Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Bread and circuses

It was said in ancient Rome that the way to appease the populace was to give them bread and circuses. This of course was in the context of an authoritarian system where dissent was not tolerated and there was no concept of "human rights".
In modern usage, the phrase is taken to describe a populace that no longer values civic virtues and the public life.
And if the bread becomes more meagre, then of course the circuses become more important. So as it is announced today that disposable income of UK citizens, on average, is at its lowest now since 2003 (quite an indictment of the economic performance of the country under two contrasting governments), the fact is somewhat lost in the razzmatazz around that greatest circus of all taking place in East London and elsewhere. Everybody feels so great about that, don't they? They more or less have to, don't they? Nobody really was allowed not to like the Danny Boyle spectacular, you were putting yourself in the company of a rather weird right-wing Tory and pretty much no-one else if you did not.

But while Britain's turbulent history of activism and political dissent was being celebrated in the ceremony and on TV, while the Suffragettes, who got arrested and mistreated for their fight for equality were remembered, strangely enough, right outside the Olympic arena, the great circus, people fighting for a equality and fair treatment in a different field were being arrested and mistreated by the police, pepper-sprayed and kettled. If a novelist imagining a dystopic sci-fi future Britain had composed the scene, he would have been doing a pretty good job.

It was probably inevitable that the Critical Mass bike ride on the night of the opening of the Games would end in trouble. Not because those involved wanted trouble; far from it, but because there was simply "no room" on the streets of Olympic London, both in a physical and a spiritual sense, for an event like this on that night. The police could not let it it happen. They could not allow the possibility of an area of streets close to the Olympic Park being gridlocked at that time. On any other occasion, yes, they could grudgingly live with it, but not on this occasion.

Yet Critical Mass is not a beast which can be controlled, for it has no organisation, no plan and no leader. It is merely a tradition, the kind of tradition which might otherwise have been celebrated in a show like Boyle's opening ceremony: a tradition of gathering of people on bikes at a particular time, the evening of the last Friday of the month, in a particular place, on the South Bank of the Thames, for a particular purpose, a meander round streets on a route determined on a whim by those at the front of the group, the objective being to fill the streets with a slow-moving cavalcade of bicycles in which riders feel safe and freed, for the moment, from the otherwise ever-present threat of dangerous interaction with motor vehicles: a critical mass of bikes.

It has often been said in the last few days that Critical Mass in not a protest, it is just a ride or an event, but in fact it shares characteristics of both protest and festival. It exists because the normal conditions for cycling on the streets of London (and other cities around the world where Critical Masses take place) are no good at all. There is no right enforced for cyclists to proceed safely, with fair and civilised treatment, on our roads as they stand. Critical Mass is definitely a kind of protest against, and a reaction to, that fact. It is a protest demanding a different order in transport and street hierarchy as much as the Suffereagettes were a protest demanding a different hierarchy in sexual politics. There is no Critical Mass in the Netherlands, where cycling is treated as a first-class form of transport, prioritised equitably with other modes.

The police tried to ban Critical Mass from the north side of the Thames, and they tried to prevent it from invading the sacred space of the Olympic Lanes, both of which conditions were inconsistent with the freeform nature of the event. There was a fundamental discordancy between the spirit of Critical Mass and the nature of Olympic Lockdown London. Eventually, after considerable unpleasantness, the police broke up the mass and herded the rump of it into a small street in Bow, where the participants were kettled, and in the end 182 of them were arrested and taken away in buses. Of this 182, only three have been charged with offences. The experience of one of those not charged, but held overnight in a cell, has been written up on opendemocracy.net. It makes a salutary read. You have to keep reminding yourself that the place where all this took place was not Burma, but London.

I have no relationship with Critical Mass. I have been on it, twice I think in two decades, in order to find out what goes on, and I am neither a fan of it not a detractor. I seek to understand. As with the suffragette movement, it seems to me there is a clear way for the government to deal with the recurring problem that Critical Mass poses, and that is to understand what the problem is that it is a reaction to, and to address that problem, by starting to correct the lack of resources and rights, the fundamental power imbalance, between those who choose to use the streets using their legs and using human-powered machinery, and those who choose to use them in motor vehicles.

It's not a thing that will be achieved in one legislative stroke, as was possible with Votes for Women. It will be a policy process. It has not started yet. Until it does, our cities will have to accommodate events like Critical Mass. There is a third alternative, which is that the right to peaceful protest on the streets will be stamped out in the UK. We seem to have gone a long way down that road already.

A police statement said:
People have a right to protest and it is an incredibly important part of our democracy … What people do not have the right to do is to hold a protest that stops other people from exercising their own rights to go about their business – that means athletes who have trained for years for their chance in a lifetime to compete, millions of ticketholders from seeing the world's greatest sporting event, and everyone else in London who wants to get around.
That of course is an argument that could effectively be used to end all street protest, at any time. A right is not a right if it can be taken away whenever it has inconvenient consequences for some people. It is a method of oppression to try to forcibly prevent protest rather than listening to what the protesters want and adjusting policy accordingly, which would, if not bring an end to all such protests, reduce their support and nuisance value.

