Why the Cops Will Not Shut Down Critical Mass

March 2nd, 2010 by hughillustration

Written up for, of all things, no front headlight.

Photo by Rock The Bike

Last Friday’s Critical Mass was like de ja vu all over again. Just like last month, we had rain that cleared up at the last minute. As in January, we had a nice, small, intimate ride. And we also had the pleasure of media presence down at Pee Wee Herman Plaza, though as usual we couldn’t get a journalist to ride with us. (Mainstream journalists, I find, live in fear of getting bicycle grease on their lapels.)

KTVU did get a couple of good soundbites from Critical Massers:

So, the media seem to be quite interested in this question of whether the police might want to stop Critical Mass, to the point that they are wasting air time on hypothetical affirmative answers to hypothetical questions. Well, they’ll have to keep doing hypothetical journalism, because it ain’t going to happen.

The first, most obvious reason is that, as I mentioned previously, they tried it before and it didn’t work. Mayor Willie Brown famously tried to stop the ride in 1997 and ended up blowing Critical Mass up to 5000-7000 riders, rather than the usual 1 or 2000. He backpedaled on that one pretty quick.

But there’s another reason, and it has to with elementary math. Here’s how it works:

The cops like to detain and arrest people in situations where they enjoy overwhelming advantage. Every time you see an arrest happening, you see one guy detained surrounded by what appears to be dozens of guys in blue. That’s just how the SFPD rolls — they like to outnumber their opponents, and who can blame them? I’d probably want the same security in numbers if I had their job.

So let’s say they want to do this thing with Critical Mass. Probably they could cut back and limit themselves to a 5-1 ratio. 5 cops detaining, ticketing, maybe arresting 1 biker. It’s tight, but they could do it.

Well, there are at a minimum 200 people at Critical Mass, and on a warmer evening, easily over 1000. You can see right there that the department just can’t afford the time, the manpower, the expense to even put a dent in a group our size. Add to that the mobility and agility of Critical Mass, and you can see it’s a headache no cop — or no cop interested in stopping real crime — wants to bother with.

The SFPD may be a lot of things, but dumb they are not. They know that Critical Mass has become part of the colorful (and sometimes disruptive) fabric of San Francisco’s social life, and it would take a major initiative to uproot it. Without major funding and major pressure from on high, they won’t bother.

That’s why they’ve tolerated us for so long, and why they’ll likely continue to do so.

19 Responses to “Why the Cops Will Not Shut Down Critical Mass”

  1. Bike Soup says:

    The media: BIASED. Gooooooooooooooooo, CM!

  2. Alex says:

    As for the power in numbers argument, cops in riot-control mode routinely face down much larger numbers of people. But I’m not aware of any scenario where they’ve been able to control, disperse or mass-arrest a crowd of CM’s size that was all bicycle-mounted. And even if that were possible tactically and logistically, the police know by know that the use of force that they would have to involve would lead to way too many bad media images (like the NYPD biker-tackle of a few months back) and expensive lawsuits for police brutality. So they’re probably using their discretion to continue tolerating CM. Especially since CM is nonviolent and not explicitly political or directed against any specific targets. Am I right?

  3. Stacy says:

    Critical Mass riders (I don’t live in SF, I live in the North Bay but was in the January 2010 ride) need to remind the public, reporters and cops that cyclist are traffic too! We may be greener, smarter, having-more-fun traffic, but we are essentially traffic, we block streets and run red lights to ride safely and stay together on streets and among car drivers that are not always as friendly and courteous to cyclists as would be ideal.

    If commuters/drivers want to complain about waiting 10-20 minutes more than usual for 300-1000 cyclists to ride through, then they need to first imagine what their wait time and frustration level would be like if we were in 300 – 1000 cars and driving through the city.

    Also, in my opinion, from being part of rides in cities where the rides are supported by city government and cops generally leave us alone, no escorts needed even for 300 people rides on major streets, it’s best to keep the ride together and whole but no need to seek out opportunities to antagonize drivers, it works best to be friendly and positive. Plus its more fun for the Critical Mass riders when its more about a party than a protest.

  4. Stacy says:

    And forgot to add… YEAH BIKE!

