Then several days later I saw video footage from the Critical Mass ride in Porto Alegre, Brazil, held the same night. I was horrified by what I saw (Disclaimer: you need only watch the first minute, but you'll find it hard not to watch more...)
Critical Mass is a community bike ride that began in San Francisco in the early 1990s and has since spread to hundreds of cities around the world. "[It] focuses on the rights of bicyclists and the rights of pedestrians on our own streets. It also brings attention to the deteriorating quality of life... that cars create for cities." Thus, at it's core, Critical Mass is protest. Large cities like San Francisco and New York have pulled numbers in the hundreds at their monthly rides; Budapest's Earth Day rides have boasted tens of thousands; and even smaller cities and towns around the world have events that draw a few dozen riders.
When you've got that many protestant bicyclists riding on one street, "corking" intersections so that the entire group can travel en masse, ringing their bells, hootin' and hollerin', and generally having a much more enjoyable time than folks in cars trying to make their way home through rush-hour traffic on a Friday evening... well, let's just say that said folks-in-cars get a bit "backed up" and sometimes a little pissed off. The driver in the video above may have been one such folk.
Nevertheless, his barbarous action was inordinately violent, certainly uncalled for, and personally infuriating. I knew I had no choice but to ride the Critical Mass event in March - rain or shine, regardless of temperature, nothing would stop me. There's just something powerful about solidarity.
I first began riding Critical Mass in Orlando. One hundred or more bicyclists would roll into Loch Haven park each month, congregating for the evening's ride. The events were typically peaceful, even joyful, undisturbed rides. The police rarely got involved and when they did, they would simply ride at the rear, keeping a respectful distance. Orlando could also boast enviable weather year-round.
The New York City ride is, sufficed to say, a different experience: the temperature was reportedly 36 degrees F tonight, thought it felt much colder with the wind; and generally speaking, NYPD does not take kindly to protests. Especially - and inexplicably - not to the peace-loving riders of Critical Mass. Ever since the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City, things have been strangely askew.
Check out this video to get an idea what I mean.
My own rides in NYC began in April 2010. I had been warned about frivolous ticketing for lacking bike lights and bells, running red lights, etc. So I did my best to follow the rules and was thankfully never body-checked by police. But I did receive a summons for riding outside the bike lane. It was speedily dismissed in the hearing, as the officer supposedly didn't recall the incident - even though he gave a summons to at least one other CM rider that very same night, for the very same offense. We must not be memorable people :/
I participated again, at least two or three more times throughout 2010 and it was always the same. The bicyclists would arrive some time between seven and eight, we'd all ride off together with the police in lukewarm pursuit, and bicyclists would be pulled over to be given summons for ridiculous reasons.
At the outset, tonight's ride was looking to be much the same. When I arrived at the scene, Union Square north, there were maybe five bicyclists and easily a dozen police (you'd think we were Al Qaeda!). When we finally shoved off, there were maybe fifteen CM-ers total, though many had splintered off hoping to lose the police early on. By the time we reunited, there were still more than enough police hanging in there ("enough" technically being zero), following alongside or behind us. We stayed near Union Square for the first half-hour or so and then made our way up to Central Park. By the time we arrived, only seven or eight of us remained and apparently only two police were needed to quell our potentially explosive demonstration.
I'm pleased to report that for the first time in all my CM NYC experience, no bicyclists were summoned to answer for their heinous crimes (you know, like building community and activating peace). The police kept to themselves, riding closely, buffering the road between us cyclists and the bustling NYC traffic. It actually felt like an escort. Nobody was run over and I can say that I am proud to have stood in solidarity for my brothers and sisters in Porto Alegre. A great time was had by all and certainly by me... although I did spend the entire ride freezing my ass off.
Click here to read more about the philosophy, practice, history of Critical Mass.