A Slightly Personal History of Portland Critical Mass
Sometime in August of '93 Sara spots dozens of flyers around town that go something like "Tired of being run off the road by cars? Of riding alone, afraid, intimidated? Come to a Critical Mass planning meeting..." She's been especially frustrated with car behavior recently, so the invitation strikes a chord. On the appointed day, I accompany her down to the Howling Frog Cafe, but don't pay much attention to the proceedings,only noting the 20 or so cyclists of widely varying aspect, mostly listening to some folks from San Francisco rant about cars.
The afternoon of the last Friday in September finds over a hundred cyclists congregating in the South Park Blocks by Portland State. There are quite a few familiar faces, several of them from Citybikes, where Sara is one of the owner/mechanics. It's a gloriously balmy day, and once we get going I begin to experience an unfamiliar sensation. It is joy.
The combination of camaraderie and the feeling of utter safety is a potent mixture, and seems to inspire a cosmic unity of movement among our diverse crowd of bikers. It seems even the couple of bicycle cops escorting us feel it. And when John Benenate up ahead, in his scarily low-to-the-ground paraplegic's recumbant, goes sailing through a red light with a whoop and a holler and the cops blithely ignore it, it seems a revolutionary moment.
Well, it was great fun, but in the ensuing months I'm otherwise occupied on the last Fridays, though Sara religiously attends. She reports back that someone's superiors apparently weren't too happy about how things went on that maiden ride, for now there is rapidly escalating and progressively more irrational police attention. On a cold and blustery November ride there are 15 riders and over 20 police - on bikes and motorcycles and in squad-cars. On the clear and crisp January ride, someone has a flat, so the Mass turns into a residential side-street to wait, and almost half the riders are given tickets for impeding non-existant traffic. But the rides persist - they're not the huge amount of fun the first one was, but they're nevertheless exhilarating, a definite social event, and even incrementally educational for the cops.
For the August ride, Sara asks me to come help rein in some of the anarcho-cowboys of my acquaintance, who are attracting so much extra police attention that it's threatening to spoil the ride (The July ride has been especially large, raucous, and rude). This day, I am cited three times for nonsensical or non-existent violations, each ticket for $290. When I contest the tickets, two of my cops fail to appear, and the third one is caught in perjury, so the judge feels compelled to bump the ticket down to $30. In the process, this innocent bystander (by-rider?) has been turned into a flaming radical. Henceforward, someone better call their friend to come down and rein me in.
2 rides later, people in general are so tired of the police's unrelenting rudeness and inexplicable anger ("Why?" we keep asking ourselves - most Portland cops, in my limited experience, tend to be funny, smart, and interesting - but not these guys), that we decide to inaugurate a fresh meeting-spot and not give them the route-map (Heretofore always proffered cheerfully, and always accepted with a snatch and a grudging look) as we always have.
Our cops are so annoyed at the disinvitation to their monthly opportunity for misconduct and unprofessional behavior, that when they finally catch up with us just short of the ride's end, the only punishment they can come up with is to surround us and proclaim that we have disobeyed an (imaginary) order to disperse. 23 of us are issued 30-day exclusion-orders from the public square downtown for violating an obscure ordinance (which requires a permit for 4 or more people 'demonstrating').
At the subsequent hearing challenging the exclusion orders, the first two cases are quickly dismissed (Douglas Squirrel's adept cross-examination makes his cop look especially foolish). When my case looks about to be dismissed as well, my cop jumps up and blatantly perjures himself (his sergeant, by the way, the one who supposedly gave the order to disperse, is also in attendance, making him complicit in this felony). This earns me a tongue-lashing.
Fortunately, there's someone to turn to: Ed Jones, the very funny - and very smart - lawyer who has been tirelessly representing Critical Massers with exhorbitant tickets for the past year (pro bono - and with an unprecedented 65% acquittal rate) . Ed steers us to another lawyer, the celebrated Philippino-American pit-bull cop-litigator Spencer Neal.
So in December of '94, 17 of us sue the city of Portland in federal court. Within a year, we've won, the City has to pay us over $50,000 and all police harassment, as if by magic, comes to a complete halt. (The police documents uncovered by the suit nevertheless give no clue as to why we were being harassed to begin with, except, perhaps, for the curious fact that not one of them ever refers to 'Critical Mass', always designating us the 'Anarchist Bike-Rally'.)
By this point, Portland Critical Mass is small but hardy: about 30-40 riders in the worst of the winter, 60-80 the rest of the year. It's takes us a long time to shake off the habits acquired during 2 years of intense and hostile police escorts, but our rides are always fun now. The '96 Halloween ride is outstanding - 70 riders, 25 in costume, 8 outrageous choppers, numerous recumbants and trailers, Slim's fine penny farthing, and the piece de la resistance: Karl pulling a side-car with a full drum kit being played by a seriously kick-ass drummer-dude. All the costumes really help inspire motorists to be content to wait through their green lights.