  5. Peter Smith says:

    i’m all for arresting those law-breaking jerks.

  6. Jym Dyer says:

    =v= Isn’t it great how unbiased journalist Amy Hollyfield only smiles when she reports that Critical Mass in NYC will require a permit? Niiiice. (She misreported the basics of that ruling, of course.)

  7. Jym Dyer says:

    =v= The legal situation in NYC is not so applicable to SF. Their legislative body writes “Codes” and allows departments to handle details as “Rules.” There is a parade permit Code, and the NYPD wrote a Rule that defined a “parade” so broadly that they can and do abuse its meaning to selectively attack any gathering they want to. A Federal ruling in 2004 found this to be too broad (and an additional ruling earlier this year declared it unConstitutional), so they rewrote the Rule
    to define a parade as any gathering of 50 or more people.

    The revised Rule was also challenged in Federal court, and while that case was pending the NYPD didn’t enforce it. Bizarrely, the Federal judge ruled that since it hasn’t caused problems
    (while not being enforced? hello?), it must be hunky-dory. Yet everyone knows the NYPD’s intent is to continue selective enforcement in violation of the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

    Thankfully, the SFPD does *not* have this power to abuse, and neither the Supervisors nor the Mayor have indicated that they want to end CM. Any attempt to impose this power would end up in the 9th Circuit, which has a much more consistent civil rights record than the 2nd Circuit has exhibited here*.

    Gascon needs to step off, and focus on real issues. Contempt for our civil rights is not the kind of “leadership” people are looking for from the SFPD.

    * Gory details: The 2004 ruling by Judge William Pauley was more limited than I would have liked, but he demonstrated an understanding of the nature of Critical Mass *and* was clear about the civil rights aspect. The present ruling by Judge Lewis Kaplan shows none of these virtues. Both judges are Clinton appointees within the 2nd Circuit system.

  8. Justin says:

    KPIX and now the Chronicle are just totally making this up. The only relevant quote from the SFPD I’ve seen is:

    “We definitely are looking at the process, evaluating it, looking at where we can improve” from:

    For this quote, KPIX gave the headline:
    “SF police chief to crack down on Critical Mass”

    And now the Chron has the headline:
    “SFPD to end Critical Mass?”

    based on the KPIX story. Slow news day?

  9. Holmes says:


    I ride my bike to work everyday. I like going on long rides and whatnot. But I hate critical mass. It’s a nightmare. An absolute nightmare. Try being a pedestrian trying to get somewhere and having to navigate through that madness just so you can get to bart. It ain’t cool. Blocking traffic for 10+ minutes ain’t cool. It’s just rude.

    As to you saying what if you were all in cars? Well then I highly doubt you’d be driving through SF to piss off other drivers. That was just dumb.

  10. Hank says:

    I was at Critical Mass last Friday, and I got a ticket for “impeding the flow of traffic”–i.e., doing exactly what everyone else in CM was doing. I’m lucky enough to be able to afford it, but some others might not be. Maybe the SFPD is smart enough to try to defeat the ride not with and overwhelming force, but with a thousand little cuts. Let’s not let them do it.

  11. Darren says:

    Several years ago a local right-wing columnist accused Toronto’s Critical Mass of riding around and pouring urine on motorists. I called him out on it. He showed up to CM and riding his mother’s bike. He saw first hand that the urine bit was an urban myth, so too were a lot of other things he heard about CM. He was also first to get a ticket. He did not have proper lights on his bike. The cops were very apologetic to him cause he remains to this day one of their favourite columnists. Since then he has always given CM a fair break.

  12. ryanrs says:

    According to the SF Municipal Code, Critical Mass is an athletic event, and therefore not a parade. I am not a lawyer, but the language in the code seems pretty clear.

