Reviewing the Policing of Critical Mass

Now that the new police chief has announced he is going to
"review" department procedures with respect to Critical Mass, I think
it might be a good time to "review" the history of the relationship
between Critical Mass and the police. I have to emphasize that this
relationship has evolved in the context of a police department that has
been consistently biased against bicyclists for as long as anyone can
remember. Recent efforts to bring the SFPD into the 21st century have
not yielded noticeable results yet. Chief Gascón has an opportunity to
direct the department culture towards an altered cityscape with
thousands more bicyclists and pedestrians, or he can maintain an
obsolete approach to reinforcing a car-centric society’s prejudices. I
have to admit that I’m not hopeful. Also, I hope this review further
debunks the silly reporting
from KPIX starting last summer, that somehow Critical Mass is not
paying for the police that accompany it, and thus costing the city some
$100,000 a year in police overtime.

cm_july09_union_square_post_street_cu_0784.jpgJuly 2009, Critical Mass circles Union Square

Back in the beginning of Critical Mass, when we first gathered at PeeWee Herman Plaza at the foot of Market to "fill the streets with bikes and ride home together" in September 1992, there was no police presence at all. Between 40-50 riders went straight up Market Street, turned left on Valencia and pulled in to Zeitgeist. That was it. But it was a revelation too! No one knew how euphoric it would be to ride in a big pack. It was a happy surprise to discover a new public space, in motion, rolling up the street with a crowd of bikes, no cars to dodge, a solid mass that took the road and changed it in so doing. It was an open mobile meeting space where you didn’t have to buy anything to participate, and you could meet countless interesting, good looking people and often have amazing conversations!

In the following months, the ride grew steadily, hitting a couple of hundred by February 1993, and still there was no police presence. I think there may have been one motorcycle cop who came upon us during those months and just rode on. In April 1993 it changed though. The ride had grown to several hundred cyclists, and those of us who were publishing the monthly "Critical Mass Missives" and preparing proposed routes with maps, writing flyers, handing out stickers (all under the happy neologism of "Xerocracy") were already worried about the culture of the ride. Too many people were bleating that Orwellian chant "Two Wheels Good, Four Wheels Bad!" and admonishing motorists in an entirely unpleasant self-righteous moralistic tone.

Behaviorally, we already had identified the "Testosterone Brigade" as a problem, young men who seemed to be looking for confrontation, perhaps exercising unresolved anger with their parents by taunting motorists or deliberately riding into oncoming traffic. Another group was dubbed the "snails" because no matter how often we stopped at the front to give everyone a chance to "mass up," a bunch of folks would just dawdle way at the back and never catch up. This led to long stretches of thinly-occupied streets, where just a few cyclists were noodling along. In April 1993 in just this kind of scenario, a motorist tried to cross Market to Guerrero and when cyclists surged in front to block him, he hit one girl. Her bike was totaled, ending up under his car, which careened into a hydrant on the corner while he was trying to escape. The girl was not physically harmed luckily, but her boyfriend, not knowing that she wasn’t under the car, reached in and took the keys out of the ignition. The cops came up and arrested the girl and her boyfriend and let the motorist go, treating him as the victim, even though it was widely felt by all present, including bystanders on the street, that he had behaved with homicidal intent.

Thus began a long and tangled tale of police/Critical Mass tension. Some of us had followed the formula that we would just ignore the cops. We didn’t want their presence, we felt we could handle our own safety and the needs of the ride on our own. "Corking" was one of the best ways to safely ensure the ride’s passage through intersections, and it was deeply troubling when the police began ticketing precisely those people who were corking (basically performing as temporary safety monitors at congested intersections) for "impeding traffic." Those tickets, if contested, were almost always thrown out in traffic court.  There was some informal back-channel communication between Victor Veysey and the police, not representing the ride exactly, but letting the police know what he thought was the thinking behind it, and what our expectations were. And he felt it was helping the police relax and not be overly aggressive with the ride. It’s hard to say if that was true or not.

