Critical (Violent) Mass or how a group of bicyclists alienated me

I’m a huge fan of bicycles and i do miss living in Amsterdam where that is culturally supported form of transportation. The hills in SF, the distance of my commute and the lack of infrastructure support demotivate me from even thinking about biking as transport in SF. That said, i love my public transit.

Last night, around 7.45, i started my car for the first time in over a month because the quantity of grocery shopping necessary would require a car (even though its only 6 blocks away). On the way out, i hit Critical Mass.

Now, i have nothing but appreciation for folks taking to the streets to demand infrastructure support and i love the idea of Critical Mass. Every time i’ve seen them before, they slow down traffic as they go about their route, but this situation was different. I was halfway through the intersection at Church and Market when two guys biked in front of me and stoppped, forcing me to take to my breaks. They started yelling at me and then one asked me if i was smoking a joint. I rolled my eyes and him and said of course not; Jo gave a cigarette to another guy. They had also stopped the cab next to me in the middle of the street, screamed circle and began circling and screaming at both of us.

Needless to say, this aggravated the passenger of the cab and the cab driver and i had the same uncomfortable feeling about being illegally in the middle of a major intersection with no ability to get off to a side. The bicyclists started yelling at the passenger saying that they did this every month and he should find another route and he should just be patient and make his life easier and he started yelling back, telling them that they have their rights but if they want him to take an alternate route, let him get out of the intersection. They were screaming past each other.

About 5+ minutes later, on the other side of the street, another car was stuck in the middle of the intersection. They started screaming at him and he decided he was going to push through and get the fuck out of the intersection. A group picked up their bicycles and started pounding them on the car, hitting the car, kicking the car and from it looks like, hitting the driver through his window. I called 911, reported an assault and told them to get a police officer there immediately; the guy who was right out of my window screamed disperse.

The language and tone used by the bicyclists at Critical Mass had a level of aggression to it that was just terrifying. It’s like what you see when police officers breathe power and spit it out at you. It is everything scary about crowd behavior.

On the Critical Mass website under “Testosterone Brigade,” it says For some bicyclists, Critical Mass is an opportunity to berate motorists, now that WE own the road for once. Our society’s over-reliance on motorized traffic is a massive and overwhelming social problem, and it won’t be changed through the use of bitchy, ineffective tactics by a small minority of pissed-off bicyclists. But a movement for change based on a reclaiming of public space and the building of human community, open to people from across the social and political spectrum, could contribute to a deeper and more fundamental change in the way our society operates.

After my experience yesterday, i would never support Critical Mass. I saw a level of aggression and potential danger that is precisely antithetical to any public space takeover that i can value. There was no need for aggression. I thought Critical Mass was supposed to be a process of taking to the streets and riding at bike speed down busy streets, not collectively taking over intersections, circling cars and screaming at them. I don’t see how people think they will gather support through aggression and goddess knows they just alienated me permanently. And i’m a bike lover, public transit supporter.

::sigh:: Why is it that the protesters for the movements i believe in always alienate me?

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15 thoughts on “Critical (Violent) Mass or how a group of bicyclists alienated me

  1. bikefridaywalter

    that is a most unfortunate situation for both the motorists involved and for critical mass. there is no way in any movement to acquire support while alienating people. i don’t know what to say about that except that it is very sad.

    i can say, on a positive note, that critical mass is an unorganized event and that has two implications. one, that you never know what to expect.. and sometimes what you end up with is crap like this. on the other hand, sometimes you end up with absolute bliss (i just posted a report on a wonderful cm ride on my blog).

    the other more important aspect is that this means that this little faction of massers are not representative of every others. don’t discontinue support of critical mass because of a bunch of mental juvenilles happened to get involved with one little bit of critical mass.

  2. Jeff

    that is a very sad story. i too have a very hard time supporting critical mass as *the* movement for demanding infrastructure and reform on behalf of bicyclists. i used to bike a lot, but that more or less stopped when I broke my arm avoiding a car in a *marked bicycle crossing* in seattle. I find san francisco an especially bad place to ride because of what i, as a northwest native, consider to be crazy and unpredictable traffic.

    but even though I own a car, I either walk or take public transit everywhere except when I am leaving the bay area. and as a pedestrian in SF, nothing is scarier than stepping out into an intersection at a 4-way stop and nearly being hit by some bicyclist who thinks the law doesn’t apply as he runs through the stop sign. at least the cars consider stopping. to me, the angry bicyclist movement seems to have less to do with getting people out of their cars, and more with trumpeting the superiority of the bicyclist.

  3. museumfreak

    i can only echo the previous poster in saying that’s really unfortunate.

    i do agree with you about saying that protesters often alienate those who most believe in their cause (most third-party movements in the united states being a good example). i’m a little frustrated with the progressive network where i live because i’ve explained the limitations my disability imposes to most of the leadership, and explained what kinds of protests i can and can’t handle, and they persist in requesting that i photograph or video events that i can’t handle–and sometimes they make it sound like the event will be something i can handle and it turns out not to be, and then i just feel bad. so at this point i’d rather not commit to anything than have to walk out on stuff and feel not only guilty but actively ill.

