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An expert tries to unlock the NYPD's bike lock conspiracy

Doug Gordon: “The more we can talk about bike locks, the less we ever have to engage with what people are actually protesting for."

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Tuesday night capped off a tumultuous period of protests, with the NYPD storming the Columbia campus yet again at the university president’s behest. More than 100 protesters were violently arrested, and just a little further uptown at City College of New York, 173 protesters met the same fate. Many of those arrested have still not been released. The escalation, according to the message being pumped out by Mayor Eric Adams and the NYPD, was caused by “outside agitators” who’d infiltrated Columbia’s campus. Surely they had proof. Right?

So admittedly many were confused when Deputy Police Commissioner Tarik Sheppard went on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Wednesday morning and held up a heavy duty chain link bike lock as the department’s smoking gun. “This is not what students bring to school,” he said. “Don’t think so!” co-host Mika Brzezinski chimed in. Sheppard continued: “This is what professionals bring to campuses and universities.”

My first question was: What? Followed by: Huh?

To answer these searing questions, I turned to Doug Gordon, a Brooklyn-based bike advocate and expert, and co-host of The War on Cars podcast. I wanted to better understand the incredibly-named “Fahgettaboudit lock” being trotted out in news conferences, and whether the cops were being as idiotic as it seemed. What I ended up with was so much more.

“There's a real reason this [the anti-genocide protest movement] is happening on college campuses,” Gordon told me. “It's a place where community is formed because people are not isolated in little metal boxes to get around for their daily needs. There's natural gathering spots like a quad where people can organize and protest and talk and work things out between other human beings…all of these social issues and policing are all interwoven.”

Read on for our full conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.

MARISA KABAS, The Handbasket: I just wanted to start out with the very basics. Can you explain the purpose of a bike lock?

DOUG GORDON, Bike advocate and co-host of The War on Cars podcast: Yeah, I mean, it's pretty obvious! [laughs] Theft is a huge problem in New York City—bicycle theft in particular—and having a good sturdy lock is one of those things you either learn when you get a bicycle, or you learn the hard way after it's stolen.

KABAS: What makes a bike lock unique? How do they vary?

GORDON: There's lots of different kinds. There's the U-lock, which as the name implies is shaped like a U, and that's kind of your standard lock that you'll see a lot of people carrying in New York. But then there are also these bigger chain locks—that's the one that I think the cops were talking about today—that are a bit more robust, harder to cut through. But they really vary and it all depends on where you're locking up. Inside a garage, in your apartment building, you might not need something quite as strong. If you leave it outside, you might want something pretty tough, like a big chain.

KABAS: Do certain locks convey a level of criminal intent?

GORDON: Oh, like if you are carrying a type of lock does that imply that you intend to commit a certain type of crime? Is that what you're asking, like from the cops perspective? [laughs]

KABAS: Yeah. 

GORDON: I think that’s like asking, is the knife that you're using at a restaurant indicative of a type of stabbing that you're going to do? It's like, if you're having a salad, you don't really need much of a knife. If you're having a steak, you need a steak knife. It says nothing about the intent of the user other than they want to lock up their bike in a strong and secure way.

KABAS: So help me understand. By holding up the large bike chains on TV and in press conferences, were the NYPD and mayor saying–actually, I don’t really understand what they were trying to say. Can you explain?

GORDON: So I watched a little clip and I read some of the coverage, and if I'm getting it right, I think what they were saying with the chain locks is that, protesters—outside agitators, whatever they're calling the people responsible for what's happening at Columbia right now—were using a big chain lock to lock up things like campus gates and doors to lock themselves inside buildings or to keep police and other people out. I don't think they were suggesting that people were wielding them as weapons. But I could be wrong.

KABAS: So they're holding the chains up for us to look at, like a gun or some other sort of proof of…something. And so I guess I'm just trying to understand, like, what do they think it’s proof of?

GORDON: This is a really complicated question to ask because I think anybody who paid attention to the George Floyd protests in 2020 knows that the cops just lie about ordinary things that can be used for nefarious purposes.

Back in 2020 there was concrete allegedly found in ice cream cartons and they said that this was evidence that protesters were planting materials in advance of their demonstrations with the intent of using them to throw at and injure police officers. Of course later it was found that no, these were just concrete samples left at construction sites and it's pretty commonplace in New York. I think it's really similar to the milkshake incident: Some cops went to Shake Shack and said that they were intentionally poisoned by employees because there was something terrible in their milkshakes. Each one of these incidents was just proven to be a lie.

I think what's probably happening here is that the cops are on a college campus, and students ride bicycles. Therefore, lots of students will be found with bicycle locks, and they're just taking this random object and using it as proof that they can then later use to justify arrests, violence, all manner of attacks on protesters. I think it's really not a whole lot more complicated than that.

KABAS: Yeah, I think I'm searching for a deeper meaning,

GORDON: If they didn't have bike locks they would find something that the student protesters have on them and they would say this is evidence of their intent to commit some kind of crime.

