As bicycles become more prevalent in society, they will, inevitably, take on additional roles. These roles are limited only by the imagination of the riders. Consider, for instance, the role of bicycles as peace machines. A group of cyclists in Portland Oregon used bicycles for just this purpose. They organized a “bike swarm” to create a buffer zone between police and protesters at the Occupy Portland encampments in Chapman and Lownsdale Squares.
According to a blog post about this event:
“The ‘bike swarm’ showed up in force early this morning in downtown Portland. Despite cold temps and intermittent rain, the group of riders swelled to well over 100 and stayed strong and rode together through the final moments of what will be remembered as an historic — and peaceful — protest.
The idea of the swarm was to have people on bikes do laps around the Occupy Portland encampments in Chapman and Lownsdale Squares. With an eviction order planned to be served at 12:01 am this morning, many thought a confrontation was likely and that the presence of a mass of riders would help create a buffer zone between police and protesters.”
In a comment on the blog post, one of the bike swarm organizers provided details about how the idea of the swarm came about.
“katherine November 14, 2011 at 6:03 pm
I was one of the many people who instigated the ride and just wanted to share the lineage with you. Thanks a million times over to Dan, Chris, Lynne, Billy, Jakob, Thomas, and everyone else who collectively led, participated and made it happen. The idea for the swarm came out of a combination of an affinity group discussion during a general assembly at the occupation—and—-from an action called the Swarm at the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen Demark, led by the fusion of the Lab of Insurrectionary Imagination and Climate Camp called the Bike Bloc.”
The bike swarm was certainly a creative way to use bicycles. Still, seeing bicycles in this role raises a number of issues about how such a use of bicycles will be interpreted.
Occupy Portland is, loosely speaking, part of a political movement, even though the participants come from wide variety of backgrounds and political views. The protesters in this movement have a common concern about corporate control of the U.S., and a concern about the concentration of wealth among the top 1% of income earners. Whether cyclists agree or disagree with the Occupy movement’s position, all cyclists are affected by this use of bicycles.
Politicizing bicycles can have a positive or negative effect on cycling and perceptions about who rides bikes. Many people already identify cyclists as liberals because of their desire for more bicycle infrastructure and their concern for the environment. In reality, cyclists come from all political persuasions and all walks of life. Cyclists, as a minority on the roads, face stereotypical representations of who they are and reactions to those stereotypes.
So, how will the general public view the use of bicycles as a buffer in a protest? From their participation, it’s clear that the bike swarm cyclists support the Occupy movement. Some people will view this as evidence that cyclists are radicals. Others will see this as evidence that cyclists interfere with police actions and have no respect for the law. And still others will see the cyclists as stupid for putting themselves in a dangerous situation, which could have escalated into a full-blown riot.
On a conceptual level, more questions arise. Does the use of bicycles, in such a context, align cyclists with the working classes, who fall squarely into the 99% defined by the Occupy protesters? Does involving themselves in a political movement set cyclists in opposition to the corporations who, to some degree, epitomize the car culture? Will taking a stand against corporations escalate the tensions between cyclists and drivers?
Cyclists operate as activists in other areas, particularly with respect to demanding more bicycle infrastructure and making cities more bicycle and pedestrian friendly. But moving into the political realm could have negative consequences both among cyclists (who vary in their views) and between cyclists and drivers, who are always looking for excuses to denigrate and punish cyclists for being on the roads.
On the positive side, it’s possible to view these cyclists as trying to make a contribution to society through civic involvement. Their intention was to act as a buffer, to avoid conflict, which is a selfless goal.
Commenters on the blog post mentioned above had mixed reactions to the idea of a bike swarm. One commenter had concerns about the bike swarm making people perceive support for bicycle infrastructure as a partisan issue.
“Andrew Holtz November 13, 2011 at 3:33 pm
It seems like the attention to a “bike brigade” at Occupy Portland plays into the stereotypes held by those who pigeonhole people who ride bikes as leftist, liberal or whatever other labels they choose.
The more that some people perceive support for bicycle infrastructure as a partisan issue, the more it will feed the irrational attacks on transportation funding pushed by those who want to appeal to a “conservative” base. And that just makes it harder to advance the argument that making communities friendlier to bicycle use is something that’s good for everyone, not just a fringe.”
But others thought that bicycles should play a role in civil disobedience.
“Hart Noecker November 13, 2011 at 7:19 pm
To those who think cycling has no place in the Occupy movement or vice versa, maybe Portland isn’t the right city for you. We have a long, proud history of civil disobedience against injustice and last nights action was part of this history.
As the Community Cycling Center’s motto so eloquently states: The bicycle is a tool of empowerment and a vehicle for social change.”
In Portland, a very pro-cycling city, the bicycle could be a “tool of empowerment and a vehicle for social change,” but what about in other parts of the country where bicycles are less welcome, and where conservatives (who are less supportive of social change) dominate the conversation. Equating bicycles with social change could antagonize those who prefer the status quo, which includes a car-centric culture. Cyclists should seriously consider whether challenging others in this manner will slow pro-cycling progress by creating resistance.
Taking a stand is always risky. Yet doing so in a peaceful way, and with the goal of promoting harmony, could associate cycling with a kinder, gentler movement to a more equitable world — and improve the reputation of cyclists in the process.