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Critical Mess - Some Reflections on the London CM

Cyklojizdy | 11.07.2010 21:12 | Analysis

A rumination on aggressive cyclists, the police and what to do about our good friends the pedestrians.

I have been going to Critical Mass events in different countries for fifteen years or so. After the June ride in London (25/6/10) I feel compelled to offer some thoughts. Although there certainly were aspects to the mass which were fun and it is always empowering to ride down a street which is full of cyclists rather than dirty, dangerous cars, overall I didn't really enjoy the experience, for reasons which recur continually in discussions of critical mass but which nevertheless are worth restating.

First off, just like when i went on Critical Mass in London back in February or March, and a few occasions last year, I was surprised and dishearted by the level of aggression which I witnessed. This June mass was on a full moon (you know it must be a full moon when you have a a non-mass cyclist raging at you for not obeying the traffic lights, I think that was a one-off!), so more conflicts could be expected than normal, but still I saw cyclists baiting drivers and I don't think that is at all constructive. It's one thing to support a corker being threatened by a taxi driver (corkers block the side roads to allow the safe passage of the mass), it's another thing entirely for someone to find a car which has turned into a gap in the mass and then cycle in front of it, brake to a halt and start swearing at the driver. I know full well that some drivers, particularly cabbies, can be complete idiots, but starting off aggressive doesn't really seem to help our case. Some people (notably white young males) may enjoy being more militant than normal in the way they interact with drivers but threatening drivers, breaking off their aerials etc surely will mean that these drivers will treat cyclists worse in general post-mass, not better. It just seems a bit misguided, since surely our loose cause (if we could ever agree at all) might involve making other road users aware of cyclists, rather than making them hate bikes.

That's my first point, but as you will see, all the points roll together. Because there were more confrontations over corking than there should have been, and these wouldn't happen so much if the mass sticks together. One problem on the last mass was that it got really spread out, with huge gaps in the middle. This can be dangerous, as when a few hundred cyclists had to weave between traffic on Piccadilly (which is a road) before regaining critical mass at the Circus (which is a roundabout with the statue of Eros in the middle). Drivers understandably get more radge when they are being held up by a few cyclists when there is nothing in the road, rather than when the stream of cyclists is constant. The tension is increased when cyclists start off telling them to get to fuck, rather than engaging them in a conversation. The power of the mass comes through sheer numbers, not how macho one person is.

A thing which doesn't seem to happen much any more is people making flyers to hand out to interested people to let them know what is happening and where we meet (at the South Bank, outside the National Film Theatre Cafe at 18.30, last Friday of the month). There might be an impression that most people already know about the mass, but I don't think that's true and some drivers might even be more sympathetic when they got more information. Humour is always a potent weapon! There's a great moment in the film 'We Are Traffic' about the San Francisco Critical Mass where a corker is holding up a sign saying “thanks for your patience” and then all the cars start honking their horns, so the person flips their sign around and it says something like “beep if you love bikes”!

So how to resolve this spreading out of the mass? Well, if people are aware of it, then the front normally slows down. And this did happen. Also having a sound system at the front and one at the back would help to bunch people up. Weirdly, there seems to be less sound than there used to be. Don't know why that is, perhaps it's something which comes and goes. Having music also tends to disturb the aggression and make the mass more of a spectacle. And when I say spectacle, I don't mean in a negative, vacuous sense, but actually more that the mass functions better as a crazy, fun, moving event which inspires laughters and smiles from perdestrians, drivers and fellow cyclists, rather than an ominous confrontation situation between a few hundred cyclists and a belligerent driver who is unsure quite what to do (leave the car? throw a punch? scream some more?), with the police sirens echoing around.

More on the police. At this mass, a cyclist got arrested. This really fucked me off because I would have thought that all the 1000 or so cyclists on the mass would pretty much agree that if the police are arresting a cyclist, they are in the wrong, no matter what the cyclist has done. There was no need for this person to get arrested. If enough people had surrounded the van, we would have got him dearrested. Despite a huge police reaction, there were still more of us. From talking to people afterwards, it seems that there was simply huge confusion about what was happening, with a lot of people ignorant of what was going on down the sidestreet, but seriously, if we are self-organised then we should be able to commicate between ourselves. Certainly most of the people who could see what was happening just stood there like lemons and allowed the police to shove us aside so as to drive the van off.

To go into more detail, basically, coming down High Holborn, a cyclist bombed it past us on the wrong side of the street with a police van behind him. Folishly, he didnt reenter the mass, or do a uturn but instead crossed through the mass and down a small street. When we drew level we saw he had been put up against the wall (i guess he tried to double back on the van but got caught). People were slow to react, it was a shock to see someone getting arrested, but soon we surrounded the van and started braying for him to be let go. Unfortunately most people stood back and in the end the van was able to get away. That really was a defeat. I hope the guy got let off. Of course we didn't go down to the station to do a solidarity demo (what happened in Prague when a similar thing happened on Car Free Day). This is England after all. What i heard happened was that he kicked a cab which knocked him over and smashed a light, and the police saw it. Who knows? Who cares? Whilst I previously argued that we should not be aggressive without reason, getting knocked off your bike is fair justification to strke back, no matter what happened previously. And anyway, we should never let the police arrest a cyclist on the mass. Argue that if you will, but you won't change my mind. The mass is an autonomous space for me, where the police have no right to enter.

