Sunday, August 31, 2014

Critical Mass now and forever: Ten Years after the RNC, the ride is still rolling.

Critical Mass then and now. Top August 2014, bottom bike summer critical mass by peter meitzler, 2003. 
Critical Mass nyc top, bottom, San Francisco where the ride began 1992. 

Ten years ago was the RNC. For a while there, we had a great Critical Mass last night on the 10th anniversary of the biggest NYC Critical Mass Ride. 

Before the ride, i mic checked.

Ten years ago, we were here and we rode. Ten years later, still we ride. 

Still we ride - everyone screamed.  And we made our way out of Union Square.
A few of us were going to ride South out of Union Square, but another group rode

West into the night. 

It was the anniversary of mass arrests at Critical Mass during the Republican National Convention of 2004.

Ten years ago was one of the scariest periods I have ever seen in activism.  War was raging and we were fighting against the use of the Patriot Act as a bludgeoning rod against dissent.  It felt like McCarthyism was back.  Some 1800 of us were arrested during the RNC.

Since then, the Critical Mass ride has continued as have others.  As a TAZ, the police are definitely onto it.  But its still fun to see who shows up from around the world and the city for the ride, ready to elude the cops.

This month, the ten year anniversary of the greatest ride in New York Critical Mass history, we seemed so busy eluding the cops that we eluding each other, the ride leaders zipping away without informing everyone else, as scooter cops followed those in the back.  Still the ride was glorious.  It’s a sign of our resilience that we’re still out here. 

Few seemed interested in recalling the RNC.  “It’s a different era,” recalled one rider, making his way up to Times Square. 

There are new stories out there. 

But I will never forget the smell of whisky on the breath of police in football jerseys as they attacked the riders at St Marks church arresting hundreds of them. The film Still We Ride does a lovely job documenting that period in activism. 

During the Bloomberg years, more and more police attempted to kill the ride. 
A journalist asked me what the ride meant.  I explained that this is a space where many of us first took place in urban cycling.  Its a space where I started riding in the city.  Its the space where the push for bike lanes and a safer cycling infrastructure begin.  Its odd that it has become a flash point as it has. 

Yet, it still means so much to everyone. 

After the backlash against the ride,  it’ll take a little work to get the ride build up into a mass again, as it was back in the day.  Interviewee after interviewee talked about the ride in my book Play, Creativity and Social Movements.  The ride is the basis for our book, the Beach Beneath the Streets: Contesting New York's Public Spaces

An image of the ride is on the cover of my new book, Community Projects as Social Activism. 

The ride is still an ideal.  We can all be a critical mass, if we hang together.  The lessons of the ride are many.  We can all be part of something bigger than ourselves from time to time, the ride reminds us.  And this is why its spread around the world.  From Bogata to Paris, where masses of riders zoomed through the streets this July when I was there.

Critical Mass Hungry 2013 and top critical mass with world naked bike ride. 

Critical Mass now and forever. 

An excerpt from an article about Times Up! includes some of the struggles to keep the ride going.

“I've been arrested twice at Critical Mass. Once during the RNC at the bike bloc ride and once on August 29th, 2004," recalled Barbara Ross.  “Some ten thousand riders showed up for a ride a couple days before my first arrest, catching the NYPD off-guard.  On the ride at which I was arrested, there were actually very few cars out. We were providing support, but the NYPD was out to get us. I think that not only the NYPD, but also the federal government, did a lot to prepare for the RNC. I think they started to take note of activist groups like ours in the lead-up to the RNC. Whenever we’re in court, The NYPD bring up this ride. We rode up the FDR, through the Battery Park Tunnel, and across the car lanes of many bridges. It was the funnest ride. The police didn't do much, but they always seem to mention that ride and no other.

“When I was arrested in August, there were a lot of people, a lot of press, and a lot of arrests. All these people were biking and then they ended up arresting them all, and it looked horrible in the press. We were just riding through midtown and suddenly these motorcycles cut us off. We thought they were some sort of Republican motorcycle gang. They swerved in front of us really dangerously. It was pretty scary. They ran us down and at least 40 of us were arrested. We were all held together in a makeshift jail on the Hudson, later called Guatanamo-on-the-Hudson, for 30 hours. It was so crowded, but they only put one bench in there. There was nowhere to sit other than on the ground, which was covered with grease.  We were there for so long that I passed out. I woke up and I was face down on concrete. It was disgusting. The police there were pretty nice. They realized this was pretty silly. But once we got to the tombs, oh boy were they nasty. One guy was on a major power trip. He made us walk around together like a chain gang.

“Besides being arrested those two times, I've also had my bike confiscated two other times.” Getting her bike back represented a Kafkaesque experience for Ross.  “You have to go to the bike jail, which is in Brooklyn and conveniently not by any subways," she laughed.  Despite the setbacks, Ross and the others in Time’s Up!! keep coming back and defending the First Amendment. "First of all, because it is fun and because the police really want to stop this ride," explained Ross.  "I feel like I have to keep going because they have no right to stop this ride"

In the following years, activists such as Ross and other arrested litigated against the city, successfully suing the city for its attacks on the ride and sweeps at protests, with several people winning significant awards.  Other activists volunteers started holding increasingly silly rides designed to contract the actions of cyclists with those of the police who refused to enforce their own rules prohibiting cars from parking in the bike lanes.   These direct action based rides created their own defiant form of power, which seemed to subvert the NYPD which never interfered.    "I went on the clown ride cause I thought this was a great way to bring attention to the bike lane issue," explained Ross, who helped organize the rides.  Others, who had been impacted personally, turned to documenting police misconduct.  