Through the mid-1990s the ride continued to grow rapidly, reaching into the thousands by the summer of 1996. During this time, the police had assigned dozens of motorcycle cops to ride herd, a small squad of them often trying to stay in front, only to be thwarted by the spontaneous redirection of the ride from within. (Around 100 of the earliest riders had by then broken off for a more social and informal ride that met at South Park and only occasionally intersected the larger Critical Mass during late 1995-1996, many feeling that the ride had become boring and predictable.) In August 1996 the Cycle Messenger World Championships came to San Francisco, and at an extremely chaotic and raucous ride at the end of that month, two-three thousand Critical Massers were swirling all around town, some heading back towards the bay for a big benefit at the Maritime Hall, others just lost in the chaos, trying to follow the published route to Golden Gate Park, or following other cyclists in directions unknown. It was wild and fun, but I recall my partner and our then 12-year-old daughter had an unpleasant evening due to too many confrontations, heavy-handed policing, and all around high tension.

cm_sept08_polk_street_4210.jpgThe 16th birthday ride in Sept. 2008, here on Polk Street.

In June 1997, rumor has it Mayor Willie Brown got stuck in his limo during Critical Mass. He was soon fulminating in the press about how something had to be done! He tried to bring Critical Mass representatives into a meeting (I was invited and refused to go) and managed to get some SF Bike Coalition board members to show up. His pet supervisor at the time was Michael Yaki, and it was Yaki who appeared on the steps of City Hall after the meeting impersonating Neville Chamberlain in 1938 ("peace in our time!"), waving a piece of paper which he claimed was an agreement with Critical Mass (impossible by definition) about how the ride would proceed on the following Friday.

What happened was beautifully documented in Ted White’s documentary "We Are Traffic!" which you can see online. The police and Mayor Brown put up a sound system and stage and had the gall to welcome the riders to our own event. They were roundly booed. Brown, realizing that he had not managed to co-opt Critical Mass, decided to unleash the police. They were happy to oblige and a mini-riot took place in mid-Market where several cyclists were arbitrarily pushed to the ground, violently arrested, and their bikes impounded. Critical Mass had split into dozens of groups roaming the city’s streets for hours, in what was probably one of the most chaotic evenings in Critical Mass history. The police could not get a handle on things, in spite of their license to repress, and it wasn’t until very late that night that they corralled one of the mini-masses still riding, surrounding them in the financial district and arresting them all. The day after the Chronicle‘s false headline was "250 cyclists arrested!" The actual number was about 112, and most of them had been in the illegal roundup. Howard Besser, one of the arrestees, filed a suit against the police and won, and won a second time when the city appealed, and was awarded about $1,000 in damages. No one was ever convicted of any crimes that occured that night, because there had been no crimes!

The following month, August 1997, after a month of torrid bad press, online flame wars (much like you we still see on the SFGate) denouncing all bicyclists, and a remarkably one-sided representation of what had happened (no mention of Mayor Brown’s land-swap shenanigans with the Transbay terminal property that was going on behind the scenes during the same summer), about 5,000 bicyclists showed up in defiant celebration at their own monthly gathering. This time, anticipating a very heavy-handed police presence, the plan was to follow the Good Soldier Schweik approach, that is, ride to rule. Each cyclist would ride as if it were a motor vehicle, obeying all laws, stopping at every light and sign, signaling every turn, etc. That held for the first hour or so, and the traffic downtown was MUCH WORSE than it had ever been before. Thousands of cyclists filling the streets, obeying the traffic laws, turned out to be much more disruptive than following the safe and predictable method of Critical Mass that had evolved over time. 

From that time forward, a kind of truce developed with the police. The ebb and flow of policing over the ensuing years has been unpredictable, going back and forth between angry belligerence and benign tolerance. Sometimes a bunch of bicycling cops joined us, sometimes there were hardly any police at all, and sometimes a whole bunch of motorcycle cops and paddy wagons would come. They’ve never made any mass arrests, but they do ticket riders on occasion, usually in a somewhat punitive fashion if they see someone they particularly want to inconvenience (it’s generally for running red lights, or impeding traffic, or other normal Critical Mass behaviors). When they do, like a few months ago on Broadway coming east out of the tunnel, it led to a half hour traffic jam blocking the streets. Critical Mass riders don’t always stop in solidarity with every rider who gets hassled by the cops, but when they do, it raises the costs to the city in terms of traffic blocked and the number of officers who gather to secure the area while a traffic infraction ticket is written.

