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National Lawyers Guild Article on Critical Mass

CM in the National Lawyer's Guild Newsletter

The Politics of Pedal Power
by Mel Campagna

On the last Friday of the month, in cities across the globe, bicyclists take to the streets en masse, to slow down traffic and demonstrate their collective power. From cars and sidewalks, many of us have seen the "massers" go by, issuing an invitation for cars to more equitably share the road.

Critical Mass has a strong history and tradition in the Bay Area. The first official "Critical Mass" happened here in San Francisco in 1992. While the core goals of drawing attention to issues of bicycle safety and challenging the isolationist mentality of cars have remained over the years, issues of global warming and the war in Iraq have become motivations for a new generation of riders. But those values and the rights of cyclists have been under attack with the recent crackdown on Critical Mass by law enforcement.

On February 2, 2007, Oakland Critical Mass, which to differentiate itself from S.F., converges the first Friday of the month at Frank Ogawa Plaza, was interrupted by the Oakland Police Department using helicopters and squad cars. Police detained and cited over twenty riders; most were charged with running a red light and one person was given a sound violation. There have been several altercations between motorists and Critical Mass riders in both San Francisco and Oakland. In recent months, mainstream media outlets, most notably the S.F. Chronicle, blamed incidents on reckless anarchistic bike riders.

However, Guild member, Jason Meggs, of the Bicycle Civil Liberties Union, which is celebrating its 10 year anniversary this month, believes that Critical Mass should be respected and supported by government and police officials. "Any city that wants to make good on its commitment to safer streets, healthier communities, protecting the environment and evading global climate change should celebrate, embrace and protect Critical Mass where it is so fortunate to have them appear. Bicyclists have the right to the road and, of course, the right to demonstrate, but law enforcement is not always prepared for this inversion of the status quo when the streets are filled with bikes rather than cars for a change. Unfortunately, in this country, the response is almost always one of repression."

Bicycle enthusiast and local Guild attorney, John Viola, believes that the monthly rides are of critical importance, which is why he agreed to take the cases pro bono on behalf of the Demonstrations Committee. In an email communiqué informing the arrestees of their victory on the case, Viola took time to personally thank the riders:

"Thank you for biking and working against car culture. Your cases were dismissed largely because of administrative failure of the Oakland Police Department to respond to your rights to see evidence. However, we were also prepared to defend you based on the political necessity and importance of actions like Critical Mass. I believe that Critical Mass is one of many essential steps for opposing war and empire and toward breaking the modern addiction to fossil fuels."

Labor attorney Francisco Ugarte, who has recently become active in mass defense and joined John as co-counsel, said: "Strengthening the Guild and its capacity to support social justice movements is important, I believe, for all of us. The Police's infatuation with Critical Mass defies reason and these arrests were entirely unjustified. I was happy I could be a part of the Guild's defense project here."

Both attorneys are conscientious about empowering their clients to make informed decisions about the best way to proceed with their cases. "It was unnecessary to go into Court, but the obvious fact is that American dependence on oil (and power) is at the heart of the war and occupation in Iraq and continued military expansion throughout the Middle East," Viola told the Guild. "Although the grotesque costs of these (military) actions to human life, to the world and to history are barely considered news anymore, it is a daily reality and a price paid on the other side of the globe. Down one road is the direction of war and death and empire, down the other is a Critical Mass of folks heading for transportation and energy alternatives, physical and environmental health. Thanks to them for continuing to show us all the right way to go. Keep riding."
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