Illustration by Hugh D'Andrade
So much of our lives we are forced to accept situations which we have not chosen for ourselves. As consumers, as voters, as employees, we allow crucial decisions about our lives to be made by other, more powerful people. How sad it is then -- and yet how predictable -- that our movements for social change are so often cursed with this same problem. When we join a political party, or sign a petition, or take part in a rally, more often than not we are simply accepting someone else's opinion, chanting slogans we did not create, and endorsing laws we do not understand.
Critical Mass is, or should be, something different... A space where people do not have ideas or actions imposed on them, where people can take an active, rather than passive role in building a livable future, in however small a way.
Because no one is in charge on our monthly ride, and no set ideology is set forth, participants are free to invent their own reasons for being here. The lively Xerocracy that has sprung up, the preponderance of flags and hand-painted signs that are flourishing on a scale unheard of since the Gulf War -- not to mention the fact that Critical Mass is rapidly spreading to other cities -- these are all signs that we are doing something right.
Unfortunately, not everyone sees things this way.
The horse and the rider
There are those who enjoy Critical Mass and regularly participate, but who criticize the ride for it's formlessness and what is called its "apolitical" nature. For these people, the task at hand is to politicize the ride by setting up some sort of steering committee, complete with chants, bullhorns and official security (in Day-Glo jackets, no doubt). If you listen carefully, you can hear talk of "pulling in the reigns", "harnessing" the energy of Critical Mass in order to attain some worthy, though predetermined political goal.
But who is the rider here? And who the proverbial horse? Not only are such analogies absurd and repulsive, but the approach is counterproductive, as those who have been to or heard of the over-organized but sparsely attended Santa Cruz ride can attest.
Tyranny of the minority
Another group who would seek to impose the stamp of their political ambitions on Critical Mass, and who have been to some extent more successful, are those who advocate an aggressive, antagonistic stance for the ride. Tactics along these lines have included surrounding and harassing motorists who attempt to drive through our mass, baiting the police, and pedaling up to the front of the ride and abruptly turning off the agreed route in an attempt to "hijack" the ride.
The purpose is presumably to "radicalize" Critical Mass by pushing it in a more confrontational, even violent direction, an idea that recalls Noam Chomsky's comment that tactics, in an of themselves, do not amount to radicalism.
What both of these approaches share is an impatience with the slow, painstaking task of educating others and organizing toward a future worth living. A truly radical approach to the social problems we face would be to build community and to offer an alternative -- a fact that apparently eludes those who believe people have to be tricked or stampeded into creating a better world.
Obviously, no one should be barred from expressing themselves or sharing their thoughts or opinions. We all want to see Critical Mass be a space where diverse political strategies can be debated and experimented with. The point is that if you want to see Critical Mass go in this or that direction, make copies of your ideas and pass them around. Only cowards and authoritarians shrink from the challenge of persuasion!
It could be that all we're doing is riding from HERE to THERE on bikes. But what is so amazing is that in attempting such a simple task so many important and provocative questions come up, and for a moment, a window is opened onto a possible future: a future where no one is in charge and everyone rides a bike!
Text & Graphic by Hugh D'Andrade