Monday, July 25, 2011

Skin Ride 2011

The World Naked Bike Ride was scheduled to take place in June. But torrential showers got in the way. So we rescheduled. Over time, we stared to wonder if we could pull the energy back into this experiment in freedom. After all, it is no small thing to pull together a clothing option event in the light of day in the town which made Anthony Comstock and his obscenity laws famous. But this is the naked city, so we were going to give it a shot.

The plan was simple. We were going to meet on Sunday, July 24th at the East River Park, off Delancy Street, NYC. The meeting time was 4 PM, with the ride scheduled to start at 5 PM. That Sunday was also the first day of gay marriages in New York State. So, it was already a day heady day and time for celebrating freedom. Much of the ride is about self determination of bodies and minds, and a rejection of body shame. A "bare-as-you-dare" bike ride to raise awareness around the dangers posed to the world and human bodies by nuclear energy, automobile and oil dependence – noted the organizers. But as one of the women put it in one of the World Naked Bike Ride promos, it is both a little creepy and fun when a bunch of guys show up naked for a bike ride. And show up five hundred men and would.

Press materials declared:

More Nudes, No Nukes!!!”

“More Ass, Less Gas!!”

Love Your Body, Ride Your Bike!”

These are just some of the chants you'll hear as New York City joins cyclists in cities around the globe for the 8th year of the World Naked Bike Ride, 2011. A fun and liberating protest against indecent exposure to toxic pollution, nuclear disaster, reckless driving, and police harassment of bicyclists, WNBR NYC (World Naked Bike Ride New York City) celebrates alternatives to automobile & oil dependence for its a third year rolling.

How: Volunteers and participants collaborate to create the event, including body painting prior to ride. Final route will be communicated to riders who show up only…people in cities across the Northern Hemisphere will gather to ride bikes and expose their bodies, many painted with messages raising awareness of the indecent exposure to toxic pollution and reckless driving.

The ongoing nuclear disaster in Fukishima, Japan, and the looming danger of Indian Point nuclear plant in New York are inspiring many to participate in NYC's 3rd year of WNBR, as the date coincides with a worldwide day of action against nuclear power. The dangers vulnerable street users face in local traffic is also a focus, as cyclists find themselves the target of media scape-goating and an NYPD crackdown in recent months, though motor vehicles are taking lives weekly on the city streets.

WNBR promotes positive body-image and freedom from shame, and promises to be diverse gathering: bicyclists, artists, safer-streets advocates, performers, renewable-energy activists, LGBTQ, nudists, civil-rights supporters, and other ordinary New Yorkers.

Nudity is not requisite; riders are encouraged to come "as bare as you dare," dressing for comfort and fun while mindful of relevant local laws and enforcement practices. Both women and men are free to go topless in NYC. All forms of human-powered transportation are welcome. Participants will engage in body painting, bicycle decoration, modeling, music and poetry to create a carnival atmosphere prior to the ride at the starting location in East River Park in Manhattan. A fun route will be communicated to participants the day of the ride, which will proceed at a brisk pace through the boroughs of New York City with the aim of maximizing exposure to signs and slogans painted upon participants' bodies.

"That was the most liberating experience ever.... meeting so many cool people, painting and riding the bike with [WNBR] was just amazing... I wish I was in New York to be part of this again...Have a lot of fun and make sure to enlighten many people of the damage being done to our planet." gushed WNBR NYC 2010 participant and volunteer Alexandra Cifuentes.

"Riding a bike could be a practical action to be independent and being free from the contemporary life that is highly dependent on [nuclear] energy," says video artist Yukimi Otagiri of Queens. Inspired to take action by the situation in Japan, the newcomer sees WNBR as part of a crucial choice: "It gives us a power to choose our own energy, and asks us if we could choose energies that have smell of death...Being naked on the street is the response of the oppression from the power."


Riding through Lower Manhattan to the ride, I saw a group of police cars lined up along the East River Park. Immediately, I knew this ride would not be like last year, when we met on a sunny afternoon on Greenpoint, with hundreds of bikers and sunny skies. As with June 11th, there had been a 40% chance of rain before the ride. With rain pouring an hour north of the city and clouds looming, the gods seemed to be telling us not to do the ride. But the rain never came.