It is a useful reminder to all that the best approach (usually the one taken by the cops when they’re being reasonable) is to facilitate the ride moving continuously through the city until it’s finished.

Police repression, when it comes, is part of a larger culture war between those who think the American Way of Life is fundamentally about cars, business, and private property (almost always a strong bias of individual police) and the growing movement to shift into a new way of organizing our lives, based on ecological principles, reduced resource use, and a more convivial, publicly-oriented cityscape. Most of us riding in Critical Mass are not out to break the law or antagonize anyone, but we do feel strongly that we have to demonstrate firmly and directly a different way of life. To those of us committed to a life with a greater sense of conviviality and a commitment to a public sphere, the childish and antagonistic behavior that a few cyclists bring to the ride has been dismaying.

Unfortunately, the old xerocracy mostly died out (with the notable exception of the 10th anniversary ride in 2002–four different beautiful posters were made and put all around town, dozens of stickers and flyers were distributed at the ride, a book was published). Once or twice a year someone shows up with a flyer addressing the culture of the ride, or prepares a suggested route, but in general, cultural production, once so essential to the experience, went into hibernation. After more than a decade the transmission of the culture from oldtimers to newbies has broken down. People riding in Critical Mass these days might have been infants when we started it 18 years ago!

Sadly, some people show up because they believe all the media lies about this big anarchistic confrontational experience, though they are tiny in number. Still, when they behave badly they get an inordinate amount of attention, not just in the media when it deigns to address this ongoing cultural phenomenon, but weirdly, from other cyclists. There’s a mentality that has been shaped by our profit-driven media: when it bleeds, it leads. I’m afraid all too many people on all sides of Critical Mass tend to fall into this same mental trap, focusing their attention on the tiny few who behave like jerks, rather than the overwhelming thousands (and not just here, but across the planet in over 300 cities worldwide) who manage things well, extend courtesy and kindness to bystanders, have joyful interchanges with people briefly stuck in buses and cars, and are greeted exuberantly from neighbors in their windows as we roll through central city neighborhoods.

Now the police seem to be threatening Critical Mass again, but to what end?

It’s a small thing, lasting 2-3 hours a month, inconveniencing lots of people for a short time, but keeping an important cultural space open. In that space, a different kind of life is in gestation, where new friends and networks continually discover one another, where we experience radical direct democracy, rolling through the streets. And it is available to all comers. Historically it’s been self-managed, and recently a new website and discussion list have been started to remedy the fact that the culture hasn’t been handed down well between generations of riders.

As for what could work, I’d suggest that Chief Gascon start by removing all motorized vehicles from accompanying the ride, send whatever police he deems necessary on bicycles, and reiterate that Critical Mass is a cultural fact of life in San Francisco. Anything else is likely to make things worse and cost the city a lot more money over the long haul.

  • Thanks for the interesting and well-written article Chris.

    I’m not one of those people who finds critical mass productive or particularly useful, but it’s glaringly obvious that using aggressive police tactics in an attempt to stop it would only make it stronger and needlessly put folk into harm’s way.

    In the last few weeks it has appeared that Gascon is playing to the Nevius/Chron crowd. Hopefully he’ll soon learn that he’s the police chief of the city of San Francisco, not the police chief of Walnut Creek.

  • =v= Before that June 1997 ride got underway, Doug in Berkeley was listening to traffic reports on the radio, and heard references to “accidents, spills, and other problems” causing traffic problems. I personally saw an SFPD officer at Justin Herman Plaza, who got out a megaphone and announced that there was a huge traffic jam. He said that the SFPD would help us get through as quickly as possible. He was congenial.

    This is the traffic jam that Willie Brown’s limo was caught in. The next morning, Doug and other radio listeners were hearing us being blamed for it.

  • icarus12

    I was a SF bike messenger (1981-1983) working for U.S. Messenger. Now, I just bike around for myself. Critical Mass may have started as a lark, but it is now a cancer. Nothing could be more counter productive to increasing coexistence among people trying to get around. The next CM rider who tries to force me or my wife to step aside on a Mission District sidewalk gets knocked down. How’s that for conviviality?

  • Nick

    I think the coming crackdown on Critical Mass might have something to do with the passing of the Bike Network. In essence, the bike advocates won and therefore they have to secede something.

