San Francisco
San Francisco
From the Open-Publishing Calendar
From the Open-Publishing Newswire
Indybay Feature
Critical Mass is Thirteen: The Culture War is Older (and far from over)
by By Chris Carlsson (sfbay-print [at]
Tuesday Oct 4th, 2005 8:14 PM
Amazing to think it's been 13 years since the first “Commute Clot” brought together about 50 bicyclists at “PeeWee” Herman Plaza at the foot of Market Street in San Francisco. Within a few short months it had gained the moniker “Critical Mass” and the excitement and euphoria and sheer novelty of an “organized coincidence” that fills the streets with bicycles instead of cars was rapidly reproducing itself across the planet.
Now there are websites galore documenting Critical Masses in towns everywhere, from Australia to Italy, Chile to Canada. Of the more than 400 places where Critical Mass rides have taken place, hundreds continue to ride every month. In May 2005 an “Interplanetary Critical Mass” was held in Rome, Italy, drawing several thousand riders from around Italy and the world. On Earth Day this past April, 10,000 riders staged a “Critical Mass” in Budapest, Hungary. Hundreds of rides occupy the streets of US cities on the last Friday of each month, from big cities like Chicago and Los Angeles, to the smaller burgs in the hinterlands like Cincinnati, Ohio, Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Portland, Oregon. And of course thousands of us are still riding after all these years at the birthplace here in San Francisco.

New York had seen Critical Mass grow from the mid-1990s until (during their 2003 Bikesummer) it finally topped 1000 riders on a gloriously balmy July evening. I was there that night, enjoying the thrill of crossing the Queensborough Bridge and looking south towards twinkling Manhattan and Brooklyn. The galvanizing impact of Critical Mass on bike commuting, bike communities, and pushing the boundaries of political imagination and tactics led more or less directly to the now infamous confrontation with the NY Police Department during the Aug. '04 Republican National Convention (RNC). After an entire year of illegal and barbaric treatment by the NYPD, cyclists in New York have perservered, as documented in the new documentary “Still We Ride.” Civil libertarians and anyone concerned about basic rights to assemble, protest, celebrate, and speak have flocked to defend the New York Critical Mass. Several lawsuits and criminal cases are still pending, as the local authorities have suspended normal legalities to carry out a witchhunt against Critical Mass in New York, which has included the blatant theft of dozens of bicycles by none other than the police department itself!

A lot of cyclists, when confronted by the curiously vitriolic anger and belligerence of the police (not just in New York, either, but in SF, LA, Portland, Minneapolis, Austin, and more), are puzzled. Why do the police react so strongly to CM? Why does a simple crowd of bicyclists seem to inspire such fear and loathing on the part of the authorities? We have to take a deeper look to understand it.

There are two basic factors that explain what's going on: “Culture War” and a conflict between old-style hierarchy and the emergence of flexible network-based social movements.

Individual police are usually people who more or less blindly believe in the “American Way” of life. That means they've literally “bought in” to the automobile/oil debt cycle for themselves and think that embracing the bicycle as alternative transportation is childish and immature. They believe that the way things are in the US is truly the “best of all possible worlds.” They find it deeply disturbing (as do some motorized citizens) to encounter an amorphous crowd of people on bicycles rolling through town (and stoplights), talking and laughing, tinkling bells and generally having fun while suspending the “normal” (anti-)life that predominates on the streets.

Police officers, who are not instructed otherwise, feel it's their duty to punish these scofflaw cyclists and to impose a price on them for their ostensible pleasure. When the basically innocent cyclists protest being ticketed, manhandled, and otherwise abused by the police, it only fuels the rage simmering inside the locked-down, uninspired, uncreative brains of the boys and girls in blue. In other words, these moments become a front-line confrontation in a vast, confusing and inchoate Culture War that is in some ways reproducing historic cleavages that divided Americans during the Vietnam era, and even longer ago during the Civil War era. Vicious racism and manifest destiny (white man's burden) imperialism are underlying forces driving the conflict between those who would “progress” to an era of cooperation, mutual aid, peace and tolerance against those who fear change and cling with violent intensity to a world palpably collapsing around them.

