Revolution on wheels! Critical Mass: changing how we protest

In this discouraging period when the world is going to hell around us yet the signs of visible resistance — riots, strikes, protests, creative acts of defiance — sometimes seem in short supply, monthly Critical Mass Bike Rides continue to offer fantastic opportunities to get out of your armchair and into the street with a powerful vision of another world.

Critical mass rides have been happening in the Bay Area since 1992 and now occur in over 325 cities around the world. The idea is simple — people gather for an urban bike ride during rush hour. By having a bunch of bikes together at the same time, our usual biking experience of vulnerability and second-class citizenship under the iron boot of car domination is radically transformed. Once critical mass is attained, riding a bike becomes ”normal” for a change. We can ride safely, we can talk with others around us and experience our surroundings more fully, we feel free, the air smells cleaner, and the snarl of traffic is replaced by the joyous sound of hundreds of bells and whooping.

Critical mass has no leaders, usually no planned route, and no official or specific demands. These elements are CM’s strengths. Instead of a few leaders deciding what everyone should do, everyone cooperates, taking collective responsibility for the ride.

The lack of specific demands opens up huge opportunities for communication, debate, and community involvement in figuring out how the future should look. Inherent in critical mass is a lived vision of how the streets could be if transportation was human centered and environmentally sustainable. CM can’t be reduced to a single issue or bought off with a few reforms offered from above like a few more bike lanes and bike parking, etc.

Critical mass is positive and about living how we want now, not delaying our dreams while we beg someone in power to change things for us. My favorite rides try to avoid nasty confrontations with cars, and instead focus on riding our own bikes — making our own reality rather than just complaining. When I’m on critical mass, I want to forget that cars even exist at all. I don’t ride to slow auto traffic — it seems like cars slow themselves down easily enough every rush hour without my help.

While going to traditional, ritualistic protest events can feel like a chore, going to critical mass is like going to a party. And while so much of radical activism feels like you’re operating within a ghetto of people who already share your views — skillshares, protest pits, infoshops — critical mass is outreach on a very grassroots level since the rides typically go through all kinds of neighborhoods and reach lots of different kinds of folks. It is always amazing to see what a positive reaction the ride gets — a lot of regular folks understand on a gut level how hostile an auto dominated world is, and want to see alternatives. Fun, creativity and beauty are infectious. Perhaps some of the folks we pass this month will be riding with us next month.

From an activist point of view, CM is ideal because it takes virtually NO time and energy to organize, and yet provides an opportunity to be literally in the streets — massively disrupting business as usual — every single month. In the face of the war and the constant onslaught of industrial capitalism, raising hell is absolutely essential both on a personal and a social level. I have noticed that I get personally depressed when I go too long without doing something tangible to put my body into the gears of the machine. Riders sometimes carry signs or shout slogans if they want, but even if they don’t, CM protests the status quo.

On a very deep level, public events like critical mass feel subversive because of their voluntary, participatory, decentralized, free character. CM isn’t a part of the left-wing political machine or just another symbolic act — it is the very best expression of anarchist practice.

In the earlier days, I remember a big portion of the ride being radicals, anarchists, environmentalists and freaks of all stripes. These days, the rides are bigger, more broadly inclusive racially and with respect to age, and more fun than ever. One thing I’ve been sad about over the last few years is that I see less radicals (at least from my scene!) at the mass. It isn’t good when you see more of your scene at a private, politically invisible party than at a public even that takes over the streets. If you haven’t been on a ride for a while, check it out!

Critical mass happens the last Friday of each month at 6 p.m. at Justin Herman Plaza in San Francisco and many other cities around the world — check for a list. In Berkeley, Critical mass starts at 6 p.m. at the downtown Berkeley BART station on the second Friday of each month. A new ride just started in Oakland, Calif. at 5:30 p.m. on the first Friday of each month at Frank Ogawa Plaza at the corner of 14 and Broadway, near the 12th St. BART station.