ChainLinkers Still Wrestling With Meaning of Critical Mass

When last we looked there were a handful of comments regarding Critical Mass, its meaning, purpose and value. But the more the group wrestles with this, the more strained the arguments become:

Reply by Adam Herstein 1 hour ago

Why are bike races okay, but Critical Mass is not? Both shut down streets and can be an annoyance to those driving cars. Is it because bike racing for sport is state-sanctioned and socially accepted, but riding your bike to work is considered anarchist and crazy? Is it because bike races bring in money, while bicycle commuters are riding in the streets for free? Is it because most Americans think of Lance Armstrong when talking about bikes and not the average Joe just trying to get to work? Why is one okay and not the other? Why is it okay that millions die each year at the hands of irresponsable car drivers, yet riding a bike is seen as the dangerous act? Why is it that the average car driver spends ten hours a week stuck in traffic, yet can’t wait ten minutes for a group of bikes to go by?

I’m sure the car enthusiasts are complaining about bikes on their forums, just as we are complaining about cars here. Just because something is annoying to some, doesn’t make it not right. I truly believe that Critical Mass is not a protest, but since you seem to think so, I’ll humor you a bit. What about the civil rights movement in the 1960’s? Would African Americans have gotten any rights without civil disobedience? By simply going places that they were not allowed nor welcomed, they fought the status quo and got their rights. Would women have gotten the right to vote if they didn’t fight for it at the polls? You say that protesting gets one nowhere, but without protests, our country would still be only allowing rich white men to vote. So if we are to get more bikes on the street and claim to everyone that we have the right to be here, what better way is there than all biking onto the street at once, so that everyone can see us? Some people look at Critical Mass and say “hmm, all these people seem to want to ride their bikes, maybe we should give them more room on the road and treat them like equals”, just like someone in Birmingham, Alabama in the ’60 said “hmm, all these black people seem to want to ride the bus and sit in restaurants like everyone else. Maybe we should let them, and treat them as equals”.

But again, Critical Mass is not a protest. It’s just a bunch of people who want to ride their bikes.

Real Civil Disobedience Has Its Consequences

Bike races are different from Critical Mass in one very important respect, permission. In civil society we always need to get the permission of our peers to do things that will directly affect them. To that end we elect representatives (we are attempting to be a Representative Republic) and they are allowed (on our behalf) to pass judgment on all sorts of requests.

For instance if you want to hold a bike race you have to sign the necessary forms that describe what, where and when you will be holding such an event. You have to prove that the city will not be held liable for any injuries incurred during the race (that usually means your race will need its own insurance riders) and that participants will sign waivers to that effect. You pay a fee for the privilege of having the business district streets shut down and a police presence to help keep things under control and there are always requirements for there to be EMTs waiting in strategic places to ensure that medical help is ever present.

Now contrast this with the doofus manner in which Critical Mass is conducted. You skirt the issue of getting permission and just happen to be a group of people who coincidentally meet at the same location the last Friday of each month with an understood starting time. So now you can ride away from this chance happening and begin your attempt at creating a series of intersectional traffic jams in the name of protesting traffic jams and the harm they do to the Environment. Really clever that last bit.

And if I ever hear again a white youth trying to make the comparison between the Critical Mass and the Civil Rights Movement I will “throw up”. You neither have the right to compare yourself in that fashion nor the balls (as a group of Critical Mass riders) be confrontational in an upright and selfless manner. You hide behind the idea of a Flash Mob meeting and fail to confront power in an official capacity. You claim to have no leaders so that none of them will ever be standing on a balcony talking with well wishers and suffer a snipers bullet to the brain. You will never allow yourselves to ride in the face of direct refusal by city government and be taken to jail. You are a bunch of “panty waist” Freedom Marcher wannabes too timid to know what a truly brutal world this can be.

You dishonor the memories of Cheney, Goodman and Schwerner by even invoking such a comparison. Take that single speed of yours and ride off into the sunset along your favorite bicycle lane. Leave the heavy lifting to those who really have earned it. Never call a confused and dishonest attempt at protest anything but what it is. And if Critical Mass is as you claim not a protest why even bring up protest events for direct comparison? It makes no sense.

Another respondent makes more sense:

Reply by David crZven 2 hours ago

My comment:

Mob action. Its not the riding of the Bicycles, it is the mass blocking of traffic and other civil disobedience. Again its not the perceptions of the riders, it is the perceptions of the majority. And they perceive that actions of CM as harmful. And Cars don’t engage in CM like activities (blocking lights and the like) unless specifically allowed (Funerals).

And, frankly, forfeiture of cars would also be a good thing. I have always advocated forfeiture of any car found to be driven by an impaired driver. Even if they do not own the car. It puts pressure on the owner to make sure that they only loan out the car to someone who will act responsibly.

