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Monday, October 08, 2007

This letter to the editor goes a long way to explain issues with Critical Mass. I would have a lot to argue with the author concerning the narcissism of the sixties' protesters - especially the ones getting firehosed and teargassed - but I'm afraid that too many of this writer's points about CM are painfully valid. (And I am virulently opposed to any action that is justified by "but I was just..." - I've taught middle school.)
I do know most of the words to "It Isn't Nice," too... but in my opinion that isn't what goes on.

For several decades cyclists have done the "let's just talk with the city" approach. And, as other activists have learned, bureaucrats are quite happy to meet and talk you to death. Moreover, as other activists have learned, the bureaucrats usually convince at least a few activists that they are serious. Here in Denver, we have a hand-picked bike committee that blocks any real change and approves even the most godawful, dangerous public works project.

The country is car-centered. Overwhelmingly car-centered. They are marginalizing us. And killing us without consequences.

Critical mass riders impose very slight inconvenience on a small number of drivers on one day a month. Yet, they get attention.

If you can point to something that is working better - recruiting more riders, forcing people to consider changing the system - then feel free to criticize critical mass. Until then, it reminds me of what many black ministers said about MLK Jr.

I don't mean to be harsh, but as a community, I think we need to get beyond the bike club and "wasn't that a nice bike to work day" mentality. We need real change.
For many communities, I would agree. That's why I added the reference to "it isn't nice."

However, in its *years* of existence, has critical mass effected a change? It "gets attention" - welp, so does the activism. Exactly like the activism... what are the actual results?
How is the "attention" CM gets any more real? Because it occasionally hits the media? Which causes what? Has CM done anything to change that hand-picked "bike committee?"

Yes, people said the same thing about MLK, etc. (see "it isn't nice.") However - BIG however - the similarities between CM and true nonviolent protest are pretty slim. I challenge anyone to show true parallels.

I won't apologize for having nice rides to work. Endorphins do that. I completely, utterly agree that we need real change. I *do* mean to be harsh: As long as people are too busy having their monthly party and calling it "real," oops, except when they say "oh, it's just a coincidence," how are we to expect change?
How has critical mass alleviated the car-centered ness of our culture?

How has CM reduced **at all** our marginalization the morning after?

CM rides do **not** make me safer the next morning.... or the next year. How long have they been happening?
Well, briefly, I think critical mass has greatly increased the number of young people cycling in urban areas and the number of people who want positive change for cyclists. I have seen it in Chicago, San Francisco, and - to a lesser extent - in Denver. Around here, it's cooler to ride a bike than it has ever been in my memory.

As far as similarities to MLK, there are many - non-violent protest, disrupting the status quo to make a point, a group repeatedly overlooked or marginalized by government provoking government to make themselves known, and a sub-group garnering criticism from more conservative members of the same group. There are so many similarities that I suspect we are talking about different things.

I am certainly not criticizing the way you ride, when you ride, or how much you enjoy it. It's great. You seem to have so much fun that I enjoy reading about your rides. (Perhaps I caused confusion by not capitalizing "Bike To Work Day" - the one day a year event.)

I'm not criticizing bike clubs either. I am merely suggesting that they are not enough. Just like the once a year "Bike To Work Day" isn't enough (and in the case of "Bike To Work Day" may actually be detrimental.) I am a member of a bike club and the average age of our members is in the 40's. Generally, the people I meet at bike club events are complacent folks, happy to have some folks to ride with. There's much good and little bad about that. Yet, the club is never going to be an agent for real change.

BTW, getting attention is part of the idea. If you've been an activist, you know that you cannot effect change without getting attention. Think Greenpeace or ancient forest protesters if the civil rights movement is too big a leap. Positive social change rarely, if ever, begins at the top.
Caveat before I start: I'm not urban (now). My "marginalization" is relatively painless here.
I think Critical Mass is also just too feel-good and complacent.
Is critical mass organized to effect change? By cm's own acclamation, it is not organized. I thought you said we need real change.

Do you have any reason to believe that CM forces people to consider changing the system?

I mean except for the thousands of drivers who, as a direct result of CM, would like to see more restrictions on bicycle travel. I haven't heard of one person saying "oh, cm made me realize that cyclists are being marginalized. We should treat them better." (People *did* see civil rights marches and realize people were being marginalized. Oh, and those folks organized. Got training in non-violence. Strategized for real change.)
Gathering for mutual support and collective energy is very valuable and powerful ... but I concur with your sentiment: I think we need to get beyond the "we're just a group of people riding together to celebrate cycling." You're getting more people riding... I think we need real change.
CM doesn't do that. It plays right into the system as it is.
... so indeed, I think feeble advocacy efforts are better. Sometimes they even work.
Oh, and this timely email was our daily 'Food for thought' quote:
“Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.”-Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I'm sorry, but that is *not* the spirit of critical mass.
I have been one of your readers for quite some time. I enjoy your posts and have encouraged others to read them. Though we disagree about Critical Mass, I want you to know that I am grateful for your writing.

