Monday, May 18, 2015

Goodbye Mellow Yellow Brick Road Ride, Reflections on the Critical Mass Panic with Mellow Yellow

promotions poster for the 2010 wnbr.

Joe is the first person I know to talk about organizing a naked ride.  It was Spring of 2010 and Joe, just new to town started organizing, tweeting, chalking, and messaging about the ride.  Everywhere he’d go, he’s chalk up the message, painting it on his body or streets. Some audiences were more receptive than others.  But it was a blast to watch.
Sometimes people were offended. Mostly they were intrigued.

"I'll see you at the world naked bike ride," he'd remind people.  After watching the ongoing attack on Critical Mass, he's still wanted to put together a powerful mass of bodies in the streets. And he did so. 

More ass less gas, we chanted during the glorious ride as our ride connected with a global movement to save the planet. 

At one point in midtown, we started to ride down Broadway second avenue with "Empire State of Mind" blaring, all of us singing, "In New York,...New York, New York..."

Everyone was a star.  We were all the leaders, pulsing through space in a gorgeous semi clothed critical mass of bodies. 

We've had one every year since he's been here.  Every year brought a different twist.

Over the previous weeks, we all hung out a lot.  Barbara and I talked with Joe about his experience riding in New York, participating in  Critical Mass, meeting in Union Square, organizing with Times UP, the Drag Ride, Occupy, and later with the Cargo Bike Collective. 

Hanging with mellow yellow, aka Joe.

“We won the bike lanes, but lost free speech,” explained Joe, April 30th after the new no police dance party, reflecting on his years of struggle against the police to make sure the ride happened. 

Some years he was arrested, others he eluded their social controls.  Every year these rides become a site of contestation, in a clash between free bodies and police hell bent on control.  He grew up cycling in Northern California, riding everywhere.   It was a way to see the world.  “Seeing homeless people, a halfway house, seeing people who are different.” By the time he got to college in San Francisco, he lived off campus where he rode a bike to get around town.  “MUNI is a joke.”  His bike was stolen and a friend gave him a 1968 Schwinn Varsity.  “She took me to Critical Mass in San Francisco.  It was fun.  You could get ahead of traffic.”  There was a distinct pride in moving up the notorious San Francisco hills North of the Park.”

1968 Schwinn

Riding the eight mile path to and from school, around the city, and on Critical Mass, Joe started to get familiar with the space, the community, etc.  “I discovered a lot, just seeing how traffic flowed.  I had never really done distances, but now I was riding miles and miles.  I made a comic about the traffic, cars zooming through space.  The cop, Officer Friendly, in the coming drives his ship into an asteroid belt, causing asteroids all over to crash all over each other.  I  was starting to believe in more possibilities.  I was an artist.  I had this great professor, Richard Kramer, who was involved with art and performance.  It was art and science.  My consciousness expanded  with my first Budweiser.”

In between stays in San Francisco and Santa Cruz, Joe started to explore anarchism.    On Critical Mass, he saw cyclists take care of each other, in a huge gesture of solidarity.

On a fateful evening he went to the Mission to see Warriors at the Red Vick.  And he started thinking about the East Coast, moving out in 2008. 

His  first Critical Mass in New York witnessed Chris Long’s brutal arrest by officer Pogan.  He was on Lombard Street when he heard about all the hundreds 500 arrests of the New York Cyclists during the 2004 Republican National Convention Critical Mass.  “I knew what was up.” 

Chris Long top right, community affairs policeman top left, and other scenes from Critical Mass Panic. 

Critical Mass opened a whole new way of thinking of Joe. “I was raised Catholic.  My teacher punched me in grade school and then she sided with my bully.  I told him his riddle was wrong.  She sided with him.  If the teacher was wrong, authority was wrong.  If they say Freddie (Gray) killed himself, then they are wrong.  Critical Mass was a space to connect with people.  I loved meeting people there, talking with people… even in New York in our darkest days, to meet and connect with people.  The other thing that appealed to me was the critical collective consciousness, informal networks as opposed to an organization.”

“My first Critical Mass ride I was behind Chris Long.  I was playing the game.  So I asked the white shirts what we could do.  They said ride in the bike lane.  Take away the joy of the experience.  Its what Officer Friendly does, disrupt the asteroid field.  The night of the Chris Long incident, seeing that had a huge impact.  We all reconvened, the three groups met downtown .  It became my practice.  It was the place I met for all of my rides.  The Beach Ride, Moonlight Ride, Critical Mass. 

Late 2008, he saw the ride as a Critical Mass Panic, inspiring his blog.  “I was commuting from Brooklyn.  I rode with Transportation Alternatives and Times Up! I saw the police panicking.  I was inspired by Billy’s defense after he was arrested for reciting the First Amendment at the Critical Mass. I was basically doing Critical Mass testing the ground, talking with the white shirts.  Why are you here?” he asked, noting that the whole thing was essentially a question of free speech.

