What to Expect at Friday’s Critical Mass

6_23_10_CM.JPGBelieve it or not, this was done with the officer's consent. Photo: Digable Soul/Flickr

Critical Mass has gone mainstream.  Following last month's "Critical Mass Attack," where an officer was caught on tape kicking at cyclists' bikes before the cameraman was tackled to the ground, it seems you can't go anywhere without reading or discussing Critical Mass.  There have been press conference's, lawsuits, and even a promise that the LAPD will ride with Critical Mass in the future.

So with the LAPD joining what has been a raucous protest ride, one that hasn't had a smooth relationship with the police, what should be expected?  A violent clash?  Mas arrests?  An orderly protest?  Only time will tell, but the history of Critical Mass, both in L.A. and beyond, suggest that it is possible that two can exist.

First off, word is going out within the community that riders should work with the police and should try to avoid some of Critical Mass' more confrontational tactics, such as the rampant running of red lights.  An open letter to the biking community posted in the Streetsblog comments section, LAist, Midnight Ridazz and other forums states:

At the ride start of the Critical Mass on June 25th, there will be a faction of people, including myself, who will be encouraging something we are currently calling, "Project Civil Obedience", in which all cyclists will demonstrate what it means for 1000+ riders to obey all road rules. That includes stopping at every red light. We will also be encouraging mass riders to cooperate in choosing a destination to ride to so that they can reunite if they get separated by red lights from the main group. The plan will be to get to the destination within 45 minutes (a reasonable riding time frame).

In the same article at LAist,  Sgt. David Krumer worries that Critical Mass breaking off into smaller groups could inhibit the ability of the LAPD to police the ride.  But that puts the onus on them, they can either facilitate the ride being able to stay together in one group or figure out a way to deal with riders going in different directions to reach the same pit stops.  It's not like there's not precedence for having city officials cork an intersection.

Whether or not the community, as a whole, can play nice with the police has been a matter of debate.  It's not uncommon to see t-shirts proclaiming "LAPD hates bikes" or even read "fuck the police" on forums; but the call to work together to improve Critical Mass sees to be resonating.  At Midnight Ridazz, the bulk of the comments on a thread previewing Friday's ride are supportive of collaborating.

Of course, to collaborate you need partners.  The LAPD has three choices on their tactics for the ride, what we'll call "San Francisco," "Santa Monica" and a third way.

In recent years, San Francisco Critical Mass has enjoyed a decent relationship with the SFPD.  The ride is accompanied by police who work to make certain that the ride is safe and police it for anyone creating a dangerous situation.  This tactic has led to a relatively incident-free ride.  Meanwhile, in the last two years LACM has seen at least two outrages: the random tackling of cyclists off their bikes in 2009 and the random detainment and physical search of one ride leader in 2008.

In Santa Monica, the bored SMPD over-polices Critical Mass to the point of ridiculousness.  You could say that the SMPD is also "joining the ride," but their actions of ticketing riders for both real and imagined infractions creates a hostile relationship.  In the Santa Monica example, the police actually create a more dangerous situation by buzzing riders on their bikes and breaking up the ride by ticketing teenage minorities seemingly at random.

A third way would be just that, a new way of trying to join and police the ride.  I can't imagine that the LAPD, with its olive branches and newfound appreciation of bike issues, is interested in earning the reputation for cracking down on the 1st Amendment rights of bike riders such as the Santa Monica police did.  Plus the actions and word of Seargent Krumer, the Mayor Villaraigosa and other officials seems to be calling for a lighter touch.

That being said, the LAPD isn't going to get caught in a media game where riders control the message.  in addition to bike cops, the LAPD is also sending its video unit.  Krumer is already pushing the talking point that the LAPD is responding to requests that they help remove trouble-makers from the ride that create a negative atmosphere for everyone, which could be a valuable rhetorical tool if things on Friday don't work out for everyone involved.

So the stage is set for Friday.  Leaders from the bike community that don't often make Critical Mass are readying for the ride.  Route suggestions are bouncing around the Internet.  The LAPD is also readying for the ride.  Whatever happens, its certainly going to be a turning point for Critical Mass and Los Angeles.  What direction it heads relies on a lot of people riding smart.