And today, the ride is still a flash point of activism.  After the April 28th, 2014 Critical Mass, the cycling advocacy group Right of Way posted the following press release. 


Cyclists brought a speed gun, clocked speeds over 50 miles per hour, asked officers to enforce the law. Officers refused.
April 28, 2014
Media Advisory
For Immediate Release 
Contact: Keegan Stephan, 907.244.6426
New York, NY: On Friday, April 28, 2014, a peaceful group bike ride of 20 cyclists was followed by dozens of police officers. The cyclist took them to the intersection of Clinton and Delancy, where 12 year old Dashane Santana was killed while crossing the street by a speeding driver last year, and clocked the speeds of motorists regularly exceeding 40mph, well above the 30mph speed limit across NYC.
Not only did the officers refuse to enforce the law, their Commanding OfficerDavid Ehrenberg justified using his resources to police the cyclists because he claimed they get many complaints about lawless bikers.
As the cyclists questioned the commanding officer, he told them to “forget about traffic fatalities,” said speeding was not a factor in any of the 10 pedestrian fatalities in his precinct in the last two year, and said he was proud of the speeding enforcement by his precinct, which has written only 7 speeding tickets this year

One dozen officers have been policing the monthly Critical Mass bike ride since the Republican National Convention in 2004, costing the city millionsof dollars per year.
As far back as 2008, City Council members signed a letter demanding an investigation into the NYPD’s policies toward Critical Mass, including Tish James, Gale Brewer,  and Melissa Mark-Viverito, now Public Advocate, Manhattan Borough President, and Speaker, respectively.
Since then, most riders have stopped attending and the ride has dwindled to fewer cyclists than cops, but the officers kept attending and ticketing for minor and non-existent infractions, like this five year old ticketed for not wearing a helmet.
Stalwarts had hoped the police presence would diminish after the February 18th Vision Zero Press Conference in which the new NYPD Commissioner William Bratton repeatedly said resources would be focused on speeding and failure to yield, the crimes that are killing pedestrians.
That has not happened yet, but the activists are hopeful. “This is not about us being upset about the NYPD policing our bike ride. We are upset that they are using their limited resources to police a bike ride rather than save lives,” said Keegan Stephan, an organizer with Right of Way. “The administration has clearly demonstrated that speeding and failure to yield are the leading causes of pedestrian fatalities, and I think that we have clearly demonstrated that the officers assigned to a peaceful bike rides on Friday nights could better serve the city by cracking down on traffic violence.”


Today, the ride is evolving along with a culture of cycling as a means of resistance.  Lets all enjoy it and build our own Critical Mass every night all over the contested streets of NYC. 

From Bourbon Street to Las Rambles Part Four Pamplona as the Trail Reminds You of What You Have and Where You Come from

Images of Cervantes, Papa Hemingway in Pamploaa, a map, and ghosts of Spain - my constant companions as we hiked from Pamploaa to Logrono. 

Our journey through Spain would begin in Irunea, as explained in the last log.  We grabbed the 3:55 to Pamplona, reading along the way about Pamplona and the history of Spain.  

As Giles Tremont notes about Pamplona: 

      Its hard not to think about Heminway here, even if  I was never really enamored with his writing.  Dad loved him, as many Europeans seem to.  He would be with us much of the way.  He popped up bookshelves, cafes, and my memory, with images of my father's favorite biography, Papa Hemingway, lost after his passing, flashing across my mind.  Like him, we loved the streets of Pamplona, the food, the history, the vino tinto, the first pilgrim meal.  Pamplona offered us an ideal space to really begin the Camino.

In A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson’s narrative of his walk through the Appalachian trail, he suggests
that the story of his adventure comes down to seeing the world on the ground and appreciating what
he has, what he sees, knows, feels and lives.  It offers a pause to stop and be, to simplify life to a walk, a breath of air, a moment to appreciate the body working as we walk, to see the world in all its glories and gore in  a certain perspective, but also as a pause button on life.

This is probably the message of every similar trail.  We choose to walk or ride so we can see and relish some of life’s small details.  This is why Benjamin’s explorations of Paris seem to telling.  "Flâneur" is a word understood intuitively by the French to mean "stroller, idler, walker."  We are all flâneurs on the trail.

This is why we got off the big highways and onto  the backroads when Will and I drove from Texas to Louisiana to start this summer of journeys.  You see more of the details.  We found a taco spot which allowed us to breathe and laugh after spreading Dad’s ashes.  It seems trivial, but this space offered us a respite from the storm of our emotions, our lives, our Dad’s painful departure, and the Eudora Welty Optimists Daughter Like storm of his departure.

