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It’s the 20th anniversary of Critical Mass: What it meant in Portland then and now

Posted by on September 28th, 2012 at 9:44 am

Critical Mass January 08-5.jpg
There were only about a dozen people on this Critical Mass ride in January 2008, which to my knowledge is the last time it actually happened.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)


Today is the 20th anniversary of Critical Mass. In San Franciso, where the event was born back in 1992, a huge ride is planned to mark the occasion. The SF Chronicle says over 10,000 people might show up. Thousands are also expected to also ride in Chicago today.

But here in Portland, where we proudly hold the crown of the “best bike city in America” and where Critical Mass was once a prime focus for advocates and activists, there’s nothing planned. I haven’t heard a peep about it. No one is planning a ride.

Critical Mass - Portland
Portland Critical Mass in June, 2005.

Some say the often antagonistic and controversial monthly ride fizzled out because the need to demand respect for bicycling on Portland streets lost urgency as the City painted more bike lanes and improved bicycle access. The activists became advocates and then the advocates became bureaucrats who worked for change from the inside. Many people simply moved on from Critical Mass and devoted themselves to bicycle activism in other ways.

But that’s too tidy of an explanation. We also cannot forget that the Portland Police Bureau did just as much to do with the death of Critical Mass as changing attitudes. Back in 2005, in one of my earliest reports on the ride, I noted how the PPB was way too heavy-handed in the way they approached the event. There were even ugly clashes with riders as recently as 2006.

In 2006, the PPB spent over $20,000 and over 500 hours on Critical Mass enforcement.

The PPB ultimately helped kill the ride, not by force, but by not allowing corking. They made it clear that every single stop sign violation would be enforced. That made it impossible to ride as a group and it quickly turned people off.

Joe Biel, a local activist, publisher, and filmmaker has researched Critical Mass in Portland for years and is currently finishing up a documentary on the topic titled, Aftermass. He has already published a collection of police and court documents that give a window into what the police called the “Anarchist bicycle rally.” He turned them into Mad Libs.

Here’s what Biel says about the demise of Critical Mass in a blurb about his documentary: “From reading their internal files, the Portland Police department was highly wary of Critical Mass from day one and went as far as illegally spying on the group with their anti-communist “Red Squad” and forever cementing the meme that Critical Mass’ goals were rioting, blocking traffic, and antagonism with the public.”

“I think the story of Critical Mass is too often distracted by the controversies and individual’s conflicted opinions.”
— Joe Biel, filmmaker and publisher

Biel has devoted years of work to his documentary because he wants to tell the larger picture. “I think the story of Critical Mass is too often distracted by the controversies and individual’s conflicted opinions,” he shared with me this morning.

One major impact he believes Critical Mass had on Portland was that it, “served to retrain the Police Department’s perception and handling of cyclists and gave birth to the wide canvas of culture that we now celebrate everyday.”

And you might not realize it; but Critical Mass lives on in much more direct ways.

PDX Bike Swarm - ALEC F29 protests-15
The Swarm in action at an ALEX F29 protest back in February.

The PDX Bike Swarm that grew out of the Occupy protests, is in some ways Critical Mass 2.0 in Portland. “We’re taking the political aspect of Critical Mass to the next level,” said Nathan Jones at a recent Bike Swarm meeting. There are very important differences between Bike Swam and Critical Mass; but the relationship is unmistakable.

“Bike Swarm is about defending community control of the places we live in.”
— PDX Bike Swarm participant

One Swarm participant at a recent meeting I attended said, “I’m just not going to be satisfied until bikes are a majority. As long as we live in a world dominated by cars, riding a bike is political, whether your realize it or not.” Another person told me, “Bike Swarm is about defending community control of the places we live in.” Those comments sound a lot like the sentiments I remember hearing at Critical Mass back in the day.

But the similarities end there. The Bike Swarm is non-antagonistic, highly strategic (they’ve done organized actions around issues of financial reform, coal exports, hunger and housing, freeway expansion projects, and so on), they meet and hold rides and events regularly, and they have leaders — none of which could be said of Critical Mass.

In some ways, Swarmers have told me, Critical Mass is like when Occupy first started. A lot of people were mad and willing to hit the street to make demands. Now, that urgency and anger has changed. Occupy protests changed the dialogue and their issues have infiltrated the mainstream. Sound familiar?

