Ruminations from the New Year’s Eve Ride

January 3rd, 2011 by ccarlsson

Riders take a whimsical detour through the parking lot at 16th and Bryant on New Year's Eve, Dec. 31, 2010.

After the New Year’s Eve Critical Mass in San Francisco, some of the veterans who helped start this blog, along with a few others, had some discussions online. We decided to excerpt this discussion as a retrospective on the last ride, and actually, taking it more broadly, a retrospective on the past couple of years. Kes had proposed a route about ten days ago to general enthusiasm and we prepared a xerocratic flyer (pdf) with the route on one side and a brief text on the other. People were generally enthusiastic at Peewee Herman Plaza when they got the flyer, but the proposed route was only followed as far as 8th and Harrison, after which the ride went back around to the center of the city. Here are some of the back-and-forth thoughts we had afterwards:

Hugh: Chris, Dave, ‘Deep and I rode the front and tried to keep it on the route, but there were many more people who wanted to do the usual. Union Square, blah blah blah. The usual “no route” crew was augmented by a large contingent of LA Midnite Riddaz who shared that agenda. (The folks on the tall bikes—glad they came out, but… Whatever.) Had a few interesting and friendly arguments with people who had the following familiar opinions:

* Critical Mass has to be downtown and on major traffic arteries
* Critical Mass has “never” had planned routes
* Critical Mass is a protest.
* It’s more “anarchist” if the people in front make the decisions

At this point, I am very discouraged about our ability to change this perception. I think that over the next year, we may see an exodus of people who are social riders with a party sensibility migrating to Bike Party, leaving the people who believe Critical Mass is a protest on the last Friday. I could be wrong, but from what I have seen, the Bike Party folks are very well organized, putting real time and energy into their ride, and have a good group dynamic.

Chris: Not surprised to read Hugh’s missive this a.m. He and I and Kes were talking throughout the ride yesterday and sharing a lot of disappointment with the turn of events. From the outset in Peewee Herman Plaza a lot of folks seemed happy about the planned route but a few folks were already grumbling that it was somehow “authoritarian” or evidence of “control freakness” to publish a proposed route. Two older guys in their 50s were adamantly against it on those grounds, and argued with me for a while. I tried to explain the notion was one of self-control, self-management, producing together an interesting relationship to San Francisco’s geography, but they really weren’t buying it. So they might have been among those who were anxious to break from the prescribed route. Certainly a number of young riders, whether those from LA or SF, or the anarchist-inspired, were articulate and insistent on their idea that Hugh summarized well in his four bullet points. Clearly, these notions are historically false, but they do summarize well a growing sentiment among people who show up…

I experienced the ride as a disappointment at first, since I was enthused about the proposed route. But I have to say, on reflection, it doesn’t really matter that much. I think those of us who were there and wanted something specific should pause and think about the overall experience of Critical Mass last night. Was it really much different than any other ride during the past 15 years?

I want to emphasize two points: 1) this is far from new, and has always been an inherent tension in the experience; and 2) if we hadn’t been set on a route of our own choosing, and had just been on the ride as we mostly have been during the past ten years, without much concern about where it goes or who is in front making decisions, would we have experienced this ride much differently from ones we really enjoyed in the past? I’m going to say no to the second question. I realized that later in the night. If I just let go of my frustration that we didn’t prevail with the route, how was this ride much different from any of them? Not much. If anything it was probably better because it was smaller and more compact, and thus, not much of an inconvenience for anyone who got bottled up by it. (I thought it really fucked up and obnoxious to insist on clogging major arteries on a night when so many people were trying to get to their dinner or show reservations, for which they’d undoubtedly paid dearly, and already the tension of trying to have a “great time on New Year’s Eve” is so awkward and easily out-of-control… Why deliberately try to fuck up people’s evening in that situation?) Anyway, basically the ride was not much different than it usually is, and didn’t seem to be a departure from the normal Critical Mass experience.

