The Dangerous Riders of Critical Mass

Revolutionary Worker #919, Aug. 17, 1997

San Francisco authorities have discovered a new public enemy. The mayor has denounced them as "lawless, insurrectionist types." Riot police are called out when they gather and there are many arrests. Their vehicles are confiscated. The major establishment newspapers feature blistering editorials against this threat to public order. Radio talk show hosts and listeners promise to retaliate against them. Letters to the editor denounce their "self-righteous, sadistic terrorism." Meet this new outrage to civilized society: bicycle riders taking to the streets in a monthly ride called Critical Mass.

Mayor Brown Declares War
on Critical Mass

The current controversy over Critical Mass began after a June 27 Critical Mass ride. This ride is one of the most popular of the year and goes over the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito in Marin County. (There is a bike path on the bridge.) Over 3,000 riders participated in the ride and traffic was tied up especially in the wealthy Marina District. A caravan of limousines, carrying San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and other mayors attending the U.S. Conference of Mayors, was caught in the traffic.

Following the June ride, Mayor Brown gave a speech where, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, he "declared war" on Critical Mass and said that he would try and prevent future rides. Police began to draw up plans to clamp down on the bike ride. Editorials in the major daily newspapers endorsed the call for the crackdown.

As the end-of-July ride neared, the authorities started to worry that their angry rhetoric and clampdown would only make the Critical Mass larger and more militant. Mayor Brown tried to negotiate with the cyclists. However, since Critical Mass has no leaders, there was no one to meet with. Even the leaders of the mainstream pro-bike groups refused to meet with Brown when it was clear that he would not even talk about any issues that cyclists have raised. Finally, Brown found some cyclists to meet with him. He announced that a "compromise" had been reached and that the Critical Mass ride would be allowed to take place--with an official route approved by the city and the police, and with a police escort surrounding them. Brown also promised a bicycle summit in the future to address many of the grievances of the cyclists.

On July 25, between 5,000 and 10,000 bicyclists crowded into Justin Herman Plaza for the start of the Critical Mass ride. Most of the people there thought that having a government- and police-approved route enforced by the police went against the whole idea of Critical Mass--which does not coordinate their rides with police or other authorities. Mayor Brown tried to address the cyclists but he was drowned out by boos and catcalls as cyclists shouted "Shut Up!" and "Let's Ride!" People started streaming out of the plaza while Brown was still trying to talk. According to one cyclist the RW talked to, police tried to prevent cyclists from leaving the plaza during Brown's speech and cyclists had to lift their bikes over barricades and defy police in order to leave.

Cyclists took off on many different routes. The mood was festive and determined. Police were vastly outnumbered and unable to deal with the thousands of cyclists. The police command post gave the order to arrest all 10,000 Critical Mass cyclists. Vastly outnumbered, the police ran amok, targeting small groups of cyclists. They kicked bicycles over, drove their cars directly into crowds of cyclists, clubbed and arrested many people. One police officer told a critical mass rider, "This is war."

A reporter for the San Francisco Examiner who went along on the ride wrote: "Although my press card was dangling from my neck, one officer nearly tackled me. But he tripped and another cyclist nearly collided with him. He decided to grab that one instead: she was already in his hands as I pedaled just outside the quickly closing dragnet."

An Associate Professor of Information Management at UC Berkeley described the scene at Sacramento Street between Montgomery and Sansome in the Financial District where police staged a mass arrest of cyclists: "About 150 bicyclists were surrounded by police who blocked off adjoining intersections and arrested everyone in between. Everyone who was on Sacramento between Montgomery and Sansome at 8:30 p.m. was arrested, whether or not they had ridden with Critical Mass, blocked traffic, been belligerent, or run stoplights. All were handcuffed fingerprinted and taken to jail. No warning was ever given to disperse, yet all were charged with "failure to disperse." All bicycles were confiscated and according to the SFPD will not be returned for at least a week."

Another rider described the scene on Market Street, across the street from Macy's: "Without provocation or warning, police officers approached riders and started lunging at them with clubs. I saw one officer grab a cyclist in a chokehold and throw him to the ground."

One Critical Mass participant told the RW that there was an incredible spirit of solidarity and bravery among the riders. He said that he had seen one woman stand up to a much larger cop and insist on her right to ride her bike. He also told about another rider who went right up to a line of cops and unfurled a banner which read, "I am with the bicycle revolution!"

A cyclist wrote about the scene at the freeway on-ramp at Eighth and Bryant where thousands of cyclists faced off with about half a dozen Highway Patrol who were blocking the ramp: "As the cops started to feel threatened by the huge crowd of cyclists stopped in front of them, they raised their batons at the people. The crowd started shouting back at them and people started raising their bikes over their heads holding them straight up like batons, mocking the cops. It was a beautiful sight, hundreds of bicycles raised into the air as people shouted."

Despite the mayor's attempts to fan hostilities between cars and cyclists many of the drivers supported the Critical Mass ride. "I don't mind a little civil disobedience now and then," one driver told a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle as his passengers waved to the cyclists through the sun roof of his car. "It's good to see the mayor humbled a little."

Police initially reported that 250 people were arrested during the Mass. Later they said that they had only issued citations to 115 people, mostly for vague charges like "failure to disperse." It is not known how many people were detained and then released without citations. Even after the Critical Mass had ended police were seen hassling bicyclists and ordering them off of the road.

After the ride the attacks on Critical Mass continued. The police passed out flyers saying that future Critical Mass rides would not be allowed. The mayor called for jail time for the arrested riders even though most were arrested on infractions which do not carry jail sentences. Brown also called for confiscating the bikes of the arrested riders even though the District Attorney admitted that this would be illegal.

Brown even encouraged drivers to physically attack riders, saying that it was a good thing that the riders didn't meet up with any of the people that he knows. "They would have gotten out of their cars, taken those bicycles, cut the tires, or broken them, and dared those little weenies to do anything about it," Brown said at his weekly press conference.

Why They Hate Critical Mass

The hysterical response by the authorities has caused many people to ask why the city officials are coming down so hard on a monthly bike ride. The rhetoric of the mayor--like calling the Critical Mass riders "lawless, insurrectionist types"--shows that what bothers officials about the ride is not only what it does to traffic flows in the downtown.

What bothers them about Critical Mass is that it challenges, in a small way, the dominant social relations of the society.

A manual put out by Critical Massers in San Francisco speaks to some of the questions that get posed by the rides: "The incredible thing [about Critical Mass] is that in attempting this simple task so many interesting and important questions come up. Why is there so little open space in our cities where people can relax and interact, free from the incessant buying and selling of ordinary life? Why are people compelled to organize their life around having a car? What would an alternative future look like?" These are the kind of questions that government officials apparently find dangerous to have people ask or discuss.

The next Critical Mass ride is scheduled for August 29. An SFPD captain said that there will be no more Critical Mass rides and Police Chief Fred Lau said that his department will be "more prepared" for the August ride. Critical Mass riders are determined to ride on August 29 and there is a lot of discussion about what to do. One rider wrote: "Critical Mass should and will go on. I have a right to the road. I will continue to fight for that and hopefully on August 29th 10,000 others will join me. RIDING A BIKE IS NOT A CRIME!"

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