Notes from Berkeley

November 5th, 2009 by hughillustration

The Berkeley Critical Mass has been going through some soul searching of late. What I’ve heard from participants is that there have been some conflicts, some differing ideas of what Critical Mass is about, and a drop-off in participation. Some Berkeley Massers met recently to discuss these issues, and these are the notes of that meeting. (Posted with permission.)

Tonight’s dinner, films and discussion about the future of our ride
went very well. About 3 times as many people attended than came to the
last ride, which says something! (20-30+ people throughout the 3+

A more complete summary will be posted soon.

Key points from tonight’s meeting:

A) It’s clear that the group wants the ride to grow and be inclusive.
A straw poll showed more people prioritized BIGGER RIDE over POLITICAL

B) General agreement that the ride is implicitly political, but that
explicit political statements alienate and turn away many people and
harm the power, effectiveness and fun of the ride. General agreement
that the ride is NOT A POLITICAL PLATFORM and that such behavior is

C) Large numbers of people do not come to the ride anymore because of
toxic burning. Strong agreement that there should be NO BURNING,
especially as burning petroleum products violates our essential
healthy clean air, and violates the ride’s purity by emitting carbon,
particularly when burning fossil fuels.

D) General awe at the report back from Sandy about the San Jose Bike
Party, which in 2+ years quickly grew to thousands of people each
month. Discussion of how a big ride like that, where people even
bring their kids, has much broader effect and public benefit than an
aggressively radical and risky/unsafe/narrowly represented ride.
Large rides allow inexperienced riders to build skills, confidence,
and grow into community, while giving everyone a fun and out time.

E) An attempt was made at a preliminary code of conduct. A long list
of situations/behaviors which result in exclusion of whole segments of
the population was drafted. At the very least, the same code that
goes for ANY PEACE MARCH was generally agreed to hold. The list will
be sent in a future more complete summary.

F) The need for political statements was very much appreciated and
validated. Those statements can and do happen at SEPARATE EVENTS, for
those so interested; agreement that inclusive rides should be kept
separate from those protest events.

G) A need for consistent sound system influence was identified. Sound
system needs to keep a steady pace and be conscious of not splitting
up the ride. Music can and should be collaborative. Also that there
need to be QUIET SPACES as well as music spaces, so people can have a
choice. If sound systems head up the ride, and perhaps bring up the
rear, then the middle can be a comfortable talking zone and the ride
announces its entrance and exit more effectively.

and at least semi-regular MEETINGS so the events are more FUNCTIONAL

I) Ideas for new rides and/or changing existing Berkeley Mass to be
more inclusive, to grow, included taking the ride on more small
streets so more residents get a taste of the mass in their town.

J) It has come to the group’s attention that MOST PEOPLE DON’T KNOW

There’s more…and there was a fun process to it all.

Action items for the immediate future:

I) We identified someone to pull the sound system and someone who
wants to make a soundtrack (John and Sandy)

II) A group will gather to collectively communicate that it is not
okay to burn things or be aggressive on our ride

III) A new person wants to give up her car and get involved but needs
a bike. We are referring her to Cycles of Change unless someone writes
me with a better idea. She’s roughly medium height. Email me if you
have a loaner/cheapo/suggestion.

IV) Should you choose to accept..


5 Responses to “Notes from Berkeley”

  1. Thanks to the community for this excellent development. The idea that CM needs to “evolve” has been coming up lately, even with claims that it “failed to evolve.” Those who have been involved for a long time will sense some philosophical challenges in the above: creating rules like a code of conduct, and intervening to stop anyone violating them, jeopardizes the lasting principal of having no hierarchy or official leaders, which has been essential to its survival and inclusivity in the past. Once there is a leader, collective ownership is compromised and the potential to co-opt and shut down the event, either from internal disenfranchisement and mismanagement, or from external exploitation, can grow. Ironically that includes the “failure to evolve.”

    However, even from the beginning in San Francisco, groups of concerned individuals would come together and discuss how to address “bummer” behavior like the “testosterone brigade,” and ways to keep the ride safely together, happier for waiting motorists, and safe from angry motorists — e.g., the many many community-produced guides to “de-escalation,” the groups who would hold signs saying, “Thanks for waiting!” and so forth.

