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The ‘bike swarm’ evolves into a movement of its own

Posted by on November 23rd, 2011 at 5:02 pm

Bike swarm participants in downtown Portland during the N17 protests.
(Photo: Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian)

The ‘bike swarm’, like the Occupy movement itself, isn’t going anywhere. In fact, it’s getting stronger and smarter.

“With bikes you have so much mobility, it really changes the game, it opens up this whole new realm of possibilities of what you can do.”
— Katherine Ball

What began on the morning of November 13th as a way to lend support to Occupy campers facing eviction by the Portland Police Bureau, has evolved into an ongoing movement of its own; complete with dedicated volunteers, a new website, and strategy meetings.

Some in the community have voiced concerns about bike swarms’ intentions to obstruct the police. Others say they’d rather not have bicycling politicized by being injected into the Occupy demonstrations. But those involved in the swarm say they are committed to non-violent, legal activities and they point to their recent actions as proof that their methods are peaceful, law-abiding, and most importantly, successful.

Just what is the bike swarm?

In a nutshell, it’s a group or groups of people riding bikes during marches and other demonstrations. The people on bikes support the protests, and because they’re not on foot, they have strategic advantages: Bikes are vehicles so they’re allowed on the street; people on bikes have greater sight lines (especially those on double-decker tall bikes); and bike riders can move more quickly than people on foot.

Katherine Ball has helped the bike
swarm evolve in Portland.
(Photo © J. Maus)

Katherine Ball, a 27 year old activist currently enrolled in a Masters program at Portland State University, has been one of the more active participants in the bike swarms. “With bikes you have so much mobility,” she says, “it really changes the game, it opens up this whole new realm of possibilities of what you can do.”

Reid Parham, a 26 year old software engineer and Portland resident, has also participated in several bike swarm actions. He describes the role of the swarm as “maintaining the presence [of the protestors], but not being antagonistic at all.” While he speaks to the important strategic role the bikes have played at recent demonstrations, Parham says that the morale boosting impact the swarm has at marches is “absolutely, unquestionably the best part of it.”

Beyond the morale support and technical advantages, the symbolism of the bicycle during these events shouldn’t be underestimated.

Portland-based religious historian Keith Watkins, who hadn’t participated in any of the Occupy demonstrations until being inspired by the swarm, wrote about it in a recent entry on his blog:

“This small group of Portlanders used the unique features of human powered, two-wheeled vehicles in a wonderfully creative manner.

By rolling along through streets jammed with people, they maintained the principle that these streets are there to provide places for traffic to flow.

By their personal vulnerability on their fragile machines, they accented the importance of using modest modes of demonstrating power.

They manifested a whimsical spirit that seemed able to soften both sides of the often-tense face-offs.

… On this one long night… a few cyclists earned the respect of the city in a way that increases my delight that I too am a cyclist in this wonderful place.”

The impetus for the swarm began on the eve of the eviction, as Occupy Portland supporters got together to dream up ways to deal with the threat of police action. Once the riot police showed up and the standoff began, the bike swarm did laps around Chapman and Lownsdale parks for many hours. Occupy Portland campers and other supporters gave high-fives and shouted “Thank you cyclists!” as the pack rode by.

The presence of bikes looping around
the parks made a difference
as the encampment faced eviction.

The climax of the swarm that morning was when the last line of riot-gear laden police relented their blockage of SW Madison Street and let a pack of swarmers roll through (that moment was caught on video by Dan Kaufman).

Ball was one of the leaders that night. She says there was so much positive energy among bike swarm participants that “there was an obvious sense that we should do it again.”

Ball collected names and emails and another activist, Dan Kaufman, started an email list (with the subject line of “Bike Check” — a play on the people’s microphone call of “Mic check”) and began spreading word of the swarm among other people in the bike scene.

That enthusiasm carried over into the bike swarm’s second big day of action — supporting the N17 demonstrations.

