Critical Mess - Some Reflections on the London CM

Tagged as: critical_mass culture cycling free_spaces
Neighbourhoods: central_london

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...

1
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.

2
Buses.
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.

3
Motorbikes/mopeds.
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.

4
Pedestrians
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!

http://www.criticalmasslondon.org.uk/

Additions

Solidarity

Just to note, there was two dozen of us or so who did go to the Police Station where the arrested cyclist was being held. I agree with the main point made about surrounding the police wagon better at the initial time of arrest though to prevent it happening in the first place.