Kes: I was really disappointed with the Midnight Ridazz from Smell A. After I tried (unsuccessfully) to give them a proposed route they wouldn’t even talk to me when I tried making small talk about tall bikes and freak bicycles generally—a topic in which I am fairly well versed—all because I was trying to” control the mass for my own self-aggrandizment.” There were several other groups of youngsters visiting our city that night and claiming our ride as their own. Imagine that! Since when did we become the enemy?

Hugh: I agree that the ride was not much different than it usually is. And there are some aspects of that “usual” that I’m really sick of. One is the boring route choices, with the endless loops around Union Square. The other is the people riding into oncoming traffic, riding as disruptively as possible, under the mistaken belief that this is somehow radical.

Chris: Let’s challenge the implicit and explicit arguments of those who are pushing this ahistorical, and surely self-defeating logic of Critical Mass. Eventually, they will kill the ride if that cultural impulse comes to define the experience. Up to the present it has been only one among many impulses, and more people have been friendly and courteous than not. There was plenty of that last night too… But the intense self-righteousness of radical youth, while a welcome participant in Critical Mass, cannot be the defining characteristic of it. Their behavior is geared to making sure they feel radical and different, when the real radical agenda is to draw as many people as possible out of their inertia and complacent go-along-to-get-along lives into trying something new, social, convivial, pleasurable, and frankly, better than their everyday lives. If Critical Mass engages with the larger culture as its enemy, or treats individuals in cars or along the way as opponents or hostiles, it’s only a matter of time before the ride has shrunk to the few dozen pure radicals who have vetted each other’s radical credentials so that Critical Mass is only for the hard core… That would be a sad way for a fascinating and vibrant experiment to slowly crumble into itself…

Joel: New Year’s Critical Mass seemed awesome to me, a total success. I was at the front, too, trying to help stay on route, but also laughingly declaring it inevitable “Chaotical Mass.” Back in the early years, I used to get upset every (yes every) ride because it’s so hard to get people to CELEBRATE dammit. Instead people were busy pushing for…jeez, I couldn’t tell. So what?

Dave S.: I remember years ago when we envisioned what would happen with the ride as it evolves. We imagined such huge numbers that a single ride was impractical, and intolerable to the police and security forces in any case, and that we would instead hold dozens of smaller rides: mini-masses on many streets. This is how it is in fact evolving, but more anarchistically than we (or I, anyway) imagined. Critical Mass is shrinking due to the sensibilities of its current dominant clique, while others are organizing smaller events: last night’s bike dance party that ended at midnight at the Embarcadero was a blast, and the SF Bike Party.

I’m not sure we’ve tried hard enough to re-take Critical Mass. It seems to me that 15 dedicated people, four months in a row, armed with 10,000 flowers (oops, I meant to type fliers, but flowers would help, too!), could do it, but I just don’t think we care enough to mount that kind of effort. I certainly don’t, I have to admit.

Joel: We proposed some routes this year, more than we’ve done in recent past years. We increased numbers of people communicating online. We got people to follow some of the routes. We stimulated a lot of discussion. We (well, mostly me) distributed a lot of flowers at one ride, even if we haven’t brought a lot of flyers to any ride. The current CM is not about SF, it’s largely a tourist thing. Every ride lately, I ask a lot of people “Is this your first SF Critical Mass?” and more than half say “yes!” excitedly. That is not something that will “shrink to the few dozen pure radicals” very quickly I say we look at this as an opportunity very different than we have in that past: a chance to spread some ideas to OTHER cities.

Chris: It must also be noted that a few thousand people experienced the Twin Peaks and Bayview rides last year and were delighted by them. The transmission of the culture/etiquette we believe in is no one else’s job but our own!

Dave S.: The idea of taking over the streets en masse with bicyclists doesn’t have the political import for the bicycle movement that it did in the early 90s. I know that Critical Mass also had an impact beyond bicycling: the idea that people working together without rulers can take over public space so effectively is revolutionary and surely inspired all kinds of actions and ideas. But its socioeconomic niche was always pretty small, restricting its biggest impact to the bicycle movement.

