The 20th Anniversary Critical Mass Ride is 3 weeks away! And that’s not all — the much-awaited 20th Anniversary book, Shift Happens!: Critical Mass at 20, will be in our hands in a couple weeks! As we count down to 28 September, we want to highlight some of the book’s contributions from the various cities worldwide where the conversation is HOT about Critical Mass. As the editors, we wanted to know what has changed over the past 20 years, how Critical Mass has altered the landscape for bicycling, bicyclists, bike culture and the urban physical landscape. So, our book has contributions from 31 cities, and we’re gonna try to feature all of them in daily posts excerpting the essays here.
Today we focus on where it all started, here in San Francisco. Contributors Hugh D’Andrade, Adriana Camarena, Lusi Morhayim, Mario Bruzzone, and Jason Meggs reflect on (respectively) personal transformation, our own limited perceptions of the ride, the move from counter publics to counterspaces, gendered performance within the CM culture, and the benefits and wrong turns of Critical Mass in SF. This selection of SF writers is a good indication of the diversity of style, angle, and topic of the essays in the book. Here is a taste of what you’ll read…
In “Personal Mass,” Hugh D’Andrade goes all the way back to his first San Francisco Critical Mass in 1993, remembering the unique opening that occurred for him:
It’s hard to describe what a difference Critical Mass made, how dramatically it transformed your experience of the city streets at that time. You felt it in your body the first time you poured out into the busy streets surrounded by hundreds of other cyclists, all of them yelling, singing, cheering and ringing their bells, voices echoing off the walls of the tall buildings. The sound was deafening, and the pleasure was infectious. Motorists and passers by seemed stunned, curious rather than hostile, happy for once to offer us the right of way.
Where before we darted about threatened, isolated, insecure, at risk for our lives, suddenly we felt safe. We had the space and the time to ride at a leisurely stroll, talk to people, feel the change of sunlight and shadow on our faces as we moved through the canyons of high rises. We began to see the city in a whole new light, as a place to socialize, meet people, to explore and experience spatially.
Speaking of spatial experiences, the hills of San Francisco are quite different, as it turns out, when you ride them with a group of other cyclists. For one thing, hills miraculously are easier to climb when you’re in a group. Maybe it’s the encouragement of the other riders, or the fact that you can weave a bit without worrying about getting sideswiped by a car, but a hill that you would otherwise avoid at all costs on a bike will suddenly seem fun, a challenging adventure. And of course, once you get to the top you can turn around, admire the sea of people surrounding you on both sides, and then ready yourself for the downhill journey. Why else would anyone live in a city with this many hills?
I became a regular on both the San Francisco and Berkeley Critical Mass rides each month. I loved that feeling of transformation, the experience of using my own energy in collaboration with others to make such a dramatic and, to my way of thinking, positive change. It was a temporary change, to be sure, but it was real, and we accomplished it ourselves.
And then, with a step back to look back, Hugh says:
Sometimes I think that the insistence on not having an organizing committee for Critical Mass was not entirely positive. It was the right thing to do… What it also did was make it so that there was no institutional memory for our ride, no way to continue to transmit values and culture from one generation to another. When our group of active non-organizers pulled away, no one stepped up to fill our shoes, because we never asked anyone to. Maybe we thought that by demonstrating what we considered good civic engagement — creating these flyers, spreading this new model to other cities, starting a digital dialog — that others would use the space that we opened up for their own purposes. Sometimes they did, but mostly they chose not to, and this led Critical Mass to become sort of like an abandoned garden: wild and woolly, with wonderful elements, but with some annoying weeds and some waste products that are unhealthy.
Adriana Camarena’s “Blind Spot: Subcultural Exclusivity in Critical Mass” takes on hard questions:
Critical Massers like to think of ourselves as an open-ended group, welcoming to all, irrespective of race, ethnicity, gender, income status, or politics. The panoptic nature of the ride seems to have kept it going through the years, riders preferring inclusiveness and a reclamation of public space over political divisions. Yet, for all its free-wheeling nature, the culture of Critical Mass is simply not as inclusive as it thinks itself to be. In fact, Critical Mass San Francisco has been criticized as a movement of the “white middle class.”
