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« The Quest to be the Fastest Cyclist in the World | Main | Critical Mass: Stop now before someone dies »

Cleaning up the Critical Mess

Before I wrote last Thursday’s post about Critical Mass, I knew it would not be popular, and thought about it long and hard.

I could write posts saying all cyclists are saints, all cops are bastards, and all motorists are morons. A large majority of readers would cheer, saying halleluiah and amen Brother Dave. The blogosphere is full of such posts.

However, would it make anyone think, or try to see the other side’s point of view? If I start tailoring my posts to try to please everyone, in the end I will please no one. Least of all please myself.

Not everyone was critical, and some realize my aim is to get past this “Them and us” attitude; try to see the other man’s viewpoint. We all have to coexist using the same roads, taking the stance that we have a right to be here, and you can go fuck yourself, serves no useful purpose.

Many have said Critical Mass is not a protest but a celebration of cycling. Why then do you celebrate during rush hour on a Friday evening, why not on a weekend?

Is cycling less fun on the weekend? I believe the real fun comes from the sense of power, brought about by causing the maximum disruption to the lives of other people. Sticking it to the motorist.

Probably the single most point I was criticized on in last Thursday’s post, was the fact that I chose not to come down hard on the New York cop who pushed the cyclist from his bike.

Those of us, who have reached a certain age, remember how things were, which in a way trivializes what is happening today.

As a young man in the 1950s, I was waiting on a London street for a girl friend; we were going to the movies. A police officer came along and told me to move. When I protested and told him I was waiting for my date, he punched me in the face.

Fast forward to last Thursday when I viewed the video of the NY cop pushing the guy from his bike, I simply saw it as a cop doing what cops do. My thoughts were “Big deal, I got punched in the face just for standing on the street.” I never said it was right, or said I supported with what he did.

If I was that bike rider I probably would have slowed down and waited until the cop had crossed the street, rather than try to ride past him. Like dealing with a mad dog, the sensible thing to do is stay clear and don’t make eye contact.

Times change, but the memories stay. Some readers may, and others may not remember the civil rights movement and the Vietnam Protests of the 1960s and 1970s. There is plenty of footage on U-Tube, like this one from Chicago, in 1968.

After viewing this, don’t you think people who were actually there in 1968, would look at the NY bike incident, and like me say, “At least the cop didn’t beat the guy with his Billy Club.”

Some may ask what does this have to do with Critical Mass? It has everything to do with it. Because of people like these protesters back in the 1960s, who faced severe police brutality, they paved the way for people to even hold an event like Critical Mass. I am telling you for sure, Critical Mass would never have been tolerated in 1968.

Freedom is not a God given right; there is nothing “given” about it. It was fought for, worked for, and earned; not only in foreign wars, but on streets of US cities like Chicago. Freedom is a delicate balance, and there are trade offs.

There was a time when people could leave their doors unlocked, and there was no need to lock your car or your bike when you parked it. We no longer have that freedom, that is, if we value our property. Crime increases because individual freedoms are for everybody, good and bad, and the police are not supposed to discriminate.

Criminals abuse these freedoms to further their own ends. While I am not going so far as to say Critical Mass participants are criminals, I would question whether they are abusing their freedom, and doing so at the expense of another’s freedom.

Like an individual’s freedom to get home from work on a Friday evening instead of sitting in traffic while a bunch of cyclists, exercise their right to have fun.

Freedom is often taken for granted, along with sliced bread and air-conditioning. Those of us who have lived without these luxuries, see events and freedom from a different viewpoint.

References (1)

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Reader Comments (24)

Excellent post, Dave. Socially, our society has certainly come 180 degrees from when I was a teenager in 60's, although I've learned that just because someone or a part of socity acts a certain way, it certainly does not make it correct. Take for example, your run in with the police officer. Yes, that may have been the way it was back then, but still, it doesn't make it right. And, just like the poor bloke who ran into the police buzzsaw in NY, you didn't see the punch coming, I'm sure. I think the Critical Mass folks expect to see police out with them, but usually in a support position, so I'm pretty sure this cop's actions took everyone by surprise.

I do have a somewhat funny story thought about Critical Mass. When the US chose to enter the conflict (um..ok...we created the conflict in Iraq), protests were held throughout the US. During one protest in SF, I was trying to leave downtown SF to get to an appointment for my job. I rounded a corner (in my car) and managed to get stuck in bumper to bumper traffic because a huge group of cyclists were blocking the intersection by riding in circles. No one in an automoble could get by, in either direction. I was stuck in this log jam for over 45 minutes. Finally, the cyclists decided to move on to another section of downtown SF. As they disbanded and started cycling between cars towards us, I managed to get a few of the drivers near me to stand in between their cars and block their path. When a few of the riders asked me to move, I told them that it was now my turn to protest and block their ability to get to where they were going in a timely manner. One guy threatened to "kick my ass" if I didn't allow him to get through. I didn't...and he didn't.