I think for some, not having Critical Mass is a badge of honor. A sign that we have found a more effective formula for pushing bicycling issues. But for others, I think there’s a hole where Critical Mass used to be. There are grumblings in this community that we have gotten complacent and that our bike advocacy has become too connected with the power structure to agitate for the change we desperately need.

Having a seat at the table is great; but not if you’re afraid to insult the host.

Critical Mass itself has long been dead in this town; but its legacy and inspiration are very much alive. It has recently sprung back to life in Vancouver, Washington (just a few miles north of downtown Portland), do you think it will — or it should — ever return to Portland?

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Comments
  • Ethan September 28, 2012 at 9:55 am

    I had not really drawn a correlation between the sputtering nature of bike advocacy here and the loss of CM. My critique of the BTA’s reluctance to get in the streets looks a little different when I ponder the absence of CM as a regular and useful counterpoint to their more polite approach.

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  • 9watts September 28, 2012 at 10:03 am

    “Having a seat at the table is great; but not if you’re afraid to insult the host.”
    Well said.

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  • SilkySlim September 28, 2012 at 10:04 am

    I think there was a critical mass driving event today. Or was that yesterday? Actually, was that an all week/month/year thing?

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  • Terry D September 28, 2012 at 10:25 am

    I remember living on the top floor of an apartment building overlooking West Burnside around 2002 and there was a Critical Mass ride going on which I could see from my vantage point. The PPD corralled them into an intersection and kept telling the protestors to keep moving….all the while PREVENTING THEM from escaping the box they put them in.

    I felt like I was watching an enforcement action from some petty dictatorship. It permanently colored my view of our local Police Department. They were rude, aggressive, used excessive force,and FORCED the situation themselves by giving the protesters no escape route. It was obvious they intentionally created the situation and then charged the participants. The “Radical Perspective” of Critical Mass at the time made the demands of groups like the BTA seem reasonable and became part of the public consciousness and Portland culture.

    Bike Swarm seems to be filling that radical niche that has been lost for a while. From a Social Movement theory perspective it is called “The Radical Flank Effect.” When a truly “radical” group creates a stir and demands significant change the more moderate groups and their more “mainstream” agenda look reasonable by comparison. The result is that the general public become more amenable to their “reasonable” demands since the demands of the “Radical Flank” are so much more “extreme.”

    It is a great tactic I highly support. Historically it has an effect that can be seen over and over again in modern history both in the left and the right. Go “PDX Bike Swarm”!!!

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  • zuckerdog September 28, 2012 at 10:38 am

    As a regular participant in the CMs during the early otts (2000s), CM has appear to have served (somewhat successfully) it useful purpose in Portland. CM in Portland was at its peak during the 2002 Bike Summer (now PedalPalooza). I tend to agree with the article, Portland has transcended the traditional CM and PDX Bike Swarm apears to be its next evolution.

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  • Zach September 28, 2012 at 10:48 am

    Bike Swarm is a group dedicated to promote radical politics. It uses bikes as a tool.

    The only things Bike Swarm has in common with Critical Mass are bikes and putatively left-wing politics. They are totally different paradigms of activism.

    Critical Mass was an opportunity for people of all types and all political backgrounds to ride bikes in order to make the world better for bikes thereby making the world a better place in general.

    Bike Swarm presumably is dedicated to fighting oppression in all forms and modifying our economic system. Great, nothing wrong with that. But that goal is just so fundamentally different from Critical Mass’s, and its breadth makes it less inclusive. What I mean by that is that mainstream Democrats felt perfectly at home in Critical Mass, while they would not as part of the Bike Swarm.

    Is there anything wrong with this? Nope. They’re just different paradigms of activism. Don’t let the bikes fool you.

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  • davemess September 28, 2012 at 11:03 am

    Jonathan, there was a critical mass in Vancouver a month or two ago. I didn’t go, but saw some posters for it.

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) September 28, 2012 at 11:16 am

      thanks davemess. I mention that in the last paragraph. I’ve been in touch with the folks behind that, but just haven’t done a story yet.

