Critical Mass is Thirteen!

It was a spectacular evening in San Francisco. At least 2,000 cyclists showed up for the 13th anniversary ride of Critical Mass here. I had a lot of great conversations during the ride. My bells were broken so, uncharacteristically, I spent the time talking instead of playing bells. I didn’t do much to document any of it either, even though beforehand I had thought about videotaping and interviewing people for their thoughts on the 13th anniversary. I took a few blurry pictures coming up Polk from Fisherman’s Wharf (that after a circuitous route through the Financial District and North Beach, to the tumultuous enthusiasm of most bystanders), and another batch of blurry shots alongside Union Square (after we’d poured eastward through the Broadway Tunnel and then south through the Stockton Tunnel–I guess we have to do the double-tunnel trip when it’s a significant anniversary…). Anyway, here’s the photo I like best, next to Union Square:

The ride went on for a long time, getting broken up into a half dozen clusters, causing much mayhem with angry motorists along Market and at a few other points along the way. The utter lack of internal self-management really showed last night, and is the inevitable result of years of just having Critical Mass happen, with little or no communication among participants before or during the ride. This unconscious approach came under some interesting, and deserved, criticism during an after-party at Station 40, where a benefit screening of “Still We Ride” was held.

The film is very well-made and tells the sickening ongoing story of the NY Police’s suspension of the rule of law and often brutal attack on bicyclists ever since the Republicans held their convention in NYC last August. It will show again this Friday, Oct. 7, at the Victoria Theater as part of the Bicycle Film Festival. I highly recommend checking it out.

About 100 people crowded into Station 40 on 16th Street at 9:30 to see the film and have a lively discussion afterwards. Some of the original Critical Massers (including yours truly) were there. Joel P. spoke about his concerns that the gradually encroaching police presence was going to worsen in coming months, esp. in light of the NY story. He called for more xerocracy, a fine art of horizontal communication that has been poorly utilized since the mid-1990s. Beth V., another oldtimer who returned after a five year hiatus, was really dismayed at how much yahoo behavior individual cyclists were engaged in during the ride, whether riding pointlessly into oncoming traffic on the wrong side of the street or darting into intersections full of cross traffic well ahead of the Mass’s arrival, not to mention the ever-present tendency for people to verbally fight with people in their cars with little or no provocation. Many supported these sentiments, and an interesting urge to proactively self-organize seemed to emerge among the attendees. Some talk about future meetings and discussions was had, and it seems that at least for those at Station 40, ‘getting organized’ was an exciting prospect.

Quite a difference from the years of avoiding meetings, traditional organizing paradigms, etc. But as one person emphasized to me, maybe after 13 years it’s time to take more responsbility, to get more self-organized, to push our community to new levels of coherence and focused practice. Why not? I have spent years avoiding taking on that kind of formal effort because it tends to burn out those who choose the Sisyphean path of trying to herd (cool cycling) cats, and it is more likely to produce an internal management group than it is to change most people’s level of engagement.

Nevertheless, I welcome the prospects of a new generation of activists taking the lead and pushing things into new directions. In fact, SF’s Critical Mass has enjoyed at least two other previous moments where new groups congealed around wanting to contest the direction of Critical Mass. So it’s overdue and a reason for excitement. We’ll see what happens next time, and since it’s Halloween, it’s bound to be a great ride!

I actually did write a short essay for this ride, which was going to be produced xerocratically, but the good folks at Faultlines (the indybay newspaper) published it on their page 1. Had they managed to show up to the ride at 5:30 instead of 6:20, most of the riders would have gotten a copy as they were supposed to, but 150 or so were distributed, and now the papers will be around town for the next month.

7 comments to Critical Mass is Thirteen!

  • Whoever said, “Be careful what you wish for”, was a wise individual. A key ingredient to successful social movements is diversity; diversity in thought, diversity in class, diversity in race, diversity in sex, in culture and so on… It seems to be that an ongoing struggle within the Critical Mass social movement is the diversity in thought. Every single person approaches CM from a different perspective and from different experiences. As a forward thinking and radical group, we appreciate the uniqueness that each person brings to the mass action.

    However, if an individual speaks out about their beliefs and passions (particularly when the comment is directly addressing CM) and a rider disagrees, an immediate line is drawn. There have been some lines that have been drawn in the sand and have been washed away, but there are also permanent marker lines (if you will) drawn that have never been erased.

    There has been a permanent line drawn for quite sometime separating participants who feel CM should represent itself in one manner and those who feel that spontaneity and freedom rings true through the core of CM. My question is how do we move forward from this debate?

    Ultimately, if you feel that CM is spontaneous and the participants are free to say and act as they please then you should appreciate and accept the freedom to speak your mind. Therefore, if someone approaches a participant who is riding against traffic and explains to the “against the grain” participant that they do not appreciate their act, then you should recognize their freedom to speak to their beliefs. Freedom of speech would allow for the censorship of none.

    How do we move forward and work to have participants on both side of the line realize that we support one another in our freedom of expression? One participant should be free to ride against the grain and another participant should be free to address their concerns with that action.

    Social movements are like people, they change with time. Sometimes I wonder if CM has been caught in a position where some participants are trying to pull it back to its origins and some participants are attempting to push it towards its possibilities. Unfortunately, I feel like CM is caught in the middle and is stagnant. Friday night energized people to speak their minds and that is the most important accomplishment of all. Our duty is to now take that energy and move out of stagnation.

  • Rocco

    Practically speaking, I would feel really bad if someone was killed or seriously injured riding into oncoming traffic like I saw last Friday night. This possibility is enough reason not to do it.

