Protest or Celebration? Or Something Deeper Still?

January 29th, 2011 by ccarlsson

As long as you have a bike to ride, you don’t have to buy anything to participate in Critical Mass, neither object nor service, nor an ideology beyond a desire to partake in public life on two wheels. When hundreds and thousands of cyclists seize the streets for a convivial and celebratory use of public space, many of the expectations and rules of modern capitalism are challenged. Individual behaviors escape the logic of buying and selling, if only for a few hours. Once in the street together, unexpected connections emerge, unplanned events occur, and serendipitous relationships begin. Unlike a trip to the mall or the market, the conversations are unburdened by the logic of transactions, of prices and measurements. It’s a free exchange among free people. The experience alters one’s sense of city life immediately, and more importantly, shifts our collective imaginations in ways we have only begun to learn about.

Critical Mass cyclists are among the most visible practitioners of a new kind of social conflict. The “assertive desertion” embodied in bicycling erodes the system of social exploitation organized through private car ownership and the oil industry. And by cycling in urban centers in the Empire, we join a growing movement around the world that is repudiating the social and economic models controlled by multinational capital and imposed on us without any form of democratic consent. This mass seizure of the streets by a swarming mob of bicyclists “without leaders” is precisely the kind of self-directing, networking logic that is transforming our economic lives and threatening the structure of government, business, and (as more imaginative military strategists are coming to understand) policing and war-making too.

Critical Mass has a new cousin in town: the San Francisco Bike Party (SFBP). The party-like qualities of Critical Mass have always been present, but the Bike Party model as developed in San Jose and other cities first involves an organizing (and monitoring) crew of volunteers who direct the fun. The first official SFBP happened a few weeks ago on January 7 and drew around 1000 riders on a bitterly cold night. It was a lot like Critical Mass in some ways—I enjoyed dozens of conversations with people I found myself next to in the ride, there were music machines, and friendly vibes from riders and passersby alike. We were dozens and hundreds of bicyclists filling the streets and displacing cars, just as we’d dreamed back in the first months of Critical Mass in 1992.

Critical Mass is, or seems to be, political—but let’s admit that it is a relatively inarticulate politics, or perhaps so multi-voiced that it cannot be summarized easily by any given set of ideas. SFBP on the other hand is militantly apolitical, somewhat obsessed with obeying traffic rules, and—based on the repeated bellows of “Bike Party!” as we rode along—settling for a fairly shallow and empty idea of “fun on bikes” as its self-conception.

More interesting perhaps is the informal leadership that is behind the scenes at both SFBP and Critical Mass. There is a continuum from the SFBP organizing committee and its “birds” (monitors) at one end to the hardcore “no leader” anarchists leading recent Critical Masses at the other. In between—in a decidedly un-moderate role—are some of us who like both events for similar reasons but have problems with both too. We don’t want to have people hectoring us into the right lane or to stop at a stoplight where there’s no need (e.g. northbound along the Embarcadero in the right lane), or a stop sign when there’s no cross traffic. As one friend put it, “I don’t do this in my normal life, why would I do it on Bike Party?!?”

What motivates the Bike Party organizers and monitors? Do they have an urge to make sure groups of people obey their behavioral standards? We know there are a lot of bicyclists who are intensely committed to “good, lawful behavior” as the standard by which cyclists of all sorts should be judged. The Bike Party has just started and it’s likely to grow very large and attract its own police attention. When the organizers start negotiating with the police it won’t be long before the police are dictating what is acceptable in terms of routes, stops, and pace. How will Bike Party’s fun evolve when the “birds” are more obviously enforcers of police preferences?

That said, the first SFBP was a lot of fun, and in its self-discipline was a sight to see. Wherever there might have been a conflict with a motorist or a bus that needed to get by, people courteously cleared the way. No one rode into a red light or into oncoming traffic. This didn’t need monitoring and grew naturally out of the preferences of the riders.

Interestingly, this kind of common-sense courtesy could be adopted by Critical Mass routinely (it is now, but only sporadically) and by so doing, reduce the tension and increase the pleasure of the ride for most people. Some of us have modeled this approach and argued for it in flyers and online for years. But we don’t want to be monitors and don’t want to impose anything on anyone. We’d like people to behave courteously and respectfully because they want to, and because it’s more subversive than being angry and confrontational!

Critical Mass has always styled itself as radically democratic. In the public space of our streets, the people present determine their own fates by how they interact with each other and passersby, which can be profoundly democratic—not in the sense of majority-rule voting that we usually accept as the definition of “democracy” but in the directly democratic sense of open and unmediated participation. In other ways Critical Mass never has been “democratic,” because very few people influence the route the rides take (though almost anyone might exercise that influence on a given ride), and fewer still sometimes cause conflicts along the perimeter by riding into oncoming traffic or lurching into cross traffic ahead of the main ride.

In the early years routes would be proposed and “voted on” by a show of hands in Peewee Herman Plaza at the beginning of the ride. No more than a few dozen could meaningfully participate in that, even if hundreds were in the vicinity. In practice every ride is directed by the most convincing and assertive riders at or near the front. Ever since the 1997 attack by the police, after which there was a big drop-off of written communication among riders (the much-vaunted “xerocracy” seemed to wither away), there haven’t been more than a dozen proposed routes in as many years. As a result, many people who didn’t live through Critical Mass in the 1990s are ideologically committed to “no proposed routes” and “no leaders.”