“My first ticket  was during a Thursday ride through Times Square.”  Vlad was filming. “I said to Vlad I am not a leader but you can follow me.”  When the cops give people a ticket in SF Critical Mass, people stuck with each other, in solidarity.  I turned.  I was given a ticket.  I lost my trust in the cops.  I saw the incompetence.  This is their training exercise,”  Joe recognized recalling events, such as 143 plus arrests the night before after the Freddie Gray rally at Union Square or Occupy four years prior. 

“Bike power has come a long way.  We’re past Critical Mass with bikes.  But we need a free speech critical mass.  You need people power.”

“When I was arrested, I saw this as a training opportunity for repressing free speech.  We that system crush the critical mass ride and then co opt it because cycling is a good idea. We need cycling.  It’s a good idea.  I wanna ride, be contrarian and reject authority.  Still the bikes on the street, the practice of a critical mass is sharing space, same as a body of people.  We are ready to  help out people, it’s a shame the police are so advanced.  Did you see anyone be violent yesterday?  It was only cops.”

Speaking about the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement, Joe notes, “we found a core issue – police protests, challenging an issue, of brutality and abuse– dating back to the Mayflower and slavery.”  He notes when the NY police get donations from banks, such as Chase, for their support in suppressing Occupy, one has to wonder who are they protecting and serving when they crush movements such as occupy. 

“I saw how critical mass was crushed.  And I wanted a worldwide event.  It was the worldwide movement.  So in 2009, I got involved with the world naked bike ride.  Paul was organizing it.  We cruised down Broadway to Times Square and turned right.  The plain clothed police came out and told us to put our pants on.  I wanted a a group ride.  So in 2010, I  mass promoted it.  I lost my shame.”

That was the first ride for most of us in Times Up!  I recalled the scene on Joe’s blog.

I had always heard about naked protests. But no one ever really followed up. One thing or another, but talk rarely followed with action. Sure there were exceptions – ACT UP’s Drop the Debt naked DC during the RNC in 2004 being the most recent example.
But the body has always been a battleground. And those who revel in it represent a Bachnalian counter voice in struggle against the prohibitive logic of the Comstocks, Carry Nations, Guilianis, and so on. “Capitalism – it needs sadness,” lamented John Jordan in an interview with me a couple of years ago. It needs docile, obedient bodies. Yet, when these bodies reject orders and access their capacity for feeling, new worlds come together. “Dig Your Bodies, Not the Planet” activists screamed the day of the ride.
I knew it would be a lovely ride when I arrived at Grand and Williamsberg waterfront and saw the afternoon sun shining on the water, with so many people out to enjoy that moment. Steven Tyler of Aerosmith tells a story about the day he wrote “Dream on” he watched the sun on the waterfront.
This was going to be one of those moments.
I saw a couple of activists from ACT UP and SexPanic! who had long fought anti-sex, anti pleasure forces in the city. So were activists from all the Critical Mass battles, the anti war movement, as well as the Radical Homosexual Agenda.
I gave several press interviews, emphasizing that there had been way too much indecent exposure to dangerous toxins in the air, oil in the water, and pollutents in the mental environment. We were here to celebrate decent exposure to non-polluting transportation, to celebrate our bodies. In a world with war and gloom, it was great to enjoy our bodies and communities. Yet, these bodies are vulnerable.We need safe streets, water and air.
We’d worked to make sure it was a safe place. Just cause it’s a nake bike ride does not mean people would have any more opportunity for unwelcome touch or comments than any other day.
We wanted it to be safe and respectful. Without justice, there can be no joy.
Teressa stood on a rock to usher us off and one man screamed, “lets ride” which we did.
Police followed but nothing really happened.
I knew it was going to be a success as we zipped down the Williamsburg Bridge into the City.
“Its like the pre 2004 Critical Mass rides,” observed one friend.
It took a while to find the appropriate chant. “Whose Street, Our Streets” didn’t take off.
This wasn’t just any protest. “More ass, less gas” that took off. “More nude, less nude” was also a hit.
“Less slick, more… “ didn’t fly.
We crossed Houston through the Lower East Side to stop a BP where we occupied the station.
Up to the UN at and then down to Washington Square park where we danced and swam as hoards screamed and celebrated. Riding through the East Village one man, pulled his pants downt to compliment us.“If you’re doing it, we can to.”
Throughout the ride, people were amazingly respectful. Through each ride, we create a ritual space with music, dance and bodies which opens up the cities to the colors of what NYC has been and can be again. We create a moving amoeba, carnival, a luminal space in between one order and another in which people felt comfortable to be more open to each other. It is an amazing space. I do not want to go back to the more clothed, more closed way people usually are. I hope I do not have to.
For Joe, the event helped make the point that the body can be a means of free speech.   “Put messages on the body.  But it out there.  I couldn't help but see a conflation of bodies in 2010, bad ass people out there, sharing space.”

He recalled the drag ride of 2011, “Yotom on a police car, RMO playing and the Radical Faeries together, occupying space in a united front, as we danced in front of the Stonewall.   

