August 29th

photo composition: Pascal

A night of courage and grace

Three of us from San Jose who frequently spend time in the City with our relatives decided to ride in this months Critical Mass. Two of us are on the San Jose BAC and wanted to show solidarity with San Francisco after the police crackdown in July and the negative comments of our co-ordinator to the Chronicle opposing Critical Mass. I would end the ride at my Mother's house on University Street where my wife and children were waiting for me hoping not to have to bail me out. As I explained we have certain rights that we stand to loose if we do not exercise them. We left work at 3:30 PM, commuted up from San Jose and parked the car at the EconoLodge on Ellis and Polk. Then we rode up to California and down to Market. Wooeee. Talk about a blast. The downhills were so steep we screamed and slid the front wheel while the rear tire bounced at all the red lights. Then we sobered up walking the sidewalk on Market to Justin Herman Plaza. Everywhere there were full squad cars hanging around like ominous gangs of drive-by shooters.

A good bit scared we walked into a festive JHP. Riders continued to gather at JHP well into the twilight hour. The early ride we anticipated never materialized. There was considerable police presence around the plaza with four to five officers to a squad car and some motorcycle officers. Two officers came through at 5:30 and 6:30 handing out flyers. The flyers said that the police would not provide an escort and fines for traffic violations were list priced. The officers were berated both times for the inaccuracy of the information. The police also made two loudspeaker announcements but we didn't hear anything because of the booing.

The plaza was full with tight moving room for bicycles. Signs around supported Headwater and decried the effect of KGO/Disney on families. When I stopped at a convenience store for a roll of very expensive film the clerk was enthusiastic about what the ride and its goals and the media focus outside. Considerable media presence was felt. At least four media helicopters hovered high over the plaza and remained here well into ride implying that something was going on after all the riders had left. Reporters on bikes also mingled interviewing riders. Participants handed out flyers for a demonstration against police brutality (October 22), Headwater support ride, route maps, etc. Sadly what was missing were the scared off parents with their kids who made past rides so friendly and community oriented. I was glad I had left my four year at home over his strong objections.

The left over effects of the July ride was visible everywhere. Participants carried notebooks, instant cameras, and VCRs. One rider had an entire VCR ensemble built into a motorcycle helmet which he wore. Another rider carried a small plastic toy VCR, like the throwaway Chinese plastics in a kids birthday party gift pack, round his neck. The message to police was ominous: You won't be able to hide behind a media blackout this time.

There were two destinations one to the Golden Gate bridge and the other to Delores park. There were a number of mini masses and a couple of large masses. We went on a mini called The Liberator led by John. We started out with twelve riders, during the ride swelled to about twenty, and then declined to eight. As the various rides circled the financial district we ran into other minis and maxis at numerous places whence a heady shouting and waving occurred reminding all of the quite and uniquely communicative nature of bicycle transportation and the issues of this protest.

We followed all traffic rules and saw other riders doing the same. Our mini was big enough to take up the road space of about two cars. Quickly we were lured into a sense of well-being and camaraderie with the road and ride, keeping track of riders in the group and the cars around us. We had to call out to the riders in front "light!" or "Stop!" or "Mass up" so that we didn't get fragmented by the signals. The hills going south out of Fisherman's wharf and the tunnel on Broadway slowed us up and stretched out the ride so that we had to wait for our companions to mass up again.

It quickly became apparent why riders run red lights. The stop and go nature of riding each short City block slows a commuter down we estimated by a factor of three! We saw two citizens who were not part of the mass ride on the side walk when traffic was tight and run the red light as soon as they could. We had sympathy for them and their attempt to ride through our harried consumer life in the confines of San Francisco. In San Jose on my fifteen mile commute the 20 foot wide last lane, long blocks, and open vistas make for a safer ride everywhere except for the downtown.

The City's finest were doing the same. Police squad cars at red lights would turn on the siren and run the light squealing tires and behaving as responsibly as they could. As soon as one squad car had run a light others were emboldened to follow. Masses going by screamed and booed. (On Sunday a squad car cracked its windshield when it ran into a boy getting of a bus at 4th and Market.) These events were prestaged by Mayor Brown when his limo hit a van while negotiating an illegal left turn on Van Ness from the right hand lane. The limo driver, officer Mikail Ali, is one of several police officers who drive for the mayor's office. Mayor Brown had reserved a platoon of a hundred officers for himself around Eight and Market to guard the plaza like entrance to the Civic Center from the West so that citizens could not ride around the deserted streets of the Center in protest at 7:00 PM. Actually I am not sure if they were here for the Critical Mass or to harass the outstanding citizens of Food Not Bombs. I would love to see this photograph of Food Not Bombs against the backdrop of the police wall on the e-media web site if someone sends it in. John leading our mass waved to the wall and two of the officers waved back.

The weather being cooperative our ride ended up being mellow and beautiful. We rode what would have been for a single rider an extremely dangerous route. But massed up as we were in a pack of about ten riders we were able to hold a lane and negotiate traffic as a car would. Drivers were courteous, waving, honking to show their support, and slowing to allow us to move into left turn lanes all the way across the wide streets. A homeless pair by the Moscone Center cheered us on and a homeless peddler at a stop sign said that she noticed that cycles, the homeless, and pedestrian get no respect in The City. "Way to go guys, keep it up, you need to get us respect," she said gruffly.

We circled through south of Market down the Embarcadero and Fisherman's wharf then over toward the Civic Center and down Market to Dolores Park where we broke off to attend to a flat. Twilight was falling as a rider from another mass pulled over with a latex can to fill the leak in the tube. We repaired the tire with the goop and rejoined the next pack that came by but the tube continued to leak so we broke off and ended our mass at about 8:00. Though the mini lacked the excitement and safety of the large pack it made up for it by being mellow and easy.

We walked over to Rosie's Vietnamese restaurant for a couple of rounds of beers and tossed down some soft-shell crabs and barbecued shrimp as we sat around skewering fat cats polits Brown who screwed up the last ride. From talking to other rides we gathered that drivers were friendly and waving throughout the rides. We heard that some riders tried to cross the Golden Gate Bridge and that a few got across before police stopped them.

The Labor day weekend probably resulted in fewer cars. Given the quiet nature of this ride (The New York Times reporter said that only a photograph would be printed since there were no incidents) it is obvious that riders can police themselves and that the city is consequently seriously overstaffed on expensive police officers with no other important details available. Cutting back would save the city 30 million dollars and pay for a lot of alternate transportation and bike lanes and allow the homeless to eat in peace. Between the cutback and those sales taxes we paid on Friday the city should be on the road to a secure financial future. All this is possible because of the awesome effort of San Francisco riders who have helicoptered transportation issues into the national consciousness.

Gladwyn d'Souza


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