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On the Eve of Citibike, Remembering the City’s Ghost Bikers

It’s a bright, cool Sunday afternoon, and jammed car lines are radiating from Queens Plaza. The N, Q, and 7 trains rattle above intersections. But on the corner of Jackson Avenue and Queens Boulevard, several dozen cyclists have stopped to place flowers in the spokes of a bicycle that’s been spray-painted white. The cyclists ignore the terse horn honks; the sign they install on top of the bike is a dedication to cyclists whose deaths didn’t make the news.

David "Troy" Ellis, Webster Avenue & Gun Hill Road, the Bronx
David “Troy” Ellis, Webster Avenue & Gun Hill Road, the Bronx
David Oliveras, Williamsbridge Road and Mace Avenue, the Bronx
David Oliveras, Williamsbridge Road and Mace Avenue, the Bronx
Joseph Nelson, Jerome Avenue and Fordham Road, the Bronx
Joseph Nelson, Jerome Avenue and Fordham Road, the Bronx

On May 8, the city will launch its first bike share program. But Sunday’s ghost bike memorial gathering was a snapshot of a city still struggling to embrace its riders and keep them safe. With her back to the frustrated congestion, Street Memorial Project spokeswoman Leah Todd read the names of cyclists killed in 2012 and 2013: Emma Blumstein, Shaquille “Swizzy” Cochrane, Terence Connor, Tchaka Cooke, David “Troy” Ellis, Henry Garcia, Mireya Gomez, Roger Hernandez, Victor Lopez, Jean Malizia, Alexander Martinez, Daniel “Danny” Martinez, Joseph Nelson, David Oliveras, Ramon Russel, Ronald “R.J.” Tillman, and four unnamed cyclists.

The Street Memorial Project has been blessing and installing ghost bikes in remembrance of cyclists killed in traffic for eight years. And this year, Todd said, the number of cyclist deaths hasn’t significantly changed. Though down from last year’s 22 fatalities, the New York City Department of Transportation still reported 18 cyclists killed in 2012. Meanwhile, overall traffic fatalities increased by nearly 12 percent, and hit-and-runs were up by 31 percent.

Shaquille "Swizzy" Cochrane, Park Avenue and East 108th Street
Shaquille “Swizzy” Cochrane, Park Avenue and East 108th Street
Henry Garcia, 20th Avenue and 80th Street in Brooklyn
Henry Garcia, 20th Avenue and 80th Street in Brooklyn
Victor Lopez, Utrecht Avenue and 58th Street in Brooklyn
Victor Lopez, Utrecht Avenue and 58th Street in Brooklyn

But Sunday’s memorial, weaving throughout all five boroughs and converging at Queens plaza, was less about demonstrating stats and more about installing small comforts for the living–those who too often feel justice for cyclists has not been served. A couple of blocks south of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue, Daniel “Danny” Martinez’s family waited for the riders with balloons and flowers. Almost exactly a year ago, the 27-year-old bike messenger and father was felled under a truck.

“Today is just like it happened yesterday. We’re still stuck,” a family member of Martinez’s, who didn’t want to be identified by name because of ongoing litigation, told the Voice. “This day is a closure for me, for his child, for his siblings,” the family member said.

“He was a man of business, he took care of his family, he took care of his kids, he had so much to live for. He was loved, and he loved. This is not right, what happened,” Martinez’s relative continued.

Farmily of Daniel "Danny" Martinez, East 80th Street and Fifth Avenue
Farmily of Daniel “Danny” Martinez, East 80th Street and Fifth Avenue
Emma Blumstein, Bedford Avenue and Empire Boulevard in Brooklyn
Emma Blumstein, Bedford Avenue and Empire Boulevard in Brooklyn
Unnamed, Franklin Avenue and Flushing Avenue, Brooklyn
Unnamed, Franklin Avenue and Flushing Avenue, Brooklyn

The NYPD told reporters that Martinez had been holding onto the back of the truck that killed him–something that Martinez family has difficulty believing. The police reported that they did not suspect criminality in Martinez’s death, an oft-delivered line that has received much scrutiny from families of dead cyclists, activists, the media, and then City Council last year.

Last month, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly announced that the NYPD would be beefing up its “Collision Investigation Squad”–after changing its name from Accident Investigation Squad–and investigating crashes that didn’t just involve cyclists “dead or likely to die.” Those changes, however, don’t go far enough, says Josh Bisker, an environmental activist at the memorial ride who helped launch a “living street will” campaign last month. On streetwillsnyc.com, cyclists submit video wills asking the city to fully investigate their deaths, should they happen in traffic.

“The Street Wills Project is supposed to be a wake up call, of sorts,” he said.

Terence Connor, Metropolitan Avenue and Stewart Avenue in Brooklyn
Terence Connor, Metropolitan Avenue and Stewart Avenue in Brooklyn
Unnamed, Borden and Greenpoint avenues in Queens
Unnamed, Borden and Greenpoint avenues in Queens
Roger Hernandez, Greenpoint Avenue and 39th Street in Queens
Roger Hernandez, Greenpoint Avenue and 39th Street in Queens

Still, Bisker is hopeful that the bike share could also spark more openness and empathy for cyclist victims in the future.