Like the Roman rulers criticised by Juvenal, the rulers of modern Britain seek to distract attention from the decayed and disfunctional states of both our democracy and our environment by giving us entertainment and spectacle, while shoring up the privileges of an elite. The Roman Empire did not fall for 300 years after Juvenal wrote of panem et circenses: it's a policy that can work, for the emperors at least, for a long time. It's a Big Mac and an Olympic ticket now – never mind that all the expediently-made promises about the green and socially-responsible Olympics were all broken and forgotten.

A state run in this way, is however, quite inefficient, and, as the declining disposable income of citizens attests, I expect a continuing slow economic decline for a UK that neither modernises its political culture and structures, nor embraces dissent and alternative views, nor tackles significant social inequalities, nor learns to live in harmony with the natural environment, nor allows safe space in its cities for children and old people and others on bikes.

There is a petition to sign demanding justice for the Critical Mass 182, and the campaign against the closure of the Lea towpath goes on. And there's a good outsiders' view of what is going on in London from, of all people, the Americans, on NBC News.


  1. Yip, I refuse to sit at the back of the bus any longer!

  2. I am to this day, unaware of any athletes who were travelling to their sporting venue between 7pm and 3am Friday night who could have been prevented from competing by Critical Mass delays. Anyone know any?

    I witnessed the use of spray on a man in an electric-assisted wheelchair, but I believe it was PAVA spray, rather than CS. This incident occurred south of the river so was not near the olympic stadium and happened before any breach of section 12 had taken place.

    The history is very important as the police previously shut down Critical Mass using Section 11 of the public order Act. This was defeated in court. Then for the olympics, they attempted to restrict it using section 12 of the public order act. What chance would critical mass have had to hold the July mass if it did things legally and awaited another appeal in the courts? Can't go back in time to hold it after another court battle.

    That aside, there is a lot of hate out there at the moment, and this sort of thing is really damaging the relationship between the police and many of the general public. The critical mass kettling and the acquittal of the officer who killed Ian Tomlinson have made this worse. I fear a repeat of last years violence if this hate isn't addressed and is allowed to grow.

  3. I arrived at the Southbank to find dozens of Police - 3 on the bridge with a video camera scanning faces, a loudhailer barking out something unintelligible like something from 1984... the police cyclist that I spoke to was helpful and explained the Section 12 Order, and there wasn't any real animosity on either side. Nobody on CM seemed to be intent on spoiling the Olympics or making any kind of protest, but an order preventing us from crossing the river was out of order when many needed to cross back to go home.
    A lot of the issues are well discussed in the Guardian Bike Blog here : http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/bike-blog/2012/jul/30/critical-mass-arrest-olympic-games
    There's a real discussion to be had as to how effective CM is now, when cycle protests (eg. Blackfriars Flashrides, Tour du Danger, Big Ride etc) have moved on thanks largely to a group of bloggers such as yourself, and when Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish and Lizzie Armitstead are changing the image of cycling to a mainstream audience which might, just might, take to a bike as a healthy way to get around.
    But I really hope the wider cycling fraternity will turn up at the next CM, if only to show that this random and unenforceable Section 12 Order is only the thin end of the wedge. We've been shut out of normal East London cycle routes (Lea Towpath, Greenway) and seen random and illogical changes by the hour, with no warning, to junctions such as the crossing at the north end of Southwark Bridge. It seems easier to design us out of the equation altogether than to give us proper conditions and to treat us as ordinary citizens. Same goes for pedestrians and disabled people too. So I'm with Kats above - cycling needs its Rosa Parks aswell as its MLK's.

  4. An excellent article, David. Really very good.

  5. I was not there – I do occasionally join CM but even if I had not been otherwise engaged “rattling my jewellery” in time with Paolo Nutini and Duran Duran in Hyde Park, I would have taken ibikelondon’s advice and stayed away. So I have only my remote impressions and don't enjoy the benefit of having directly witnessed what went on. I have seen the clip of the custody sergeant who apparently thinks that if one of his colleagues turns his back on a young female cyclist, the latter suddenly becomes a "threat" to him.


    I guess it is an unfortunate co-incidence that CM this month co-incided with the opening ceremony of London 2012, but I think we can all see that the whole Olympics thing is mired in controversy in so many ways, with much criticism from some quarters and deeply defensive responses from others. Mixing with this was never going to achieve much popular sympathy or support for the cause of free, safe movement by bicycle, and antagonising the Met police may be fun, but it is ultimately futile.

    I also had the sense, from the pronouncements made beforehand, that CM had somehow acquired “organisers” and that the route, ie to Bow, was predetermined. Both concepts are wholly alien to the spirit of CM. It sounds like it was rather co-opted by wider libertarian groups whose interests are only tangentially about cycling. It made me think of my student days in the70s, when the Broad Left fell prone to entryism by swivel-eyed Trot fanatics, to the point that mainstream student opinion was progessively turned off.