The other lesson, of course,   is to see life, your life from a different perspective.  Driving from Paris to Spain, we’ve talked about history.    History of course brought me here.  It brought us here, just like it brought the Shepard’s from Dorchester England to Dorchestor Mass.  In France, we talked about "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity."  Marx surmised the French revolution as a failure.  It went from Monarchy to a brief liberal government back to a dictatorship with Napolean.  Of course, that is a crude reading of French history.  A failure of my capacity to recall Western Civilization class from first year in college, professor Koblic at Pomona reading Palmer’s history no less, and my poor aptitude for history no doubt.  Oddly, I was obsessed with Weimar and German history, ignoring the rest and leaving Mel Brook's History of the World Part One and Broadway musicals, to teach me all  I know about the French revolution.   Still, a system of education  and laws came out of the Napoleonic epoch.  So did a system of colonial rule extending from Algeria to Viet Nam.  And this brings us back to seeing the US and our story.  The French looked with inspiration to our Revolution of 1776, lending us a hand in unshackling us from the British Empire.  And then they borrowed a page, starting a revolution of  their own a dozen years later in 1789.  We owe each other a lot, even though the two countries seem to generally hate each other as we’ve done since 1945 and the liberation of Paris from the Nazis.  Apparently, no one could agree on who should lead the parade.  And the two old friends started bickering and we’ve continued to do so, while misunderstanding or reading each other’s histories.  A century after supporting the US in its own anti imperial war, France was busy creating its own empire.  And just as it was pulling our of its colonial entanglements in Algeria and Viet Nam, the US was busy stepping into this void, becoming lost losing its own soul in Viet Nam.  Charles De Gaulle  famously warned LBJ to stay clear of that mess.  We all  know how that went.
And of course, when the Spanish arms were finally losing some of their colonial grip on the Caribbean, the US moved into that void in 1898 taking control of the Eastern most outpost in Puerto Rico, whose Capital is still full of Spanish restaurants, the colonial legacy still lingering as the gringos stroll about.

Back to Spain for a second.  On the train, I thought about why we came here.  Number two was busy writing in her journal.  So I wrote a dedication to her, writing inside about how honored I have been to walk through these streets with her, tracing her first steps through these parts with her.  I hope she can continue chasing dreams and windmills her whole life. 

SO what really brought us here – Cervantes, Marquez, and Vargas Llosa.

Cervantes, Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa - the masters who brought us a surreal new world, even if the latter two did bicker from time to time. 

Some of my favorite writers, Cervantes showed us what daydreaming could mean for living, for story telling, and make believe.  Marquez and Vargas Ilosa, the greatest living Spanish writers, built on this trajectory, teaching us what a story about a text within a text, a dream within an empire, a fantasy within a captive land, a free imagination could live and be – if only we could allow ourselves to see it and revel in it.  Marquez, who just died, reminded us not to look at Latin America and its colonial legacies from the eyes of the West, with the yard stick of positivism.  We would misread the story if we looked at it this way.  For a while there as the boom in Latin American fiction exploded, both Vargas Ilosa and Marquez lived here in Spain. 

The Free-Women-of-Spain.

I love walking through Spain and imagining the streets from the eyes of the writers – Hemmingway, Marquez, and Vargas Llosa, the painters – Vasquez, the anarchists – Montseny, the Free Women of Spain, the summit hopping anarchists who brought a pop flair to the global justice confabs from Prague to New York City, Seattle to Cancun.   I still have my New Kids on the Black Block t-shirt one gave me during the world economic forum action back home in 2002.  They were sweet and fun, and ready to rumble in the streets.  You can see their crew here on the streets of Pamplona, the vagabonds, pilgrims, and graffiti artists whose work compliments this lovely city full of open plazas where people eat and drink  and hang out for hours and hours. 

Sitting here in Spain, I am catching up for lost connections I was not able to make two and a half decades ago when I first romped around Europe as the cold war ended.  Instead of going to Ibiza I traveled north and had my own adventures as the August coup and the final gasps of the Soviet Union crumbled, sending final shudders through a jittery Berlin once again.

But I was also reading that whole trip, page after page of magic realism, Carlos Fuentos on the train from Rome to Florence.  Fuentes helped launch Marquez’ early career.  I read Vargas Llosa on those trains.  And now here I am in one of their romping grounds, making sense of the home base for the beauties and tragedies of the colonial empire which would forever transform capitalism, imperialism, and culture, sending its language, religion, disease, economic models, trade, exploitation of natural resources, and people.

"Whenever you see a beautiful church in Spain, they don't you where they got gold to put inside," noted a colleague of mine at our college.

 Out this mix, we have a modern world where Spanish is spoken around the world.

And people come back her to walk a pilgrimage to St James that I began last winter when we walked to the Metropolitan Museum and first saw the image of St James there. 

Our walk from Pamplona to Zariquegui starts in a few hours.  Its too exciting to sleep. But I probably ought to.   It connects me with a history of where we’ve been in the US with Puerto Rico, Latin America, Spain and the Magical Realist narratives which changed my life, pushing me toward a magical activism, and ludic, surreal way of seeing and being in the wold.