Katherine Kersten: Bike-riding mob owns the streets of Minneapolis

Now we know who's in charge of Minneapolis streets. It's a loosely organized group of serial lawbreakers called Critical Mass. Last Friday, 600 or so took over city thoroughfares, breaking traffic laws with impunity while police stayed in the background.

Published October 3, 2007 by  StarTribune.com
by Katherine Kersten

Minneapolis–Now we know who's in charge of Minneapolis streets. It's a loosely organized group of serial lawbreakers called Critical Mass. Last Friday, 600 or so took over city thoroughfares, breaking traffic laws with impunity while police stayed in the background.

Every month, Critical Mass cyclists ride through rush hour traffic in cities across the country. Some insist the ride is just a "celebration." Others acknowledge a political agenda: they want to enlighten the rest of us — greedy capitalists that we are — about the joys of bike riding so we can join them in saving the planet.

The Mass mob has chosen a strange way to promote its agenda. Critical Mass's philosophy is to infringe on others' rights by disrupting traffic and running red lights.

They block traffic by "corking" — some riders hold cars at intersections during green lights while the mass passes through a red light. Others stand in the street and wave their bikes defiantly over their heads.

Are you rushing to catch the last few innings of your son's baseball game?

Trying to get to the show you promised your wife for her birthday?

Critical Mass doesn't give a rip. Tough luck for you, Mac, because you're a gas-guzzler and I'm living green.

Why are Minneapolis police condoning this lawbreaking? Because the guys upstairs do. Two City Council members, Cam Gordon and Robert Lilligren, joined the Critical Mass mob on last week's ride. Mayor R.T. Rybak also rode with the mob once several years ago.

In August, after some of the ride's rougher elements provoked a confrontation with police, and 19 people were arrested, Gordon, whose aide was one of those arrested, called foul. The usual hand-wringing and internal investigation in the police department followed. Gordon organized a meeting, where police and Critical Mass representatives discussed what were called mutual expectations.

Police Chief Tim Dolan says he doesn't like expending limited police resources on Critical Mass rides. But support for more hard-nosed enforcement isn't there, he says.

Initially, it's hard to reconcile Critical Mass riders' lofty pro-environment rhetoric with their in-your-face tactics.

But maybe Critical Mass is just the latest permutation of a phenomenon we've seen for decades. Though the ride attracts a variety of participants, they are, by definition, people who choose to break the law and adopt the civil disobedience tactics of the 1960s.

Robert Lichter of the Center for Media and Public Affairs has studied protest movements. He points out that political protest has changed since the '20s and '30s, when those involved were usually poor. (Think Hoovervilles and hungry, jobless people.) Their protest was "instrumental" aimed at getting the government assistance they needed to stay afloat.

The '60s and '70s brought a sea change. For the middle- and upper-class young people who flooded into the streets, protest became a vehicle for self-assertion — the "politics of personal expression." (Think Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin.) Middle-class kids wore their arrest record as a badge of honor.

In his psychological studies of '60s-style radicals, Lichter discovered two revealing things: They scored high on the power scale, exhibiting a strong need to feel powerful. They also scored high on narcissism — the need to call attention to themselves, to get public notice.

Not surprisingly, Lichter says, protesters often latched onto high-sounding motives to justify their self-absorbed actions. "You can't take expressions of love for humanity at face value," he explains. "They can serve as cover for aggressive feelings and tendencies." A phenomenon like Critical Mass "allows people to act aggressively, while convincing themselves and some others that it's all for a moral purpose."

If Critical Mass riders just wanted to celebrate bikes, they could refrain from serial law-breaking and ride at a time that doesn't provoke rush-hour drivers. But that won't do. Their antics are more about power — "I'll make you wait while I ride by" — and self-dramatization than making the world a better place.

Minneapolis authorities eventually will discover what parents learn when they allow petulant children to break the rules "just to keep the peace." You don't get peace. You just open the door to bigger trouble.

Katherine Kersten • kkersten@startribune.com