Ball and others reported that the bike swarm numbered about 100 people at the start of the N17 march. Despite claims that the police had hacked into their text messages and tried to confuse swarmers, Ball says N17 was another big success.

“It was much different than at the eviction, we broke up into four different groups. One was to create diversions for the cops, another was to go up on the sidewalk and create a barrier between cops and the march, another group went in front of the march, and the last group stayed on the opposite side of the street.”

Ball was in the diversion group and recalls that they gave the police “something else to think about” besides Occupiers taking over downtown banks.

The legal grey area that bikes occupy came into play during the N17 protests.

At one point Ball recalled one of the bike groups was surrounded by riot cops near Pioneer Square. The bike riders were legally in the street and they weren’t doing anything illegal. Then they began to chant, “Where’s it legal to ride your bike? In the road!” That moment created what Ball refers to as an “interesting role reversal, when we are following the law and the police are obstructing the law [by standing in traffic].”

“I want to operate in that [legal] grey area,” Ball continued, “Because it’s the space of greatest possibility.”

When I asked Ball about how that tactic might be considered confrontational, she explained that her method is to be “really nice to the cops.” Instead of yelling, “This isn’t illegal!”, for instance, Ball would ask them calmly, “Is this illegal?” Her goal is to keep things “playful”. “We need to have more of a dialogue with them.”

One criticism leveled against the bike swarm concept is that it drags bicycling into the muck of controversial political movements. More controversy and political baggage is the last thing bicycling needs, or so goes the argument.

Ball feels that it’s not a bad thing to politicize bicycling.

“I think it’s a big problem in the U.S. that we’re so afraid of politicizing things. We need to get involved in shaping the world we want. Shying away from participating in democracy or in politics is obviously not the right thing to do right now.”

Swarm participants
during N17 actions.
(Photo: Occupy Oregon)

The N17 bike swarm gave Ball and others a chance to try out new ways of participating in our democracy. “It worked,” she recalls, “and we thought, this is really exciting.”

Another bike swarm volunteer proposed a strategy meeting the next day. Over 30 people showed up, many more than anyone expected.

At that meeting, the group re-affirmed their goals and took charge of bike swarm’s future. They discussed a proactive communications strategy, which included buying the domain name and starting a Twitter account; and they discussed how best to deal with the legal grey areas bikes often find themselves in during the demonstrations.

“We agreed that our image so far is celebratory, festive, light-hearted and supportive to the protest actions that we buzz around,” read notes from the meeting.

The bike swarm seems to share much of the spirit — if not the practical methods — of critical mass. In some ways, the bike swarm is kinder, gentler, and more thoughtful than critical mass. Sort of like critical mass 2.0. For many activists that participated in critical mass, there was an adrenaline that came with ‘taking over the streets’. That sense of excitement helped fuel much of America’s modern-day bike advocacy; but it never quite led to the revolution on our roads many of us still hope for.

The bike swarm, standing on the shoulders of critical mass and bolstered by the Occupy movement, has a chance to do that. And for Ball, our love of bicycling and what it represents is precisely what could make it happen.

“How do we make the revolution as exciting as the next iPod?” she wonders, “That’s one of the things bicycles bring to this movement.”

Meeting flyer

If you’d like to learn more about the bike swarm, or consider getting involved, come to a meeting this Friday at 7:00pm at the Lucky Lab Brewpub on SE 12th and Hawthorne 8:00 pm at 707 NE Broadway #203. Stay tuned to for more details.

Please support BikePortland.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

  • PDXsays November 23, 2011 at 5:14 pm

    Swarm! Swarm! Swarm! Swarm! That is all.

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  • Daniel Keller November 23, 2011 at 5:35 pm

    I love the Bike Swarm!

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    • shirtsoff November 24, 2011 at 9:37 am

      I love Bike Swarm too!

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  • browse November 23, 2011 at 6:04 pm

    I’m proud to have ridden in the N17 swarm, and I look forward to riding in one again soon.

