An Anniversary to Remember
The 20th anniversary of Critical Mass in San Francisco was a huge success. A rather small “welcome committee” started thinking and talking about it almost a year ago, and somehow, it all came together beautifully. We published three gorgeous posters and thousands of handbills, stickers, xerocratic schedules and appeals, and most prominently, a new book of essays from all over the world, Shift Happens! Critical Mass at 20.
In addition to all that publishing work, we also coordinated a week of festivities to surround the big “Interstellar Critical Mass” as we dubbed it. Different people organized daily rides around the region and in the city including the Art/Freak Bike Ride on Sunday, the San Mateo ride on Monday, Transit History ride on Tuesday, Eastshore ride to Rose the Riveter monument as well as the NOIZ ride on Wednesday, the Mosquito Abatement Crew ride on Thursday. Each evening something different was happening, starting with Monday’s Artshow opening at the Welcome Center at 518 Valencia (which was open every afternoon from 1-5 pm all week), a Critical Mass video night at ATA, our book release party at the Main Library, two concerts including our big birthday bash at Cell on Thursday, a modest International Symposium on Critical Mass on Saturday, and for the grand finale, real summer weather on Sunday and dozens of us riding to the beach for a long warm afternoon.
And in the midst of all that, the amazing 10,000-strong Critical Mass Birthday ride on Friday September 28, one of the best rides we ever had here, proving that even after 20 years we can still pull it off! Swirling around all these activities and publications we enjoyed the company of several dozen international Critical Mass riders who came in on tallbikes, some riding all the way from Mexico City, others riding across the US, but all getting here in time to enjoy the wild week. The presence of smart, skilled, politicized cyclists from Italy, France, Mexico, Brazil, Ecuador, Japan, Costa Rica, Canada, the UK, and across the US, added a whole different dimension to the experience. In fact, locals are so busy with their everyday lives that there wasn’t a huge attendance to most of our events from people who live here. It’s not even clear that San Franciscans are that interested anymore in the culture surrounding Critical Mass and radical bicycling. But situated in an international milieu as we were during these days, we could feel the vibrancy and ongoing excitement that Critical Mass still generates even after two decades.
We were bombarded with requests for media interviews and decided on this anniversary to accommodate as many as we could. An hour-long appearance on KQED Forum on Monday anchored the week, as did a series of interviews with Ben Trefny on KALW. The corporate media stampeded towards us on Thursday and Friday, clamoring for interviews and prognostications of how big the ride would be on Friday night, a question that could not be answered until the actual ride started to roll. Carolyn Tyler of KGO Channel 7 gets special negative mention for having interviewed several of us on Thursday and then going back to her studio to produce yet another rehash of the lies of 1997, repeating again the false claim that 250 people were arrested (it was 112, none were ever charged with any crimes, most of them rounded up in an illegal mass arrest that San Francisco later had to pay damages for), and featuring then-Mayor Willie Brown casually advocating that a bunch of cyclists should spend time in jail (for which crimes exactly Mr. Brown?). Ms. Tyler seems incapable of doing the basic research that one would hope any responsible journalist would do, and instead did exactly what I told her she and her cohort had done repeatedly over the years: fanned the flames of minor incidents to try to produce “hot” conflict for their news cameras.
The San Francisco Examiner printed a remarkable editorial that we are still marveling at, recommending that motorists stuck in traffic ponder the inadequacies of our traffic system rather than venting themselves at the cyclists who once a month highlight this travesty. The SF Comicle’s Peter Fimrite on the other hand, managed to write a typically biased account with the inaccuracies we have come to expect from the semi-official paper of the City, dripping with disdain towards Critical Mass and prominently featuring the voices of “responsible” cycling, Supervisor David Chiu and SF Bike Coalition director Leah Shahum. The ongoing effort of the SFBC and its various official allies has been to render invisible the thriving bicycle culture that gave it its impetus (of which Critical Mass has long been one of the primary expressions). Hilariously, the weekly SFBC Calendar of Events sent out last week didn’t even mention Critical Mass, nor its 20th anniversary, instead suggesting that members should enjoy “Bike Valet Night” at the DeYoung Museum on Friday!! This led our friend Quintin Mecke, a longtime SFBC member as most of us are, to write a sarcastic and scathing open letter to the SFBC, which he posted to Facebook and we posted to the sfcriticalmass.org blog.