I love the sense of entitlement...I'll do it to you, but don't you dare do it to me. I agree with you, Dave. If it's just a ride to educate the city on why we should be riding bikes, why 5pm on a Friday evening? I'm not saying it can't be done, but do it in an orderly fashion. Drivers, for the most part, will give us our space when we ride. I can count on my one hand how many times I came this close to getting a shave and a haircut from the driver's passenger side mirror. 99.99% of the time, drivers give me a wide berth as they pass. I'm sure it's because they don't want to have my ugly arse as their hood ornament, but for whatever the reason, they do give me room.

I could go on and on about this topic. In the past I've critizied Critical Mass as a whole and I realize I shouldn't paint with such a broad brush. There are those in CM who ride carefully and do not abuse the rules of the road. And, I'm sure, for the most part, that is a good majority of the riders. It would be nice, however, if they could find time to police those riders who choose to truly antagonize the driving public.

August 3, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermaltese falcon

That's the point of Critical Mass. Whether the message gets across to people is a mystery. Those of you who fail to see all that the car represents in the world, let me give it to you this way:
Cars facilltate laziness.
Cars isolate mankind from his natural surroundings.
Critical Mass exists to remind governments and motorists that there is an alternative to traffic clogged streets, choking air pollution, and deepening dependence on petroleum.
Cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen prove this point.
You don't have to drive everywhere.
Your government doesn't have to be run by lobbyists for the Big Three.
Lastly, there is no excuse for brutality. The sentiment the older generation seems to be expressing is retrograde, and frankly appalling. Are we really meant to tolerate a step back in social evolution? If there is no room for protest, than there is no democracy.
We need the two wheeled revolution!

August 3, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterbikeanderson

Well spoken, Dave.

As for the response from bikeanderson, it's hard to know how to respond. Perhaps a consideration of what message is actually being communicated by CM and whether it is the one intended is in order. As a person attempting to become a cyclist once again, and as a person who is trying to persuade my friends to do likewise, I can only say CM is not an example would wish to share with others as a means of persuading them to get on their bikes.

August 3, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterHal

A two wheeled revolution? Right..and while we are at it, let's bring back the stagecoaches and the Pony Express. Like it or not, cars are a huge part of our lives and that isn't going to change....ever. Just as bicycles have evolved during the past decades, so have automobiles. They are more fuel efficient and have more safety features on them as standard equipment that weren't even available as options years ago.

I'm going to continue to beat this drum: just as you cannot be persuaded to drive an automobile because of all of the cars on the road, you cannot persuade someone to ride a bike by doing the same. Either someone wants to do it or they don't. And speaking of such, just because I'm older doesn't mean I don't get it....I do. I ride a bike everywhere I can, but need an automobile to help me pay my bills and all the bike goodies I covet. It's the way of the world and that isn't going to change.

August 3, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermaltese falcon


i don't really know if yr response was necessary. i didn't read any of the responses to last thursday's post, but i thought that you made a good point that had to be made. my conclusion is that a protest or demonstration is geared to push for progress. when critical mass got to a point where it was just a party, progress ceased to exist. i would personally like to see critical mass move onto bigger and better - more productive things. like for instance, how about a traveling critical mass where people ride the distance of the country? wouldn't that be a bit more 'critical'? in a place like denver where the streets are well made for bike (for the most part, it's not perfect), critical mass is almost pointless. it no longer serves a purpose there and the power of such a large group of people should be used for something better than a big drunken bike party.

just my thoughts,

August 3, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterglass

100'000s of people have died and suffered just in Iraq due to efforts to provide oil for these cars that you defend.

Thats only the tip of the iceberg. America has wrecked the lives of millions of middle east over the last century and been financially backed by the motorist at every turn. Although I partly agree with you this has to stop and sometime partisan methods can be very effective.

August 3, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermark

I think your argument fails due to your assumption that Critical Mass causes traffic jams and inconveniences others. In my experience of CM in Australia the Mass spends much of the time being held up by traffic jams, not causing them. Inner-city traffic travels at approximately bicycle speed and the Mass doesn't contribute to delays.