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  • Nick V November 23, 2011 at 6:08 pm

    This is a good and thorough story, Jonathan. However, no matter how “nice” the swarm is to police, they’re still preventing them from doing their job. Yes, the bike swarm cyclists are helping the Occupy protestors, but what exactly are the Occupy protestors accomplishing? As I’ve written before on your blog, there are far more direct and non-confrontational ways to get one’s point across to the Wall Street fat cats.

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    • sorebore November 23, 2011 at 6:19 pm

      o.k. Nick V., I’ll take the bait. since I missed your suggestion’s before, could you provide a link or quote?

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      • Nick V November 23, 2011 at 6:31 pm

        I don’t know how to dig up past posts but I believe that the way to make a statement to Wall Street is by moving your money to a smaller bank or credit union and then STOP buying any and all of the needless gadgets and “stuff” that I see so many protestors carrying and using (smartphones, for example, who needs ’em?). These purchases only make rich people richer. My two cents.

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        • Ringer November 24, 2011 at 2:19 am

          So, you use a computer, not a smart phone. I think your missing something.

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          • Nick V November 24, 2011 at 4:05 am

            I use a computer for work and to stay informed. What exactly am I missing?

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            • Ringer November 25, 2011 at 11:20 am

              I don’t think denying technology is a postive step

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              • 9watts November 26, 2011 at 11:17 am

                “I don’t think denying technology is a postive step”

                I don’t think posting obtuse ill-considered one-liners on a bike blog is a postive step.

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          • Kevin November 25, 2011 at 12:30 am

            I think a good example is I buy a laptop from someone say…ASUS as opposed to Apple because Apple is the most guilty corporation when it comes to hoarding vast billions of dollars of liquid cash (about 70 billion at last count). Money just sitting there doing nothing, not moving the economy, not hiring people, not going to charity. its idle money and idle money is terrible for the economy. Yet look at any footage of a protest and it comes off as an apple commercial.

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            • Otto November 27, 2011 at 3:45 am

              You can’t hire people for phantom jobs. What is Apple supposed to do, have an Apple store on every corner like Starbucks? Maybe they can hire an army of people to be janitors or company roofers. Or they can make 300 million iPads just for Americans but then have an excess inventory problem because, you know, there is such a thing as competition in computing. Instead of making great computer products maybe they should just camp out in a park for five weeks and plan bike swarms. The reason they have a lot of cash is because they make products that a lot of people want and voluntarily buy. Just because they don’t immediately burn through the cash or they’re not as “charitable” as you think they should be doesn’t make them a bad company. In fact, just the opposite because they don’t need bailouts like the banksters or faux philanthropy to score lame PR points. Would you feel better if Apple had trillions in debt like the U.S. government?

              Come on man, stay focused on the real culprits. Apple didn’t bankrupt the U.S. economy and they don’t run Portland.

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            • Otto November 27, 2011 at 3:58 am

              By the way, it’s not “idle money”. It’s called savings. Something Americans should learn a thing or two about and if they did there wouldn’t be as much credit financed over-consumption, which is the cause of our economic problems. Savings means less comsumption and less debt service. Companies and people who save don’t need bailouts. So if you were thinking straight you would encourage savings, rather than call it “evil”.

              Which is it swarmers and occupiers, are you against “idle money” or over-consumption? Make up your

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        • Otto November 27, 2011 at 10:28 am

          The smart phone makers provide a lot of jobs to working people and app developers. Also, mobile devices helped protesters organize and share information that isn’t filtered by mainstream media or censored. You don’t help people by taking away choices they’ve already made.

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    • Rich November 24, 2011 at 9:54 am

      Nick, I ask this in sincerity: what are the more direct methods of confronting Wall Street Fat Cats that you endorse?

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    • shirtsoff November 24, 2011 at 1:20 pm

      Is Nick V a legitimate person or a paid corporate contracted employee here to skew the discussion? His comment, which fails to acknowledge that bicycles are a central piece of Swarm activity and thus pertinent to, rings several warning signs in my head and reminds of a recent BBC article on fake user comments (see link below). Fake or not, he has a point to push even if it flies in the face of public will for the masses.