This in turn led to an institutional freakout over at the SF Bicycle Coalition. Over the years the organization has adopted most of the “rules of the road” of corporate communications and top-down organizational structure. Their grassroots essence has long been subsumed by a professional staff that selectively directs volunteer energy towards activities that bolster their tepid agenda. At least they are finally working for crosstown, dedicated cyclepaths after years of resistance and poo-poohing such proposals as unrealistic. Still, their current goals are quite limited and directed to making a safe path that wraps around the waterfront, and one key corridor up Market Street and eventually all the way to the beach, more useful for tourists and the big bike rental companies than for the everyday cyclists that jam the bikes lanes and smaller streets of the Mission, Hayes Valley, the Castro, Lower Haight, etc. It’s time to at least talk about bike boulevards and a 10% commitment of public thoroughfares to cycling …
Anyway, after Quintin’s message went out on the Thursday before the Friday ride, I was called by three different SFBC staffers, two of whom I spoke with, both of whom were “terribly disappointed” that we had gone public with these criticisms “at a time like this” and wouldn’t we please post another message that was “more positive” to balance the criticism? As it happens we don’t hold universally negative opinions of the SFBC and many of us are good friends with many of the people who have worked to make it what it is today. But if there was ever a good example of an organization that started small, active, democratic and energetic and later became something much different, larger, bureaucratic, top-down, relatively opaque to outsiders, the SFBC is it. Culturally, they hate transparency. They want to project a happy, pro-bike, pro-family message, and won’t tolerate their own staffers putting out any anti-car, or seriously critical points of view, even in their personal email. Members are not encouraged to initiate controversial campaigns without clearing it up the hierarchy. The Board and leadership seem most concerned with their political position vis-à-vis elected authority and local media, and are obsessed, like any typical politician, with controlling the message. When they briefly lost control of the message in the wake of Quintin’s open letter they seemed to panic and put a lot of energy into regaining control of the narrative. Kind of fun to have seen this up close and personal!
So we put up a different, more appreciative blog post a few hours later, and the panic subsided… much ado about nothing. In fact, such criticisms of the SFBC are vitally necessary not only for the larger political community, but even for their own organization. As I told Leah by phone, they need to hear what most of us have been saying about them quietly for a long time. And it’s not heard if we just say it directly to one or more staffers. They quickly brush it off as irrelevant, outside of their message and their purpose. But when it goes public, whammo! Full court press to get it to disappear… Plenty of SFBC members over the years would love to have a more robust and public debate about SFBC assumptions, politics, goals and programs, but the internal democracy of the big nonprofit organization only shows up in elections for the Board of Directors. The membership are expected to pay up and follow the programmatic plans as laid down by the paid staff, in other words, to act just like most other NGOs. All that said, the SFBC occupies a different niche in the local ecology of transit politics than Critical Mass, and nobody expects or wants that to change.