Two years later, word has spread that the Halloween ride is the one not to miss, and indeed it is huge - a couple of hundred of us, scores of ultra-outrageous costumes - and is a huge blast. One small thing, though: as we come off the Burnside Bridge, the police are waiting for us - probably, seeing as we're occupying all available lanes, some impatient citizen on a cell phone is responsible - and they pull over a couple of riders, possibly for straying over the center-line in the absence of oncoming traffic. The entire Mass stops dead in one of the busiest intersections in the city and very quickly a chant goes up: "Let them go! Let them go!" And they let them go! And the ride continues on.
The next ride happens to fall on the day after Thanksgiving. The police department has assembled an elaborate arrest-station with armored buses for Buy Nothing Day protesters, but the latter are so law-abiding that the police seize the opportunity to remind us of our unacceptable behavior the previous month. Out of the blue, and in response to no discernable law-breaking save one safely and courteously executed illegal left turn, they arrest 18 riders for "disorderly conduct", impound their bicycles (which, incidently, take weeks of pressure to get returned), and take the perpetrators to jail. Then tell the newspapers that we'd obstructed the path of a fire-truck. But since there are about two thousand witnesses - it was at Pioneer Courthouse Square on the busiest shopping day of the year - they backtrack on that one and the next day drop the charges, causing the press to do a sudden back-flip and, for the first time ever, give us a good round of favorable coverage.
The arrests and their subsequent publicity have wide and unexpected repercussions in 2 areas, one in cyberspace and one on the rides themselves:
Sara is one of those arrested, and writes a stirring article in protest (highlighting, among other things, local cases of law-breaking car-drivers causing grievous injury or death, and receiving more lenient treatment than the 18 arrestees) for the Portland daily - which is a little too dependent on auto ad revenue to run such an article - and which is then published in Oregon Cycling, our excellent monthly. I e-mail copies to a few friends, one of whom, legendary gadfly Jason Meggs of Berkeley Critical Mass forwards it to a string of California bike lists (and the entire Berkeley city government), where it ignites an insane flame-war between Critical Massers and devotees of John Forester's "Effective Cycling" over the correct strategies to advance bicycling. Several bike lists have to shut down due to the overwhelming traffic and cross-postings - one man receives 250 posts in 5 minutes. This skirmish takes a surprising trajectory - with many near-victories for the vehicularists, and featuring staunch champions and murderous knaves (on both sides) at every turn. It's a debate between two old and sophisticated cyclist communities, both of which have given much thought - and much life-and-death clinical practice, to their respective styles of civil disobedience. It's a violent, hilarious, and scandalous true-crime soap opera and a neatly-sketched profile of the future landscape of bicycle culture.
The other unexpected repercussion of the arrests results from the thoroughgoing media coverage of the Police Bureau's blatant dishonesty and patently unconstitutional harassment of clearly non-violent and essentially law-abiding cyclists. How does it impact our actual rides?
It brings out the aggro boys. On both sides. Starting in January of '99, we are visited by a semi-organized self-appointed "leadership" contingent that institutes several rigid new "rules": a) always take up all lanes - and if a car tries to sneak through, surround it and harass the driver. b) if the oncoming lane of traffic clears, try to have someone occupy it and play chicken with approaching cars. c) always cork (set a cyclist to dismount and block the cross-street's green light for bikes to pass), even when the head of the ride has a red light or the rear of the ride is strung way behind. To most of the long-time riders, these young men (when we pow-wowed with them, they had women spokespersons, but i never saw women engage in the above behaviors), in their courting of the worst police elements, were deliberately seeking a decline in our numbers. Within a year, starting with the as-always outrageous Halloween ride (on which all 200 riders cross the Hawthorne Bridge the wrong way), battles with the police have escalated into routinely brutal arrests (never once of an aggro boy, by every account). All the children, parents with children, and young people, most of the old-timers, and anyone who cannot afford a ticket or an arrest, stops coming. The grumbling is ongoing, and increasingly thunderous.
(This is not to suggest that on another level we are not having some fabulous rides. For one thing, we have several large and venerable factions who, when they come out in force, tend to relegate the anarcho-troublemakers to the sidelines. The Union Chorus, for instance, with their sea-chanteys, bike-songs, and trick riding, or the Chunk 666 krew and its deranged off-shoots - you've seen them - bikes that have 9-foot-long forks and are built to come apart after 3 1/2 miles, or are 9 feet tall, or lean back so far that it doesn't look sane - forget safe - to ride.)
