The worlds of cycling and activism have a long history of intersecting. In the 19th century, bicycles were a vehicle of liberation for women fighting against disenfranchisement. Swarms of riders also rode to demand safer paved streets, only to see their victories robbed from them by the imposition of the automobile years later.
More recently, Critical Mass proved to be a game-changer in how we think about reclaiming streets for people cycling, as well as walking. The concept of a ‘bike bloc’ evolved into ‘bike swarms’ with the inception and ultimate eviction of the Occupy encampments here in Portland. The genesis of the ongoing PDX Bike Swarm inspired the formation of several similar groups across the world.
As a member of PDX Bike Swarm, I’ve participated in countless rides and actions – all safe, most legal. While we view the idea of ‘livable streets’ as a social justice issue of its own, we’re also highly focused on issues like rights to clean water, systemic police violence, housing justice, and global climate change. Whether riding socially or as the cavalry for an action like the recent thousands-strong People’s Climate March, we feel emphatically bikes are a tool more activists should employ.
Despite striving to maintain a positive approach to the work we do, it should be understood that like Critical Mass, sometimes our riding involves less-than-legal acts of civil disobedience, (or in some cases, Disco-bedience). As it’s been proven throughout history, lasting periods of progress usually follow dissenting individuals intentionally breaking the law. In times of injustice, disobeying authority becomes a moral imperative.
What is simultaneously puzzling and predictable is the backlash we’ve encountered from some riders. Even a few climate activists have occasionally scolded us for corking intersections to protect unpermited marchers from any errant motorists. Unfortunately, many believe social movements require the participation of everyone – and as such abhor actions that could be viewed as divisive. What they often don’t understand: this manner of policing of other’ tactics can ultimately be more divisive than actions by those pushing the provocation envelope.
But such is the way of things. People will disagree on methods, groups splinter and form new factions. This is a largely natural process. Grasping this knowledge allows for a far smoother processing of criticism.
Back before Bike Swarm was birthed into being, Bike Portland hyped this new tactic as an exciting development in Portland’s cycling culture. Yet immediately there were detractors commenting, assuming the worst. Some expressed disapproval that issues like criminal banks and homelessness would be associated with bikes in the first place. Others feared our behavior would cause previously hostile drivers to inflict more harm upon every-day bike commuters, insisting such belated transferences of aggression would be our fault.
When we’ve occasionally swarmed the pumps of corporate gas stations, again many commenters on Bike Portland have accused us of doing little more than hurting small business – despite the fact that less than 2% of petrol profits remain with local franchise owners. Your local Shell station makes more off bottled water than it does from gasoline.
Imagine if Americans dismissed the Boston Tea Party as being mere wanton destruction of private property. Imagine if the public felt suffragettes who were attacked and jailed for protesting outside the White House deserved such abuse.
It might be easy to initially find such comparisons absurd. But because history has reinforced these acts of revolt favorably by providing the context within which they took place, we understand why such acts were just. Here today we find ourselves in the midst of a global climate crisis. You can be sure in 50 years time your grandchildren will be asking you why people didn’t do more – why we didn’t blockade every oil pipeline and barricade every last gas station.
PDX Bike Swarm and an increasing number of groups around the world are engaging in direct action because we’ve zero faith left that politicians in power will act to halt worsening ecological catastrophe. We no longer have the privilege of time to bicker about which tactics might offend a few drivers while the planet is quite literally dying.
As a tool of empowerment and a vehicle for social change, bicycles are a true threat to the status quo – disrupting traffic is only just the tip of the iceberg. With any luck and a lot of work, there might even be a few icebergs left by 2064.
Consider joining the Swarm sometime. There’s only two rules: Bring your bike, and be awesome!
See you in the streets.