Argument 2 Against Critical Mass: I Saw An Incident!

April 29th, 2010 by hughillustration

Critical Mass confrontation

2. I saw an incident on Critical Mass in which cyclists were rude/abusive/violent. This event delegitimates the entire ride in my eyes.

Let me just start this way: this type of behavior is uncalled for, and it should be roundly condemned by everyone. No one should be mistreated or have their property damaged just because they happened to be in a car on the last Friday of the month. Full stop. No excuses.

From my perspective as a long-time participant in Critical Mass, these moments are rare. If you ride on Critical Mass, or simply watch from the sidelines as it goes by, you will see that the vast majority of interactions between the riders and the public are positive. We often see people get out of their cars to cheer us on and dance with the music we have blasting. People lean out of their office and apartment windows to shout encouragement. Tourists and shoppers seem to enjoy the spectacle and are curious about what it’s about. Negative incidents account for a very small percentage of what happens on Critical Mass.

However, it is true that while these problems are rare, they do occur. Tempers are hot in the crowded streets of this dense, diverse city. Even on a normal day in San Francisco, there is a lot of competition for right-of-way on our narrow, congested streets.

On Critical Mass, there have been conflicts. On a few occasions in our 17+ years of existence, bicycles have been crushed by vehicles, and on at least one occasion a car window was smashed. Some of these conflicts were initiated by motorists, some by bicyclists.

Does this mean that everyone on Critical Mass is guilty of being abusive? Clearly not.

As the organizers of sports events well know, any large gathering includes a few anti-social individuals. The larger the group, the more likely that you will have problems with jerks who were not treated well as children and who do not know how to behave in public. Uncivil behavior exists as a small percentage of all groups. (In fact, we bicyclists often notice anti-social — and downright murderous — behavior emanating from people in cars on a regular basis.)

If you want to dismiss Critical Mass for the small number of negative events that have happened in our history, there isn’t much I or anyone else can say to convince you otherwise. But to be consistent, you should distance yourself from sports events, political rallies, Bay to Breakers, Chinese New Year, and every other large scale public event you can imagine.

Alternatively, we might want to think constructively about this problem, since it affects everyone and is apparently endemic to city living.

Critical Mass participants should practice self-management, and that means calling out bad behavior when we see it. Every time I have done so, I have seen the misbehaving person shrink away. As is often noted, bullies are cowards that fear confrontation. I would like to make this point especially to those who may have stopped riding on Critical Mass because they have witnessed things they don’t approve of. Why not stick up for your beliefs and confront behavior you don’t like? Democratic self-governance calls for it!

So, to answer this criticism, I say the following: these problems are A) rare and unrepresentative of the ride as whole, B) blown out of proportion by news media and others, C) inevitable given the size of the event, and D) easily confronted and minimized.

Here’s the rest of the series:
Argument 6: You Don’t Stop for Red Lights
Argument 5: You’ll Spark a Backlash!
Argument 4: Delaying Others is Rude!
Argument 3: You’re Angry!
Argument 2: I Saw An Incident!
Argument 1: Critical Mass Doesn’t Change Anything!


6 Responses to “Argument 2 Against Critical Mass: I Saw An Incident!”

  1. Thomas says:

    Best post yet

  2. Thanks! High compliment since you’re a tough critic!


  3. Thomas says:

    Though but not unsympathetic.

  4. Josie Miranda says:

    Hello, I have known about your movement for sometime now and I think It’s a great thing what you are all doing. But yesterday evening on our commute home we were shocked and appalled. We stopped to let the critical massers pass by and in the middle of the crowd there were about 5 people riding nude. I had children in the car, there were children in the streets and some old men were smiling along while their genitals were hanging out. I believe public nudity is still illegal. We asked the police officers why they weren’t stopping it, they said it was “legal for them but not for us” For the sake of decency can you please not allow this. My husband and I will keep looking into this and find out why nobody is doing anything about it. It is something I did not want to see on my way home. Because of these idiots my focus now is raising awareness about how the law is so subjective in SF, my focus is no longer what you are standing up for but how people break the law and get away with it. These people are distracting the public from what you are trying to portray.

  5. Hi Josie,

    Thanks for your comment. I can certainly see how that might be disturbing. But we don’t really have any central committee or authority at Critical Mass. We can’t eject people or police what they do.