    The SFBC has further disavowed Critical Mass, dropping it from their event calender some months ago. I feel that if there were a crackdown, the SFBC would not stand up for cyclists. I sure hope I’m wrong.

    I don’t think the change many of us signed up for is represented in narrow bike lanes on busy streets. The only time I feel really safe is when riding the last Friday of the month.

    I say let’s have a defiant celebration all the way.

  • Gerrard

    It’s not just the few people who act like jerks, it’s all the other riders who don’t say or do anything when they witness this. Of course this isn’t just a problem with critical mass. But if we insist the ride has some transformative social intent (and I believe it does), than we should act like it and not let bad behavior just get lost in the “mass.”

  • patrick

    Great article. I’ve never ridden in CM, but I think it’s a great thing, even if there are a few jerks in the group.

  • andrew

    CM needs to go away. Anything that will further that end is fine with me.

  • Benjamin

    Critical mass participants who block traffic are breaking the law, period. Either register CM as an official event and be subject to the regulations that involves, or stop breaking the law. That CM participants get to have it both ways is a product of its being too large to control, not its being legal, or fair to others who use the streets.

    Meanwhile, while those confrontation-prone anarchistic participants mentioned are not the majority of the group by any means, but the culture of CM does nothing to stop these individuals. Cyclists who do engage in confrontation are cheered on or at best ignored. They’re almost never, ever dissuaded from such behavior by other participating cyclists.

    If Critical Mass participants are not willing to regulate themselves, then the police need to step in and regulate them just as the police must regulate any unruly group. That Critical Mass started with good intentions, that bicycles are truly amazing machines, that participants are having a good time does not negate this very basic tenet of order in our shared urban environment.

  • It’s quite a common refrain to say “Nothing could be more counter productive to increasing coexistence among people trying to get around” [than Critical Mass]. Really? I’d like to know the factual basis for that statement. Are you sure you aren’t making an assumption?

    Here are some facts to consider when discussing Critical Mass: During the 18 years of its existence, the number of cyclists in the city has increased dramatically. The SFBC, which in 1992 had only a handful of members and met in the back of a Chinese restaurant, has seen it’s numbers balloon as well, along with it’s growing political clout. The infrastructure is light years beyond where it was — bike parking, bike lanes, etc. And motorists are far more conscious of the presence of bicyclists, and our right to the road. We have seen big progress in less than 2 decades, with plenty more work to be done.

    So, if Critical Mass is bad for biking issues, it certainly hasn’t prevented enormous progress. Would there have been even greater progress if Critical Mass had never existed? I don’t think so — but it’s impossible to say without rewinding history and doing it over.

  • As a former bicycle messenger, all I will say is “fuck critical mass.”

  • @Benjamin – It’s easy enough to say “blah blah blah, PERIOD,” but in fact the blah blah blah falls apart when you look closely at it. Your notion of Critical Mass as some event to be registered (and thus controlled) was taken to Federal court and did not fly. Period.

    Critical Mass is about having (and enjoying) our rightful place in the streets as traffic, and it operates exactly like traffic. You complain about “the culture of CM” not stopping the wrongdoers, but that’s no different from “the culture of traffic.” When motorists are out there messing things up (with an annual death toll of 40,000 and costs in the billions), we duly regard them as individual human beings. It’s idiotic to regard CM in any other way.

  • Benjamin


    You speak of Critical Mass “having (and enjoying) our rightful place in the streets as traffic, and [operating] exactly like traffic.” These are tenets with which I completely agree. Cyclists not only should feel safe and respected as part of traffic, but as they are engaging in a space-efficient, healthy, environmentally friendly transportation option, should increase in number and mode share on San Francisco’s streets.

    If Critical Mass is not a registered event — which I agree it need not be — then those participating do not have special privileges to ignore traffic laws. Recognizing as you do that cyclists “[operate] exactly like traffic,” will you join me in condemning the violations of the traffic laws routinely practiced at every intersection, at every Critical Mass?

    You state that, like car drivers, participants in Critical Mass are individuals making choices, rather than an amalgamated mass. I agree, and so does every level of government. This is why we have laws that directly affect individual drivers: when drivers are caught violating speed limits, driving drunk, or violating any of the range of other driving rules and regulations, they are punished as individual drivers and ticketed, or in more severe cases, prosecuted and convicted in court.

