Cyclists in New York Lead Protests Against ICE Detention Center
EVERY THIRD THURSDAY OF THE MONTH, CYCLISTS GATHER AND RIDE LAPS AROUND THE LOWER MANHATTAN FACILITY, BLOCKING ITS VEHICLES AND SHOWING SOLIDARITY WITH THE IMMIGRANTS DETAINED INSIDE
A clarinetist played a jaunty version of “America” from West Side Story as he rode in the back of a pedicab. Meanwhile, dozens of cyclists circled a New York City block, riding slowly and chanting slogans. Was this Critical Mass? Some kind of leisurely, extremely local bike race?
In fact, it was a many individuals taking part in radical protest on their own two wheels. The cyclists were part of Bikes Against Deportation, a monthly protest against Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the federal agency whose hardline policies under President Donald Trump have attracted fierce criticism and protests across the country.
Every third Thursday for the past four months, groups of several dozen cyclists have gathered in front of the Varick Street Processing Center in Lower Manhattan. Each time, they stage a mass ride around and the block and blockade the driveway of the facility, where ICE holds immigrants arrested in the city before transferring them to jails in New York or New Jersey.
In the words of one organizer, the rides “send a signal to immigrants that New Yorkers will care about them and love them and fight for them.”
With the country focused on scenes coming out of the southern border in the wake of the Trump administration’s since-reversed family separation policy, the rides also give New Yorkers a way to voice support for immigrants and refugees and critique immigration enforcement going on in their own backyard.
Bikes Against Deportation is the work of Reverend Billy Talen and the Stop Shopping Choir, a group that combines performance art with anti-consumerist and leftist protest. One organizer, Savitri Durkee, said she originally conceived of the ride as a way for “having an eye on the street—a band of bicycles keeping an eye on things” as ICE became more aggressive in picking up immigrants around the city.
For Durkee, who is married to Talen and plans actions with him, the fight for immigrant rights dovetails naturally with cycling. She’s found that modern urban riding is still connected to its radical roots, which has included high-profile demonstrations like mass rides against a 1987 Midtown bike ban and high-arrest Critical Mass events.
Furthermore, city policy has put the New York immigrant cycling community at particular risk—a result of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s crackdown on e-bikes, which many critics say disproportionately affects low-income delivery riders, many of them recent immigrants from Asia and Latin America. Even as the administration has softened its stance by allowing pedal-assist e-bikes, the throttle bikes that so many delivery people still use remain illegal under city law, putting riders at risk of arrest and deportation.
Then there’s the simple fact that for many immigrants, cycling is the primary way they move around the city. “When you come to New York and you can’t get a driver’s license and you have very little money, and even a MetroCard can be an obstacle to going to work, what’s a great way to get to your job?” Durkee asked. “A bike.”
But the use of bikes goes beyond symbolism. When it comes to protest, they help make the presence bigger (“kind of a like a cowboy on a horse,” Durkee said). Besides instilling confidence in the rider, bikes also provide some surprising legal protections. While pedestrians can’t block the sidewalk or traffic, cyclists are technically allowed to ride in the street next to ICE vans, which gives them some leeway to maneuver in ways that protesters on foot cannot.
“Your status in the roadway as a cyclist for purposes of traffic law analysis is different than as a pedestrian, for sure,” said Steve Vaccaro, an attorney who represented Critical Mass participants after the city cracked down on rides that took place after the 2004 Republican National Convention. But, he cautioned, riders still don’t have carte blanche to use the streets however they like.
After the 2004 protest rides, the NYPD established that 50 or more people who want to organize a ride on city roadways need a permit, subject to police approval. Even with fewer than 50 riders, Vaccaro said, the NYPD can still “selectively and aggressively ticket [protesters] for every little traffic violation they can find,” down to something as small as having a bike light attached to a bag or helmet, instead of the bike frame as mandated by city law.
But no major incidents have befallen Bikes Against Deportation so far. Between 30 and 40 cyclists attended the most recent protest last Thursday, while a healthy contingent of additional protesters came on foot. The police presence was minimal, with a handful of uniformed officers and detectives in suits who largely asked the crowd to leave room for through traffic coming down Houston Street. Otherwise the approach was hands-off—a notable departure from an ICE protest in January, when the NYPD faced bad publicity after it forcefully arrested two members of the City Council.
The crowd at Thursday’s rally was a mix of previous attendees and newcomers, riding everything from pedicabs to Citi Bikes to well-worn road bikes. Those without wheels gathered in front of the building’s driveway while the cyclists rode slow laps around the block, chanting “abolish ICE” and “shut it down.” In the driveway, the crowd memorialized Roxsana Hernández, a Honduran trans woman who died from complications related to HIV after spending five days in ICE custody following an attempt to seek asylum in America.
“This building is almost camouflaged,” Jess Beck, an activist doing her third ride with the group, said while gesturing to the anonymous brown-brick federal building. “So we want to bring some visibility to what’s happening here and to the fact that family separation isn’t just happening at the border, it’s also happening every single day in this city.”
Another activist, who only identified himself as Mint, said he hoped the ride “shows the immigrant community we’re here to stand with them, especially the delivery cyclists who seem to get hit hard.” He connected the day’s protest to recent news that shook the city: the arrest of deliveryman Pablo Villavicencio, an undocumented Ecuadorian immigrant who was picked up after he delivered pizza to a Brooklyn military base and soldiers there called ICE.
Unlike during prior demonstrations, ICE didn’t attempt to take vans in or out through the garage on Thursday. Talen chalked this up to the agency getting wise to the protesters’ tactics (although one DHS officer recording the protests didn’t mind telling a reporter family separation was a lie). However, while the larger protest petered out around 6:30 p.m., a handful of activists remained on the scene as the beginning of a larger occupation in front of the building.
“If you were in that van,” one of the remaining protesters said, “and some people sitting in front of that door were the only thing standing in the way of you being indefinitely held, what would you want?”