    San Francisco Municipal Code
    Police Code, Article 4: Parades
    Sec. 366(e) A “parade” is an event, not including an athletic event, in which a group of persons proceed as a collective body for more than one block on any street in the City and County of San Francisco, whether on foot or in any type of vehicle or on an animal or animals, which event obstructs or interferes with the normal flow of vehicular traffic. An “athletic event” is an event in which a group of people collectively engage in a sport or form of physical exercise on any street in the City and County of San Francisco, including but not limited to jogging, bicycling, racewalking, roller skating or running. The following processions are not included in the definitions of a “parade”: (1) processions composed wholly of the military or naval forces of the United States or of the State of California; (2) processions incidental to a wedding or funeral; (3) processions composed of one or more governmental officials or candidates accompanied by security personnel to which such officials or candidates are entitled by virtue of their office or candidacy. Any event taking place entirely on property under the jurisdiction of the Recreation and Park Commission shall be exempt from this ordinance.


  13. halebopp says:

    I would like to see them try it. That night in 97 was one of the funnest times Ive ever had. I will be there for the next attempt to shut down CM. My wife will be there and my children will be there.

  14. Mike R says:

    I am a middle aged recreational* bike rider. I also ride a motorcycle and drive a car – both for recreation as well as work.

    CM participants are bullies. Through sheer force of numbers, they break the law with hoped-for impunity. Jim Dyer writes: “Contempt for our civil rights is not the kind of “leadership” people are looking for from the SFPD.” This unintentionally hypocritical comment begs the question: What about CM’s contempt for the civil rights of everyone who is not participating with CM?

    As with most parents, I hope for my children to be free-thinking, compassionate people. I hope they have the courage to speak-up and even act, if necessary, in the face of injustice. But I certainly do not model for them, as halebopp states that he will, the use of the bullies’ tactics. I have, however, shown them that when all else fails, even walking away, it is sometimes necessary to protect yourself from the actions of a bully.

    * As a Sales & Service Rep, I drive a car throughout the Bay Area. Using a bicycle just would not work.

  15. I’m sorry that you see us a bullies, but I’m glad that you are raising your kids to be active citizens. Right on, Dad!

    Here’s the thing about the bullying charge (which I heard on KGO the other day as well): I’ve been riding on Critical Mass for over 17 years, and nobody — I mean nobody — of the hundreds of SFCM participants that I know rides on SFCM to bully motorists. We aren’t out to punish or dominate or control anybody. We don’t act that way in our day-to-day lives, we don’t act that way towards friends, family or co-workers, and we don’t act that way towards people with differing views from our own. We are simply people that want respect and safety and a good time when we explore this city that we love on bicycles. If you don’t like our methods, that’s fine. But don’t call us names.

    It may be that traffic laws are being violated on SFCM. Are you concerned about traffic laws being violated? Do you think that all traffic laws should be obeyed at all times, and that if people break traffic laws, they are fundamentally indecent, uncaring, dangerous bullies?

    If so, I would like to draw your attention to a very common traffic violation that is done with impunity on a regular basis. It is the violation of speed limits. There is not a motorist on the face of this planet, myself and yourself included, that has not broken a speed limit law. All motorists ignore speed limits, with impunity, through the sheer numbers they enjoy, on a regular basis. And the police simply look the other way.

    Your view that such scofflaws are dangerous bullies would be well justified, in this case. The number of people who are killed each year by motorists violating speed limits must surely number in the hundreds of thousands. Just think — thousands of people killed through this thoughtless disregard of the law.

    So who are the real bullies?


  16. Dan Brekke says:

    Very, very belatedly–’cause that’s the way I do everything–I wanted to say that when I was on the city desk at a late and lamented (by me) San Francisco daily, I did go out and do the ride and scribble a story about it. I had a blast, and I said so. Of course, that was in 1994, so it hardly counts now. The next job I had, in web media, I led some fellow employees out to Critical Mass several times. So … sometimes the media is biased in a direction you’re not expecting.

  17. Analyzer says:

    I was at Critical Mass last Friday, and I got a ticket for “impeding the flow of traffic”–i.e., doing exactly what everyone else in CM was doing. I’m lucky enough to be able to afford it, but some others might not be. Maybe the SFPD is smart enough to try to defeat the ride not with and overwhelming force, but with a thousand little cuts. Let’s not let them do it.

    So you broke the law and subsequently got a ticket? And this is a gross injustice? I don’t follow.

  18. Gross injustice is your phrase, Analyzer.

  19. adama says:

    Officer Wilson’s day in court is coming soon.