Critical Mass gets lots of harsh criticism all the time from many directions. Another recurrent voice this past week in comments on various online articles was the grumpy old bike messengers who want it both ways: first, Critical Mass didn’t start in September 1992 as claimed by those of us who were there; no it was the bike messengers who started riding together months or years earlier who should get the credit. And second, Critical Mass sucks and has sucked after the first few rides because it was “taken over” by poseurs and idiots who don’t ride every day and don’t know jack about real urban cycling. Markus “Fur” Cook, who helped organize the first ride and was a well-known and much-loved messenger, rock musician, and writer, died in 1996, or he might be able to put this to rest. Other messengers were on that first ride too, and personally I enjoyed a mutually helpful and respectful relationship with dozens of messengers for many years. I know fewer current messengers these days, partly because I don’t have an office anymore and my line of work (typesetting, graphic design) doesn’t need courier services anymore either. But it’s kind of pathetic to see various online comments making false claims about history, agency, and responsibility. I know the history of mass rides better now than I did back in 1992 for sure, and it turns out that mass bike rides were already over 100 years old when we “started” Critical Mass. Various people had been riding bikes to save Golden Gate Park from parking, others rode to protest the 1991 Gulf War (some 50-odd cyclists rode here from Santa Cruz in 1991 and one of them, Jim Denevan, later asked me if that’s where we got the idea for Critical Mass? Nope, hadn’t heard of them. Then it turned out they’d gotten the idea for riding up to protest the war from reading Processed World magazine, where I’d been advocating for more bicycle-based political activity for a few years! It circles/cycles around and around.) So what’s the proper point of origin? Who cares? There are many across time and space, and we’re only talking about San Francisco! There were mass rides in Berkeley and Oakland called “Smog-Free Locomotion Days” in 1969-71 when I was a boy… There were mass rides in Finland in the 1980s, in Bilbao Spain in 1990, etc. etc.
The most vituperative comments on all articles related to Critical Mass usually come from the folks whose experience of it is reading about it in the mass media. They are sure it’s all a big negative. I love the ones from cyclists who claim we’ve set back the cycling cause, or if we haven’t before, we surely are now that cycling has become almost an acceptable transit choice. A huge number of Americans are obsessed with scofflaw cyclists, apparently offended personally that we don’t stop at stop signs or roll through red lights to the safe empty road on the other side of the intersection. It only reinforces my belief that little will change in terms of popular attitudes as long as people don’t have a material experience of cycling. If you only see cyclists through the windshield of your car as a hazardous and unpredictable impediment, it’s no wonder that you’re confused and sometimes bitter. I think the perfect solution, beyond a robust system of parkways (a City of Panhandles I like to call it) with dedicated bikeways and room for pedestrians and wildlife to cross the urban landscape, is to make everyone ride a bike on city streets for 15 minutes in order to get a driver’s license. Then, even if you don’t choose to cycle, you’ll have a direct experience of how cycling is very different than driving, and that the roads and rules are designed to accommodate cars, not bikes.
It’s almost a week since the amazing, overflowing, massive Interstellar Ride. Thousands of cyclists filled San Francisco’s streets and in so doing, they also tasted that amazing collective euphoria that George Katsiaficas dubbed the “eros effect.” It was as though we all loved each other, strangers and friends alike, for a few hours in the streets. I’ve never seen so many motorists calmly turn off their engines and get out of their cars to applaud us! It was like being a liberating army entering a formerly occupied city!
The overwhelmingly positive response last Friday was matched also by a surprisingly intelligent job of policing by the SFPD. For years we chafed under their silly and sometimes brutal corralling and marshaling of us, hemming us in with motorcycles, picking people off for random tickets, etc. This past Friday they were nearly invisible. I know they had a full complement of officers on duty, but many were on bicycles for a change, and there were very few motorcycles pushing through us, and almost no harassment. Thank you SFPD for a job well done! We’ve never asked to be policed, and the media claims that we expect them to “escort us” are just ridiculous. If the SFPD chooses to police the ride that is their decision. But we always felt we could handle our own needs better ourselves with corking and defusing conflict through kindness and discussion where needed. It doesn’t always work of course. On a huge ride like last Friday’s there are always a few people who lose it and melt down entirely. That’s regrettable and not the intention of the participants. Of course we could do better at helping stuck motorists out of the midst of the river of bicyclists, and we could do a lot better to emulate the huge Bicicritica in Madrid, which is quite good at stopping for pedestrians to cross as needed. No doubt things can be done better. But all in all, the Friday ride was an amazing night and left most people in state of dazed happiness. Me too!
On to more anniversaries!