The mass is also a slow moving traffic jam, with no leaders. Damn right and chaos is good too, but communication is also helpful and it seems like we are thinking robotically. Why does the mass always go to Buckingham Palace, Parliament Square, Piccadilly Circus and Park Lane? Every single mass I have been to in the last five years does precisely that, maybe I'm just unlucky and miss the exciting routes. But we used to go all over the place, north, south, east west. For just two examples of what can happen, i remember a mass which went out to Mile End to commemorate a killed cyclist in a silent moment with the parents and a June 18 1999 critical mass in solidarity with the anti-capitalist demo. The mass might well be lapsing into spectacle in the bad sense if it always, melancholically follows a set route. But then to be fair, this mass did end up at the exFoundry, in support of the soon to be evicted squat.

A friend who has stopped going on critical mass bemoans the level of aggression of cyclists and also the fact that he had to escort an ambulance through the mass, making people move. So let's move on to some of the key debates of the mass. These continually reoccur but of course for many they are fresh topics, so we must always revisit them, bearing in mind that context decides most cases and nothing is set in stone...

Emergency vehicles.
Should we let through emergency vehicles? By this I mean ambulances and fire engines. Police are more debatable, especially after the incident described above. For me it seems totally clear we should let through emergency vehicles.

For some reason some people on the June mass were saying buses should be let through, using rather weak arguments to back up their stance. I see no reason why buses should be let through when other vehicles are not, save emergency ones. I think letting through buses would only encourage taxis to have a go. Just like in normal cycling time, it's the taxis who pose the greatest threat to cyclists.

I don't think we should let these vehicles through, but there's not much we can do to stop them either, since they can always find a gap, just like bikes can. They're not the main problem, although motorcyclists can be idiotic. In February, I had the rare pleasure of watching a motorbike effing and blinding at cyclists on Park Lane before roaring off at 60mph towards a turnoff, realising he (it must've been a 'he') had misjudged it, braking frantically, skidding slowly and horrifyingly towards a concrete wall, then very gently colliding with it and slowly crumpling up his nice fibreglass bits on the bike, before driving off unharmed just as we caught up.

Should we stop for pedestrians when it is green for them? This is perhaps the most thorny and irresolvable of all mass issues. I would argue in most cases we should not stop, becuase then the mass gets broken up (unless this is happening right at the front of the mass, when it is a good idea to stop to allow stragglers to catch up). The mass being broken up leads to greater problems and in turn encourages more pedestrains to cross over in slightly dangerous conditions, so then the problems increase exponentially.

I don't think I will be going on another London critical mass for a while. I wonder if more people are getting turned off, since for a warm June evening the turnout wasn't huge. But you never know, these things ebb and flow. All of this is just my view and if you want to jump down my throat and tell me how wrong I am, go ahead, but I probably won't bother replying, i would rather try to catalyse debate and get the mass returned to the beautiful, empowering example of direct action that it always was.

Cycle safe!

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Hide the following 9 comments

interesting points

11.07.2010 22:49

the best point you made, which is the best thing ive heard in the last few months - in 'political/activist cirles at least - is "The mass is an autonomous space for me, where the police have no right to enter." - exactly, a de-arrest should have been a defo, but 'oh well' this time round.

I agree on emergency veichles, but not police, as they have proven time and time again to go back on any 'agreements' or they blatantly abuse any 'leyway' given to them by the 'action particpants', so 'no negotiation' as far as im concerned.

No leaders, no masters: although people sugguesting stuff and then others rolling with it and then the same people coming up with stuff that people continue to dig, well, thats just good group dynamics, i suppose. being bossy is obviously a different thing.

However, the issues I wanted to originally comment on, and got slightly side tracked from, was the issue of violence.

The very name, 'critical mass' conjurs up images of millions of us shutting the whole shitty system down and starting all over to build a nice happy place, etc, and thats fine...
but that happy place is not going to happen without some argy-bargy, with arrests and other shit along the way. Fuck the cabbies,thats my opinon, and fuck the people that dont get it or want to have a go at CM'ers as they bid to change the world and have fun if they can...Now im not saying that people should turn blac bloc on CM, far from it - and there should be leaflets and dialogue along the way', but there should also be room for an element of 'we're pissed off with the way shit is going down on the planet' and that element should be 'allowed to unfold' in the 'autonmous space' you so rallied to defend, comrade, without isolating those that are angry from the rest of the CM movement and of course pissing off the 'old skoolers' such as you and, well, im thirty ish, so maybe me and you are similar age?
anyway, my point is things are 'hotting up' across lots of 'movements' and maybe the CM has changed toward more aggression, because thats where we're at in this 'alternative globalisation movement', with more and more anger and confrontation at the front?
going off on a tangent germany recently, in greece recently and in america and canada recently, they have seen various 'violent and unprecedented' actions within 'established movements' in some cases, 'signalling a rise in left-wing activity' (europol 2010, based on massive riots at usually 'not so violent demos' in germany and a home made bomb lobbed at riot pigs a few weeks ago) i suppiose what im trying to say is, i agree with you, everything you say is almost bang on for me, although about violence i reckon things are changing, people are angrier, and something's gotta change, thats all............................



