to many protesters, the police have not always been following protocol. For Rosen and many others, this has turned in their favor. Later in the night that Rosen’s bicycle was taken, his friend, photojournalist Ben Feibleman, was walking around Brooklyn to document the aftermath of the protests. He saw on Twitter that the police had seized Rosen’s bike, so he went to Borough Hall to see if he could find out where they had taken it.
At the intersection where Rosen had been tackled, Feibleman noticed something poking out of the bushes. It was Rosen’s bike, complete with the distinctive breaks Feibleman had noticed just a few days before. “I was like, ‘Well, I’ll be goddamned! The same shitty breaks!'”
As he rode away on the bike, Feibleman noticed a number of bicycles nearby that had been propped up against a railing, without locks. He presumed these had also been taken by police and left in the street after they broke up the crowds. He took a photo and posted it on Twitter, to help protesters reunite with their lost bikes.
His photo was one of many that have appeared on social media of bikes left in the streets after protests, suggesting that the NYPD has been repeatedly neglecting to impound property that it has confiscated.
Calling #BlackLivesMatter #BikeNYC, my mom @mochbklyn found 4 bikes this AM in Cadman Park (@ Montague) left by fleeing protestors (or confiscated by cops/abandoned). If you lost a bike last night/can describe it, please let us know. Tagging folks who posted last night. #BLM pic.twitter.com/Rfe3UlsaOq— Hannah (@hannahemoch) June 4, 2020
In response, protesters have started crowdsourced attempts to reunite cyclists with their lost bikes. After he posted about losing his bike on Twitter, Rosen said he received many private messages from people who had found bikes on the street, asking if they were his.
After her bike was taken, the protester with the disability organized a bike registry system. Users can send in pictures of their bikes,along with a number that they attach to their bike. The protester intends to create a network that will facilitate getting bicycles back to their owners during these protests and in the future.
Still, the confusion over why police are taking bikes and when they choose to do so continues. The night after Rosen had temporarily lost his bike, he went out with Feibleman to another protest in Crown Heights. At one point, they saw a man with a bike getting arrested. He seemed to recognize Rosen and asked them to take his bike and his phone number, so he could get it back once out of jail.
Feibleman put his hand on the bike, telling an officer standing next to it that he would be taking it for the arrested man. The officer responded, “If you do that, you’re going too.” They decided to leave the bike.