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    • Allan Folz November 25, 2011 at 1:02 am

      What are the Occupiers accomplishing? In LA they are getting the word out that we need a presidential administration that will prosecute the absolute and undeniable fraud from Wall Street that created this whole situation in the first place.

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  • Mark November 23, 2011 at 6:20 pm

    Critical Mass lite

    Not a fan

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  • Straybike November 23, 2011 at 6:50 pm

    N17 was a real show of nonviolent participation by the entire OccupyPDX movement, when Police Presence was at a peak. There was no Swarm interference with Police only a distraction when the music was loud and the police were tapping there boots to the beat. We have established the right to ride in the streets, and are free to exercise that right. We demonstrated peacefully during the police free march/ride on N19. Critical mass has evolved in Portland continuing to promote cycling as an acceptable way of life in this great city. Swarm is that evolution using the bicycle as a tool to expand creative thinking and allow participation in public activism outside of just cycling.

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  • Champs November 23, 2011 at 7:03 pm

    Keeping with BP editorial guidelines, “people on bikes” are getting involved.

    As for politics, this is Portland. Bikes and/or beer will get involved in every issue, whether someone cures cancer or becomes the next Hitler.

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  • Hugh Johnson November 23, 2011 at 7:07 pm

    Just when I thought Jonathan could move on from the polarizing politics. : (

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  • sabes November 23, 2011 at 7:39 pm

    All this is assuming that Occupy shouldn’t have been evicted. I’m all for peaceful protest, and love the bike swarm idea, but maybe there is a better way to protest Wall Street than occupying a city park, which, really, didn’t accomplish much at all.

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    • Mark November 23, 2011 at 9:27 pm

      Actually, Occupy Wall Street and all the local solidarity sites have already accomplished far more than I thought possible and far more than anything I’ve seen. Occupy has changed the narrative and changed the conversation. That is the first step, and the hardest to make.

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  • wade November 23, 2011 at 7:51 pm

    do you think people choosing to move money to smaller banks or credit unions would have happened without the occupy movement? i really don’t know the stats on that, i mean, how much money is leaving and going to other friendlier places, but according to democracy now the amount of lobbyists representing banks in washington has increased considerably. and the human microphone. people are showing up all over the place and human microphoning. without occupy, unlikely that it would be currently happening. i’m so into the human microphone. the bike swarm seems to be the alterna-critical mass a lot of people have been looking for, something smart and playful yet engaged, although not requiring clowning or miming. i haven’t been, so perhaps i’m off on this. and i agree about politicizing transportation cycling/cycling in general. does anyone else feel like the people who could come out and make a stand aren’t because they’re protecting their brand?

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  • 9watts November 23, 2011 at 8:27 pm

    Hurray for bikes, hurray for civil disobedience, hurray for creative protesting.

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  • Joe November 23, 2011 at 9:04 pm

    awesome !

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  • Hart Noecker November 23, 2011 at 9:29 pm

    If the job of the police involves harassing and arresting people for exercising their freedom of speech rights, I’ll gladly use my bike to prevent them from doing their job.

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  • Dan Kaufman November 24, 2011 at 10:12 am

    The Problem is Civil Obedience
    by Howard Zinn, 1970

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  • Kiel Johnson
    Kiel Johnson November 24, 2011 at 2:29 pm

    Katherine ball is so hot

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  • maxadders November 25, 2011 at 9:28 am

    The whole reason the cops didn’t tackle any of these folks during the park evictions is because bikes are already politicized to a huge extent here. Conservatives whine a bunch about “special treatment” and “pet projects” whenever safety or infrastructure improvements are brought up. Liberals almost universally support pro-bike measures. If you think bikes are a neutral entity, you’re living under a rock.

    Thankfully this swarm thing was as ineffectual and embarrassing as I’d expected. What’s that saying about Portland being passive-aggressive? I think it applies here.