If you get Free Speech Radio News down there, you might listen to today's feature on Code Pink. It raises some of the issues we are talking about - mainly whether demonstrators who bug some (or most) people are effective or not.

I would have left this discussion alone had you not dropped in the last quote and made the assertion characterizing the "spirit of critical mass" that followed it.

The Critical Mass rides I have been on and the riders I have talked to, have been overwhelmingly, amazingly non-violent. I am surprised that you would assert, apparently, that non-violence is not part of Critical Mass. Or perhaps you are going beyond that and asserting that _hatred_ of others is what motivates critical mass - that would not be simply surprising, it would be astounding. (Perhaps you are only asserting that confrontations or protests that aggravate people are "violent" or are motivated by hatred. I don't think that's what you are saying because it would, of course, be completely wrong.)

These assertions, if I have come close to correctly characterizing what you are saying, make me wonder whether you have any experience with Critical Mass. Perhaps your opinions are based predominantly on things like the letter to the editor you originally linked to. If the latter, perhaps a bit more skepticism about what you read on the editorial page (or a bit more open-mindedness toward non-mainstream events) would be appropriate. (I also wonder you have an overly idealized view of the civil rights movement, but that's really another subject.)

BTW, every movement, every demonstration, every group of people is a collection of people who think and feel different things at different times. This is true for ancient forest protesters, anti-seal clubbers, and civil rights demonstrators. I have heard people who have dedicated their lives to non-violence describe wanting to punch a particular cop. It was true of peace activists in the 70s.

BTW, Critical Mass has undoubtedly increased the number of bike activists. Perhaps my best "evidence" would be the influence of CM on my family and their friends, but I have seen positive changes among some officers on the Denver police force and even, some changes, in the attitudes of those in charge of the police force. That's just firsthand, solid observations. I could add to the list. I think if you went on a CM ride, and perhaps you have, you would have some evidence, too.

(CM has also undoubtedly contributed to the current hipness of urban cycling.)

Also, to say that something that is pleasant and makes its participants happy cannot contribute to change is, I think you will agree upon reflection, simply wrong. Similarly, the fact that there are no "organizers" does not mean that CM rides are not organized or that they cannot contribute to change.

I would also not that the number of drivers affected by CM is in reality fairly small. In Denver, "thousands" is an order of magnitude too high. (Even hundreds is probably too high for most Denver rides.) And those affected aren't unanimously irate or mad or even distressed. Some find it amusing. (At least one driver joined the next month's ride.) The ride is one day a month, late on a Friday.
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I've been learning from your comments... and I am very *eager* to change my mind about CM - I *do* have limited (but some) experience with it.
It's non-violent, I would agree... and I've not felt it was hate-based. The point of including that quote is that non-violence goes deeper than not hurting people.
Hmmm.... let's talk about the whole power thing. Isn't the joy of CM that for that time, the cyclists have power that usually is reserved for drivers?
Where does that fit in the "we're doing this to create change" equation?
My experience is in this little college town, where the couple of CM rides I've been near or in were low-impact, rolling parties of people riding all over the road and having a lot of fun... "real change" was not in the air.
On the other hand, someone once went on one (here) and told me it had *really* made him feel empowered; somebody who's had a ton of experience with marginalized people. I could imagine a CM ride where there are more people who really are coming at it from the "marginalized" place, and that it could be a chance to bring those energies together ... and yes, end up inspiring actions that... indeed... create real change.
Is CM the best way to do this, though?
I also completely agree about the range of motivations, etc. in any group of protesters (or any gathering, for that matter).
That's why leadership is so important.... oops, CM "doesn't have any." Oops, you're saying it does, well maybe. It's obvious that "not being organized" is a legal strategy in most places... but for real change, perhaps we need to look further.
Now, other things are beckoning me ... I'm really glad you're posting your ideas - my opinions of CM are definitely not set in stone or even clay. I want to know more...
Sue, the bad apples get the press, but the criticisms leveled against CM in the editorial are ridiculous. The "inconvenience" is no more than what a motorist experiences every single day he commutes by car, except when he sees a bike in the road the cyclists becomes the cause of all of his problems, somehow.
Welp, that letter dissed every protester from Ghandi on, so I don't respect it too highly... but unfortunately, as you say, the bad apples get the press.
Question is, what to do about that?

I've been reflecting on your last comment. I think what your CM acquaintance felt is important. Part of CM is realizing that there are other people that care about bikes, think they are cool, and believe they should be on the road. That's a big deal.

Thanks for the discussion.
Check out this short vid about CM in Durham NC:
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