Dear Kristin Ostberg:
Regarding your article in the August 20 issue of the Chicago Reader titled "Joy Riders," I take issue with much of its tone, which I feel casts aspersions on the actual purpose of the Critical Mass bicycle ride. Typical of the attitudes reflected by the mainstream corporate press, you dismiss the actual ride, deriding the purpose of the mass action and pigeonholing its participants. You go on to say that "The arguments for economy, safety, ecology, and justice have been made well elsewhere, and it was still unclear to me how Critical Mass contributed to the concrete advancement of any of them." Perhaps your opinion of mass action is flavored by the current vogue of being somehow embarrassed by tactics often used during the late 1960s and early 70s; it's hip to cop a knee-jerk reaction against those "commie-hippie-peacenik-tree huggers" 'cause they were just hypocritical spoiled brats anyway.
As a regular participant in the Critical Mass bike rides (who by the way can barely contain his frustration and outrage at your dismissive point of view), I have yet to see as regular an expression of economy, safety, etc as Critical Mass. I am also a regular bicycle commuter and a former bicycle courier, and I realize all too acutely the point of Critical Mass. Too often I find my rights-of-way disregarded by automobiles and other larger vehicles as I cycle solo into the Loop, having to brave road conditions so deplorable (such as potholes of indeterminate depth in the extreme-right side of the street filled with water or slush during the winter) that I can almost understand why there are so damn many SUVs on the road in Chicago. We as a group take that one measly part of a Friday evening out of the month to commute out of the Loop together; the old nostrum "safety in numbers" put into praxis. So as not to have our point completely lost on the spectators and noncyclists along the route, the participants pass out flyers explaining who we are and what we're doing. We as a group are a convivial, inclusive, and jocular bunch; I for one would love to see more cyclists join in, but not at the cost of deradicalizing our tactics. Perhaps more people would join our ride if it were organized, sponsored, and promoted by some hypocritical commercial entity as well as routinely escorted by Chicago's vilest (the cops, that is), completely gutting the concept of self-management upon which Critical Mass was founded. You even have the gall to put us on par with automobiles at a certain point in your article when you stated: "Aggressive bikers can be even more lawless than those drivers in their chugging behemoths." (Perhaps it seems like I am taking these quotes out of context, but it is not so much the specifics of what you say, it is the spirit of it.)
As far as the specifics of what you say, traffic laws--while generally appropriate for all types of vehicles sharing the roads--have those very chugging behemoths in mind as the standard, never mind that a bicycle is a much more nimble and responsive vehicle itself. Stoplights, in ideal conditions (e.g., no oncoming traffic, no pedestrians attempting to cross en masse, no precipitation), I feel are appropriate as merely cautionary signals in many instances for experienced and sensible cyclists. This I witness on a daily basis. But don't get me wrong: reckless driving in or on any sort of vehicle is downright disrespectful and is something that Critical Mass purposely does not condone. That is why Critical Mass rides slowly and in a large group, staying on the right side of the road. This is not a good example of recklessness. We just happen to reset the speed for "flow of traffic." We are traffic, to repeat the "mantra." While I'm at it, what is infinitely more dangerous when driving without regard for safety? Clearly the automobile.
Yes, I have heard the (lily-livered, in my opinion) criticism among cyclists who won't join with us that we are just a bunch of anarchist scofflaws who flout the rules of the road. I am not surprised. Chicago--or the United States as a whole (with the exception of, say, Eugene, Oregon)--isn't a particularly radically minded place these days, and many who choose to ride bikes in the city do so only for leisure and are part of the more affluent sector of society that sees cops, law, and order as being on their side. There is a preponderance of apologists for car culture among them as well. The cops and other agents of control have fought long and hard to get into our heads and get us to convince ourselves that we must go through the system to change things and abandon all other tactics as "antagonistic" and "repellent." Unfortunately there has been an aggressive increase in the factors that create and propagate car culture: increased affluence of a certain sector of society, increased social fears, strip malls, medium-to-low density urban development, the curtailing of funds for public transportation in favor of funds for highways, artificially low gasoline prices (in places other than Cook County, at least), the marketing of sport-utility vehicles to the urban uberconsumer, to name but a few of those factors. In short, the point is that extreme conditions do call for "extreme" measures. Many would agree with me that conditions have become extreme, and actions such as Critical Mass are a relatively peaceful and orderly (as far as self-organized actions go) response to the current madness, while also being direct and pointed. It is our way of saying "Enough!" There will always be those who view our response as "extreme," and so be it. Let them try and lobby in Springfield.
The attitudes reflected in your article toward those of us who choose to ride in Critical Mass are not that far off from those of Sergeant Clark of the 18th Police District, who views us as wont to "beat up old people." He is an irresponsible individual who deserves no place in public service if he truly believes that about us. In fact many of us who ride in Critical Mass have more respect for others than your average police officer these days, what with all those incidents of police brutality finally coming to light. The police in the 18th District have preyed upon us with extreme and unwarranted prejudice, myself having borne witness to their conduct on several memorable occasions.
I'm glad that you nonetheless appreciated the smaller-scale "urban assault" rides and that you got to see Chicago from that unique perspective. I'm glad that you got to know some of the catalyst people for Critical Mass, whose impetus has been invaluable (to note: I attempted to get some Critical Mass rides started about four years ago and had not met with nearly as much success as folks like Jim Redd, T.C. O'Rourke, and company) and whose character and motives are beyond reproach. But ultimately I feel that your article does more disservice to the aims and goals of Critical Mass, and unjustly so, despite your (somewhat) transformed opinion of the ride. In conclusion, I think that you defer too frequently to your bumptious and fascistic coworker. You should just lay it on the line with him and dismiss his own misguided opinions to his face. Tell him to get a heart. While you're at it, pick out a spine for yourself.