Critical Mass at 20 - Page 5

The movement changed the rules in cities all over the world — and almost, almost, took the Bay Bridge

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Chris Carlsson helped spread Critical Mass around the world
GUARDIAN PHOTO BY MIKE KOOZMIN/SF NEWSPAPER CO.

As we crested the hill and dropped down toward the freeway entrance, our pathway seemed clear, with the only real variable being coordinating with Dress in the Mercedes trail car, but Carlsson was on the phone with him and we all assumed that we were about to ride our bikes onto the Bay Bridge.

We were in a fairly tight pack, Maccarone smiling atop the tall bike that had traveled so far to this point, as we rounded the swooping right turn to the point where even cars make a dangerously quick entrance onto the bridge from a complete stop, merging into loud and dense traffic moving at freeway speeds.

We stopped, looked back for Dress, and he wasn't there. A minute crept by, then another, as cars drove cautiously past us to get onto the freeway, their drivers giving us the same quizzical, confused looks that we'd seen on Critical Mass so many times. Another minute passed, then another, as Carlsson lit one of the road flares that we planned to use as a secondary safety measure to the Mercedes.

Then, a CHP patrol car rounded the bend, the officer sternly telling us over his PA system, "Don't even think you're getting on this bridge with those bikes."

So we turned around and began to head back when Dress finally arrived in his Mercedes, presenting a moment of truth. Did we proceed anyway, even though we had been warned and knew the officer had probably radioed in our presence, taking away the element of surprise and increasing our chances of arrest?

There was dissension in ranks and a clear division among those urging opposite courses of action, but Carlsson and others continued to ride away after talking the Dress, who proceeded onto the freeway. Later, Carlsson said he was still game to go at that moment, but tried to be responsive to the collective: "I was not comfortable imposing going on the bridge on everyone."

D'Andrade advocated for going anyway, but most felt it was too risky at that point, siding with Carlsson's argument that is wasn't about getting arrested: "I like to do something and get away."

And so it was decided that we would choose a strategic retreat, some pledging to take the bridge some other day, hopefully with greater numbers. Besides, we all had a big week ahead of us, starting the next day with the first official event of Critical Mass's anniversary week: the Art Bike/Freak Bike Ride and BBQ.

We gathered the next afternoon on the waterfront under sunny blue skies, our aborted bike crew increased in size 10-fold, joined by underground DIY bike crews from San Francisco's own Cyclecide to the Black Label crews from Minneapolis, Oakland, and Los Angeles, infusing the ride with a countercultural edge.

Urban bike culture is now vast and varied — from the eco-warriors and urban thinkers to wage slaves and renegade tinkerers — and they've all found a regular home in Critical Mass. "Twenty years on, people are kinda nostalgic about it, even if they don't ride in it or think it's a good idea," an activist name rRez told me during that beautiful Sunday ride, the one we were able to take because we weren't in jail.

Carlsson told me on the ride that he was at peace with our failed mission of the day before, a sign that being radical isn't the same thing as being reckless. "That was a good strategic retreat moment. It's very adult," he said. "It was a good experience for all of us, and nothing bad happened and nobody is in jail."

In a way, that's the essence of Critical Mass. It isn't pure anarchy, and it's not about fighting with the cops or the motorists, something Carlsson sees as straying from its original intent. It's a joyful gathering, an exercise in the power of people who are willing to challenge the status quo and take well-considered risks to create a society of their choosing.

"In a modern capitalist society, the roads are the lifeblood," Carlsson said, "and if you block them, you're a threat."

 

Comments

as a response to the first gulf war.

During the first gulf war messengers would ride down Market on Fridays blowing whistles and yelling opposed to the war. As time wore on it was co-opted by catch all bonged out Hippies like Steve Jones.

SF has such a high turn over of bongists that these points are lost.

Posted by _ on Sep. 25, 2012 @ 7:40 pm

Thanks for the story, Steve. Critical Mass changed my life, it's changed this city, and it's changed the world . . . and all for the better! Happy Birthday Critical Mass!

