Tied to the mast
…but orange now and black

Critically Massive

Participated in my second critical mass ever yesterday, first ever in Chicago. Not as sore as I thought I’d be today.

It’s hard to estimate exactly how many bikes participated, but at one point I became separated from my group while near the front and pulled to the side to wait for them, and for 10 minutes it was a solid stream spanning both lanes of the street, and it wasn’t showing signs of ebbing (I think it would have soon though… don’t want to overstate).

Turned out a car had been dangerously aggressive and my friends J and A had been part of the impromptu response team, parking around the car on all sides and berating the poor misguided woman about driving unsafely until the stream thinned enough for her to cross without killing people. There were a few cars like that but there was no disputing who was in charge, or the empowerment of being in a mob of several thousand to play chicken with belligerant assholes.

I say mob, but that’s not really it. If any had attacked the car, that wouldn’t have been tolerated either. My read, from the way people interacted when decisions were made (for example, discussing whether or not to let a bus we had overtaken stay ahead of us, or to overtake it), is that the other cyclists would intervene so that the belligerent assholes outside of the car didn’t provide a convenient anecdote for those who want to crack down on the event. And if they didn’t, if there was not active self-policing, bike police rode with us, and there would have been no protest at their intervention, so long as the police didn’t escalate it.

For those who may have heard of critical mass but don’t know exactly what it is, or those who’ve never even heard about it, here’s the “about” statement from the unofficial (because there is no “official”) Chicago website:

Critical Mass is a bike ride plain and simple. The ride takes place on the Last Friday Of Every Month (in Chicago anyway). A Critical Mass is created when the group of riders comes together for those few hours to take back the streets of our city. The right of the people to assemble is guaranteed in the Constitution, and Critical Mass helps people remember that right. The Mass itself has no political agenda, though, no more than the people of any other community do. Critical Mass is open to all, and it welcomes all riders to join in a celebration of riding bicycles. Why? Because bikes are fun!

Sure, as with any community, you’ll see people of all types. Some people see Critical Mass as a forum for grassroots political change. Some people see it as a protest against cars. Some people just like to ride. The Mass, however, is just that…a bunch of bike riders. You can drive a car the whole month and ride in the Mass. You can be an anarchist and ride in the Mass. The point of the Mass is the Mass, nothing more. Critical Mass has no leadership. It is a ride where no one is in charge. At any time, riders are free to leave, stay, stop, or even help out. Everyone is responsible for themselves and the Mass. Learn how to get involved!

It was exhilarating, and although there were some mob-like elements, they were hardly dominant. Attitudes tended towards the positive, but, as it says above, people do it for their own reasons. There were the “angry at the police” people, the “angry at cars” people, the “let’s toss candy to people” people, but mostly everyone was just smiling and wishing bystanders (and drivers) a happy Friday. There’s a tangible sense of ideational interactive free space which, in itself, puts one in a positive frame of mind.

The bystander experience was extra fascinating from a people-watching perspective. Mostly the looks were somewhere between bemused, awed, and excited. The latter two especially when we ventured through some neighbourhoods in the (much poorer) S. Side, and extra especially among the kids, many of who formed “high five lines”, (and one of who tried to actually grab my hand to show off to his friends… lucky for both of us I guess he wasn’t very strong… a pedestrian deliberately unseating a cyclist wouldn’t methinks be much popular in the mass).

A common and reasonable point of criticism of critical mass is that in obstructing traffic, it also obstructs emergency services. To a degree this is true, and really, the police have no coercive option to ensure that such obstruction doesn’t occur without creating a riot. That said, we heard sirens about halfway through, and everyone pulled to the side to let the emergency vehicle pull through. Gives you a little bit of faith in humanity no? I mean, maybe a few of the hard-core anarchists would want to block an ambulance, but otherwise, why would anyone find doing so reasonable?

Critical Mass rides happen in most major N. American cities. I recommend checking it out. Here in Chicago it’s the last Friday of every month, leaving at 6:00ish from Washington and Dearborn.

(got this picture from some dude’s ride report on the Chicago Critical Mass website)

A selection of fun facts from the wikipedia “critical mass” entry:

* Critical Mass differs from many other social movements in its rhizomal (rather than hierarchical) structure. Critical Mass is sometimes called an “organized coincidence”, with no leadership or membership.

* The routes of some rides are decided spontaneously by whomever is currently at the front of the ride, others are decided prior to the ride by a popular vote of suggested routes often drawn up on photocopied flyers.

* The term xerocracy was coined to describe a process by which the route for a Critical Mass can be decided: anyone who has an opinion makes their own map and distributes it to the cyclists participating in the Mass. Still other rides decide the route by consensus.

* The “disorganized” nature of the event allows it to largely escape clampdown by authorities who may view the rides as forms of parades or organized protest. Additionally, the movement is free from the structural costs associated with a centralized, hierarchical organization.

* In order for the event to function, the only requirement is a sufficient turn-out to create a “critical mass” of riders dense enough to occupy a piece of road to the exclusion of drivers of motorized vehicles. Authorities in New York, California and Oregon have expressed concern with the difficulty of coordinating with the riders, due to the lack of leadership.

* Critical Mass rides have generated considerable controversy and public opposition.[25] Critics claim that Critical Mass is a deliberate attempt to obstruct traffic and disrupt normal city functions, asserting that individuals taking part refuse to obey traffic laws.[26] Altercations with police and motorists have occurred.


UPDATE: Dood who took the picture commented below. Check out the rest of his shots here.


4 Responses to “Critically Massive”

  1. good to know I can take good pics while standing up with one hand held high over my head (:

    but i like to think of the mass as more of an amoeba mostly because we just flow through and around anything… around stopped cars through 1 lane of traffic and weave between cars when nesseciary… slowing down speeding up and the best part CIRCLING UP and HOLDING UP, lol…


    check out the rest of my pics and tag yourself if you wish.

    good read and thanks for comming out to celebrate my first ccm


  2. interesting material, where such topics do you find? I will often go

  3. I love this website, the information is great and I have bookmarked it in my favorites. This is a well organized and informative website. Great Job!

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