Chris: I don’t agree that Critical Mass has mostly only been important for the “bicycle movement” due to its narrow socioeconomic niche, and that it doesn’t seem important any more to take the streets en masse like it did in the 1990s. First, taking it locally, the existing bike improvements are woefully inadequate. The streets need to be reconfigured in much more profound ways than anything we’ve yet seen. Bike boulevards and crosstown bikeways are just starting to be discussed. If you remove the pressure of a mass seizure of the streets every month, I promise you the likelihood of those kinds of deeper changes will diminish…

If we look at CM as a global phenomenon, far bigger than our experience here in SF, then its importance is even harder to measure. I’ve always held that the dynamic process of reopening a relatively undefined public space vs. the incessant logic of privatization and commodification of all human experience, is the most radical and compelling aspect of this monthly event. Amazing to think that after 18+ years it still happens here and in a couple of hundred cities around the world, and that the reasons why people do it are so varied. So sure, if your motivation is some kind of civil rights agenda for bicyclists, maybe Critical Mass seems exhausted as a tactic. (Hard to believe there’d be much political support for bicycling, or a big SFBC, if CM hadn’t been carrying on all these years.) But if the point of Critical Mass is to maintain a space, to open a place for people to meet unencumbered by a specific political or religious or commercial agenda, and in keeping it open to help new relationships and new initiatives to grow and flourish, then it hardly seems exhausted to me.

At the same time it IS exhausting to fight for the culture in it, which is constantly shifting and evolving, not always in directions I prefer. Like the larger fight with the society around us (still, after all, fully committed to war, empire, unrestrained fossil fuel exploitation, automobility, factory food, and a long list of crappy choices!), we have to keep ourselves going over the long haul, and can’t lose faith when we face occasional frustrations or setbacks. Critical Mass is never exactly what anyone wants it to be. That’s ok, as long as it continues to be open to further shaping down the road…. I think it still is.

Hugh: Bicycling is mainstream now! Everyone bikes, and the old angry edge that has always been there — and has always been a bit unwelcome, in my mind — now seems more out of place than ever. Really, Critical Mass is 18, going on 19. Time for it to grow up!

Chris: Look at the original “How to Make a Critical Mass” booklet we did in 1993, wherein we describe typical dynamics and some of the solutions, to wit, Snails, Testosterone Brigade, Traffic Tactics, Breaking Mass, Density, etc. None of these problems have ever gone away or been “solved.” In fact, the ride has existed, in fact and lived experience for nearly 2 decades on the knife edge of the tension that these dynamics produce, for better and worse.

Better, because it is an ongoing challenge to self-manage and self-produce an experience that we can enjoy. Worse, obviously, because so many people shy away from that challenge, or get burned out, or just never want to have to engage with people who aren’t following their idea of how people should behave. “Bad behavior” is quite relative and definitely contextual. We’ve tolerated that idiotic yelling drunk for more than a decade and he’s seriously obnoxious and antisocial! We’ve always had people who got to the front and set too fast a pace, went in ill-advised directions, rode into oncoming traffic, etc. That’s just par for the course.

Joel: We can’t fix CM. It’s already fixed. We CAN create something entirely else, and imagine how to use the lessons learned in 18 years of CM to do so.

Chris: Back in 1995 some of us put out a flyer arguing: “let’s break into a half dozen groups of 150-200, or even a dozen and a half groups of 50-100, and reclaim an original purpose. In any case, we have to find a way for all of us to have the kind of Critical Mass we want. There’s fun to be had! (The Pscycle-Analysts, September 29, 1995)”

Kes: I love the idea of multiple masslings.  It’s so much fun when one group finds another.

