Do or Die

An article from Do or Die Issue 5. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 65-67.

Critical Mass

Reclaiming Space and Combating the Car

"What a difference there was between the old and new parts of Mexico City only twenty years ago. In the old parts of the city, the streets were still true commons. Some people sat on the road to sell vegetables and charcoal. Others put their chairs on the road to sell tequila. Others held their meetings on the road to decide on the new headman for the neighbourhood or to determine the price of a donkey. Others drove their donkeys through the crowd, walking next to the heavily loaded beast of burden; others sat in the saddle. Children played in the gutter, and still people walking could use the road to get from one place to another. Such roads were not built for people. Like any true commons, the street itself was the result of people living there and making the space liveable. The dwellings that lined the roads were not private homes in the modem sense - garages for the overnight deposit of workers. The threshold still separated two living areas, one intimate and one common. But neither homes in this intimate sense nor streets as commons survived economic development. In the new sections of Mexico City, streets are no more for people. They are nowadays for automobiles, for buses, for cars, for taxis and trucks. People are barely tolerated on the streets unless they are on their way to a bus stop. If people now sat down or stopped on the street they would become obstacles for the traffic, and traffic would be dangerous to them. The road has been degraded from a commons to a simple resource for the circulation of vehicles." - Ivan Illich, in "Silence Is A Commons", The Co-evolution Quarterly, Winter 1983.

As Ivan Illich says, it is about "making (our) spaces liveable" - reasserting our control, in a myriad of different ways, over those spaces that once belonged to us but have since been illegitimately wrested away from us, through the process known as "enclosure". This is what happened to the Dongas at Twyford Down on December 9th 1992, to George Green in Wanstead, and to countless other places.

This is where demos, or actions, come in - in a sense the issue that they are ostensibly concerned with is of secondary importance to the feelings that our actions engender within ourselves and others - how much of a scene we make and the imprint that it leaves behind. The US anarchist writer Hakim Bey talks of "temporary autonomous zones", and this is at the heart of what every demonstration is, or should be striving for - a glimpse of the future (present?) society we long for. The best demos are a gap opening in the clouds of alienation, apathy and impotence, and a sliver of electrifying sunlight breaking through. The stranglehold of orthodox reality is broken. To quote one example, it seems that at a recent Oxford cycle action, the traffic was brought to a standstill by a prank that subverted police "public order" expectations and left them confounded - they were confronted by waiters who had appeared out of nowhere and were causally serving tea at Oxford's newest cafe, as if it were the most normal thing in the world. The street had been redefined.

Q: Have you ever used your bike in the commission of a crime?
A: Every good cyclist should!

This brings us to Critical Mass - an idea and an attitude for bike actions that sprang up in San Francisco, and has now spread to other US cities and international locales, as the potential for mayhem inherent in bikes has been realised and refined. The Mass began as an "informal 'commute home together' to show bike solidarity with no real agenda" (Maximum Rock n' Roll, Feb. 1994) - Just 50 riders cycling borne in the dark. It has since proved to have an irresistible momentum, as hundreds more cyclists have gotten involved in Critical Mass manifestations, and the actions themselves have become more conscious. Their experience has shown the willingness of police and motorists to resort to potentially lethal force to defend - what? - One of the supreme totems of our age - the private motorcar, and the inalienable tight of the motorist to drive, without hindrances of any kind. In one incident in San Francisco in April 1993, a driver reportedly rammed a group of cyclists on the Mass, and proceeded to run over one of its members. The police present duly charged the victims and threatened to arrest other witnesses. I'm sure such experiences will be familiar to those who have participated in Carmageddon actions in the UK - or indeed, in anti-roads campaigns in general.

When death may be the penalty for enjoying an innocuous pleasure such as communal cycling, your ideas tend to become radicalised. Critical Masters now see "cars (as) embodying the epitome of American destruction" (Maximum R 'n R). Consequently, aggressive drivers are spat upon or blocked in for longer. The focus of the masses has broadened, with people biking through supermarkets, McDonalds (stealing their flags and causing the manager to lock himself in the process), and other temples of latter day capitalism. Most notably, hordes of cyclists attempted the world's first "cyclotron", surrounding the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange in a bid to levitate it. (Remind you of anything?)