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    • davemess September 28, 2012 at 11:23 am

      Sorry, didn’t read the bottom quickly enough

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  • Spiffy September 28, 2012 at 11:14 am

    we have a critical mass in Portland every day…

    it’s the thousands of people on bikes already on the street going about their daily business…

    a small sampling: http://portland-hawthorne-bridge.visio-tools.com/

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  • Stretchy September 28, 2012 at 11:25 am

    My brief experience with Critical Mass was this: My first one was on a halloween ride, it was huge, it was fun and the Police actually escorted the mass, only arresting a couple of people. This must have been 2001-2003 timeframe. I rode with the mass all winter, with most rides only having 10-20 riders. For the most part everyone was dedicated and well behaved. Despite the cold and rainy weather it was a good time.

    In the springtime the mass started getting bigger and bigger (as would be expected) and started attracting people who seemed less interested in bike advocacy and more interested in using the anonymity of the crowd to behave like jerks and vandals. There was little to no self-policing done by the ride leaders while cars were damaged and riders went far beyond blocking intersections. I witnessed riders playing chicken with cars on Burnside and performing other maneuvers that were dangerous to themselves and everyone involved.

    The little policing that was done what that someone decided to run a parallel “wuss ride” for people who weren’t interested in the tactics and behavior of the main mass.

    I was already out by then though. The final straw for me was when I finally convinced a neighbor of mine to come out for the ride. I was embarrassed at the behavior she saw and embarrassed that anyone would think I was associated with a group that not only condoned but seemed to celebrate that kind of behavior.

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    • joe biel September 28, 2012 at 3:39 pm

      Can you give some more detail about the damage to cars? I couldn’t find anything about a single car being damaged by participants in fifteen years of police files.

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      • BURR October 1, 2012 at 1:07 pm

        ‘damaging cars’ was a boogieman invented by the city as an excuse to crack down on critical mass, I never saw it happening on any of the CM rides I went on between 2002 and 2006, and I went on a lot of them.

        What I believe killed Critical Mass in Portland was what I like to call the KKK:

        Mayor Vera Katz
        Police Chief Mark Kroeker
        and
        Portland Business Alliance President Kim Kimbrough

        Most people don’t realize it, but the PBA was a major player behind the scenes leaning on the city to crack down on the ride.

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  • davemess September 28, 2012 at 11:36 am

    The comments on that article about he Vancouver critical mass are just plain scary. Same old tired “Bikes don’t pay their fair share arguments”.

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    • Spiffy September 29, 2012 at 9:04 am

      I have Facebook plugins blocked so I’m not subject to seeing that cr*p…

      a real newspaper would use their own comment system…

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  • Mindful Cyclist September 28, 2012 at 11:56 am

    If it does ever return, I would like to see the movement focus more on what Vancouver did. I think it would make more sense to really focus on the areas where there are real safety concerns to really show we are out there and make drivers aware. I would be thinking Couch and Grand, Broadway and Wheeler (before the closure), Foster Road.

    If there is one area I do not really feel all that safe biking it is past I-205. Focus on that area. While downtown can be a difficult place for the more interested but concerned, I felt comfortable quickly once I realized the lights were timed and understood how to stay out of the right-hook zone.

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  • Jonathan Gordon September 28, 2012 at 11:58 am

    I did several critical mass rides in Portland in early 2000 and was shocked at how consistently antagonistic the police were with motorcycles trying to shape our route. Stops and arrests were routine and the whole thing felt like a cat and mouse game. I remember pulling over to politely ask a police officer a question and was told by an officer that he saw me not come to a complete stop at a stop sign over two miles ago. The implications were clear: we can ticket you and your friends at will.

    Contrast that with my first group ride in NYC in 2005. Police were corking the intersections for us and would wave and were a very friendly bunch. It was only then that I fully appreciated how bad things had gotten in Portland.

    It’s been several years since then but I haven’t gotten over it. I still have the sense that the Portland Police aren’t here to protect and to serve me. What a lost opportunity. Rather than connect with the community they ostracized us.

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    • Granpa September 28, 2012 at 12:20 pm

      I witnessed several critical mass events and was dismayed by how consistently antagonistic riders were to motorists who’s only crime was that they were trying to go about their business. While housefraus and working schlubs were using the autocentric transportation system CM riders were slapping cars, yelling at drivers and apparently trying to evoke confrontation. I am glad that chapter of Portland’s cycling community has moved on.