    There’s no reason why concerned groups, particularly if they represent the majority, can’t defend the health and sustainability of their ride, in any number of ways. Why should one or two “hijackers” turn off thousands upon thousands of people over time? The key to this approach has always been a *balance* between those who are protecting and guiding the ride, and all the other forces and needs at play. I’d like to believe Berkeley can preserve the purity of the CM philosophy and yet create a ride uniquely successful for the true masses.

    Berkeley has an impressive history and has bounced back from many challenges in its nearly 17 years. Most other rides in this country have been brutally repressed, usually killed off. It took determined sacrifices from visionary and committed people to keep it alive.

    Will this new approach work?

    When I hear this development, as someone with a long involvement in CM near and far, it gives me hope for a new beginning; what if the Berkeley crowd really formalizes this, and creates a lasting framework for carrying it through the future? What if the kinder, gentler ride is embraced by the media and word gets out? What if everyday people learn of it, respect the new community effort, and join en masse? The threat from police is very much reduced now, following landmark events, including a lawsuit, in 2001, even if the police have failed to keep up with the times and better respect and protect *all* bicyclists (and those who are on foot, as well) in everyday life.

    It would be nice to be able to use the same test for CM as for any town: can a grandparent take her or his grandchild on the ride? My sense is that we cannot guarantee this. So more likely, *some* grandparents can take *some* grandchildren, if they can keep up with the flow.

    Cities and towns *absolutely* need to provide large safe places (a la “Sunday Streets” and “Ciclovia”) where people can go at their own pace, to assure that all can experience freedom of movement in a safer, friendlier city, even though CM is usually a safe and slow procession. Those large safe spaces are now understood to be *essential* for cultural change, *essential* to begin remaking our cities for safe, enjoyable, carfree passage by all (something Berkeley, despite its new Green face mask, has been outright resistant and even hostile to in the real nuts and bolts of city policy, every step of the way).

    My sense is that the ride’s potential for being inclusive was compromised from the start, in no small part due to the police response. Rather than protect and honor the event, the police chose to treat it as the enemy. Most people don’t feel safe going to such a situation, which polarized the ride. There were enough committed bicycle radicals around to stick with it and see it through hard times again and again. Mirroring back the violence and injustice they experienced in everyday life (as seen in any other town’s CM, not just in Berkeley’s), sometimes conflicts occurred which made the ride seem “too radical” or “too aggressive” in its response to those who see those flash points. By and large those incidents in my experience (around the world, including Berkeley) were instigated by angry motorists or assaults from police, although there are occasionally a small number of individuals riding with the group who instigate trouble. Can Berkeley contain these ethically?

    The challenge Berkeley seems to be proposing is to reduce those conflicts by taking the higher road more strongly, actually addressing internal bad behavior directly and without compromise, and by creating an environment where those conflicts coming from angry drivers don’t happen as often (for instance, simply by being larger and better known, or by occupying main streets less often). As anyone who understands CM should know, the collective purpose is not to make war against the automobile, it’s not to “block traffic,” it’s to take back a little space for much better things. Only because we are a minority, are we treated so harshly for using public spaces in a new way. Yet it is an essential way: every healthy culture needs events such as these.

    Will a new ride of this type lose its excitement? The potential must exist for people to enjoy a huge community outing, given the thousands who come out for parades. It’s just a question of maintaining the positive space despite the powerful forces that want to take it from us (and have — we’ve been robbed!!!).

    Best wishes to Berkeley and beyond.

  2. P.B. Floyd says:

    [These are follow-up notes to this post from a different author.]

    Those first notes about the dinner meeting are pretty good – I think they go beyond preliminary and sum up what I think happened. The dinner was very productive – it is probably worth having another one. The next Berkeley ride is a week from Friday so hopefully the weather will be okay and we can have a decent-sized ride to try out some of the ideas that came out of the meeting, i.e. being more positive and less aggressive and confrontational with drivers.

    I took some notes and when I left, I think a third person took some more notes so perhaps they will post their notes. I’m going to avoid typing any of the notes that were already summarized – here are ideas that I think were missed:

    (In no particular order):

    1. the ride could have a process for dealing with aggressive riders so folks who want the ride to be more constructive don’t feel so alone confronting people who are acting poorly.

