Bicycle Diaries: Street ballet - Part III

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5.8.06

Street ballet - Part III

To be honest, I'm rather surprised by the Street ballet - Part II. Trained as a social scientist, I thought I would have described the Chicago Critical Mass as a movement, or at least an organization, with the usual suspects who wield, albeit subtlety, power and influence.

It's neither an organization nor a movement in the strict sense of these terms. Take the leadership for example. If you visit the CCM list, you'll find those folks who post almost every day and, at often, several times a day. Then if you ride in just one mass, or hang out at The Handlebar, or show up at the Critical Mass Happy Hour held several days before each ride, you'll actually see these folks.

They're the ones who print up and distribute the route maps or flyers. They're the ones who pass out the Critical Mass t-shirts. They typically start off the mass at Daley Plaza, rolling along with fantatsic sound systems, or cork traffic. They're the ones who usually alter the course of the ride or keep it from strecthing out to far by yelling Mass Up! For your typical, garden-variety social scientist this looks a lot like leadership ... except that it's not.

I haven't been involved in the mass long enough to observe this but others who have; tell me that the riders in the lead constantly change particularly during the rides themselves. Take corks for example. According the Critical Mass folks in San Francisco, where the ride was invented,
Corks are the diplomats of the ride. Their title comes from their function. Here’s how they work: one or two bicyclists block each lane of oncoming traffic as the ride goes through an intersection, making sure that even if a gap large enough for a car to drive through should develop, cars are stopped where they are. This tactic is especially effective if the cork takes a friendly, non-antagonistic stance with motorists, even holding up signs that say thanks for waiting and honk if you like bikes! Corks need to protect the rear of the ride, too, from cars turning into it. Of course, no one needs to be officially designated as a cork, and people will largely take on this role of their own initiative.
Anyone can cork. And cork they do! There are no qualifications. No one is chosen before the mass begins or when a threatening motorist appears. Rather it's expected that the riders closest to the situation should cork. I think that the only hesitation to cork comes from those who may be introverted, or timid because it's their first mass.

What all this tells me is that the Critical Mass encourages and depends upon a very rare form of leadership. It really doesn't have anything to do with coercion or popularity. It has everything to do with how each rider leads spontaneously in the moment. One of the ride's few mottoes, There are No leaders, could just as easily be stated as Everybody's a Leader! Such spontaneously action is incredibly powerful. As Gandhi said,
It's the action, not the fruit of the action, that's important. You have to do the right thing. It may not be in your power, may not be in your time, that there will be any fruit. But that doesn't mean you stop doing the right thing. You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no result.
For me, this is why the wonderful, spontaneous ballet of the streets, that is Critical Mass. Chicago attracts and keeps diverse folks because of a hell of a lot of cheap bikes, the strong bicycle culture, our tolerant mayor, and the usually accommodating police all contribute as well. Their spontaneous and inspired action of the moment is what has kept the ride going for over a decade.

In Chicago, these folks follow the words of Henry David Thoreau (in Walden),
Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you've imagined. As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler.

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3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

By all means, go up front at a critical mass and see what takes place. People talk about it endlessly and don't understand much about it mostly.

Trav

5/8/06 17:02  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

p.s.
I would disagree, it is definately not a street ballet. Ballet is a much more controlled and planned form of movement, for artistic purposes. Crit mass is public gathering, loose as could be, and involves only a route throught the city, everything else is people doing thier own thing from moment to moment.

trav

5/8/06 17:05  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

GOOD ONE! Impressed... wow gold opportunity.

6/8/06 13:02  

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