If you want to stage a violent protest or go to war, don’t do it on bicycles. Bicycles are inherently non-violent.
Last month, a gang of indignant and ignorant motorcycle riders decided to stage an armed protest outside a Phoenix mosque against the “tyranny of Islam” in response to an incident where two Arizona residents were killed by police outside a Muhammed cartoon-drawing contest in suburban Dallas.
“Armed Bikers Plan Anti-Muslim Protest Outside Arizona Mosque,” headlines read. The protesters strutted in front of the mosque during Friday prayer in t-shirts that said “Fuck Islam” while brandishing firearms.
I was shocked and dismayed by the hate and bigotry. But the headlines got me thinking: what is it about bicycling — in contrast to motorcycling or driving — that is incongruent with what happened in Arizona?
Put another way: what is it about cartoons like this that make us laugh?
There are two parts to a possible answer.
One is that it’s pretty hard to kill someone with a bicycle. The scale and speed of bicycles is intimately connected with the actual ability of the human body, and therefore it is much harder to perpetrate serious violence with it. On the other hand, a vehicle that can go 100 miles an hour gives people enormous power and tremendous force, a force that kills 30,000 Americans every year.
In Arizona, the protesters used their motorcycles as a tool for intimidation. Bicycles aren’t very good at being intimidating. In his book, One Less Car: Bicycling and the Politics of Automobility, Zack Furness points out that “in the few cases where adult bicycles are featured in the mainstream media, they are generally portrayed as being far outside the mainstream, most are depicted as childish men, eccentrics, sexually odd character, geeks, and/or financial failures.”
Bicyclists don’t tend to create gangs like Hell’s Angels or Bandidos, which are known to be violent organized crime enterprises. It’s not that bicyclists are passive and ineffective. They engage in serious protest to make change, such as the Critical Mass Ride, which is heavily policed because cyclists are thought to not follow the rules of the road, thereby creating dangerous situations for automobiles. But most bicycle-led protests are associated with creating safer streets for bicycles and on occasion are mobilized in support of various social issues, such as Bike Swarm. Even at its most organized, bicycling is not associated with intimidation and violence.
You know you won’t inadvertently kill or maim anyone while riding your bike. And in the very violent world we live in, that is a big deal.
This is not to say that bicycles are never used for violence. Most recently, a person riding a bicycle shot a 17-year old standing outside of a convenience store in Philadelphia and subsequently fell off his bike. There are similar reports now and then. In 2012, a man biking very recklessly killed another man in a San Francisco crosswalk.
Obviously, it is possible to be violent while riding a bicycle. But as the Philadelphia example shows, it’s not easy. Riding a bicycle takes a lot of concentration and coordination, and so does shooting a gun.The two are rarely done together because it’s just too hard to pull it off physically. Plus, it’s hard to conceal your identity on a bike. Not only are bikes tools of nonviolence; they’re tools of transparency.
The idea of the potential violence of automobiles is particularly poignant in Portland right now after a man lost his leg in a collision with a truck, another lost his life and most recently, two pedestrians who were walking on the sidewalk of the Burnside Bridge were hit by an out of control vehicle, where one person died of his injuries.
Besides the numerous reasons you may bike, you can add this one to them: you know you won’t inadvertently kill or maim anyone while riding your bike. And in the very violent world we live in, that is a big deal.
In addition to that, you can take it to another level. You can embrace the peaceful nature of bicycling and as a person biking become an ambassador of peace on the roads. Certainly, people walking and biking face danger of being killed or maimed. But when we’re on a bike we can’t, and therefore won’t, engage with the latent danger of the automobile with counterforce. Whether we mean to or not, we fight the good fight of safe and peaceful roads by being nonviolent.