  4. JRM

    That is really an unfortunate event.

    It begs the question. It what point does a movement become an excuse?

    While I agree in principle the ideals of critical mass, I don’t believe in the consistently aggressive actions. To me, it doesn’t prove thier point. All it proves is that whoevers owns the road will act like they are superior aggressive manner. Hmm I see the themes from Orwells’ “Animal Farm.”

  5. Letters From Exile

    Violent Critical Mass

    When I lived in Indiana I rode a bike to work, and since I only livedabout a block from the campus it was no problem. I moved to SiliconValley a few years ago, and found myself in a land that made riding abike to work a challenge.
    The first time I hea

  6. tony

    Is this for real????

    jessh,in arizona,people get shot for small things(like looking at someone “the wrong way”).Such audacious behavior by a bicyclist is stunning to me.

    Such folks give the gun lobby a valid excuse,unfortunately(self defense).

    Seriously,(no, I’m not a gun nut) sociopathic behavior is always more likely in risk-takers(protestors,gamblers,politicians,actors,hedge fund mgrs),so it shouldn’t be too shocking to find bad examples of any movement/group.

  7. jeremy

    You ask “Why is it that the protesters for the movements i believe in always alienate me?”

    My guess is that you know the answer, which is (IMO) that fanatics are almost always broken.

  8. fling93

    From your subsequent post on this, which I can’t seem to comment upon because I get a “this post doesn’t exist” error. You quote an activist friend of yours who says: “Critical Mass is an “open source” activity where you cannot have a central organization with rules.”

    Well as I understand it, the former does not necessitate the latter. For example, wikis are “open source” activities with plenty of rules and guidelines, and they work better that way. There’s no reason people within the movement can’t realize that these incidents are counterproductive and do something about it. This talk of “open source” stuff just seems like a lame abdication of responsibility. If you’re in a group that does something like this, I think you are morally obligated either to do something to change it — or quit the group.

  9. Sarah Bluehouse

    See.. since the NYC Arrests Critical Mass has had a major turnover of the types of folks who ride. It used to be big hippies, and enthusiasts and whatnot, but since the law cracked down, the hippies went home, and left the anarcho-gutterpunks, and thier hardcore ilk to their tom-foolery.

    It ain’t right for bicyclists to behave like this is ok… but then Critical Mass is about *Stealing the road* and it has a very law breaking mentality… they run red lights (to stay as a group) they tie up traffic, and now they fuck shit up… That’s not how you show the world that “biking is fun and efficient!”

  10. Christopher Allen

    I had similar experience with the Iraq war protests last year. I am quite sympathetic with the idea behind the protests, but the anarchists used the protests as an opportunity to terrify those around them. In my particular case, I was in the front of an SF intersection waiting for the protests to move on, and people were jumping on my hood and keying my car to scratch it. They left as the police approached, but leaving me quite angry and unsupportive.

  11. doviende

    That sounds unfortunate, but as you described, Critical Mass is open to everyone. Sometimes jerks show up…but that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be accountability for bad behaviour. Perhaps the people in your city need to have a discussion about what they think are appropriate actions on critical mass.

    i think that you should still go to critical mass, though. do you want to let a couple of yahoos prevent you from having a good time? it sounds like everyone could use your help in creating a friendly and inclusive space for cyclists. don’t let those couple of guys dictate to you how it’ll be. you should have a say too.

  12. R700 Rider

    Anytime that you get large groups together, shyte can happen. Thats why there has to be some level of organization. The problem is when you get too “democratic” within groups like critical mass, they lose control of their groups, and voila. Chaos. And now Critical Mass has a black eye due to some “hooligans”.

    I appreciate what they are about in principal, but it is the same with any extremists…They get too damn EXTREME, and ruin it for the rest of us.

    It comes down to ARROGANCE,CONTEMPT, and IGNORANCE.

    I bike between 20-35 Miles a day, and I have seen jackass motorists who don’t know the law, and should go BACK to drivers training and learn it before they open up their dumbass cakeholes about how “bicylists aren’t supposed to be on the road, they should ride on the sidewalks”.

    F*ck them..Those are the ones I want to punch in their f*cking mouths. (Only because I run into at LEAST 3-5 of these assholes a week)

    By the same token, I have seen ARROGANT bicyclists who run stopsigns redlights and make illegal turns that SHOULD get clipped just to show them that THEY don’t have a set of rules JUST FOR THEM.

    The solution?


    There should be more education in drivers safety courses concerning bicycles. And maybe even Bicycle safety courses should be mandatory as well. God knows the bureaucrats could use it as a way to generate more revenue, and maybe this knowledge could save a few lives as well.

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