August 3, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAdrian

Look at the definition of Critical Mass: the smallest amount that will carry a chain reaction. Having the Largest Group goes counter to the very idea of attempting to make a difference.
Of course, if someone relies on Critical Mass for their cycling education, they will learn otherwise. This is how sheep are led about, in herds (packs); doesn’t take or demand much, just follow along.
It takes discipline to be a good cyclist; efforts most don’t bother with.

August 3, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

While I agreed with your prior post about CM and most of this one, I have to take you to task with the statement "If I was that bike rider I probably would have slowed down and waited until the cop had crossed the street, rather than try to ride past him."

If you watch the video that cop watched dozens of cyclists go by and then, like a predator, picked his prey out of the herd and then stalked and attacked. Once that cop had made up his mind there was no way that particular cyclist was getting by him. I'm not arguing whether it was right or wrong, but I don't think there was any way for the cyclists to avoid the incident. Other than not participating in CM, natch.

August 3, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterPete

Them negroes were mighty disrupting of traffic in those marches and sit
down strikes and getting in the way and all that. And them hippies, jesus-h-keerist get a haircut and a job fer cry-eye. And them damn union commies,
what do they want, to get paid more and not get injured, they are just blocking
traffic and snarling things up getting in the way like that picketing crap.

And one of them negro-hippie-commies might get hurt. So get to the back of
the bus, shut up and get drafted or get back to work and the janitor will pick up
the body. Stand in line like a good kid and stop asking questions or asserting your rights.

i live in brooklyn, new york, and i leave my front door unlocked every day and every night. in the 17 years i've lived in my house, not once has someone walked up to my door and pushed on it, testing to see if it was unlocked

August 4, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterjulian

I once had someone knock on my door to tell me not only was it unlocked and open, but my keys were hanging in it...this in a town centre location not all that long ago.

We have the culture we have (fear and locking up) not necessarily because of the realities of crime - if the police were so busy punching innocent bystanders in the head they weren't doing much policing - but because of insurance requirements and fear. If you choose not to fear crime you'll probably have a more pleasant life on the whole, albeit with slightly fewer belongings: the coward dies a thousand deaths

(That said, I did promptly close and lock my door - with the keys inside, this time.)

Not sure what this has to do with Critical Mass, but it's always nice to see a perspective from the past that doesn't paint it in glowing nostalgic colours!

August 4, 2008 | Unregistered Commentertown mouse

Is a Critical Mass rider less of a moron than an SUV driver that blows his horn at you, just because he can?

August 4, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterGrump

...ah, the young idealists...blinded by passion, righteousness & self importance...

...having been there during the '60's, i understand the methodology but experience has also taught me that convincing others that there is need for transformation is better done by example...

...while every statement regarding foreign oil, government policy, death & disruption in iraq may be true, blocking & delaying the path of people commuting home after a long week at work, won't elicit much empathy for the "cause" of cycling &/or the need for policy change...especially when the message is carried by the extremists...

...most critical mass riders may be carrying an honest & righteous message in their heart, but the typical "man in the street" gets his picture & his message from the lowest common denominator...the few crazed, idiotic fools who are empowered by the "mass" & who think that the "cause" is just a big moving block party...

..."critical massers" in most cities need to think of a better way to carry their message to the non-believers, rather than create more doubt & dissent amongst the general population...

...we are basically all cyclist's here & i'd venture to say, we all want to see a better, safer future for cycling...let's not create more enemies...

August 4, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterbikesgonewild

I guess I'm a bit removed from the CM phenomenon. I live in a 100,000 resident town in North Dakota and we don't really have that stuff. I live in a town where there are few enough cops to make it easy to cover up for each other and authority figures that see youngish people as a problem whether they committed a crime or not. If we would do a CM-type "demonstration," we'd probably all be locked up.

...but we have our protest.

"We" ride every day to work, run errands, and play. We also have group rides every Tuesday and Wednesday. We also have heavily advertised races happening every so often.

By providing a positive image of riding, we don't need to cause a problem to get a point across.

Of course, if you have any problems with a motorist, remember their license plate number. Spend $30 on a license plate lookup program year membership and send the offending motorist a postcard outlining the rules of the road in respect to bicycles. Not only will they be informed, they'll also be a bit scared of the cyclist who knows where they live (I'm sure they've caused problems for a few cyclists so they'll never be able to narrow it down to you, though you shouldn't take any sort of violent/destructive retailiation).

