Freedom News

30 years of Critical Mass


Noon: Meet at Southbank
1 pm: Ride
3 pm: After Party (bring a lock)

1994 saw jungle music move from the underground into mainstream consciousness, the hated Criminal Justice Act was passed at the end of the year, and the Tories were clinging on to power after a disastrous 14 years in government, hollowing out public services and destroying the social fabric of the country. Critical Mass London had its genesis on 15 April 1994, as the CHARM ride, occupying space around dangerous roundabouts in central London. It then morphed into the Critical Mass ride, mirroring the “last Friday of the month” occurrence from cities in the US.

It has been through thick and thin, had its highs and lows, and been subject to harassment and surveillance, mass arrests and prosecutions, and legal attempts to shut it down. But still, it endures every month without fail, an unbroken line for three decades. It celebrates the diversity of cycling in this city to temporarily re-occupy our city streets, which have been nearly monopolised by hyper-capitalist car fetishism. It is a living, breathing example of an anti-authoritarian, non-hierarchical event that has seen so many other movements and organisations come and go.

Critical Mass has endured major legal and policing confrontations over the years. The first began in September 2005 when the Met tried to shut the ride down after months of confrontations with them at the Southbank and in the streets. Officers handed out a letter to all those participating in the Critical Mass, warning them that participation in the event could leave them open to prosecution.

Under the Public Order Act, the organisers of any demonstration or gathering taking place within a defined zone around the Palace of Westminster (which covers most of central London) are required to give the police 30 days’ notice of their intended route.

The police decided that the Act applied to the regular Critical Mass ride, and the Court of Appeal agreed. The counterargument put by Des Kay (a regular participant in the rides) and his legal team was that Critical Mass was not an organised ride – so there were no organisers – it was simply the coming together of like-minded individuals. They further argued that as Critical Mass follows no pre-determined route, it was also impossible for this to be filed with the police in advance.

The House of Lords overruled the Court of Appeal decision in November 2008, which said that the police could demand notice of the ride and the organisers’ details. Law Lords say the event celebrates safe cycling each month and is not governed by the Public Order Act.

Giving the reasons for their ruling, Lord Phillips, the senior law lord, said that both Mr Kay and the police had agreed that Critical Mass was not an organisation but the name given to a recurrent event.

Section 11 of the Public Order Act 1986 “does not make the procession itself or mere participation in it unlawful. Only the organisers commit an offence if they fail to comply with the notice requirements or the procession actually held differs from the procession notified. Yet the object of the letter must have been to deter everyone involved from taking part.”

The Law Lords pointed out that if the Government had intended to ban processions like Critical Mass, they would have done so when framing the legislation.

Commenting at the time on the case, Friends of the Earth Rights and Justice Centre, which acted for Mr Kay, said the ruling was an “important victory for the right to peaceful protest and for cyclists to take part in this monthly celebration of cycling”.

In July 2012, riders from Critical Mass attempted to travel to the site of the Olympic Games in Stratford, East London. Prior to the games, the Metropolitan Police had urged protestors to get in touch to enable a policing plan to be drawn up, with a spokesman saying: “We want to work with those who wish to protest so their point can be legitimately made, just as we are working closely with a range of agencies to ensure that the games can take place.”

On the night of the Olympic opening ceremony on 27 July, police had warned participants to stay on the south side of the Thames and away from the Olympic Park. After repeated attempts to kettle the ride away from bridges, the ride simply diverted away from the roadblocks and managed to cross towards east London.

The Met, who included officers drawn from police forces across the UK brought in for the Olympics, kettled cyclists and also used pepper spray on some of them as the ride entered Stratford. Nine cyclists were charged with public order offences, with five eventually convicted. They were among 182 cyclists arrested in three separate incidents on the evening concerned, one in Bow and a second one in Stratford. They were taken by bus to police stations throughout London and held for between six hours and two days.

The ride has continued unabated over the years, and participants have come and gone. Its structurelessness is both a boon and a millstone. Its participants are resolutely antirepresentationalist – the ride stands for nothing but the ride itself. Any attempts at organising (casual, informal, collegial or horizontal) are met with shrill accusations of hierarchy or cadre politics by online commentators. This means that issues around the ride that need resolving are often paralysed through inaction and a lack of a central (or even any) decision making process. It also means that the ride has no aims, so it cannot really point to any victories of its activities over the years other than its continuation.

Yet this structurelessness means that no one group or individuals control the event, and so is probably the reason why it has endured for so long, whereas other similar movements, centred around a group of dedicated people (de facto leaders) who eventually move on to other things, have vanished into the mists of time. It is rare for any informal movement or loose association to persist for so long, particularly one that involves a fairly lawless presence in the street, with inevitable confrontations with motorists, in an increasingly monitored and legislated space designed to stop any sort of unpermitted crowd activities. So it should be celebrated.

Event: Radar / Instagram

Image: Guy Smallman / Anti-Iraq War demo 2003

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