Dodging the Police and Hanging at the Pier: Santa Monica Critical Mass


Brigitte Lauren and Lauren Larken Brave the Streets at Last Friday's Santa Monica Critical Mass

(Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a monthly series of ride reports on Critical Mass from throughout the region.  In April it was a family ride in Pasadena.  In May, I cruised the downtown with 200 of my closest friends in Los Angeles.  In June, it was soccer time in Venice.  This month, knowing the reputation of Santa Monica Critical Mass, I grabbed my pastor and my wife and headed off to the Santa Monica pier for three hours of well monitored riding.)

Sometime in the fall of last year Santa Monica Critical mass changed.  Gone were the days when it was perceived as a family ride, and the police presence increased dramatically.  Tickets, which were more often than not overturned by the courts, were handed out like candy in an attempt to stop the ride.

Last Friday, a group of well over 100 cyclists gathered at the cannon outside of the Santa Monica pier for August's installment of Santa Monica Critical Mass.  Several of the usual ride leaders were on vacation, so there was an impromptu decision that the ride would be "lady's night" with the female riders leading the pack.  Sara Bond, who I met at last month's ride in Venice, took the microphone and off we went into the streets of Santa Monica.

The Santa Monica Police Department, desperate to preserve the rights of motorists to maximum road capacity, was out in force to police the ride.  I counted four motorcycles, two squad cars, and four officers on non-motorized bikes; but a letter posted on Midnight Ridazz forums from the SMPD said their were 14 officers in total. 

Wow, more than a dozen police officers on the beat to watch hundreds of cyclists obey the law.  Too bad the cops themselves couldn't be bothered to do so.  I had a motorcycle, without flashers or sirens on, pass me withing three inches while I rode legally in the right lane.  If a car did that, it would be at least a shout of warning.  Since it was a municipal vehicle there will be a written complaint.

After the ride cleared Santa Monica and the group met in Venice, there was an informal count of tickets that were handed out.  14 in total were counted, and at least some of them were for infractions that don't exist.  One cyclist was ticketed for passing a car that was turning left in the right lane, which is not only completely legal it would cause a traffic jam if it weren't done on a regular basis.

Of course, showing that equal protection under the law is a nice theory but just real hard to put into practice, cars weren't treated the same as bikes.  There were at least five times I was sitting next to a police officer of some kind at a light when a car ran the red or turned left after a red.  Not once did an officer show a sign that they noticed.

To counter the police actions, riders followed the letter of the law to the point where they actually were more of a nuisance to the driving public than if they were riding as part of the flow of traffic.  At one intersection two police choppers going west blocked the intersection for nearly a minute while a group of cyclists sat at the north facing stop sign waiting.  Eventually, the bike riders moved through the intersection.  There were no cars waiting behind the bike riders.  However, there were at least eight cars backed behind the police motorcycles. 

In short, if you want your Critical Mass to be more than a rolling party this might be the ride for you.  Thanks to Santa Monica's ham handed attempts to stifle the ride, it has become a flashpoint  in the bicycle culture wars.  Pictures and a description of the actual ride will appear after the jump.

The ride itself was pleasant enough.  As we rode through the streets, pedestrians treated us as we were a parade cheering and shouting encouragement demonstrating a clear contrast between the citizens' reactions and those of their civil servants.  The ride went up and down many of Santa Monica's better known streets, but the group still got separated.  Riders would wait at intersections to direct those separated and eventually the group reformed at a traffic circle in one of the residential areas.

From there, the ride continued through Santa Monica, reforming at a Vons parking lot before heading into Venice.  Some riders were relieved to get out of the over policed portion of the ride and others argued that the peaceful conflict with the police is the purpose of Critical Mass.

The ride bunched at Winward Circle in Venice.  After a half hour the ride headed out to the Venice Pier where the ride ended with some dancing and jump rope while families fished over the side. It was 10 at night when the ride ended, just over three hours from when it began. 

Below are pictures of the ride, in chronological order, from the ride.

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