    As you and I agree that participants in Critical Mass are individuals making individual choices just like car drivers, do you agree with me that those individuals who choose to break the law by intentionally impeding traffic should be individually ticketed for their illegal behavior?

    Such illegal, traffic-blocking behavior is not only unfair to the drivers whom you malign, but also is unfair and even dangerous to pedestrians and even other cyclists not participating who wish simply to cross the street at a right angle to CM. This is thus not simply an issue of respect to others sharing the road; traffic laws are in place to ensure that everyone who uses our transportation system is as safe as possible.

    If you wish as I do for cyclists to be respected as part of traffic, do you agree with me that respecting others on the road is fundamental to earning mutual respect? If you are worried, as I am, about safety on our streets, do you agree with me that respecting rights of way and obeying basic traffic laws is critical to ensuring safety on our streets?

    Or is there some reason you have not yet mentioned why a group that aspires to “[operate] exactly like traffic” should be also given license to flagrantly ignore the rules of the road that we all are expected to adhere to? None of these questions is rhetorical; I look forward to your explanation.

  • peternatural


    What you suggest sounds perfectly logical to me, but according to the article, when they tried that it had the perverse effect of making the traffic tie-ups worse. Apparently the police came around to the view (sometimes?) that it was better to just let CM flow (and block streets and run red lights while doing so).

  • Benjamin

    Peternatural, according to the article the tickets were routinely thrown out in court (an assertion I’d love to see evidence of), but there’s no mention that targeting “corkers” tied up traffic. They’re the ones I’d like to see targeted as they’re the ones most flagrantly breaking the law.

    The article does say that when cyclists “rode to rule,” traffic was worse. For cross traffic, that’s absolutely impossible. There’s no way that cyclists obeying traffic lights made traffic worse for those trying to cross at right angles; currently, they must wait 10-15 minutes before being allowed to pass. There’s no way that traffic would be made worse for oncoming traffic that’s forced to a complete stop by cyclists bicycling on the wrong side of the road (less common than the cyclists running red lights, but it does occur).

  • @Benjamin – You clearly weren’t at the August 1997 ride. We were (see my extended description in FiveRag [PDF]). You’re not going to convince us that what we witnessed didn’t happen. More generally, the scenarios you’ve spun here have been elaborate hypotheses, and they’re not going to convince folks who are familiar with the reality.

  • Benjamin

    … Jym, no, I hadn’t read it. It’s a very thoroughly detailed account and I appreciate your sending it over. I had not read it, and having now done so, am curious whether you have read it recently. Your article thoroughly details how unequivocally wonderful you thought the result was of obeying traffic laws. In this ride you said you will never forget, you talk about how very strictly you obeyed traffic laws, and how very fun the evening was. Obeying the law created mini-masses created that cycled together around the city, going in different directions, meeting up and splitting again. To me this sounds very much like the spirit of the original Critical Masses that long-time cyclists yearn to see again.

    Again, repeatedly you talk about obeying traffic laws, and only point out one difficulty your mini-mass had, when you were waiting respectfully for a pedestrian who was still in the street as opposing traffic got a green light. You even talk about leaving Market Street specifically so as not to block public transit traffic.

    In the document you’ve just shared with us, describing the CM in which you and other riders obeyed the laws, you conclude by describing the ride that night this way: “This is it, this is definitely the next level. We don’t need an escort and we don’t need corking.” This sounds like a wonderful evolution of Critical Mass, and clearly you enjoyed it. It sounds like other riders did as well. It’s a shame it didn’t stick around.

    My “elaborate hypothesis” is that CM riders do precisely the same thing that you say brought the ride to “definitely the next level” where you “don’t need corking”: respect others, and obey the law. So, now that you are unequivocally on the record as believing that obeying traffic laws and respecting others is very clearly in the benefit of not only others on the road but those involved in CM as well, I ask again:

    Will you join me in condemning those who disrespect others on the road and break the traffic laws, and in so doing prevent CM from reaching “the next level” that you speak of?

    Or have you changed your mind since writing your glowingly positive account of CM 8/1997?