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    • Dan Kaufman November 25, 2011 at 11:40 am

      “Thankfully this swarm thing was as ineffectual and embarrassing as I’d expected.”

      Says you. I beg to differ. So there!

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    • wsbob November 25, 2011 at 12:34 pm

      “The whole reason the cops didn’t tackle any of these folks during the park evictions is because bikes are already politicized to a huge extent here. …” maxadders

      I doubt this to be the reason the police haven’t much interfered with the bikeswarm effort. All reports so far about bikeswarm’s activities seem to be that this effort has been upbeat and not antagonistic or obstructive. People riding for bikeswarm have just been riding around OP’s appearances, expressing their personal views, offering words of support to people in general.

      Have they been dragging their bikes in large numbers en masse into shoppng malls and bank lobbies in efforts to interfere or block day to day activities in such places? Deliberately attempting to block doorways or streets with their bikes? Haven’t heard anything like this. As they’ve been riding around, have they been calling out antagonistic taunts or names to the cops? Haven’t heard anything like this either.

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  • maxadders November 25, 2011 at 6:29 pm

    I watched the park evictions live on TV a couple weeks ago– twenty people slowly circling a police action on bicycles looked pretty pointless to me. Guess I had to be there.

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    • Hart Noecker November 27, 2011 at 11:03 am

      That’s what you get when you let corporate media show you a sliver of events, your narrow view will match what you’re spoon fed.

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  • Troix November 26, 2011 at 1:52 pm

    Nick V – what are they accomplishing? The national political dialogue has shifted towards job creation instead of the Tea Party driven austerity measures that were all we heard about before the OCW arrival. That alone is an important result on the federal level. Its a young movement – it will evolve it’s message and hopefully work towards more specific goals, but it is amazing to me that folks like you expect an organic movement to gel quickly because of your own impatience. Your impatience is your own issue – please don’t dump it on this social movement.

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  • jim November 27, 2011 at 10:16 am

    Why arent they riding circles around the white house? This administration is getting filthy rich from inside knowledge about stocks before legislation afects them. It should be illegal but they know the loopholes and how to avoid jail.

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  • JF November 28, 2011 at 11:45 am

    Is the “Bike Swarm” associated with Occupy or not? Is it a stand alone group which happens to ride along to be pesky during any protest or civil disobedience action? Or are they Occupy protestors who happen to ride bikes as well?

    If it is with occupy, i have a good idea of what message the “Bike Swarm” is trying to say. If it is a stand alone group, what exactly is the message/statement the swarm is trying to get out there?

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    • Dan Kaufman November 28, 2011 at 2:52 pm

      The swam is a tactic that was popularized during the recent Copenhagen Climate Conference. The PDX bike Swarm was hatched from OccupyPDX meetings from a desire to plug bicycles and bicyclists into the protest.

      I shouldn’t speak for PDX Swarm but I feel that fact should answer your question. That said, there is nothing I know of that prevents the swarm from flying where it wants.

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      • JF November 28, 2011 at 4:44 pm

        So they are occupy supporters that ride bikes. Is that true?

        I was not questioning the tactic or where the idea of swarm came from, but rather what is the Pdx bike swarm message if not with occupy?

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        • Dan Kaufman November 29, 2011 at 2:14 pm

          Yes, JF, I’d say that is true (as well as the converse).

          The swarm has not developed a specific message other than the act of supporting the occupy protest and demonstrations. I hope that answers your question.

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    • PDXsays November 29, 2011 at 8:26 pm

      Man, you are *so* caught up in the dominant paradigm, it’s eerie.

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      • PDXsays November 29, 2011 at 8:29 pm

        This reply was supposed to appear under:

        JF November 28, 2011 at 4:44 pm
        So they are occupy supporters that ride bikes. Is that true?

        I was not questioning the tactic or where the idea of swarm came from, but rather what is the Pdx bike swarm message if not with occupy?

        Recommended 2

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  • jim November 28, 2011 at 6:34 pm

    If they want to be a swarm shouldn’t they all dress up like bees?

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