A quick survey of attendees at a Critical Mass in SF does reveal an over-representation of white Americans, but even within that racial group, riders seem to span the wide range of affluent middle class, working “middle class,” déclassé, and straight out poor whites. For many, though, class diversity does not change the analysis. In the US, or in San Francisco at least, to label a movement white middle class is code for something other than just race or class. it is a claim that the movement is culturally close to the dominant political and economic class. More explicitly, from my observation, it is code for a movement that has lost its radical edge as it expands through incorporation of numbers of left liberals of any class. …Bicycling, sustainability, urban redesign, enjoyable public space have all become policy choices in our cities as a result of tenacious direct action. However, a movement that never grows through incorporation of numbers of poor or disenfranchised people is a movement that will never succeed in challenging existing hierarchies and injustices.
Lusi Morhayim’s “Bicycling in the Public Sphere” investigates the function of Critical Mass:
Critical Mass rides are one of a kind amalgamations of protest, appropriation, occupation, and festival-like events. With this unique quality, the rides attract a large crowd and simply the sheer number of bicyclists grants them access to the roads. Instead of presenting opinions in city meetings, organizing campaigns, or going into long bureaucratic processes, Critical Mass bicyclists demand their urban rights by appropriating the streets.
During one of the rides in 2010 in San Francisco, I approached a bicyclist (female, in her early 20s) wearing a shiny silver cable around her helmet and metallic blue tights. She said that her outfit shows that she does not care what motorists think about her, and she continued:
No one asked us if it [the city] should be organized that way…People who were coming from a petroleum-centric mentality organized the city…to move people as if they were goods to create money…There are so many lines of buses going into the financial district…but there is only one MUNI to get to Golden Gate Park. It’s really [about] where the city is placing its resources and what it’s emphasizing. So, we are saying that…although it’s the built environment and the built reality, we can …forge our own path through that and…we don’t need to listen to your signals and to your stop signs and to your one-way traffic.
“Putting the Critical in Critical Mass: Patriarchy, Radical Feminism, and Radical Inclusiveness” by Mario Bruzzone asks how Critical Mass can be more feminist:
Critical Mass is…an event and a performance. We ride our bikes around, we cork intersections, sometimes we dress up in costume, and we perform gender. We perform patriarchy, not just as the Testosterone Brigade, but as a group that often, to outsiders and insiders, looks rather masculinist and can make decisions in masculinist ways. The situation is both a problem and, in its own way, an opportunity: there’s nothing “natural” or “essential” about dudeliness, about machismo, in Critical Mass. We have the possibility of doing Critical Mass differently.
Critical Mass in San Francisco looks very little like San Francisco. Alongside the questions of gender performance…it behooves us to ask what else we are doing, and who else we don’t see, when we act in masculinist ways–all of us, myself included. Where is the Queer Brigade at Critical Mass? The Bike Anti-Jock Liberation Front? I mean, where are the groups that actually already exist: The Positive Pedalers, the BIke Kitchens, the Scraper Bikes? These relationships are important. Even, and especially, in their absence, we are in relationship with any of these groups, because we have a relationship of power–one way or another–when we are and are not riding in Critical Mass.
And, Jason Meggs, AKA “The Johnny Appleseed of Critical Mass,” weighs in:
Cycling as an adult had almost always been a solitary experience for me before Critical Mass. I was the only one I knew who cycled to my high school of 2,000 students. When I found my first Critical Mass [in SF] I was absolutely ecstatic, incredulous that we could fill the road, feel happy and carefree rather than pummeled in public, relegated to the gutter. Absolutely unable to wait a whole month to get my fix of road-rompin’-reverlry, I helped start our own ride in Berkeley in the middle of the month, the first one on International Women’s Day, March 8, 1993. In two months I was starting a ride in Manhattan…Many more rides followed in the Bay Area, often on the first or third Friday,…but along with San Francisco, only Berkeley Critical Mass survived year after year, putting up uncompromising resistance to the many efforts to shut us down.
These are just meant to show you a little bit of what we’ve put together in Shift Happens. (You can buy it now!) Tomorrow we’ll hear from Paris, where the City of Love extends to bicycles, bicycle rides, and where cyclofficine (bike workshops) are taking root all over town…