16 Responses to “Ruminations from the New Year’s Eve Ride”

  1. Eric Black says:

    The multiple masslings became a reality during the Willie Brown crackdown. The ride that August became a bunch of smaller masses that would pass one another with riders switching groups. Instead of one large train of a mass going through town there were hundreds of groups from 10 to 50. I thought it was even more powerful than the monolith.

    As for being at the front, that isn’t a guarantee that anyone is going to follow you. I’ve been at the front and had the entire mass make a turn behind the first six riders.

  2. Iron Pan says:

    Happy to see so much discussion about this online.

    Lots of little Masses? That would be awesome!

  3. Slava says:

    “Oh im very disappointed” “It was boring” “Im sick of the stupid route”- why just all of you shut up! and if you want some kinda changes go on the front and make this mass follow you! But you can not because you do not have any leadership skills and you can not get people attention, oh its sooo sad… Instead you can spend an hour online talking shit about how sick of it you are- thats a real man sigh!!!
    Change it the way you want or save it!!!

  4. nikkita says:

    hey i have been riding at critical mass since the mid 90’s, i was even there at the great bicycle “riot” of july 97, and always found them chaotic, exhausting…and exhilarating…i think of the ride as a protest and think it should stay that way, because bking might be more mainstream now (i hope) but we could always use more respect…people enjoy the respect but forget how we got it…in my humble opinion because of critical mass…end of story

  5. So Nikkita, I’m wondering about this idea of Critical Mass as a “protest.” What is it protesting? And who is the target of the protest? If the target is motorists, I pretty strongly disagree with that perspective. People that drive are as much victims of this insane traffic system as you or I. Most people drive because they don’t see any other choice for themselves. And they certainly didn’t create the problem — that is, they didn’t design our cities so that you need a car to get around. That was done 50 years ago.

    In order to make change, you need a broad-based social movement that is oriented around a positive social vision. My hope is that our ride provides a vision of how life could be different, and inspires people to change their lives. Certainly, I don’t aim to punish anyone who has made different transportation choices from my own.

    My 2 cents…

  6. Wilson says:

    What was up with the flag burner? He was on foot, running with the bike pace which was impressive. Until he started burning American flags in the middle of the mass on Market Street. And second, what was up with the police presence of a dozen motorcycles and a paddy wagon? By all means, they were courteous and generous with their service, blocking freeway off ramps and keeping crossing traffic at bay, but they literally stayed with the mass the whole time. The multiple smaller masses were a pro in this case. Looking forward to the bike party.

  7. Iron Pan says:

    It seems that when Critical Mass rides away from downtown, and forbidden destinations like the freeway or the bridges, and rides out into the neighborhoods for a cool, mellow ride, the cops leave. I like to think of the mass as a demonstration. A demonstration of how things COULD be. I don’t ride it in the spirit of a protest- those are boring- accomplishing only frustration and anger on all sides. I am so tired of being represented (The whole Mass) as a protest by ten to twenty swelled up, angry young men at the front who just want to mess with people. They don’t seem to realize that there are several hundred people behind them that absolutely disagree. Unfortunately, a lot of people who watch the Mass pass by also don’t realize this.

    I ride my bicycle for a living and let me tell ya’ – after a full month of eight-hour days in the saddle, the LAST thing I want to do is fight with a bunch of people in cars who are just trying to get where they are going. I DO want to ride around and socialize with people and I have found that Critical Mass IS by and large , a wonderful and unique way to do that.

    One more observation. It seems that MOST of the obnoxious kids at the front are not even from San Francisco.

  8. Roadblock says:

    The accusations against Midnight Ridazz is kinda silly. We came up to celebrate with you guys and we brought a big ass music bike to add to the flavor and celebration. No one was there to hate. All I know is when the ride took off we were following with the music bike in front and gradually the entire ride started following the music bike. I’m not even sure any of group knew the route or even knew there was a route? Anyway we just came out to party with y’all not tryin to be adversarial at all.

