But for the most part, last week's Critical Mass went off with few scuffles. For a summer that had witnessed increasing hostility from cops, it was a peaceful ending, perhaps one that left demonstrators with the upper hand.
As cyclists gathered at the waterfront for September's Critical Mass ride, Portland police officers distributed a flyer making it clear that they would be "taking enforcement action for violations of the Oregon Criminal, City, and Vehicle Codes." In bold type, the bottom of the Xeroxed circular cited an Oregon law that makes it illegal to interfere with "the lawful duties of a peace officer," and stated that doing so makes one subject to arrest or force (specifically including "chemical agents").
But such threats and preparations proved largely unnecessary. Although a candidate for Portland's largest Critical Mass ever, last Friday's ride was peaceful and, to a large extent, law-abiding. As two news helicopters circled overhead, three arrests were made (two for interfering with police, one for biking drunk) and, according to police spokesman Brian Schmautz, "officers used pepper spray on one person in the last few minutes."
During August's ride, there were nine arrests, and police allegedly employed both pepper spray and rubber bullets freely. Expecting the worst, the police force, largely on bicycles themselves, had little more than an opportunity to exercise their legs and their ticketing hands. More than 50 citations were issued, with several riders receiving multiple tickets.
Though police cited city ordinances in order to ticket and arrest, the majority of officers in yellow police bike jerseys neglected the city ordinances requiring them to wear visible name tags. One officer, when confronted about his violation, pantomimed looking for his name tag with mock horror. When asked, he did give his name and badge number. Other officers ignored bicyclists who asked for this information, or responded, "It's on the ticket!" before riding away.
Friday's riders were prepared for conflicts with police; several carried signs challenging law enforcement, and one group had set up a phone number to help anyone who was arrested reach families, friends, and legal support.
Friday also saw a pause in another Critical Mass conflict--this one internal. For several months, a contingency of cyclists who wished to ride Critical Mass without running red lights or violating other traffic laws, has been starting an alternate "wuss" ride in the North Park Blocks. Their secession was the culmination of a longtime feud between law-breaking and law-abiding riders, who alternately accused each other of inviting August's level of police response with their behavior, or of trying to make Critical Mass mainstream, an "acceptable cog in the subculture machine." These groups rode together Friday, and at least one-third of the riders chose to obey traffic signals.
Sara Stout, longtime Critical Mass rider and spokesperson, said that although a lot of people are interested in cyclists' rights, individuals' different experiences largely dictate whether they "act out" during the ride. Though she's been participating regularly since 1993, Stout says she has "never seen vandalism or theft" during a Critical Mass ride. Stout laments the media's most recent focus has been "bikes vs. cops." "It's not about that," she says. "It's about bikes having the safety in numbers they can't have on a regular basis."