In 2012, we decided to ask one of our panelists or an additional scholar to write texts for each of our Action Speaks’ topics. This one accompanies the 1992 First Critical Mass Ride show on October 10, 2012. We hope that you enjoy it.
Protest and Celebration—The Mystery of Critical Mass By Chris Carlsson
Critical Mass is the name given to self-organized, mass bike rides that began in San Francisco in 1992. The Critical Mass rides in San Francisco began with just a few dozen cyclists. Within a year the number had reached a thousand, and since the mid 1990s the monthly “organized coincidence” occasionally attracts over five thousand self-propelled celebrants – as much street theatre as (semi) functional commute. The idea spread rapidly by word of mouth and later through the internet. Critical Mass rides have been recorded in over four hundred cities worldwide, including Chicago, Sao Paulo, Rome, Buenos Aires, London, Budapest, and Toronto.
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 has arguably opened a new kind of political space, less about protesting than about celebrating a vision of preferable alternatives, in particular of bicycling over the car culture. However, the ongoing efforts by city administrations and police forces to harass and criminalize Critical Mass rides, notably in New York, Portland, and London, suggest that authorities everywhere recognize a deeper threat posed by this mode of mobility in the arteries of capitalist modernity. Critical Mass, by its form, its rhythms, its conviviality and the kinds of encounter engendered, its use of public space, its suspension of the normal rules of circulation, is justifiably understood to be more than merely an affront to SUV drivers trapped for a few extra minutes in a traffic jam of their own making.
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 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. 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.
Some 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. Usually these are people who have gotten their idea about the concept from the distorted reports of mass media (television in particular seeming to have a hard time grasping what the experience is actually like). It’s true that riders sometimes come to Critical Mass to participate in this kind of antagonistic posturing. But a majority of participants in most cities have managed to maintain an open and invitational culture. After all, isn’t it more radical to try to turn people stuck in their cars into active allies in the fight for a better life? Isn’t the “mainstream” life radicals are protesting—dependent on car transit—inherently worse than what it could be?
Blaming people in cars for being car-dependent is a huge political mistake. Car drivers are cyclists’ 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 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 motorists are taunted or shamed, there’s little chance they will change how they think and further, change their behavior. Our pleasure is more subversive and more effective than our anger (however reasonable and legitimate).
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.
We started Critical Mass to be a new kind of public space, and to help promote a different way of being together in city streets. Rolling along on bikes, tinkling bells, chatting and discussing, smelling an exhaust-free atmosphere, listening to humans instead of motors, and feeling the city’s geography in a wholly new way, is exhilarating and liberating—not just for us riding, but for the thousands of people we pass by.
(c) author and Action Speaks, 2012