  9. Thanks for clarifying! We love the Midnight Ridazz and sort of hesitated to publish that comment, since it was unsubstantiated and just one person’s impression. Next time we’ll double check!

  10. Roadblock says:

    Ahh no worries please publish/keep the comments. Everyone has a right to their opinions. It’s all good, it gave us a chance to participate in the discussion.

    Bike party sounds really fun. Does anyone have info on something called the Butter Loop?

  11. Roadblock says:

    Also we’ve been going through LACM strains with the LAPD. They began escorting the ride back in June and ever since have been asking for a route. They’ve been pressing very hard and offered to exchange contiguous escort for a route. We 45ish Ridazz abandoned LACM on NYE to get to SF where it seems like the relationship with the PD is better. In LA there are 40-50 motorcycle cops 3-5 crusiers a helicopter for a mass of 2000 riders.

    The LAPD began ticketing randomly while escorting at other times. Finally a 16 year old dude gave the cops a route and that made a bunch of the purists pissed off. There was a split with many midnight Ridazz deciding to start counter ride simultaneously with LACm but at different start points. Having 4 or 5 rides a night with LACM lurking out there is pretty fun and interesting.

  12. That’s really interesting! Why not have multiple Critical Mass rides on the last friday? Some can have a planned route, some can freewheel it. I had no idea the LA ride was so large! I’ll get down there to check it out soon.

    You were curious about Butterlap — here’s a piece I wrote on Butterlap and other small rides I’ve been on:

  13. Roadblock says:

    Yeah LACM was hovering around 700ish till May when the ride went to a BP Arco station and occupied the intersection. The cops were caught on film tackling a videographer and beating him up for filming a cop kick bike riders as they rode by. At that
    point there was a big ole flap in the media and the LAPD put together a task force to communicate with percieved leaders (including myself) of the community. They actually were welcomed by most everyone and in fact the ride grew more than twice as large because people were intrigued to see how things would go an frankly it felt safer to have the cops along.

    That relationship with the LAPD is still going and we have a specially assigned lapd officer who participates on our forum. He actually helps push hit and run cases through and helps people with their cases.

  14. Iron Pan says:

    Hey Roadblock!

    My comment about obnoxious kids at the front from out of town was NOT levelled at you guys!

    We have a real problem with that sort of thing these days.

    I thought y’all brought a lot of style and dedication to the ride.

    Thank You!

  15. Trickmilla says:

    The discussion is fascinating. Much respect to anybody who has had their head in Critical Mass for 18 years! Its kind of like ground hogs day, how the same problems & complexities keep coming up again and again.
    I just did an “LACM Public Forum” on Kill Radio a few weeks ago.

    I included lots of excerpts from “We are Traffic” to offer somewhat of a context for our discussion.

    It amazing how universal many these problems are.
    And how different people in different places at different times are often offering up some of the same of solutions.

    I think its great that you keep a dialog going and keep putting energy into CM.

    I agree with the idea that CM for all its weird problems is just as vibrant and healthy as ever.
    And growing! In LA … (ironically) after the cops started coming to every ride, the ammount of riders nearly quadrupled! with lots of young people coming out to their first ever group bike ride.

    Its staggering to think how this concept is functioning in cities all over the world all based on a a small group of people taking to the streets to ride bikes together. CM will always have this issues, but I don’t think it will ever go away until riding a bike is as mundane as walking, driving or taking the metro.

  16. I am glad for all the vibrant discussion about CM relevance in this day and age.

    SF and LA and all CM round the world would do well to pay attention to how things have evolved here in NYC. CM is dead, due to non-stop police harassment. The NYPD is now taking their model of enforcement on the last Friday of the month to use on cyclists every day. This is to appease the vocal minority who have fostered a backlash in the media to the dramatic infrastructure changes that have occurred here.

    We are going to have a long hard battle this spring and summer. And what happens here in NYC may be happening in your town soon. The authorities are sharing info too. Stay tuned!!