Back when the problem started, veteran masser Moses proposed splitting the ride into a confrontational group and a celebratory group - a good cop/bad cop Critical Mass. In November of 2000, anticipating official retaliation for the excesses of Halloween, not to mention the dreary prospect of both aggro-boys and police (our standard escort now consists of a half-dozen paddy wagons, ten squad-cars, and 15 motorcycles - to restrain maybe 55 riders) has brought Moses' dream to fruition and the Wuss Ride splits off. For 3 months we have two rides, maybe 40-60 bikes on the "original recipe" ride, no more than 25 on the Wuss Ride, although, I must say, when 9 of the 25 are boys in dresses, riding synchronized, such a contingent draws a trifle more attention than the numbers might suggest.
Now: the necessity, the very existance, of the Wuss Ride so enrages a devoted faction whose sympathies straddle the aggro/wuss divide, that they take aggressive action on two fronts. They start discussions with the city and, like some kind of cycling Borgs, assimilate the anarcho-cowboys. In March of 2001, City Councilman (and Transportation Commissioner) Charlie Hales agrees to ride and observes the police misbehavior first-hand. It's indicative of the compulsive nature of the cops' harassment of us that the open presence of a City Councilman doesn't constrain it. Now Ayleen, Ben, Patrick, and Alex have the political edge to negotiate a history-making compromise. In it's most simplistic form, the deal boils down to this - Let us cork (responsibly), and we'll keep a lane free for passing cars.
Since the Spring of 2001, Critical Mass has been peaceful and joyous, with a very small bike-cop escort (and these are officers - in dramatic contrast to our cops of 8 years ago - who are clearly enthusiastic cyclists), no more arrests, and warnings instead of tickets.
In the course of this brief account, I've omitted many essential people and events (like our several great and solemn memorial rides in honor of beloved cyclists killed, like Peter Siracusa's unrelenting peace-making efforts) and largely neglected to convey the sheer color and exhilaration that has infused even the most difficult and weather-impacted rides and made even the bummer confrontational ones pretty damn fun.
As for the lessons learned by the great holistic organism (like a school of fish, as Ed Jones once tried telling the judge) that is Portland Critical Mass, off the top of my head:
1. As when riding alone, anticipate what's ahead, carefully track all threats.
2. Witness! If the police are breaking the law - videotape them. If they're committing perjury - document it. Remember: the knee-jerk police response to non-violent civil disobedience is perfectly tailored to advance the cause of its practitioners.
3. Negotiate! Talk to other riders, talk to cops, talk to the media, talk to city officials.
4. When something's not working, change tactics. Be as versatile in negotiating your city's political landscape as your bike is in negotiating its physical landscape.
5. Costumes! Music! Funny bikes! Celebrate!
Let me close with two posts from the PDX list-serve:
From: rail hed
Sent: May 26, 2001 3:10 AM
i think the ride lass nite was great, i didn't see one
rider thrown to the sidewalk. it was the first time i
brought any one my kids and she was like WHAT?? where
is all the action? She sed she smiled the whole ride.
I lost the group at one point but found them when i
was ready to cross the bridge then it semed to peter
out at the pedestrian walkway on the eastside.
the cops were corking for us???!!!! i saw it! it is
like 8 less cop cars! whoo whoo.
also it does seem to me enyway that keeping one lane
for cars does get us spread out more but it gives us
more visibility IF WE CAN CORK and keep together. we
are going by a particular area for a long time. we
hold up cross traffic longer but allow traffic to
move with us more.
Sent: November 1, 2001
Perfectly awesome ride. 522 riders - that would come to one out of every
thousand Portlanders. 450 costumes. 15 polite and helpful bike cops - they
allowed corking and only once took any action at all, and that was to herd a
few riders out of the oncoming lane on Burnside. Zero anger, zero tickets,
but some challenging riding, what with sudden bottlenecks and the sheer
number of riders.
At one point on S.W. Broadway I heard some onlookers exclaim, "look!
there's cops riding with them!" so I yelled back at them, as a Halloween
joke, "They're not really cops!" Then one of the cops remarked to his buddy,
"that's really sort of true." I don't know exactly what he meant, but they
were unlike the cops we've come to expect on these rides. It was so
excellent not to have all the squad cars and motorcycles. When she left the
ride to go home, Sara approached the nearest cop contingent and thanked them
for coming on the ride, and received friendly acknowledgement of her
2 side-by-side tandem contraptions, one of which was dressed as a
jellyfish, and steered by ghostly mariners
A bottle of catchup that performed karaoke
Several scary Clintons and Reagans - one nude Reagan clasping the, er,
rear of its rider
Many magnificent noisemakers - Sara's cymbal, Michael's elephant horn,
Many many magnificent women - of both genders
A stunning array of chunks (choppers) and recumbents
A man with a giant tampon affixed to his helmet
The Holy Father
Wigs, kimonos, and fishnet stockings galore
Hideous giant skulls, an E.T. dummy, and
A myriad of children - of all ages
I could go on and on.
In fact - we do.
flyers by Sara Stout