Critical Mass at 20 - Page 5

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

Chris Carlsson helped spread Critical Mass around the world

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."