Taxation, antagonistic government and law enforcement officials, belligerent motorists, municipal traffic laws that don’t provide adequate protection: these are just some of the elements of American society and politics that beset cyclists across the country. At times, there seems to be no way to gain traction with our political leadership to give due consideration to our case. For years, cyclists were a minority without a voice. Then in 1992, a group of San Francisco riders found strength in numbers. Thus was the origin of Critical Mass.
Critical Mass is the spontaneous, disorganized assembly of hundreds or, in the case of larger cities, thousands of cyclists who ride through downtown streets, using their sheer volume to obtain those things riders so desperately want: safety from collisions, visibility from politicians, respect from police as a legitimate traffic presence, and a means to strike back at vicious motorists. It’s an oppressed group working peacefully for their civil rights in the best traditions of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.—or is it?
In July 1997, San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown issued several inflammatory comments against cyclists and their "incredible display of arrogance," likening them to Hell’s Angels. At the Critical Mass ride that month police arrested over 250 participants. Two officers were injured in the bedlam. At a 2007 ride, an enraged motorist drove through the Mass, injuring two people. A group of cyclists rode down the vehicle, slashed the tires, and broke out several windows while the driver and her two children cowered inside. In 2008 in Seattle, a similar incident resulted in the driver being hauled from his car and hit over the back of the head with a bike lock. On July 25th of last year, NYPD officer Patrick Pogan body-slammed Critical Mass participant Christopher Long in the middle of Times Square, later charging him with assault, resisting arrest, and disorderly conduct. A video of the incident soon appeared on YouTube, clearly showing that Pogan was in the wrong. The New York District Attorney’s office dropped all charges against Long, who’s now suing the city for $1.5 million. Pogan was dismissed from the force and is now facing felony charges for falsifying an official report.
Today, scores of YouTube videos show encounters between cyclists and law officers that beg for John Bunnell narration. Officers appear to bully cyclists, arrest them without provocation, and use excessive force. Cyclists swarm around scenes of arrests with cameras, chant "let him/her go!" and taunt officers. While it’s impossible to tell who’s in the wrong between the bias of the camera operators and the actual video quality, one thing is unmistakable. What started as an initiative for peaceful demonstration has devolved into chaos. From Honolulu to Lithuania, Critical Mass events energize both anarchists and authority junkies alike, and then throw them together in the same environment. The consequences are evident.
To assuage the damage, several cycling community leaders tried to bring about a little organization. From 1998 to 2008, cycling enthusiast and award-winning blogger Michael Bluejay ran the unofficial national headquarters for Critical Mass. From his website, Critical-Mass.info, he offered information on Critical Mass advocacy, etiquette, and a schedule of events around the country. The site and the movement gained so much notoriety that Bluejay had trouble keeping up with the more than 10,000 daily messages he received on events, which inadvertently led him to close the operation. When a group of Florida Critical Mass organizers lost their patience with Bluejay for not updating their event quickly enough, they sent him an e-mail so profoundly vile that it was no longer worth it to him to maintain the effort. No part of the e-mail is worth repeating here, but Bluejay posted it on the website, which is still viewable. Today, the administrators of the Critical Mass Wiki continue the effort at Criticalmass.wikia.com. In Chicago, monthly Critical Mass rides are so popular that the "Friends of Chicago Critical Mass" run the Critical Mass Chicago website, complete with a forum for participants to log ride reports, photos, and exchange information.
Still, conflicts abound. Chicago Police continue to stymie Critical Mass efforts by blocking access to certain areas of the city ahead of the rides. Undercover officers in plain clothes ride within the groups with the stated intent of looking for cyclists consuming alcohol while behind the handlebars (a common infraction). However, many accuse them of antagonizing their "fellow" cyclists and destabilizing the event. At this June’s ride, many riders were upset over the appearance of a man who rode at the front of the formation carrying a green cross, leading the assembly around side streets which were away from public visibility and difficult to navigate at the same time. Some conspiracy theorists posited that the man, nicknamed "Gandhi" for his odd appearance and accessories, was a plant by the CPD to keep the Mass from ruining traffic during a busy tourist weekend. At events in Berkley and Los Angeles, police come out in force ahead of rides, complete with riot gear and paddy-wagons. The problem is that in both cities, firebrand cyclists see this as cause to stage 1960s protest-style antics. They lift their bikes overhead and tout not just the virtues of cycling, but some form of moral superiority on the grounds that they’re not driving a car. They launch the same vitriol at unwitting motorists just trying to get home. It’s hardly coincidence that these events are scheduled during rush hour. Then again, if a Critical Mass rides through town and no drivers see it, was it really critical? If cyclists want to achieve their ultimate goal of gaining civic rights, they have to stir the pot, right?
Chicago had over 10,000 cyclists involved in more than 54 cycling clubs as early as the beginning of the 1900s. Mayor Carter Harrison, Jr. credited the cyclist vote for helping him to win election in 1897, and billed himself as "The Cyclists’ Champion." In appreciation for their support, he built one of the city’s first dedicated bike paths during his administration. Mayor Richard J. Daley added another 34 miles of bikeways in the 1970s, and in 1992, Richard M. Daley’s administration developed the "Bike 2015" plan, an initiative committed to putting over 300 miles of bike lanes in Chicago. He also created the Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council, which meets quarterly and recently opened meetings to the public. All of this happened before the first Critical Mass rides. Is it possible that, like just about every other function in large metropolises, Chicago’s care for cyclists doesn’t always run smoothly despite the most determined efforts by the best of people?
If that’s the case, then Critical Massers are at best throwing a tantrum against governments that don’t pander to them and at worst acting as the anarchic hoodlums thousands of delayed motorists declare them to be. To be fair though, it’s often not the case. Due to the efforts of the Daleys, Chicago is one of the top-ranked cycling cities in the U.S. According to the current Mayor, his goal is to "make Chicago the most bicycle-friendly city in the U.S." Other towns fall far short of this vision. As Winston Churchill observed, democracy is the worst form of government except for all other forms that have been tried. Therefore a little public demonstration isn’t entirely inappropriate, as long as it’s done in a respectful and orderly fashion. While cyclists can shout "hell no, we won’t go" to their heart’s content, government institutions, as well as the institution of government, are here to stay. It’s that same government we need for protection of the rights we so desperately want. True to that spirit, Critical Mass advocates in London in 2005 appealed all the way to the House of Lords to nullify Metropolitan Police decrees that organizers must submit routes for law enforcement approval six days in advance of rides. They won their case in 2008.
Critical Mass utilizes the power of a supporting group to give people the opportunity to speak out without fearing retaliation they might receive if they acted individually. Power corrupts though, and the greater the perception of anonymity the more secure thugs on wheels will feel about causing trouble that only tarnishes the cycling community’s image and hurts the cause. Riders would do well to consider that a city trying to be cycling-friendly should have cyclists trying to be city-friendly. In the cycling Gothams of the world, there’s goodness in riders occasionally hopping on their bat-cycles and playing Campagnolo-Crusader. Just beware of jokers in the group trying to introduce a little anarchy.
[Ed notes: This article by Jim Gourley originally appeared in print in Bicycle Times issue #4. Illustration by David Biber. Photos by Eric Boerer. Subscriptions make these web reprints possible. Click here to subscribe to Bicycle Times.]Tweet Print