People who embrace cycling and come out to ride in Critical Mass come from all walks of life, widely varying incomes and housing situations, and cannot be characterized accurately as part of a “class” as it is commonly understood. Also, 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. Nevertheless, Critical Mass cyclists are 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 heart of 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. So the local police and authorities often respond with great frustration and confusion to the eruption of a tactical flexibility for which they're simply unprepared. And in classic patriarchal fashion, they lash out with physical punishment as best they can, trying to repress what they cannot understand or control. But like the insurgency in Iraq, or any guerrilla war, when a blundering monster attacks in classic old-style ways, the new, mobile, decentralized networks just vanish, leaving the attackers swinging at air (perhaps they “catch” a few individuals now and then). The structure that is threatening them remains intact and often grows stronger—just like Critical Mass has in most places it has been attacked.

So on our bucolic 13th birthday ride in San Francisco we should take some time to reflect on the larger national and international dynamics of which we are a small part. We can be thankful that our local police have been taught to tolerate us, but that gift to us comes with an interesting obligation: to extend the logic of our resistance and innovation into new areas of contestation, to link up with people elsewhere who are not so lucky and provide material aid and strategic support whenever we can.

Chris Carlsson edited "Critical Mass: Bicycling's Defiant Celebration" (AK Press) and has written extensively on Critical Mass and San Francisco history. His bicycling utopia "After The Deluge" was published in 2004. Check his website

Comments  (Hide Comments)

by om ma
Tuesday Oct 4th, 2005 9:05 PM
I will accept bikes as equal to cars, with equal rights to the road, only when bike riders have to have a drivers license, when bikes have license plates, and when bike riders must carry liability insurance. Until then, it's a toy.
by om ma's much smarter om daughter
Wednesday Oct 5th, 2005 9:34 AM
Bicyclists don't need any of that stuff because we don't -- and can't -- do even a fraction of the damage or require a fraction of the supervision that motorists do.

You seem to think having a drivers' license is estimable, yet what that license means is that, in exchange for the privilege of inflicting tons of steel on public space, you agree to abide by laws controlling that infliction. Those same laws acknowledge that we bicyclists do, in fact, have a right to the road -- yet you say you won't accept that. So much for the magical value of a drivers' license.
by bent_rider
Wednesday Oct 5th, 2005 9:42 AM
I will accept bikes as equal to cars, with equal rights to the road, only when bike riders have to have a drivers license, when bikes have license plates, and when bike riders must carry liability insurance. Until then, it's a toy.

And who the heck are you? Bikers have never required any of the above for the reasons stated by the previous poster. they never will. But you are still required to operate your motor vehicle according to current law, which states that bicycles are given all the rights and responsabilities of vehicles.
You saying that bikes are just toys does not make it so.
by podski (ecr [at]
Wednesday Oct 5th, 2005 3:01 PM
yo chris, bike actives et al,

budapest #'s hit 30,000 in sept.!!!

read here:

organizers and riders there are using the mass to leverage politically for bike lanes, which do not yet exist in the city.


should the massers pick up this friendly challenge who knows what evolution is just around the corner... looking at the math:
from 50 riders in one corner of the world to 30,000 in the other...
in only 13 years ...the mass has become a rhizomatic global superweed. and that is only one dimensional. it's only a matter of time before one or more poetic organists begins tampering with the original formula and you have not just bicylists demanding bike lanes, but suddenly every niche community takes her and his hobbies, pleasures, playthings and pratical applications out into the streets to demand more public space for that which reproduces more enjoyment...

jeeezus! by the year 2018 the planet will surely be overrun by common sense. politicians with their power of nightmares will be quarantined in abandoned shopping malls and ghosttown gated communities, citizens with ear-to-ear grins will run amok through the streets, and bicyclists won't need ids or licenses because no one remembers how to submit to idiotic and oppressive beauracracies.

well , its a challenge anyway.
happy 13th!

by anonymous
Wednesday Oct 5th, 2005 3:35 PM
we need to be focusing around organizing class war....this culture war nonsense where mostly middle-class white hippies and hipsters ride around on bikes won't do anything to solve the root problem of human misery and the destruction of the environment: capitalism.
by .
Wednesday Oct 5th, 2005 7:46 PM
The number of bicycles that one visibly sees being used in the Berkeley, San Francisco, Santa Cruz (the three cities with critical masses locally) are all much higher today than in the mid to late 80s. My mother describes being the lone bicyclist after coming here from europe in the 1970s, and always having to go up on the sidewalk.