    I support your right to raise your children as you see fit, and to protect them from sights you feel might be damaging or disturbing. But I also support the rights of adults to express themselves in any manner that doesn’t harm others. I don’t think there is any easy answer to this problem, and it is — like Critical Mass itself — part of the messy fabric of life in urban environments.

    One factor that might help you avoid situations like this in the future is the fact that late June is when the Pride parade takes place in San Francisco, so you’ll see an increase in public nudity then, and also around events like the Folsom Street Fair that takes place in October.

    Good luck, and thank you for continuing to support our ride. I hope the next time you encounter us, the experience is more pleasant!


  6. Marc says:

    Hello hugh, me again.
    This is my response to this argument as per your request after seeing my website I have already responded to others and to your incivility sucks post. I am not responding as quickly as I had hoped. “Life” keeps getting in the way.

    First off, I agree with what you say near the end of your post where you challenge other riders to confront rude or unruly behavior. This should not just be a suggestion – it should be a “requirement” for anyone who feels they need to ride in Critical Mass. After all, you are breaking the law and disrupting the city you live in, the least you can do is try to keep the cowards in your ranks at bay who can only act like this because of your involvement.

    But don’t forget. If YOU are not there, and the guy next to you is not there, and the next guy… well, pretty soon there is no “mass” and any violent behavior that takes place can easily be dealt with as it should be. Furthermore, without the mass it is highly unlikely individuals would behave in an unruly fashion in the first place. Image a small group of cyclists getting together on a random Tuesday and trying to pull some of the stunts they do during CM. They wouldn’t get too far.

    What I have seen and read (by pro-critical mass participants) is that the whole idea of the “mass” is to protect the individual. Both from harm from autos, but also from legal repercussions. There are simply too many of you to confront. Being that you chose to stand up and be counted as one of the mass – you certainly are responsible for the bad behavior of those your presence shields from responsibility. This is not at all comparable to a sporting event (or any other event that exists for that matter). A true analogy does not exist.

    At a sporting event there are a lot of people – true. At a sporting event sometimes violent behavior takes place – true. That’s pretty much where the similarities end however.

    The people who attend a sporting event are there legally and they know full well that any violence will be met with a response by the authorities. Often people in the crowd will actually point out the violent offenders for security. If violence does occur it is dealt with in the strictest and most immediate fashion allowed by law. Im not sure how it is done in San Francisco, but in San Diego (or any other stadium I have been in), if a fight or other violent act breaks out it is dealt with by not only stadium security, but the local police department. You can expect to be overwhelmed by officials, dragged down into the stadium holding cell, then transported to the downtown police lockup – where (among other things) you will be strip-searched and put in a tank with other “violent offenders”.

    The point is this. For every other instance in society – violent acts are punished by law. When you are an adult, violence is not tolerated. Period. This is not the playground where you get a time-out. You get locked away for hours with the worse society has to offer. This is an incentive for folks to play nice with their fellow man.

    The thought process is like this:
    “Well, I would REALLY like to do “X” right now because I’m pissed and fed up, BUT, I know I will end up in jail and have to pay hundreds, if not thousands of dollars in fines. Okay, maybe doing “X” isnt such a good idea.” Regretfully this internal conversation does not need to take place with CM participants.

    Hiding behind a “mass” or “mob” allows people to behave in ways they would not normally. The mere fact that the “mass” itself is an illegal event in some ways meant to provoke (at least thats what some of them say) means that if you align yourself with this event, YOU are responsible. This is true everywhere else in society – and the law itself recognizes this. Imagine a group of people breaking the law (break into a house), ONE of the people murders the occupants. They will ALL be charged with murder. Sure the others will get lesser penalties, but you get the point.

    (I am not comparing CM participants with burglars or murderers for the record – only using the above to illustrate the point of group guilt).

    Another example: Let’s say I were to join a group of people that got together and walked down Main Street, USA every month carrying banners that promote the end of world hunger. These events are a success and more and more people show up each month. Some people use it as an opportunity to behave badly to their fellow man. I would no longer feel that I could be part of this event. I would not want to be counted as one of them anymore. Period.

    You admit that problems happen, but seem to think its no big deal because in your eyes they are few and far between. This does not excuse you from guilt. A person who joins an event again and again in which its very nature is designed to shield its participants from personal responsibility needs to think hard and long about what their involvement actually permits. Don’t be surprised when others use the shield of the mass that you willingly help create to behave in ways contrary to your personal beliefs, after all it is you that are helping allow it to continue.