Some of these same people seem to believe that Critical Mass is “a protest” and that the point of it is to occupy the major traffic arteries in order to screw up traffic as much as possible. They have been heard grumbling when the ride headed south or too far west, urging the ride to turn back towards downtown and the city center in order to pursue their tactical approach. In their own odd way, they ARE leading Critical Mass, but without explaining their idea of what it is, or how going where they want to go will fulfill their unspoken “mission.” This reveals the peculiar self-governing reality of Critical Mass: ad-hoc leadership groups make important decisions that influence the experience of everyone, but are completely unaccountable to anyone but themselves.

That leaves some of us oldtimers scratching our heads. Who said Critical Mass is “a protest”? Isn’t being an antagonistic cyclist counterproductive? What is it about youthful subcultures that think it’s really radical to act out and pick fights with people who don’t look or think like they do? Isn’t it more radical to try to turn these people into active allies in the fight for a better life? Isn’t the “mainstream” life the radicals are “protesting,” dependent on car transit, inherently worse than what it could be? Don’t we want to invite people imprisoned by it to join us, instead of giving them cause to hate us?

In some cities the police have been successful at stopping Critical Mass, maybe because the riders themselves haven’t been as creative with the ride and its logic. In Austin, Texas and Minneapolis, Minnesota, and even in Manhattan, police departments have attacked and arrested Critical Mass cyclists and successfully discouraged a lot of people from participating in those cities. In Portland, Oregon, a very bicycle-friendly city, Critical Mass died out when the culture was too dominated by angry young men (in San Francisco we call them the Testosterone Brigade) who think there is a “class war” between cars and bikes. They go out of their way to block cars, to taunt and provoke motorists, especially those in expensive cars. Those doing it are proud and feel like they’re pushing things to the limit, but to the rest of us they look cowardly, hiding behind the mob.

Inanimate objects don’t have class wars, and to target people in cars as the enemy is a huge political mistake. Car drivers are not the enemy, but our natural allies! The folks stuck in traffic in cars or on busses are clearly more like than unlike the riders who are temporarily altering the rhythm of urban life by seizing the streets on bicycle. The point of Critical Mass, in my opinion, has always been to create an inviting, celebratory space that is so contagious that people who might not bicycle much are irresistibly drawn to trying it out. If you self-righteously call people names, try to make them feel guilty or ashamed, there’s little chance they will change how they think and further, change their behavior. Our pleasure is more subversive than our anger, and that’s hard for some people to remember in the heat of the streets.

It’s easy to forget that one of the best things about Critical Mass is that it puts hundreds and thousands of us in the streets together where the rules and etiquette aren’t always clear. That means we have to solve problems as they arise by talking to each other, working things out in the pressure of the moment, and getting important practice in political self-organizing and self-management.

In the United States during the past two decades a serious Culture War defined the society, with right-wing Christian fundamentalists increasingly emboldened to try to control the behavior of the rest of the society. On the other side are millions of people who believe in high levels of personal freedom and tolerance, and you can find a lot of the most ardent and articulate of those folks riding their bikes in Critical Mass.

There is real tension between the different values vying to influence these mass bike rides. Probably a large number of participants really don’t care, as long as they have a fun ride every month. That’s fine, but we’re not living up to our self-expectations if we leave these deeper issues unexamined. Whatever our preferences, neither Critical Mass nor SF Bike Party are good at communicating to passersby the deeper meaning of their existence. We may not like every turn the ride ahead of us makes, but shouldn’t we do our best to influence our shared culture by openly debating our behaviors, our “messages” (or lack thereof), and our purposes?

—Chris Carlsson, January 28, 2011

11 Responses to “Protest or Celebration? Or Something Deeper Still?”

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  3. Travis says:

    I wish you would just call it Justin Herman Plaza.

  4. common terry says:

    – Burn oil, the blood of Satan, pumped up from Hell as a sacrament in your 2 ton Car to turn the earth into Hell. Hate your enemies. sin often. the more you love Money, the more satan will bless you with it. You will need it to buy the cyborg parts to live in the new environment we create together and you will live forever.

  5. Scott says:

    I like riding away from downtown and seeing new places. I mean, if we always ride the same circle around downtown and stay in the same area, isn’t that really just a planned route after all?

  6. Jym Dyer says:

    @Travis – Justin Herman was all about redeveloping San Francisco so that disadvantaged communities would be wiped out to pave the way for cars. While there is certainly some mordant pleasure to be had gathering for a carfree, convivial confab at his plaza, I think it’s even more fun to invoke one of the patron saints of the joy of cycling.

  7. Wilson says:

    Long piece, worth the read for opinion. Critical Mass has a reputation as chaos and anti-car, the videos all suggest it, bikes circling in the intersections with cars honking. I’m glad SFBP is rubbing off on the Critical Mass riders. I refuse democratically to ride critical mass because of that large group of police following the main mass through the city. I read SJBP got the “courtesy” police service on their 80-person ride last Friday in the rain. That’s wack. I don’t normally ride with police so why would I at a bike party? I’m all for the police as they serve the public and its safety, but parties and police don’t mix.

    p.s. I sent an email a few weeks ago about the sfcriticalmass website database being compromised. It’s a common hack with out of date wordpress installs, if you search “SF CRITICAL MASS” you’ll see that the title is a spam pharmacy sales pitch. You’ll need to scrub your database, install 3.1 wordpress.

  8. Rodrigo says:

    First person perspective of the incident, in HD:

  9. janebikerider says:

    I appreciate your nuanced opinion, but really if you don’t like the style of the ride then don’t do the bp. I’m not involved with the volunteers on the SFBP, and in my day to day life I’m a pretty assertive rider (take up lanes , go through lights when safe etc), and I feel it’s very just to do so. I also chafe when I’m in the bp and people are sort of controlling the crowd, and feel personally that stopping at red lights is unsafe as it splits up the group.

    All that said, this is a planned organized ride, and I respect that, so I respect the rules and have even casually enforced them on others.