What have you done lately that was more effectively in reducing corporatism?
by aaron
Wednesday Oct 5th, 2005 8:40 PM
I'd be curious to know how much of the increase in biking is purely recreational. As to "reducing corporatism," I can think of some pretty big corporations who've made lots of dough selling $800 bikes to acquisitive yuppies who drive to work.

What I like about Critical Mass is that it's ratcheted open some public space and created a social gathering that isn't all about buying and selling. What I don't like about CM is the tendency of some CM'ers to be sanctimonious and act like riding a bike vindicates them forever.

by Bela B.
Thursday Oct 6th, 2005 3:01 AM
Egészségetekre !
( pr: egay shay geray = to your health , cheers )

by cyclist
Thursday Oct 6th, 2005 4:01 PM
Have you ever even participated in SF Critical Mass??? Look I love it, but it is no culture war. It is a fully sanctioned recreational event. The police are not there to impede the ride, but to prevent MOTORISTS from interfering with it. Just this past Friday, for example, I watched several very angry and potentially violent motorists ordered back into there immobile vehicles. They were told to shut up and wait quietly while cyclists passed. Sure, Critial Mass does bring awareness to SF about the needs and size of the city's bikers, but in a way not far removed from how AIDSwalk does the same for AIDS.
by cyclist
Thursday Oct 6th, 2005 4:03 PM
Nevermind, you obviously have participated. I hadn't realized who wrote this piece. But I stand by my observation.
by aaron
Thursday Oct 6th, 2005 7:03 PM
"Cyclist's" post typifies a certain section of the CM scene that sucks: No discernible politics or criticism of the present state of things aside from some vague wish to be "allowed" to ride around the city once a month.

Anyone who attended early CM's knows the police were opposed to it and tried to break it up repeatedly. The cops have since accomodated CM in part because its main constituency is made up of people who possess some degree of political capital (middle class whites with lawyers at their disposal).

If CM were comprised predominately of working class non-whites--and, heavan forbid, was explicitly political in its goals--it would face state violence.

The fact that CM
by infos
Friday Oct 7th, 2005 10:46 AM
check it - following NY CM trouble now it's london uk

London Critical Mass under threat

04-10-2005 01:15

On Friday 30th September, those who joined London's monthly Critical Mass ride, found themselves being issued with letters from the Metropolitan Police, threatening arrests at future Critical Mass rides, unless the 'organisers' give notice of the route at least six days in advance, and warning that the police can impose restrictions on the rides once the advance notice has been given.The letter stated that the police are reviewing their 'policy' towards critcal mass.
by CLM (chris [at]
Friday Oct 7th, 2005 5:21 PM
If you want to help save Critical Mass in New York City, the most important thing you can do is help pay the legal bills! Freewheels is an organization founded by CM arrestees who are working to help pay the legal bills of those who choose to fight their charges... and, eventually, we hope to be in a position to fight for a true solution to this crackdown: a federal injunction that would prevent the NYPD from making any further baseless arrests!

And if you're a New Yorker, don't forget to write your city councilperson! Councilman Vallone is considering launching an investigation into exactly how much money the crackdown is costing the City - but he needs to hear from you and from his fellow councilmen that it's an important issue! Many members of the city council are on thier way out this election cycle, and are looking for an excuse to sock Bloomberg a good one on their way out - help them do so!
by cyclist
Monday Oct 10th, 2005 8:08 PM

"If CM were comprised predominately of working class non-whites--and, heavan forbid, was explicitly political in its goals--it would face state violence." aaron, THAT is exactly my point and my criticism of "the present state of things". But because this is not the case, it is officially sanctioned. Sounds like you are agreeing with me moron so I guess you "suck" also. I'm glad you do "suck" because other wise I'd take your use of this word as homophobic, ignorant, and potentially alienating to a large SF demographic. And the implication that I am middle-class, an assumption you've made based on a few sentences I wrote belies a tendency on your part to generalize on highly insufficient information. Your "politics" may be in the general direction of mine but the level of analysis such a generalization like this is worth puts your tiny mind in a very distant category. And finally, I grew up in dire poverty in Newark, NJ so fuck you bud.
by aaron
Tuesday Oct 11th, 2005 2:18 AM
to the extent that i implied things about you, i stand corrected.

We are 100% volunteer and depend on your participation to sustain our efforts!


donate now

$ 222.00 donated
in the past month

Get Involved

If you'd like to help with maintaining or developing the website, contact us.


Publish your stories and upcoming events on Indybay.

IMC Network