    2. the ride could have banners / signs or flags to identify the ride

    3. The ride could ride more on back streets to go through neighborhoods and connect with people

    4. The ride could explore all the bicycle boulevards and use the experience to suggest improvements / more boulevards / places where the street needs mending

    5. the ride could zig/zag across major streets instead of going down them

    6. circling in intersections delays the ride and just pisses people off

    7. there could be a way of riders suggesting music for the sound system / avoiding always having the same songs or types of music ride after ride

    8. someone said “maybe we should stop at stop signs”

    9. someone said we should forget about people who have left and focus on getting new people to join the ride

    9a. someone said we’re recruiting from a tiny pool of our friends when there are a lot of people who ride bikes

    10. someone said we should have a band instead of the sound system

    11. someone said we should tell people who are being angry and aggressive “you are not helping make the ride grow or be fun”

    12. someone said we should have a table on campus to promote the ride and some else said they would set one up

    13. someone pointed out that although we’re in a college town, there wasn’t a single student at the meeting – why?

    14. someone said they will make a beautiful poster to communicate the message “critical mass is transitioning in a more positive, people friendly way”

    15. someone said they felt uncomfortable with voting and having an official code of conduct

    16. someone said maybe the ride could do something positive along the way (cleaning up, deliverying food or ??) instead of just being a hassle to the city

    17. someone said the ride used to sometimes have a printed-up route map with a proposed route and maybe returning to this practice this would help (note: this was called Xerocracy – anyone who wanted to suggest a route would photocopy it up and hand it out – if there were more than one proposed, it could be chaos but the more copies would tend to win. . . .)

    18. someone suggested that critical mass should be on craigslist events and have a facebook page and fliers

    well, that is what I have. I left at 9:15 so I think the meeting which was like a brainstorm when I was there got more focused later on. My suggestion if we have another meeting: start earlier and be more focused with a facilitator who agrees not to talk themselves on the points.

    THANKS to the folks who set up the meeting – it was really exciting to think we could improve the Berkeley ride.

  3. JayJay says:

    The two videos (masculine/feminine side) were a great way to get the dialogue rolling. More heart, body and mind.

  4. Fizz says:

    Hiya–I’m someone who’s tentatively interested in checking out the Berkeley CM for the first time, and this (a couple months old) is the most recent information I can find. It’s a bit of a cliffhanger. What happened? What’s changed, if anything? Is the information on still accurate–and would people be interested in having a wiki where they can discuss, upload notes/pictures/other content, etc. to share?

  5. Congrats, Berkeley CM! Would love to see Berkeley’s ride grow, not only in terms of numbers but in its positivity and magnetism! I tried going a few times but was totally turned off by some seriously aggressive riders who I felt were making cyclists look bad.

    I love the intersection of bicycles, music, and community… and feel that a light-hearted, respectful ride like the San Jose bike parties or Fossil Fool’s cruiser rides in SF would do a whole lot more to create a safe relationship between cars and bicycles. Cars aren’t going to just go away, so I feel that the more we can do to create a respectful relationship between bikes & cars, the better cyclists will have it.

    It’s a lot more fun to blow a car a kiss because they stopped when they don’t have to in order to let you pass, than to dwell in anger or to ignore a human’s existence just because they’re perched up in a car.
    There will always be motorists who wish you’d get out of their damn way… but it’s so much more productive to take the high road and not direct aggression towards those people. They are, after all, human.

    When thinking about bicycle advocacy, I think it’s important to avoid viewing ‘motorists’ and ‘cyclists’ as being different people.
    What I mean is that a lot of people who are waiting in that Critical Mass traffic as the ride passes probably have a bike at home that they ride too. And I’m sure a fair number of Critical Mass riders are there to support safe cycling in our cities but ALSO drive a car now and then.

    I’m excited to have stumbled upon this thread via Bikehugger, because to be honest I had kind of given up on the Berkeley Critical Mass. Having read this I’ll definitely be putting it back on the calendar and staying tuned to the website!! See you on the April ride! I’ll help to spread the word!