Protesters Spun Their Wheels.

Protesting the Republican National Convention. (Photo credit: Thomas Dworzak/Magnum)

On the Friday after Thanksgiving, a police helicopter hovered high above Union Square, while squad cars and vans assembled on the streets below. Dozens of NYPD officers gathered on street corners; some even unloaded large rolls of the orange rubber netting first used this year for mass arrests. At the square’s northern end, framed by the Starbucks, McDonald’s, and Barnes & Noble, loomed the threat: bikers.

No, not Hells Angels (though the police did seem to be preparing for Altamont). More than a hundred goofy-looking bicyclists, bundled against the cold, wheeled around aimlessly: middle-aged men on fancy Peugeot twelve-speeds; college girls on mountain bikes; hipsters on vintage Schwinns; even tough guys on modified, low-riding choppers. They—and the beefy plainclothes officers teetering conspicuously in their midst—were there for the monthly protest-and-party-on-wheels called Critical Mass. For ten years, the environmentalist ride has coalesced on the last Friday of every month and roamed the city. On this night, confused but determined cyclists waited to see if the police would arrest them, while activists moved through the crowd, handing out postcards: a foldout “Green Guide to Lower Manhattan”; notice of a “¡Fiesta! to save Community Gardens in the SOUTH BRONX!,” even an invite to a “Sex Workers’ benefit show.”

Meanwhile, two friends in baggy sweatshirts—who insisted their names were Serge and Jean-Paul—waited for the ride to begin, while officers used a van’s radio to test the speakers with which they’d bark out their commands to disperse. Suddenly, booming over this green protest, was a radio ad for “the new Mitsubishi Galant!

“Oh, man—they’ve gotta be messin’ with us,” Serge howled, tightening the grip on his handlebars. “Mitsubishi!?

This year has been a wild and ultimately depressing ride for New York’s activist left—from the war in Iraq to the Republican convention and Bush’s reelection. The year began with rage over the war—and the hope that a modern grassroots move-ment would overwhelm Bush. broke online fund-raising records; Al Franken anchored Air America; Fahrenheit 9/11 stormed the box office; and thousands of the city’s activists hatched plans to protest the Republican convention. St. Mark’s Church filled with anarchists; dot-com dropouts launched savvy Websites; direct-action advocates debated the best use of disruptive tactics; famous artists organized festivals and readings; theater troupes announced absurd shows; hip Brooklyn activists booked plane tickets for unhip swing states they’d never set foot in. Binding all this together was the sense that protest might matter again—that it might even help elect Not Bush. That lasted till November 3.

“Bush’s reelection is doubly awful here, because so many people were working very, very hard,” says Bill Dobbs, of United for Peace and Justice, which organized the 400,000-person march on August 29. “It makes the results harder to bear.”

In the weeks following the election, many loudmouthed idealists went mute. Organizers took vacations, spent time with their families; there was idle talk of Canadian real estate. Others began the hand-wringing—a much-forwarded e-mail snipes, “Who Needs Ends When We’ve Got Such Bitchin’ Means?” Some are slowly moving on: UFPJ has planned its next rally, an anti-nuke gathering, for May 1 in Central Park. Mostly, though, activists are settling down.

Through it all, Critical Mass has kept pedaling. The rides, which originated in San Francisco and have since spread around the world, began here ten years ago as a modest protest against traffic and pollution. But in 2004, Critical Mass grew to be much more than that. As numbers swelled from dozens to as many as 5,000, Critical Mass became a kind of repository for what remains of the activists’ battered optimism—and a regular forum for the cops to practice their new and improved anti-protester tactics. Plus, of course, it’s a great party.

“What else are you going to do?” asked an activist named Ludmilla. “Stay home?”

Or, as Serge put it, “I just like to come out and, you know, get punk rock.”

Protesters Spun Their Wheels.