August 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterWutz

I live in Charleston, SC and for a long time I was against CM for all of the reasons stated above and in yesterday's blog and comments. However, my opinion has evolved. Someone posted, "transformation is better done by example..." I agree. Instead of bitching about CM I decided to go and express my opinion to its participants. At first it was awful, we were holding both lanes, and some were riding against traffic, and disobeying traffic laws. I was the only one wearing a helmet. Since then it has evolved. I tell people before hand that "we have to give respect to get respect." I call out those who are being disrespectful.

The past CM I went to in Charleston consisted of many helmeted riders, using hand signals, and following (for the most part) traffic laws. I rode towards the back and shouted "car back" and participants moved to the right lane to allow cars to pass. It was awesome!

I encourage those of you who are fundamentally opposed to CM to show up and voice your opinion. If you convince one or two people to be respectful and share the road it will have been worth it. I agree that this movement cannot be stopped, but if CM participants are educated perhaps the 'mob mentality' will decrease and the event could actually facilitate positive change.

August 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterPatricia Carson

If you are going to make the argument against CM - go all the way. Say that any driver who is just going somewhere he or she can go by public transportation should ditch the car. They are causing as much, and more, traffic than the CMers.

Also, lock up every pedestrian that jaywalks if your main concern is that CMers violate traffic laws. I just took a walk in midtown Manhattan. I witnessed hundreds of scofflaw jaywalkers in a short 10 block walk. I witnessed most of the cars speeding up the avenue at more than the legal 30 mph. I saw quite a few who went through red lights. But, strangely enough, I didn't see any police officers banging people to the ground, even though there were plenty of traffic cops around. Hmmmmmm. What could the difference be?

Just because your generation smoked cigarettes in the 50's, tolerated bigotry and racism and allowed authority figures to punch them in the face without even thinking to file a complaint, doesn't mean that we want our kids of this generation to smoke, be bigots or racists or allow a police state to reign.

August 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSam

To Sam:
No, instead you’ll allow “the new generation” to be self-indulgent, selfish, lazy, apathetic “the world owes me” and “I hate the word discipline” unemployable pompous asses.
Good one.
That’s the trouble with blogs Dave, you’ll always get defenders of loathing trying to correct your world-view.
They know not of what you speak.
Like you said, Screw them.

August 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

Hey Dave, here's a 12 minute clip of me filing false police reports against cyclists. Just trust me and you don't need to lock your doors at night.

August 6, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSgt. Horohoe

...i grant you, ah "sgt horohoe" that you have some powerful evidence of the extremely disingenuous actions of the included members of the nypd, at a time when a judge had ruled that 'critical mass' was allowed to take place...

...so, that being said, are you looking at ways to utilize this tape through legal channels, to petition the courts to curb this kind of police action or are you simply using it to vilify mr moulton because of a previous statement he made ???...

...it is a well made tape & i hope you use it in manner befitting the "cycling community"...

August 6, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterbikesgonewild

Steve -

I am not trying to "allow “the new generation” to be self-indulgent, selfish, lazy, apathetic “the world owes me” and “I hate the word discipline” unemployable pompous asses".

Disagreeing with Dave or with the notion that one doesn't have to kowtow to crooked authority figures doesn't mean that no authority should be recognized or that self-indulgence or laziness, etc. follows from standing up for equal treatment under the law and vigilant defense of one's civil liberties and rights.

The "self-indulgent, selfish, lazy, apathetic, unemployable pompous a$$" that you malign by your screed - i.e., the cyclist involved in the incident with the crooked police officer - is a veteran of the United States Armed Forces, is employed as a greengrocer at the Union Square Green Market, is involved in environmental causes and otherwise doesn't have a criminal record.

If you want to tolerate police misconduct and selective, discriminatory enforcement of the law - go ahead. But, thank goodness, the New York courts and the Mayor and Police Commissioner of the City of New York do not agree with you. The courts have determined that Critical Mass has the right to ride and the Mayor and Police Commissioner have denounced the actions of this renegade, lawless police officer. Why are you taking the other side?

August 6, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSam

Apparently you missed the point you made yourself.
Every generation has been maligned with generalities, thus my words to you as you did to Dave’s “generation”. Generation is a term of convenience.
And it has nothing to do with the one person you singled out.
Here’s another one: People are more eager to speak rather than listen.
And another: A functionally illiterate generation doesn’t care about history.
The thing about Critical Mass is…
I am Critical Mass.
And you may also be.
But don’t expect me to teach you anything (yet you can still learn). And don’t expect to keep up with me (you won’t).
Understanding takes time, really, all we have. Some get it, many don't.

August 6, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

I'm not going to try to be one of the tree-hugging, peacenics defending the Critical Mass. I used to participate in the Chicago rides but it was more so just to enjoy an evening with friends I didn't get to see that often and I genuinely had a good time doing so. I got to see more of the city participating in the rides than I would otherwise and enjoyed the camaraderie and atmosphere the rides offered.