One of the most recent events involved blocking a Berkeley motorway, which led to the worst police reprisal so far seen: some of the participants were charged with "felony assault on a police officer with a deadly weapon, to wit: one bicycle," and sixty one bikes were confiscated, some of which "disappeared" while in police hands. The officer who masterminded this operation hit the nail on the head in hilarious fashion when he accused Critical Massers of being "nothing more than self-proclaimed anarchists and local activists who have adopted innovative tactics to create civil disorder in an attempt to carry out the 'anarchist revolution'." Give that man a D-lock!

Two of those involved in Critical Mass make a very significant point when they say it "above all builds community... at San Francisco Critical Mass in September for its first birthday, people brought huge cakes and brownies and we all sang happy birthday, and had fun in Golden Gate Park." (Maximum R 'n R). Again, this feeling of community, and, ideally, tribal links will be familiar to many UKEF!ers. If revolution is the festival of the oppressed, struggling for something you believe in helps to bind you together, restoring the connections between people that this society so often severs as it tries to atomise us. A new zine culture - the "Xerocracy" - has emerged to cater to Critical Mass, fostering communication between strangers whose only previous connection was ownership of a bike and a desire for change, or (equally valid) some excitement. This brings us back to Illich's point about "commons", and the way in which cars (along with a host of other factors) destroy this social space. Numerous studies support such a conclusion - for example, David Engwight's research (see The Guardian 5/11/93) into how people living on streets with heavy traffic flows experience much less social contact than those living on streets with light flows. The Policy Studies Institute compare roads to "crocodile infested rivers" that people dare not cross (New Scientist 24/10/92) - also, think of the 'traffic canyons' that are prevalent in many cities.

An example of resistance to this trend, and reclamation of this space for the people and community was Claremont Road at the M11. The contents of houses - sofas, a bath tub, a pool table, etc. - were turned out onto the street, breaking down the odious division between public and private spheres. There could be no greater contrast with David Engwight's findings, where "Heavy Street (high traffic levels)... was used solely as a corridor between the sanctuary of individual homes and the outside world. There was no feeling of community and residents kept themselves to themselves." In our society, it is not just the physical environment that is colonised and enclosed - it is our minds also. By and large, cultural products are manufactured for us, we passively consume them and our own idiosyncratic imaginations begin to atrophy. Critical Mass, and many other similar actions in the UK, are thus also important because they subvert this trend. A platform - a vehicle, even (excuse the pun) - is provided for people to act out their fantasies, to play, to let rip. One example is Xerocracy, another is that "often (the mass) is chaotic, and indecision in the middle of the intersection can be annoying - or lead to outbursts of theatre and fun like die-ins and resuscitating people with bikes." (Maximum R 'n R) People exult in the atmosphere and surprise themselves with their hitherto neglected capabilities. The first time that the A33 at Twyford was blocked (March 1992) was such an occasion - having stilled the ceaseless roar of the traffic (the lifeblood of the cybernetic machine that we inhabit), we revelled in our power and new found freedom. We capered about, danced, sang, hooted and grunted through road cones as if regressing to primal selves, did an absurd Conga through the stalled cars, openly attempted rash acts of sabotage - possessed by an almost palpable spirit of the moment: for a brief moment, anything seemed possible. To refer back to what I said at the beginning, we were "sunbathing".

Critical Masses have been happening all over the country, with over 1,500 at the last London CM and over 300 in Brighton. Join these explosions of bike power: Last Friday of every month: Aberdeen, Bath, Bradford, Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Lancaster, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Middlesborough, Sheffield, Southampton, Stoke, Wolverhampton, York. 1st Friday: Birmingham. 2nd Friday: Nottingham, 1st Saturday: Brighton.


Bike Not
Chris, c/o 56a Infoshop, 56 Crampton Street, London SE17.
60p + SAE - also has excellent Maximum R 'n R article on Critical Mass available

The Broken Spoke
141 Sutter Street, #1829, San Francisco, CA 94104, USA. (Send them $2).

The Bicycle Terrorist
c/o Gozar, Box 15071, Berkeley, CA 94701-6071, USA. (Send $2).

628 Hampshire, San Francisco, CA 94110, USA. (Send $2).

Bicycle Threat
3018 J. St # 140, Sacramento, CA, 95916, USA. (Send donation).

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