“People are going to think, ‘Oh, one of my tribe, a New Yorker, has died, has suffered some harm,'” Bisker said. “As opposed to ‘some guy on a bike.'”

Daniel Flanzig, a lawyer who has represented injured cyclists and their families for 16 years and rode in the memorial on Sunday, expressed a similar sentiment.

“When you study the other cycling cities, like Amsterdam, it was a mess before it got better,” Flanzig, who has developed both an iPhone app and a website to better collision reporting, said. “But eventually, over time, it became a cycling culture and the cars learned how to deal with bikes.

“I think that’s what’s going to happen in New York,” he added. “It won’t be pretty for a while, but at least it’s going to be a start.”

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Supporters Skeptical but Hopeful for Justice in Travon Martin Case on Anniversary of Murder

A year removed from the murder of 17-year-old Travon Martin, hundreds of supporters took to Union Square yesterday, carrying candles and wearing hoodies, to stand in solidarity alongside Martin’s parents on the anniversary of his death.

They demanded justice for Martin in the case against George Zimmerman, the 28-year-old neighborhood watchman who shot and killed the unarmed teenager in a gated community where Martin’s father lived in Sanford, Fl. While demands for justice were loud and fierce, many in attendance acknowledged that the justice they’d like to see for Martin’s death may never materialize if solely left up to the legal system.

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“Jail time, that’s justice, nothing less,” Nicholas Heyward Sr., whose teenage son was killed by a rookie NYPD officer nearly 18 years ago, told the Voice. “The way that this system has operated in the past with all these other cases, I don’t see any justice really coming out of that Zimmerman case.”

His son, Nicholas Heyward Jr., was a 13-year-old honor student whom NYPD Housing Officer Brian George shot dead in the stairwell of a building at their home in the Gowanus Houses in Brooklyn. Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes never indicted George, and his office concluded that the shooting occurred because George witnessed Heyward Jr. playing with a realistic-looking toy gun, (a plastic pop gun), in a darkly lit area, and reacted in a split-second in fear for his life

Hynes refused to reopen the case after glaring conflicts emerged between the DA office’s official report and a deposition given by George two years later. Heyward Sr. says he’s written and petitioned, to no avail over the years, to multiple mayors, police commissioners, and other public officials to review the case.

“My thing is that after 18 years of protesting, it’s time for the people to organize and take these matters to the streets because there’s no way that I can see we’re going to get justice in the court system,” Heyward said. “I’m hoping for the sake of the people that it does.”

Just as George eluded punishment under the pretenses of a justified homicide, Zimmerman maintains that he shot Martin in self-defense. The murder occurred when Martin was heading back to his dad’s house from a 7-Eleven, carrying a pack of Skittles and an Arizona Iced Tea while talking on the phone with his girlfriend. Zimmerman pegged Martin as suspicious, alerted police, then proceeded to defy police advisement not to pursue Martin on his own, leading to an encounter that resulted in the murder of Martin.

“Being black is not a crime. Being brown is not a crime. Being poor is not a crime. Wearing a hoodie is not a crime. Having Skittles is not a crime. Having iced tea is not a crime. Living is not a crime,” City Councilman Jumaane Williams, who’s been outspoken against racial profiling and the NYPD’s practice of stop-and-frisk, said during yesterday’s rally. “Waiting a year for justice is a crime. Having to have uproar, just for an indictment is a crime.”

Williams was alluding to the fact that it took a massive outcry just to get the police to press charges against Zimmerman, who was permitted to go home on the night of the murder. Actor Jamie Foxx also showed up to lend support for the family and expressed equal bewilderment that Zimmerman wasn’t immediately charged.

Travon Martin's parents Tracy Martin (far left in blue with hoodie up) and Sybrina Fulton (left in black) during last night's vigil.

“All we’re asking [for] is simplicity . . . allow the court system to work,” Foxx said. “The things that baffled me the most is that someone can take someone else’s life and go home.”

Martin’s father, Tracy Martin, and mother, Sybrina Fulton, thanked those at the rally and others around the country for their support — while unofficially declaring February 26 Hoodies Up Day.

“It’s a sober day for us . . . It seems like yesterday that Travon was here. The wounds have not been healed but we’re working towards healing [them], and we just want you all to know that we appreciate all the love and support,” Martin’s father said. “Continue to stay with us . . . until the day I die it will be Hoodies Up Day for me.”

Zimmerman is set to stand trial on second-degree murder charges in June. Councilman Williams urged the powers-that-be to bring justice in the Martin case and Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the NYPD to finally clean up the culture of racial profiling and police brutality that has long stained the department’s ranks.

“We want justice and we want it now,” Williams said. “Dr. King said riots [are] the language of the unheard. We are unheard . . . So, please us hear while we’re calm because unheard people do things to be heard.”