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      • Hugh Johnson September 29, 2012 at 9:32 am

        Critical Mass does not make me safer as bike commuter. It only makes things worse.

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    • paul September 28, 2012 at 4:06 pm

      Luckily I happened across a CM ride in Chicago while out riding bmx at an impressionable age. The cops corked the streets and let us be for the most part. Suddenly a big cargo van tried to break a cork and cyclists piled on, then the occupants jumped out and started busting heads before showing their badges. After that the ride took control of a 6 way intersection for 10 or 15 minutes, going as far as to block a lit-up ambulance from getting through.

      It was awesome, it also went way too far. I miss it but it could just as soon stay in the past. The cops support us riding late at night and naked once each year, that’s great but it’s not the same thing whatsoever. Hard to say how a re-boot of PDX CM would play out, I wouldn’t mind learning.

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  • Bill Stites September 28, 2012 at 12:24 pm

    The only time I’ve ever been pulled over, and subsequently issued a ticket for running a red light, was at CM 2004 [?]. I was sweeping on a trike, right behind a family with small kids wobbling around. The police were routinely passing dangerously close to the crowd, and I counted 8 squad cars behind me. Ironically, I felt the need to protect these kids from the police!
    This was on W Burnside around 19th, when they wedged me to the curb to write up the ticket. All the while creating a major traffic jam behind us, after the rest of the CM’ers were long gone. I was mellow, the officer was cordial.
    A nice lawyer volunteered to help me fight it in court. The judge was sympathetic, but said red lights are one of those violations that can’t be dismissed – just too fundamentally important to allow excuses – even on a group ride with a massive police presence. He did cut the fine in half.

    Funny thing is, I’m kinda proud of that ticket.

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    • John Lascurettes September 28, 2012 at 1:26 pm

      Huh. So I wonder why they so routinely are not enforced – neither for cars, nor for bikes.

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    • paul September 28, 2012 at 4:10 pm

      I’d frame that ticket for sure.

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  • Adam September 28, 2012 at 12:51 pm

    I moved to Portland in May 2005, and attended my first Critical Mass in July or August of that same year. We met near the elephant statues in the North Park Blocks, and there were hundreds and hundreds of us! It was a frickin awesome ride.

    However, as I kept doing the rides, I noticed they became increasingly unpleasant. It seemed there were a bunch of cyclists on the ride whose one and only goal was to antagonize the police, and other drivers. I found it increasingly at odds with the kind of ride I wanted to be on. I felt embarrassed to be a cyclist on the rides, and stopped going soon afterwards. It seems I wasn’t the only one?

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    • Adam September 28, 2012 at 12:54 pm

      Also, on a different note. I do remember reading about a momentous occasion when then-Mayor Tom Potter joined a ride back in the day, and even memorably sailed thru a red light on purpose! =

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  • eljefe September 28, 2012 at 12:58 pm

    “They made it clear that every single stop sign violation would be enforced.”

    Every violation BY A BIKER. I rode critical mass most months around 1996-98, and there was a clear double standard as police went about their usual habit of ignoring violations by motorists. On a 2003 ride, I witnessed a motorist intentionally hit a bicyclist with no response from the nearby officers. Now that a majority of Portlands biking population didn’t live here in the ’90s, it’s easy to forget how bad conditions were and to criticize tactics. The fact is, anyone who enjoys their freedom to bike in Portland owes a debt of gratitude to people who risked their bodies during those rides.

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  • Dan Kaufman September 28, 2012 at 1:16 pm

    Celebrate 20-years of Critical Mass this afternoon by joining the PDX Bike Swarm for Civil Discobedience (Kick off ride for Super Swarm Weekend). http://shift2bikes.org/cal/#28-3313

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  • Gasper Johnson September 29, 2012 at 3:05 pm

    The 15 yr anniversary in Chicago was fantastic! I even have video of bike cops running red lights with us because, of course, it is the best way to safely and efficiently move the traffic. What a stark difference, and the joy on faces of those we pass… so heart warming! Thanks for the coverage Jmas

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  • AC September 29, 2012 at 4:33 pm

    I rode CM on a fairly regular basis back during it’s 2002-03 heyday. While I agree with those who say that the emergence of the bike culture as we know it today has deemed it obsolete, I remember being a bit put off by the self-righteousness of some of the participants. On one ride I witnessed a cyclist intentionally run into an SUV trapped in the ride on
    W Burnside, blaming the driver who was basically just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Another time I saw several CMers surrounding and banging on a TriMet bus on NW 23rd. While targeting selfish SUV drivers is one thing, picking on people who rely on public transit (many of whom are not physically able to ride a bike) is not cool. Anyhow, such misguided activism probably contributed to the PPD overreaction.