One thing I will not defend is the CM's blatant lack of respect for fellow drivers and laws which are not only meant to protect drivers but riders alike. Tying up intersections by using bikes as 'velvet ropes' not only defeats the purpose of the ride but also casts a negative light on all the riders who would normally stop at stop lights (like you're supposed to do). This not only infuriates other drivers but leads the confrontations with them and/or police. These situations could be completely avoided by obeying traffic laws. If part of the group gets separated, so be it. Wait for them and 'mass up' at the next light (not in the intersection).

Other issues I had were rider's blatant disregard for safety. There were a number of times when the Mass tried to ride on Lake Shore Drive, one of the busiest roads in Chicago. This lead to at least one accident where an ambulance had to be called, and a number of arrests. Lake Shore Drive is open to just cyclists every year on Memorial Day weekend. If the Massers are so Hell-bent on riding LSD, use that opportunity to do so. Use that venue for your protests.

Finally, I'll conclude my rant with the one thing that I find inexcusable during the Chicago rides, the use and consumption of alcohol during the rides. One can't legally drink and drive a vehicle so why do some of these idiots think they can drink and ride? In those cases, I'd love to see the cops arrest them for drinking and riding. It does no good to boost the image of those riding in the CM and again causes nothing but trouble.

August 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKeith Sheehan

When was the last time you attended a critical mass Dave? Have you been to one in NYC? Have you witnessed a wonderful event of all kinds of like minded people who rode together in peace and harmony and then taken away by the police because a few high ranking officials wanted to become experts on Protest. This is what happened in NYC. I know, because I have been on hundreds of critical masses. Many in other cities. So I can speak to this. Maybe you have too. From my experience, critical mass has done a lot for the environment for the simple fact that it provided a "safe" place for people to ride together as a group. A place where people didn't have to ask for permission and go on some city sponsored group ride like the 5 boro bike tour or Ragbrai or something like that. Not that there is anything wrong with those rides. But I do believe it is a fundamental right of human beings in this free country of ours to ride together in a group...yes during traffic...becoming traffic. It used to be that way in NYC. 1000 people strong, the last Friday of every month. Co-existing, getting along with the cars, the people, yes..even the cops. Critical Mass did a lot for people, for cycling, way before GE and NBC told everyone to go Green, like its some kind of a marketing trend. People refuse to embrace that fact. That there has been a whole environmental movement, way before that Dork Al Gore said it was cool. People don't want to realize the hard work of activists, getting out in the streets and taking matters into their own hands. They don't want to work for it anymore. They just want to throw a way a can in their cubical office and think that the janitor is recycling it...well he's not. He/she is dumping all of it into the same trash. Is that progress? Have we accomplished what we wanted and now we can just go away and ride our bikes on weekends, cause everyone's going green. Do you know how many lawsuits are still open about bike related issues in NYC? Have any clue? About cops locking up protesters during our Republican National Convention illegally in a toxic bus depot for 48 hours, for false arrest, for stealing bikes, for faking video evidence? Stop watching product selling war mongering Fox news. Critical Mass goes on in 300 cities around the world. It doesn't need to stop...it needs to go on in 300 more. And drivers need to calm down and relax when they are stuck in a critical mass for a whopping 10 minutes...Oh my god, The horror. How awful it must be to be sooooooooooooo inconvenienced. Like that driver in Seattle, at the July Critical mass who was had reservations at a restaurant and was stopped by 100 cyclists. Thats about 2 blocks of riders. About 5 minutes of his precious time before eating some sushi. But no, he couldn't wait, he drove into the biker who was stopping his car so his road rage wouldn't kill anyone with his car which kills people. Ever seen a bicycle kill someone? Yes later he got beat up. But don't feel so bad, the cyclists were arrested and then Fox news was able to spin it and claim that Critical Mass is a violent group. This illustrates how clueless people are to the ride. How they don't participate in it and sit on their fat asses and read blogs all day long instead of taking an active role in saving the one planet we have to live on.
Seriously Dave, stick to giving tips on cycling and selling bike products...Critical mass isn't harming anyone...its doing a lot of good for people and the environment and is a wonderful event to get people off their asses. Anytime you want to ride in one, come out to NYC...we'll show you a good time...you can get bodychecked by cops on steriods and then they will blame it on you and the only way anyone will believe you is if you pay 300 form a tourist who randomly took video of it and put it on youtube.

August 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Green
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