Police Chief George Gascon has gotten a new round of controversy rolling around San Francisco by kicking the tires of Critical Mass. “If you did an initiative to get rid of Critical Mass, I think it would pass by a large number of votes,” Gascon quipped at a press conference, promising to review police procedures related to the event.

It is true, cyclists in San Francisco are a (growing) minority, and even San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom “was quick to point out that there was no such ballot measure in the works,” according to the San Francisco Examiner. And to be fair, the comments came as part of a larger announcement on the chief’s crime rate reduction targets, including a stated goal of ten percent reduction in collisions between cars, bikes and pedestrians.

“We’ll stop short of asking Gascon to ‘bring it on,’ but only because we’re not macho idiots, and we know he has more important work to do.”But it’s a tetchy issue that seems as untouchable politically as extending meter hours or raising parking fees to make up to the cuts in state subsidies that have helped to put the Municipal Transportation Agency in the red for the foreseeable future. The last time anyone tried to crack down on the now 18 year tradition, with Willie Brown’s efforts back in 1997, it led to angry protests and increased participation. Police in New York City, where Gascon mentor William Bratton once instituted a different “critical mass” strategy of beat cops to cut down on crime in the city, have been far more effective in keeping that city’s Critical Mass rides relatively feeble.

After a violent incident in 2007, Critical Mass did a bit of soul-searching, and the tone of the new SF Critical Mass site has been decidedly anti-aggro bros. In the response to Gascon’s announcement posted on the site, a call to evolve the “entirely predictable” event with new tactics included a discussion of a less centralized ride that might start at multiple locations and be organized via mobile devices and text updates. “We’ll stop short of asking Gascon to ‘bring it on,’ but only because we’re not macho idiots, and we know he has more important work to do.”

Sure, there was the Critical Manners ride started in 2006 with folks promising to obey all traffic laws and signals, but that was by its nature a less visible direct action even if it raised a salient point — that the success of Critical Mass at being big and visible for so many years might now be working against it. As Gascon and many area politicians realize, it’s not necessarily that more people drive than support the ride, but that the people who drive are the ones who show up to the polls and donate to campaigns. Critical Mass may be probably the best known result of direct action inspired by a long tradition of anarchist political thought. Another long tradition of anarchist political thought? That the act of voting is collaboration with and capitulation to state power, unlike popular direct action.

An attitude which, admittedly, contributes to its ultimate strength. By not planning rides, or getting permits, or having leaders, or following traffic rules, or lobbying politicians, it has yet proven blob-like in its resilience — try to destroy it and it only grows bigger, stronger and angrier. Credit Gascon with understanding this as well. Even the San Francisco Bay Guardian argues that police policy towards the event could potentially make the ride smoother, less antagonistic and even cost the city less in police overtime, and Gascon promised no crack down, simply a review of procedures.

In the mean time, feel free to get out for any number of other community rides, including the new, monthly NOPA Velo ride, or any of the events on the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition’s calendar. The collective power of people riding stylishly and responsibly every day with a smile will help to contribute to the ultimate critical mass of making intracity cycling practical and popular, while for city leaders like Gascon and Newsom, the best idea to defuse the tension may lie in addressing the grievances over safety and respect that inspired the ride in the first place.

Photo by Charles Haynes.

Jackson West has ridden a bike around the San Juan Islands, up and down the Cascades, in Vancouver, Seattle, Brooklyn, Austin and all over the Bay Area. He thinks San Franciscans should be proud of having inspired a worldwide movement. Have any bike-related questions? Send an email!

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  • Greg Dewar

    So just to be clear: there iS NO BALLOT MEASURE at all, this is just Gavin talking out of his backside, and the trial balloon is being kicked around.

    There may be another reason to change CM – make it more outsidery once again and more edgy. The fact I can literally predict exactly WHEN AND WHERE this thing happens makes it not something that’s challenging anyone, it’s just another predictable thing that happens, like fog in the Sunset and fried hot dogs in the Mission on Saturday night. Unlike other actions, it gets free police protection, and is insulated from any repercussions, because it’s so “big” no one could shut it down without like, the National Guard or some crazy shit like that.

    That’s fine, if the goal is simply to become another establishment thing that becomes its own thing. But if the point was to challenge the idea that public spaces are meant only for cars, and operate outside of the boundaries that society sets, CM ceased being a challenge ages ago, no different than a guy wearing his hair long is not freaking out The Man like it did in 1967 – even Republicans have long hair nowadays.

  • Jackson West

    I agree with you, Greg, and I would definitely like to see the tactics re-evaluated — lord knows, it’s not like anarchists (or socialists, or progressives) aren’t riven by splinter groups. Why not use that tendency to the advantage of “the cause?” If anything, I’m surprised its regularity hasn’t at least bred familiarity with area motorists. I mean, maybe tourists get caught in cabs during the “Commuter Clot,” but all a San Franciscan wants is their money, not their political support.

    And, yes, Gascon did not actually propose a ballot measure, only that a ballot measure would likely succeed if put up for a vote, and I’d say that I probably agree with him on that point. But as I hope I made clear in my piece, Gascon understands “that any ballot measure that succeeded in name would fail in fact” (as I remarked to Eve in IM) because again, lord knows Critical Mass isn’t bothered by any such impositions of authority, and in fact thrives on them.

  • kl2real

    Cobble stone streets hold a certain appeal, and would impose the desired effect.

  • Jackson West

    Ha, like San Francisco would invest in renovating infrastructure! That said, the streets are plenty heinous enough as it is, even if cyclists have been lobbying for smooth, paved roadways since practically before the automobile was invented. Rolling over a sunken meter grate making a left onto 16th at Mississippi on Saturday threatened to break my wrists, if not throw my wheel out of true.

    Besides, have you seen some of the squishy suspension rigs they’re putting on bikes these days? I used to cross the cobblestones in Seattle and New York all the time, and look how I turned out — writing a column celebrating urban cycling.

  • Burgos

    San Francisco already rivals Kinshasa for phuckedup cow paths that pass for streets.

  • raqcoon

    Gascan should just close up Mass. WTF? Or is Gascan just an empty badge?

  • raqcoon

    Instead of sending troops to Afghanistan, send them to Mass. Everybody, phucking EVERYBODY*, will be happy.
    * except lieberman, demublicans and republicans.