Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Critical crackdown

Matt Seaton
Wednesday October 26, 2005
The Guardian

For the past 11 years, on the last Friday of the month, cyclists numbering from a few score to, sometimes, several hundred have gathered near Waterloo bridge in London at 6pm. When some kind of quorum is achieved, they ride around en masse for a couple of hours before dispersing. There is no planned route, no identifiable leader, and no explicit political aim.

Critical Mass, as this "unorganised coincidence" is known, is organised enough to have a website - but only to insist that it is not a protest; more a fun ride to "assert our identity as cyclists". If you're interested, there is probably a Critical Mass near you; many UK cities have one. I've only joined the London ride once. There was an exhilarating carnival spirit, but after an hour or so, I felt I'd got the idea and pedalled off.

Until now, the ride has enjoyed benign policing designed to minimise its impact on other traffic. But last month, officers - themselves on bikes - handed out leaflets explaining that, in future, if the Metropolitan police was not informed in advance about the ride, then it would be deemed an "unlawful demonstration" and participants "liable to arrest". This Friday will be the first test of the "get tough" stance, but it has already drawn criticism, notably from the mayor's road safety ambassador. In an open letter to Sir Ian Blair, Jenny Jones criticises such "heavy-handed application" of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (2005). According to the Met's public order branch, she says, Critical Mass does not meet the criteria for a political demonstration.

What could have inspired such folly? Sadly, the Met seems to be copying the NYPD's crackdown on Critical Mass, which began in August 2004 when the Republican National Convention came to New York. Some 237 cyclists were arrested. Across the bridge, Brooklyn Critical Mass continues, but in Manhattan, a ritualistic game of cat and mouse between cops and massers has taken place ever since - a costly lesson in how little can be achieved by pointlessly macho policing.

Zero tolerance: the most overrated concept of our age.

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