    Another

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  • Nathan Jones October 1, 2012 at 3:36 pm

    I would like to point out that the bike swarm doesn’t have leaders either. While some may be at times a point person or facilitator, no singular individual represents the swarm.

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  • Dan Kaufman October 1, 2012 at 4:33 pm

    I believe what you saying, Burr, but I heard two trust-worthy first-hand accounts from people who were hassled. One had their car kicked and the other keyed. Those stories are part of what kept me from participating while Shift/Pedalpalooza/WNBR drew me in. Then CM faded out.

    Jonathan asks, should CM be brought back to PDX…

    Fun rides (that mass up) are great and they are a great demonstration without political baggage. But there is need for rides like Critical Mass because we still have a long way to go and we need to be clear what the problems are and what we want.

    Does it have to be held on the last Friday and does it need to be named Critical Mass? No, tactics and strategy have to evolve because we have to keep the pressure on while the DOTs prioritize car traffic and embarks on billion dollar freeway expansion projects.

    We need ODOT and WDOT to make active transportation their top priority. Speed limits need to be lowered dramatically, end free parking, eliminate traffic devices and engineering that merely serve to increase car speed on our streets.

    Overtly political groups like the PDX Bike Swarm, SF Bike Cavalry, OWS Bike Coalition can help liberate our streets (and tackle other issues) but we must have the other bike clubs (of all stripes) and organizations to get off the fence about active transportation and get their ranks in the street because our message will be amplified the loudest when we get numbers that can’t be corralled or ignored. We can build on those numbers if we deliver a message that resonates and we keep it fun.

    Being the best of the worst is not good enough. Let’s be the best of the best!

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  • Ayleen October 2, 2012 at 11:51 am

    I don’t love how Critical Mass ended in Portland (many people stopped going for fear of being ticketed), but I do feel it served us well and faded out at a time when it was no longer necessary. We’re beyond Critical Mass. We would not be where we are today without it. Critical Mass gave Portland bikers a place to gather and meet and brainstorm, plan, revolutionize.

    And then other projects started happening and Critical Mass lost its effectiveness.

    Some people call CM a protest against cars, which I’ve always found to be ridiculously negative approach. I prefer to celebrate bikes and liked to think of CM that way. But I don’t think we successfully motivated drivers to get out of their cars and onto bikes. Blocking them during rush hour, eh, not an effective way to inspire someone.

    But all these other things we do these days, perhaps most notably Pedalpalooza, is a fantastic way to get people excited about riding bikes. Accessible, fun, welcoming, positive. That’s a perfect way to incite change, to inspire. Fun on bikes! Who doesn’t love fun?

    Critical Mass gave us a chance to meet each other, rally around our cause, and grow to where we are today. It was absolutely essential to Portland’s bike growth and is a useful “new bike culture” tool other places can still take advantage of, but we have outgrown its usefulness.

    Did CM (directly) achieve the goal of promoting the use of bikes? Maybe a little. Does that matter? Not really. The resulting projects of Shift, BikeSummer, mimbikesummer, pedalpalooza, KBOO Bike Show, bike clubs, zoobomb’s growth, etc etc etc (!) are what I view as the positive results of CM.

    And now we need to move on to finding more and better ways to encourage people to be on bikes with us. Seeing throngs of bikers vying for front position during evening rush how on Williams is admittedly annoying but certainly inspiring. Having so many people of all ages and body types on myriad styles of bikes is surely an effective way to motivate more people out of their cars.

    Thank you to everyone who helped get us to where we are today. Those of you who met with the mayor and the police to try to ease relations, who got ticketed, who introduced yourselves to each other and helped us form the projects we have today.

    Let’s keep going; there’s way more fun to be had.

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