Posted by Andy Blue on Sep. 25, 2012 @ 9:54 pm

Critical Mass has ridden together every month for 20 years. In that time, thousands of people have taken part. Many of those people were inspired by their experience on Critical Mass to change their lives, and to change San Francisco and the world.

What happens is that people ride with us, and they see their personal transportation choice has a political, social dimension. They realize they are part of a wider movement towards human-powered transport, towards a healthier, more social way of life, towards cities that are human scaled. They see that San Francisco could be more like Amsterdam, more like Copenhagen. And many of them decide to fight for it.

This is why this idea has spread to so many cities around the world, and continues to contribute to bike culture in Berlin, Paris, Rome, Jerusalem, Melbourne, Kuala Lumpur... It's a good idea, and it started here.

Is it perfect? You'll have many, many comments here explaining why Critical Mass is not perfect. But people are flawed, democracy is messy, and changing the world is not for the weak at heart.

This is how you change things: bring people together and give them a chance to express their hope for a better world, and to put their politics into action. And don't do it just once. Do it regularly. How about once a month? How about regularly every month for 20 years? That's a start.

Posted by Hugh D'Andrade on Sep. 25, 2012 @ 8:39 pm

adults are required to understand that the antics of children are to be judged on that level.

"Critical mass" went from an anti-gulf war protest,to a catch all entitlement for spoiled middle class whiners with entitlement issues. When I was still a messenger in the 90's we would all laugh at the A-holes who would come to town to "protest" whatever it was they were protesting.

I remember sitting in the offices of Silver Bullet in Bryant on Friday's with some of the actual people who started the Friday rides that became "Critical Mass" and laughing about what lemons you all are.

The actual people who started the Friday rides that Steve now attributes to someone else all lost interest by the time it became tragicomic.

Riding a bike, which I do every day, just something I do, likely longer than you have been a bonged out entitled SF hippy. like Steve Jones.

It is interesting, riding a bike is about being a born again?

Posted by - on Sep. 25, 2012 @ 9:16 pm

So, when a bunch of bike messengers protested the gulf war, that was all good. But when non-bike messengers or out-of-towners protest, they are "whiners" "A-holes" and "lemons" who are throwing tantrums?

Posted by Guest on Sep. 26, 2012 @ 10:28 am

for sure.

Posted by admin on Sep. 26, 2012 @ 10:49 am

Great article Steve!

CM has so much wrong with it that it is easy to lose sight of its essential rightness: making a few hours of rolling, passive resistance to the carbon-spewing, sprawl-inducing, road-rage world we have made for ourselves.

i <3 CM for all the good times and all the necessary statements it has made even as I recognize all the problems that some of its participants cause.

Big thanks to Chris Carlsson & Hugh D'Andrade for all they have done & continue to do for all of us!

'deep

.ps Have you ever noticed that Critical Mass, like Burning Man, has so much greatness going for it, as well as so much downside.

Posted by 'Deep on Sep. 26, 2012 @ 2:00 am

"Andrea Maccarone is a 31-year-old Italian who lives in Paris when he isn't bike touring, which he does quite a bit, last year riding to consecutive Critical Mass events in Paris, Toulouse, Rome, and Madrid. "

Posted by marcos on Sep. 26, 2012 @ 7:48 am

The Italian is a super nice guy. Why do you have to hate on everything?

Posted by UGH on Sep. 26, 2012 @ 12:10 pm

Did I comment on whether he was a nice guy or not? I bike every day all the time because it is sustainable and keeps me healthy. For most of us, there is nothing sustainable about moving between European capitals and traveling the world to tour by bike. Most of us are just struggling to get by under long-term deteriorating economic conditions. I'm not saying don't fly, just don't fly and say that you're promoting sustainable transportation because it is not. That is like being proud that you're cleaning up, quitting smoking, but not dropping that minor heroin habit.

When the economically privileged occupy our neighborhoods, the SFBG rightly raises concerns. Does being economically privileged get you a pass when you fly to bike tours? I mean, the relative production of atmospheric carbon from one air trip to bike tours dwarfs that of the longest daily commutes in the Bay Area by orders of magnitude.