And you are sadly mistaken if you think that arrest and seizure of bicycles used in CM would “never” fly today. Go to some of the “auto-centric” blogs (The Expired Meter) and read some of the comments directed to Bicyclists in General and Critical Mass in particular. CM is making enemies for bicycle advocates. And that’s the problem. If we want to make real progress, we have to stop treating the cars as the “mortal enemy” and we need to push for real and effective cooperative solutions.

While I understand the notion of Mob Action the Critical Mass rides are frankly not up to that level of intensity. These are edgy rides which masquerade as quasi-protests. They give timid souls who have nothing better to do on a Friday evening a chance to enjoy a Dude Ranch experience of “sticking it to the Man”. A Critical Mass would never be as satisfying if not for the traffic snarls it creates. It provides a kind of Harley-Davidson vibrator effect for the folks on the ride who need to feel tingly.

But at the end of the evening its the beer and social scene which are what everyone under the age of 30 was there for anyway. Critical Mass is like whale watching from the comfort of a boat in a harbor that returns you to the wharf a couple hours after having boarded. It would be the equivalent of visiting a war torn area of the globe sans the blood and gore that real war produces, all for the benefit of the people who attended and want bragging rights of a Monday around the water cooler.

The most glaring fact about the Critical Mass movement is that it has taught obstructionist politicians how to conduct their affairs. In Chicago we saw this first hand when Harold Washington was mayor. We are now living through the four year stint of the same treatment of Barack Obama. Critical Mass is what you do when you do not understand the “art of compromise”. And like the folks who are obstructing the President (claiming their comments and racially tinged jokes are just good ole boy humor and nothing to fret about) you hide behind the notion that this is “just a bike ride”. It supposedly has nothing to do with a protest. And yet you argue that nothing ever improves without societal civil disobedience. And that is correct. But real civil disobedience is forthright and out in the open. It speaks Truth to Justice without trying to be coy. Critical Mass has all the earmarks of a pot party where everyone puffs away but no one inhales.

Here is another interesting response:

Reply by Bill Savage 7 hours ago

My issue with the CCM is about politics and persuasion. If you want to convince people to share the road, and you do so by . . . refusing to share the road with them, that is a tough sell. The confrontational nature of CCM alienates potential allies. I’ve always argued that a truly convincing Critical Mass would do the opposite of what it does: instead of massing downtown and then heading out someplace, relying on cops to stop car traffic, pick a destination (downtown or elsewhere) and have everyone ride to that destination along half a dozen chosen routes, sharing the road all the way and obeying all the traffic laws. Show drivers that cyclists can do that, and you might change some minds. Cause gridlock, not so much.

Agreed this is an Alice in Wonderland approach to problem solving. As is pointed out there the real kicker is the fact that Critical Mass has a police escort. Can you even imagine the Weather Underground announcing themselves on a website and then allowing the cops to join them? Sheesh.

Frankly it is a good thing that the police are on these Critical Mass rides. They keep things from getting so out of hand that someone gets hurt. But let’s not kid ourselves about the wussy nature of a ride that tries to be edgy when in fact it is milquetoast to the extreme. Again if it were not for the pseudo confrontation caused by creating traffic jams at busy intersections where would be the “fun”?

Another firm rejoinder to the “Kool-Aid Crowd at ChainLink”:

Reply by David crZven 2 hours ago

Its the Viet Nam war demonstrator problem. The demonstrators were too stupid or too arrogant to see that their efforts were actually delaying the resolution of the war. The participants in critical mass are too stupid or too arrogant to see that participation in critical mass makes it much harder to achieve real and meaningful change in Cycling in the City. About the only way that Critical Mass would ever bring about any change is a “Kent State” like incident where some crazy motorist (likely a Cab driver…) simply loses it and intentionally runs down a whole group of Critical Massers. I want to see progress in Cycling in the City, but the death or serious injury of a number of Critical Massers is too high a cost.

Pretty much everything “pro-critical mass” that has been posted has been “sophistry” trying to pretend that Critical Mass is not a political act or that the man is in some way trying to tell you who you can hang out with and when. We live in Society. Society must have rules in order to survive. Critical Mass prides its self on its absence of rules and anarchy. Anarchy is not society and must eventually fail.

I have said my piece on the subject. Its quite clear that the pro-Critical Mass folk are, on this issue, Zealots and immune to logic and reason.

If indeed the Critical Mass is nothing more than a bike ride, then we can drop the pretense of its even being held and just disperse across the city and suburbs joining perfectly good club rides with food stops and docents and the like. Why travel all the way to the Loop and have the city incur the expense police escorts for a bunch of tight-arsed fan boys and girls of the Protest Era when the ride is nothing like that?