KABAS: But the fact that they're using it as evidence of outside agitators and saying it with a stone face in front of media—that’s what’s just blowing my mind. Like, they're expecting people to just nod along and be like, oh yeah, the bike locks? 

GORDON: I think they're sort of depending on your 11 o’clock news, local news folks who will just put out there, “Police say protesters are using bike locks for nefarious purposes” and that's the headline, that's the tweet, that's the lead in the story. And there's never a follow-up by those same local news reporters to say, oh, it turns out there's no evidence of this. 

We're just in real “don't piss on my leg and tell me it's raining” territory. The cops will just laugh, even when presented with evidence. As I think a couple of very good reporters have said, this bike lock is recommended by Columbia itself—the one that they held up at the news conference— because a lot of their students are coming from places where they're not used to living in New York and not used to the potential for the petty theft of a bicycle.

KABAS: From what you've seen when, when they've been confronted with this evidence, what did they say?

GORDON: I have never, in my experience covering issues related to cycling or paying attention to the ways in which police officers often make up statements that they're giving to the press, I have not once seen them issue any sort of correction or apology. 

I, as an advocate, have watched report after report of cyclists who are killed by drivers get filtered through the PR statement machine and come out on the other side as “the cyclist was asking for it” in some way. They did something reckless, something illegal that contributed to their own death. And then later video evidence will come out to show that the cyclist did nothing wrong and that the driver was fully negligent, and there's just never even a sort of like, “Oh, we'll update our statement.” They just get away with lying. There's no incentive to tell the truth.

It's not like [Deputy Police Commissioner] Sheppard who was speaking today—it's not like he's gonna be disciplined for lying. There's no consequence.

KABAS: You co-host a podcast called The War on Cars and it’s about the city's dependence on cars and ways to make alternative forms of transportation, like biking, safer. How often does your subject matter intersect with the subject of law enforcement?

GORDON: Oh, all the time. We talk a lot about urban issues and social participation. There's a real reason this [the anti-genocide protest movement] is happening on college campuses. It's a place where community is formed because people are not isolated in little metal boxes to get around for their daily needs. There's natural gathering spots like a quad where people can organize and protest and talk and work things out between other human beings. So, yeah, I think all of these social issues and policing are all interwoven. 

KABAS: I just started thinking as you were talking—and maybe this is a little too conspiracy-y—but do you think blaming bike locks is some kind of commentary on liberals or like the type of people who are on college campuses?

GORDON: Well, bicycles have always been left-coded. Bicycling has always been this thing that reads as stuff that people on the left do and are pushing on other people. And the cops, most of whom are suburban dwellers—Staten Island, Long Islanders—view bicycling with a bit of suspicion. Like it violates the natural order of things, in their view, and is used by these urbanites who eschew all of these other things that you're supposed to do as an adult. You're supposed to drive a car. Cars are governed by laws. You have to be licensed in order to operate one. But a bicycle, anyone can use them. Children can use them.

Bicycles have been part of big social movements in the past. They're fundamental to things like women's liberation in the late 19th century, early 20th century. They were a tool that women could use to get around by themselves without someone driving them. So there's all of these ways in which bikes connect into social progress. I think they're sort of in the background here when we're talking about what's happening at Columbia. I don't wanna put them forward and make it, like, “Look! The Middle East situation! It's a great opportunity to talk about bikes!” But I do think it explains the police reaction to it. 

KABAS: So maybe it's not a coincidence. If a bike has historically been a tool of liberation and they're going after bikes...I don't know, the spokes in my head are turning.

GORDON: Yeah, absolutely. These things really do go hand in hand, and bikes are really good tools for protest movements because you can go in any direction you want, you can access places you might not be able to access on foot, you can get away quickly if things get a little too heated. I know we're talking about bike locks, but there is this connection to cycling in this weird way. You saw that there was a whole movement that sprung up in 2020 with the street riders and different groups that were using bicycles to get out ahead of some of the marches on foot and either provide security for them or form protest rides of their own.

KABAS: Did you ever think that bike locks would become a focal point of a government conspiracy?

GORDON: These days, it feels like everything can be part of some sort of conspiracy. And it's almost like there's some sort of Wheel of Fortune they just spin and it landed on bike locks. They could have just as easily landed on backpacks or other things that college kids tend to have on them as they traverse their campus.

KABAS: It made me think of how some schools think they can solve school shootings by having students wear clear backpacks. The logic seems to be, if you could see through the backpacks, that would prevent shootings. If you had lighter bike locks, then none of this would have happened.

GORDON: The young people at Columbia who are protesting have generally pretty clear demands from the university. But the more we can talk about bike locks, and the more we can make it seem like anybody walking around with a 10-speed bicycle is a threat to law and order, the less we ever have to engage with what people are actually protesting for. And that seems to be the goal of the mayor and the police and everybody else in power.

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