11.07.2010 23:19

great piece - well-written - exactly my thoughts - mass has become unpleasant at times - no solidarity - no sense of solidity - front doesn't seem aware of the back, and the stragglers spread out, which makes corking harder and more likely to lead to agression - not sure what the answers are other than networking these ideas - please don't leave the mass! - we need more folk like you


They did try.

12.07.2010 05:56

Just one point, which incidentally is shown on this video,

At least a couple of cyclists opened the van doors to try to release the arrestee and were supported by others. Two police then responded holding their arms out to make the crowd fall back. Were they holding pepper sprays perhaps? Anyway, after that it would have meant actually assaulting police officers to get him out of the van and I assume you would not have been in favour of that.

I was happy with the way cyclists at least tried to get the person released, instead of just standing around, but certainly didn't like the massive police presence that followed.


there was some solidarity

12.07.2010 10:19

a group of us - with a sound system - did go to the police station later on.
although i agree that the mass could have gone there straight away, instead of going to the foundry first.

and i agree that one of the biggest problems is the inability of people to stay together, in a mass. i rarely go to critical mass nowadays, because i find people's cluelessness kinda dispiriting. it would be great to hand out more info at the start of the ride, explaining basics like corking, sticking together, arrest rights, etc.
and if the mass is too big and unwieldy, perhaps deliberately split it into a number of smaller masses which can head off in different directions (or at different speeds - there are a large number of critical massers who seem to prefer free-wheeling to peddling, which is often why the back of the mass is so straggly). maybe people would find it easier to stick together in a group if it wasn't as large and vague as the current crowd?

another cyclist

Hit me with your rhythm stick?

12.07.2010 10:40

To clarify what was happening in the side street...

- the police officer who had previously exited the van and chased the cyclists on foot down Clarkenwell Rd was then reunited with the van

- this police officer and another removed their metal batons and extended them. They then held these behind and above their heads.

So I guess the chance of getting a metal baton around the head or in the face was a deterrent for some people to get involved further.

daily grind

Oh, the irony...

12.07.2010 23:23

Someone using the phrase "Cycle safe!" in an article about Critical Mess. LMAO.

Non-CM cyclist

Let’s get back to the positivity!

13.07.2010 09:27

I agree with all these points. We should keep it fun, funny and musical! We need more sound systems!

After the dodginess of this mass I wanted to write something really positive to emphasize what I think CM should be all about. Check it out... Lots of photos from the June CM

EcoHustler Newsflash: A Critical Mass of dissent… on wheels

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oh, the irony

13.07.2010 14:22

wasn´t at the most recent critical mass, but interesting thing for me is that critical mass used to be at its best when the police were cycling with us. back then, there was an atmosphere of co-operation and there was less ´us and them´ with us and other road users. since the police have gone, there are a lot of CMers that seem to use the ride to show off how anti car and anarchic they can be (in a really lame way), which achieves little more then antagonising and alienating other road users in a way that gains little sympathy for the cause of bikers in london (endangering lives for the other 30 days a month?). CM used to be an event that had a real family and party vibe, now it feels more like a fight half of the time.

lessons learned are not that we want the police back, but as the originator of this article says, we need to return to the says when CM was a creative event where everyone tried to and wanted to stay together to enjoy the fiesta with music, cooperation and fun, not to create havoc. let´s get back to the core of what CM stands for... it´s a celebration more than a (violent) protest.

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Some pointers from Glasgow CM

16.07.2010 16:39

Glasgow CM was at it's best when there was a small affinity group who organised flyers and information.

At the start of these masses, one of us would speak to the assembled CMers before we set off about 'corking' allowing emergency vehicles through, appealing for everyone to stick together for our own safety, and stating that CM is pro-bike NOT anti car. Also that we wanted to have FUN riding with other cyclists.
We would then distribute CM flyers for anyone to give out along the route. I even had some of the double-sided 'Thanks for being patient/Beep if you like bikes' laminates to pass out to potential corkers. We often dressed up a bit and gave out bunting, streamers etc to other cyclists, which gave Glasgow CM a more carnival atmosphere.

At various times we also had a sound system attached to either a cycle trailer or a four wheeled Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEM).

Three of the people on the ZEM had hands free to distribute leaflets, toot horns and whistles and wave shout and smile at pedestrians, especially bus queues.
They also shot videos as we went along, as did one or two cyclists. It is amazing how a camera being pointed can calm down an aggressive driver!

Once or twice we were joined by children who happened to be out cycling, which also calms down aggression and helps to 'humanise' the ride. (It could be YOUR child you are shouting at).
Also we were joined a couple of times by a mother and her child on roller blades, which meant the ride had to slow down for them to keep safe, as with child cyclists. (Glasgow is pretty hilly).

All in all we helped Glasgow CM to become quite a successful event by making it a generally fun thing to do, and accentuating the positive side to cycling as opposed to the negative effects of cars.

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