Joe recalled those first  opportunity to DJ at Brooklyn Critical Mass, that was “a lot more fun.”  It was a small Brooklyn based crowd.  “We were circling Prospect Park. I offered my Ipad and played Paint it Black.  In Brooklyn, “Life is a gift.  Life is a charge.  We got away from the park.  It was magic.  It was a great night.  I DJed.  Once I got active then they targeted me.”

“I was outspoken.  Why are you here, I asked.  Why are you doing this?” The police came to know Joe, not finding his humor to their liking, threatening him when he came to hearings, or spoke up for the Prospect Park Bike Lane, or said bike lane opponent Norman Steizel is a liar. 

Over and over again, he took park in a dialectical crash of opposites, of clashing forces, free people vs those still enslaved to the system.  Bicyclists who  ride in community, with safe streets, and fun in a clash with police who kill. “We’re not afraid, you’re just getting paid.  Cars vs bikes.  NYC streets are owned by pedestrians.  NYC Critical Mass, a pleasure community, a free ride on a human powered machine.  The contrast is with the police and their message that everyone has to disperse as they told everyone last night.  The people vs a sound cannon.  Ford found a way to a make a sound profit with cars vs bikes, a free moving machines.   A car is a giant box that is violent."  We all take part in this conflict. 

“It was a pleasant choice, a conscious choice not to support destruction of the ozone layer. That was a choice I made when I was 16 in San Jose California.  Get away from cars.”  For Joe, the solidarity he found in critical mass has to be extended to the planet.   “I say it as a global warning.  You guys are destroying the future. Bikes are a solution.

Critical Mass is where Joe met all his New York friends.  “it’s an embattled space.  We lost Free Speech and we won a bike lane.  We want freedom of assembly.  That’s why mandate since 2001. Critical Mass and Occupy extend through this conversation about what kind of a world we hope to live in.  We have to dismantle the police state first.   NY is so saturated.  Yet, there are so many possibilities.  

I saw the cargo bikes as another step for New York,  a way to move things in a more sustainable way.

Over and over we talked about what would have to happen in the streets with the clash of ideas and stories, between bodies on bikes vs those in cars, those who think like Robert Moses and those who think like Jane Jacobs,fantasy vs capital, creativity vs consumption, greenwashing vs sustainability, those who favor order and those who favor chaos. 


spirits born the streets

a spirit
of creation born
from chaos
of humans
of machines

dancing to death
night and morn'
some laws
some not

riding the seasons
casting small spells
weaving short tales
with kindred spirits
sowing seeds
meeting needs

rolling together
community's fertile ground

our mass
bodies and bikes
safe and unsafe
we must act direct
to direct our fates

we do what we like
and we won't
the future
is ours
ride till you drop

so come
roll with me
safe as you see
in this year
two zero one

This year, Joe was leaving, so we held a small goodbye, ride on Thursday, meeting at 7:05 at the Brooklyn side of the Manhattan Bridge.

Most everyone was there, but Joe, who elected to be fashionably late.

Monica was waiting for us at a park nearby, where  New York Bike Dance was choreographing a new number they were going to try out.

We stayed in the park for a while listening to music, dancing, riding in circles through the park, eventually making our way into the streets.  Listening to the Sugar Hill gang, rappers delight, we rode through the night.  The sun setting, we made our way to Prospect Park, where more people met up with the ride.

We blasted Abba, Moullinex, Lou Reed, Jimmy Cliff.  And hung out in Grand Army Plaza for hours, dancing and chatting all.  The public space party is about being in public space, enjoying a bit of the party of urban life together. 

So we enjoyed it, gossiped about burning man, and updated Joe “Free Speech or Speech Free” signs.

Part of what I love about these spring rides is the way we forget about the rules for a while and let go, abandoning care or concern for anything.

Of course, the city has ways of reminding us of these things.  But for a while there, we all enjoyed a night in the city, reveling in what the public space party of the streets really can be. This is a place where we meet our city of friends, listen to music, and co exist without an entrance fee.  It is a space to be allowed to be ourselves.  It is a space for connecting and sharing.  It is a space for a Critical Mass to come alive, if only for a night in time.

So, goodbye mellow yellow, but hello to everyone else, hello all you freaks who ride through time with me, shaking in the public space party of the streets.  The streets are ours.  Lets celebrate them together, through time.

Poem to the Freaks - bu Jack Micheline

To lives as I have done is surely absurd
in cheap hotels and furnished rooms
To walk up side streets and down back alleys
talking to oneself
and screaming to the sky obscenities
That the arts is rotten....
That mediocrity and the rage of fashion rules
My poems and paintings piled on the floor
TO be one with himself
A saint
A prince
To Persevere
THrough storms and hard-ons
Through dusk and dawns
TO kick death in teh ass
To be passed over life a bad penny
A midget
An art
A roach
A freak
A Hot Piece
An Outlaw
Riase your cup and drink my friend
Drink for those who walk alone in the night
             To the crippled and the blind
             To the lost and the damned
             To the long bird flying in the sky

Drink to wonder
Drink to me
Drink to pussy and dreams
Drink to madness and stars
I hear the birds singing. 

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