    I don’t want to see that for cycle campaigning. It will go backwards.

    1. Hi Paul
      The only discussions beforehand on the CM email list (not a big group, but possibly the closest CM has to 'organisers' as such) were along the lines of 'not worth the effort' and 'let's do the sights of South London for a change.' There really wasn't any concerted effort to lead CM towards Stratford, and certainly nobody suggesting disrupting the Games.
      I also saw Mark's comments at ibikelondon and didn't make up my mind to go until the last minute - I expected that it could get hairy, but there'd been so many occasions last week when ordinary cyclists just seemed to be getting pushed aside, rather than accommodated in this 'Car Free' Games, that I just felt I had to go. I genuinely was hoping to soak up the Olympic atmosphere on a night when there would be very few cars around, and didn't go anywhere near an ORN.
      Out of maybe 500 riders, I saw a group of about 3 youngsters goading the police in a van that was trying to pass, but they were a tiny minority and, on a normal CM with the usual 'old-timers' then I think the Mass would have policed itself and calmed the situation down. For the most part, it was a quiet ride, and there was so little traffic around that it didn't cause any disruption, compared to last month when it headed along the Euston Road at 7.30pm.

      I do think there's a danger of going backwards, in campaigning terms, as you say. But it's not an organisation with any spokesmen, aims or real public profile. As someone who enjoys the randomness and celebratory spirit of a normal CM, I feel that the LCC and more organised campaigners are representing cycling as transport, and CM is just a bit of fun for a couple of hours each month.

  6. I went on Critical Mass on Friday night. I wasn't sure if I was going or not as I also wanted to meet friends and watch the opening ceremony. Despite being a political activist (peace/human rights) I don't really see Critical Mass as a protest. You are spot on about it being a space to feel safe and freed on a bicycle and it is that I go for.

    When I heard that people I usually go with were afraid to go I determined to. I feel that when peaceful demonstrators avoid peaceful demonstrations it makes it all the easier for other people to hijack events. I think it plays into the hands of thuggish elements in both the public and the police when peaceful citizens avoid marches, so I wasn't about to start avoiding something I had, until that moment seen as a non-political bike ride.

    I won't tell the whole story of my evening as I might yet do that somewhere else but there is one key aspect to the police actions that has been under-reported and I feel needs to be questioned. I was amongst hundreds of riders who crossed the Thames North to South not knowing the conditions of the Section 12 and then discovered after the ride had begun that I could be arrested for going back across again. I was alone (apart from friendly CM riding buddies I'd never met before) and turned back at a number of bridges. What option was I left with? And at what point was I a 'dangerous cyclist' on the mass vs. a 'safe cyclist' just riding around London? And how was I to get my bicycle home?

  7. I considered blogging this, because so much nonsense was being tweeted -- by journalists, the police, and riders with agendas -- but in the end let it drop.

    Obviously the police have once again handled things spectacularly badly; their desire to suppress free expression and protest and their tactics, though hardly surprising, are as revolting as ever. And I'd give sympathy and support both to those who wanted to fight the POA conditions and to those wanting to protest the Olympics. But above all I'm concerned for those who were just out for a fun bicycle ride, oblivious to the police plans and with no interest in protest, and while their arrests make me much more angry with the police, I can't help letting them also drain away some of the sympathy for those who set out to protest the Olympics.

    I was one of those on twitter at the time getting annoyed with journalists calling it a "protest". CM is many things to many people, including, to some, a protest, but the only thing it can definitely be said to be is a bicycle ride. Of course, in our current culture, the mere act of going for a bicycle ride -- especially as a group -- can perhaps be considered as an act of protest, but either way, it was not the crude "Olympics protest" that journalists ignorant of the background were calling it on the night.

    But that said, from the six or eight I've been on over the past few years, it's clear that, with its follow the self-appointed leader of the moment approach, CM is easy to hijack for all sorts of protest causes, whatever riders on it might think about just wanting to go for a bicycle ride. I've been led to places like the Israeli Embassy and One New Change when somebody has taken the lead and decided that instead of a bicycle ride, we should be annoying some security guards by ringing bells in the street outside their property. They usually get a couple of minutes out of the mass before people start getting bored of not riding and a new leader takes it away.

    It's obvious from twitter on the night and from the afore-mentioned forum that there were a few people who wanted to protest the Olympics and saw CM as a way to do that -- a bunch of people out for a bicycle ride naively following whoever rode at the front. Judging from twitter, they knew of the police's intentions to use S12POA to arrest those crossing the river, and headed to the East End to martyr themselves to publicise their cause -- a cause I have a lot of sympathy with. Where my sympathy for those protesters wanes is where they deliberately took a bunch of naive folk just out for a bicycle ride along with them.

  8. You mention the Suffragettes in your article. Were you aware that the first Suffragettes demanded the vote only for married women over 30? "Large streams from little fountains flow / Tall oaks from little acorns grow."