The California Highway Patrol seems to be on high alert and itching to fight the people in the street, at least if a bizarre incident at last night’s Critical Mass is any indication. And that’s a scary prospect in the Bay Area, where the ongoing standoffs between police and the Occupy movements in San Francisco  and Oakland are potential powder kegs  that require cool heads on both sides.
Critical Mass was rolling through the warm streets of San Francisco, as it’s been doing on the last Friday of the month for 19 years, and it was a glorious night. The weather was nicer than it’s been in years for the Halloween ride and most of the large crowd wore costumes, many of them playing off Occupy Wall Street themes, from zombie bankers to the Glass Seagull (a reference to the gutted banking regulation Glass-Steagall Act).
Best of all, the San Francisco Police Department seemed to be standing down and allowing the ride to self-regulate, which it did with a minimum of conflicts with drivers. The mood was buoyant and many riders said it was the best Critical Mass they’d been on in a long time.
Then suddenly, as the ride headed up Market Street toward the Castro, crossing Octavia Boulevard, about a dozen CHP officers on motorcycle rapidly descended on the ride, aggressively cutting the dense ride in half to clear Octavia. Some used their motorcycles to push the cyclists back and tensions flared.
Angry words were exchanged back-and-forth between the cyclists and cops, some of whom seemed to be itching for a fight. One in particular pursued the cyclists up Market Street, playing the provocative tough guy or using his motorcycle to try to corral and menace the ride, long after the standoff had ended with enough green lights for the ride to get past Octavia and his fellow officers left.
This battle over public space and freedom of assembly isn’t going away anytime soon. There are resentments building and there will be bad apples on both sides of the barricades in the days and weeks to come. That’s one reason why Mayor Ed Lee is playing a dangerous game by threatening to raid OccupySF at any moment , and why the SFPD’s approach to this ride was far better than the CHP’s.
Just stand down and let the people police themselves.