One reason why I've only done Critical Mass once, that would have been ten years ago today, is because I put my life on the line every day to ride every day and my idea of a good time is not intentionally irritating motorists and riding through stopped traffic belching fumes. I get enough of that cycling every day, thanks.

But I am glad that CM is there. I'd ride today if I was in town. I'd ride the NYC CM if it was not raining here today and did not have family commitments. Biking, like driving in Manhattan, is really like a adrenaline fueled roller coaster ride.

Oh, yeah, that and my partner and I are getting fucking married (again) this weekend, this time legally and for keeps! We got the license yesterday and will celebrate with our families this weekend. That, and the Harry Hay conference will celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth at The Stonewall Inn tomorrow nite. Good times!

Posted by marcos on Sep. 28, 2012 @ 5:08 am

Critical Mass may have started as a way to get commuters out of cars, but it's turned into a bicycle-bigotry fest. As a pedestrian, I've been nearly run down by bicycles numerous times. As a user of mass transit (Muni), I've also seen Critical Mass bicyclists taunting and even stopping buses.

Feet before wheels, even if the wheels are on bikes.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 26, 2012 @ 11:33 am

they do nothing but annoy people trying top get to their homes after work!! they are nopthing but self centered imbeciles! Cetainly NOT to be "celebrated".

Posted by Guest on Sep. 26, 2012 @ 1:44 pm

I;m a bike commuter and detest critical mass for many reasons, but tried to overcome my dislike by riding with them. While waiting for the ride to begin, I observed a prosperous-looking gentleman unpack his expensive racing bike from his big new suv, put on a fancy helmet and presto! Instant fire-breathing anarchist! After the ride began. I observed this shmuck and several of his friends cursing and threatening motorists who were just trying to get home on a Friday night. After three blocks, I'd had enough. If I were king of the forest, there would be no critical mass, no bike lanes, no pretentious bike events,and especially no well-healed creeps causing unnecessary problems for the rest of us.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 27, 2012 @ 10:29 am

pretentious bike events in forests! raaaaage!

Posted by marke on Sep. 27, 2012 @ 10:52 am

Have a ball, fatso. And don't forget to bring your Hummer so you can get out of the forest.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 27, 2012 @ 11:30 am

I never roll out of bed without it.

Posted by marke on Sep. 27, 2012 @ 12:00 pm

I don't like the Blue Angels, so I leave town. I'm not into parades, I know where they are, I avoid them. Most last Fridays I want nothing to do with Critical Mass so I stay home. San Francisco doesn't revolve around me or you. Whether you hate Mass, love it, or neutral, it exists, just like crowds on game night or noisy low-flying jets. Plan accordingly. It's simple.

Posted by lemur on Sep. 27, 2012 @ 7:13 pm

every time. Hard to avoid it if you don't know where it is going to be.

Posted by matlock on Sep. 27, 2012 @ 7:37 pm

Somehow I have survived 68 years. I have lived in SF for 40 of them. I have never owned a car. A bicycle has been my only mode of transportation, along with Muni and the occasional cab when I'm feeling flush. Work or play I pedal away. During the years I was a home visit Hospice Nurse I would bike all over the city to see my patients. The highlight was when Muni added bike racks and I no longer had to pant and push up the hills of North Beach, Pac Heights etc. I salute the Bicycle Coalition for the excellent work they continue doing, despite the opposition of one particular person who shall remain nameless.
VOTE YES ON PROPOSITION 37.
VOTE NO ON PROPOSITION 32.
GO GIANTS.

Posted by Patrick Monk.RN. on Sep. 28, 2012 @ 9:15 am

What self-important bozos there are, folks who claim moral superiority based solely on their chosen mode of transportation. A monthly celebration of mob rule, sanctioned and protected by the SF Police....
Mandatory Bike helmet laws - NOW!

Posted by Richmondman on Sep. 28, 2012 @ 3:05 pm

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