  • Katherine Roberts

    Benjamin —

    I have gotten ticketed during CM (generally the cops pick off the slowest riders in the very back of the ride, like wolves going after the weakest members of the species, only nastier).

    The ticket was thrown out almost as soon as I walked in the door of the courthouse.

    A minor waste of my time & taxpayers’ money, if you ask me.

    We do have 1st Amendment rights in this country — protected speech, and Freedom of Assembly. CM falls under both of these categories. It would be a bitch to stop it at this point.

    I don’t feel responsible for other cyclists’ bad behavior any more than every single motorist out there feels responsible for all the many people behind the wheel who act like total assholes towards cyclists — of which there are many, just in case you haven’t noticed. I don’t condone it in either case, by any means — but i do want to point out that of the two, an asshole cyclist can do a LOT less potential damage than an asshole motorist.

    But in terms of CM “obeying traffic laws”, it creates a lot more chaos than when we don’t. Just like drivers who get mad at bicyclists for not stopping at stop signs AND get mad at us for getting out in front of them & slowing them down. You can’t have it both ways.

    We’ve tried all kindsa things, and this is by far the best way to do it. I wish the aggro people would chill more, but if they don’t, I can’t do anything directly to change that. And if the SAFPD wants to ticket individual cyclists for petty, minor infractions — well, that’s been business as usual for a long time, and it hasn’t added up to much more than a mosquito bite for the folks who’ve been targeted. i say take that righteous anger & turn it towards all the many, egregious, life-threatening motorist violations that are going on 24/7 out there. That would be a much more socially-productive cause for you to get involved in.

  • Benjamin

    The law-breaking behavior during CM that we’re discussing is actually not protected by the freedom to assemble. The first amendment’s speech and assembly protections prohibit the government from discriminating against individuals and groups involved in any form of expression _based on the content of that expression._ In other words, the government is prohibited from judging the worthiness of what you’re saying. The freedom of assembly does not protect the ability of a group to do whatever they want, obviously including breaking the law.

    Why is it worse than being attacked by wolves to be cited for ignoring the rules of the road? People in the back are ticketed because it’s the safest group to ticket. I would hope you would agree with me that our system of laws does not include the ability to override the law when you believe you know better. Given that “I don’t like it” isn’t a valid legal defense, what right do you have to break traffic laws?

    You are right that the toothless ticketing experience you’ve described is a waste of your time and taxpayer money — if you’re breaking traffic laws, especially willfully and habitually, the courts should absolutely obligate you to pay the full amount of the ticket. I don’t want my tax dollars going to pay for police officers who enforce laws just to have those who violate them not be forced to help recoup those costs. And incidentally, if you are repeatedly breaking traffic laws, you can’t claim that you don’t condone their being broken; THAT would be trying to have it both ways.

    All you’ve put forward is that, in your opinion, it’s somehow better to ignore the law. When you say it’s the “best way to do it,” for whom do you mean? As I’ve discussed exhaustively above, clearly you don’t mean it’s better for oncoming or cross traffic.

    You should read the really great article that long-time CM advocate Jym Dyer posted from the 1997 ride, in which he describes how amazing it was to be involved in a CM where everyone strictly obeyed the traffic laws. As I’ve quoted above, Jym thought that obeying the traffic laws brought CM to the next level, and that it was an excellent step in the evolution of the event. He’s not alone in this: Dave Snyder, founder of the SF Bicycle Coalition, expressed similar sentiments in an interview around the same time, promoting and even predicting the rise of “mini-Masses.”

    I’m certainly not angry, as you suggest; as a San Francisco cyclist myself, however, it is somewhat frustrating to me that an event many cite as being about establishing respect for cyclists is actually the number one source of ire against cyclists from others (drivers, certainly, but also transit riders and pedestrians).

  • Benjamin ~

    It’s true that CM is “against the law,” if by law you mean, the one upheld by the police and courts. I regret to inform you however, that many laws of the City of SF, the State of CA, the and USA, are directly opposed to A) the laws of my conscience, and B) the laws of reality (ever heard of corporate law?). I’m sorry that CM doesn’t follow “the law” that you respect so very much. The laws that I respect so very much tell me that cars, obeying the laws of traffic or not, are against the law.




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