Walking through the crowd, a small group of musicians played, and body painters d├ęcorated the parts of the bodies people were willing to show. Declarations, such as “Coal is not cool” found their way across semi-clad bodies.

Still, the police presence inhibited the vibe. Some 25 police were assigned to the ride.They But people were still in a good mood. By 5 PM we converged along the water with the Manhattan Bridge in the backdrop. A few unfurled our banners declaring: "Shut Down Indian Point Now!" and "World Naked Bike Ride." Others pontificated about the importance of freedom for everyone, including those same sex couples getting married, contending with the phalanx of protests and counter protests, opposing and supporting the new practice.

And we started to ride South along the water before moving Westward, with the police scooters on our trail. A few ran some lights. "These are the police who come to Critical Mass" one friend noted as we rode, observing the police cork for the ride. "They make you feel comfortable and then they arrest." The police had communicated to a few of the riders that as long as we obeyed the laws, we would be fine. But the gap between the reality of riding in the streets of the city and the traffic laws is anything but simple to the traverse.

Not quite a naked ride, many worried they would face the wrath of the police if they stripped bare. So the men wore shorts and briefs, the women bathing suits, many legally topless. It was more of a skin ride, which made for a fabulous moving spectacle through the streets.

For a while there, no one was arrested. We zoomed through South Manhattan, up through Chinatown and the Lower East Side to First Ave, chatting, dancing, performing karaoke with the sound bike, and chanting "More Ass, Less Gas!" to roars from onlookers.

Around 18th Street, the police started pushing us into the fight lane on 1st Ave. Most of us were doing our best to forget the police were along for the ride. And we moved right. When a younger rider, tried to zoom outside the police line, one of the cops pushed his scooter into the way; his bike crashed, and rider hurled onto the street. This younger activist had had a verbal altercation going on with the police for several blocks. Several of us started screaming "Shame, Shame, Shame!!!" After a minutes, the ride started up again, albeit with a more somber tone.

"Do they have to do that today?" moaned one rider.

Perhaps this type of police behavior was why one rider had the words: "MORE FREEDOM PLEASE!" pained on his back.

The ride pressed forward, moving up to the Governor's office at 41st Street. By this point the ride was stopping at every light. Nonetheless, the police moved in. Give her a ticket, a white shirt ordered, pointing at one woman not riding in a bike lane. Riding through traffic, it is not always possible to ride in a bike lane. Still, police insist on the practice.

As we parked at the Governor's office at 41st and 3rd, a group lifted their cycles over their heads and started to chant, "Don't Frack New York!" The point of the ride is there are too many pollutants in the physical and mental environment. No need to add unknown chemicals to the watershed. "They are going to dig with a 2,000 feet of the shale," another rider bemoaned as we rode away. Sadly, the Governor has signalized he is not willing to ban fracking across the state.

Nonetheless the ride churned forward and spirits started lifting. "Empire State of Mind" blard out of the sound bike as we careened down Fifth Ave. Onlookers laughed, cheered, took photographs.

Riding East from Union Square, I talked with the white shirt policeman. "You guys treated this like you used to treat Critical Mass before 2004," I noted referring to the ongoing crackdown on Critical Mass. "Maybe you could take it easy on the ride? And not waste so many taxpayer resources on cracking down on the ride?" The white shirt smirked. He barely acknowledged I was speaking to him.

"The police were not too easy going today," another rider noted as I rode away the lieutenant. "My friend is spending the night in jail tonight for taking part in a bike ride."

It was true.

Still, the world naked bike ride had been a splash. One gets few surprises in life. After the success of last year's ride, there was little doubt that the police would be along hand to make sure the party did not get too rowdy this year. It was yet another skirmish in an age old battle over the contested streets of New York City.

And we tasted a small bit of freedom which still takes place in the naked city.

Riding up the Williamsburg Bridge, we said goodbye to the police. "The police are gone," another Times UP! volunteer declared, pulling off his shorts as we started over the hill. Many followed his lead, stripping bare, as they cruised from Manhattan toward the liberatory space known as Brooklyn, for the after party at the Time's Up! Brooklyn space at 99 South 6 Street off of Bedford Avenue under the Williamsburg Bridge. There we danced and watched the sun set on the robust, highly conflicted, yet still naked city.

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