    And berating drivers really loses sight of the larger picture, the structural forces that put people in their minivans and SUVs and Honda Preludes. Are these people really bad people? Ignorant fools?? Or are they making choices that they see fit for themselves from emotional, social, familial, and economic standpoints while operating inside of a system that strongly advertises such a choice as proper and beneficial??? To violently confront this one person in their one car in a nation where millions of similar choices are made daily is to view the issue from somewhat simplistic ground.

    Sorry if this sounds judgmental, but as much as I love Critical Mass for being some different to each and every participant. As I much as I love it for being free and unorganized, open to individual interpretation, I cannot help but cringe when I feel like I felt Friday night. Like I was not having fun on my bike with happy people, but rather part of an antagonistic, agressive assualt. I get enough of the latter the other 29 or 30 days of the month when I ride through the city.

  • Chris Carlsson

    And thanks to you too for clarifying remarks. I was sorry I hadn’t expressed more solidarity and enthusiasm for your original declaration about the liberatory nature of CM, taking mass action AGAINST the rule of law autonomously, based on our individuality. And I strongly agree with your point about CM not having a unified meaning, purpose, culture, or practice, let alone ideology or organization. People have long taken it upon themselves to ‘represent’ what it ‘really means’ in that kind of sweeping way. I always cringe too when I hear that.

    So it seems that you don’t care to discuss the tactics that led to these uncomfortable declarations. Tactical debates can get stale pretty quickly, but it goes to the heart of our individual sense of the meaning of our own participation, if nothing else. I think radicals ought to feel comfortable debating behaviors, whatever one’s position, and not refuse to take a public stand as an implicit rejection of the ‘authority’ of taking a position. two more cents…

  • Moxie

    Thanks, this definitely clarifies your intent around that language. I think the most important point is that it’s not surprising. It’s different from how NYPD has responded to Critical Mass historically, but it isn’t anything new.

    I guess I just wish that ‘Still We Ride’ had been produced more from that perspective. Because even if I was projecting it onto you, I really feel like I saw a lot of strange legalistic logic in that film that I thought ended up discounting or downplaying the actions people were taking.

    As to the Yahoos. I realize that my comment conflated a lot of what I saw at the discussion with your writing. That’s not entirely fair, since you wern’t exactly characterizing things the same way.

    However, I feel like critical mass is an opportunity for people to take mass direct action in individual and autonomous ways. There is no program, no political party, and nobody in charge. My problem with what was said at the discussion was not the critique itself, but rather the context that the critique was framed in. Talking about one’s frustrations with individuals taking specific actions is very different than the language I heard there, which was framed in the context of what Critical Mass is by definition about. If someone pretends like Critical Mass is an ideology or an organization, that all our intentions are unified (or should be), and that there are rules for how to achieve those intentions — Yes, I consider that person a cop.

    I also happen to disagree with the critique of the tactics themselves, but I don’t think that’s really worth discussing.

  • Chris

    I appreciate very much that you wrote this in. There may be a misunderstanding about MY use of the term ‘rule of law’ which in general is a loaded, ideological screen for blatantly exploitative arrangements. In this case, I’m referring to the fact that a normal policing of Critical Mass, for what it’s worth, would involve arresting cyclists for breaking laws that have been observed by the arresting officer. In the widespread seizure of bicycles and pre-emptive mass arrests, the ‘normal’ rules of their behavior seem to have been abandoned. This is not surprising, but it is different than what they would do in the normal scheme of things. That’s all I mean.

    As for the question of yahoo behavior: I don’t endorse anything anyone wants to do on Critical Mass. At the same time, I realize that they’re totally free to do it. As I am totally free to criticize it. Taking a public stand against e.g., riding into oncoming traffic, or lurching into busy intersections before the Mass has even arrived, is not being predisposed to “act like a cop”. To insinuate that is just underhanded and shows bad faith. Go ahead and defend the behavior if that’s how you feel.

    I’m for the subversiveness of pleasure. I’d rather tickle people with surprise than berate them with guilt. Antagonizing people in their cars has never been interesting to me and seems obviously counterproductive. Motorists are potential allies who should be surprised and thanked, not scolded and blocked, and most of all, should be clearly invited to join us next time. I’m for a world without police, where people treat each other with a level of respect that we rarely see; it would be a world where it’s UNHEARD OF to reduce people who don’t already behave like you do to some kind of subhuman ‘other’.

    Anyway, thanks for writing in.

  • Moxie

    I think there are two troubling themes in this article, which I also saw in the film and discussion at Station 40. First, the idea that the cops are “suspending the rule of law” to hassle us “innocent cyclists.” This implies that the world we live in is acceptable, that we are merely acting within the parameters of how things are organized for us, and that it is the cops who are somehow acting outside of those parameters. It implies that we are not intentionally trying to break out of the law’s constraints with a tension towards freedom. When I ride critical mass, I certainly don’t feel like I’m participating in the rule of law. I feel like it’s an opportunity to very overtly take mass action against the rule of law in a way that still preserves individual and autonomous decision making.

    Connected to this troubling theme is the notion that “we” aren’t there to engage in “yahoo” behavior (which is defined as being pointless). I think that it’s pernicious to pretend like all of our intentions are unified, or to advocate that they should be. Clearly, if some people are advocating the rule of law, this is not the case. This article implies that there was some consensus on reigning in these distasteful acts of autonomy at the Station 40 discussion, but I’d suggest that the number of people talking this way were actually a very vocal minority. I’d also suggest that those who are predisposed to act like cops will always be more vocal about it.

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