Saturday, December 8, 2012

My Views of Critical Mass Honolulu

I first got involved in Critical Mass Honolulu (CMH) back in 2004, when I was working as a bike messenger with Crosstown Couriers. While bike messengers have been active with Critical Mass around the world, Honolulu messengers played no part in it whatsoever. I didn't understand why until I began to participate on my own.

At the time, despite Critical Mass supposedly being leaderless and functioning on consensus, the Honolulu ride was actually led by two people. For the sake of not pissing anyone off, I'll refer to them as Agent J and Agent K.

Agent K was a really low-key type of guy. Quiet and unassuming, people would often ask for his advice about how to conduct the ride and he would offer it, even though he made no demands that his suggestions be followed. People liked him and so did I.

Agent J, on the other hand, seemed to view the ride and CMH as extensions of himself. He left no one in the dark over how he felt that he was the "spiritual center" of Critical Mass Honolulu and fully expected his "opinions" to be taken as divine commands. Before every ride, he would make a speech on some bullshit that he wanted to talk about that day and only after he was finished rambling could the ride take place. If anyone started-out before the speech or while he was speaking, they would be told to stop and that they had to listen to Agent J until he was done.

This situation wasn't popular with most of the people attending and a lot of people stopped participating, rather than have to make obeisance to a self-appointed leader of a supposedly leaderless event. On the other hand, I made no secret of my opposition of Agent J's behavior and I began to oppose him quietly, then later openly. The beginning of the end of Agent J's attempt to establish a cult of personality for himself at the Mass was when several of my coworkers from Crosstown attended the ride with us. One of them had ridden with Critical Mass on the Mainland and he wanted to see firsthand how it was done here and he was not impressed.

On that ride, all of the Crosstown riders started riding out while Agent J was still speaking. When Agent J called us to stop and come back, we ignored him and kept going. At the sight of us brushing-off Agent J, almost everyone else hopped on their bikes and followed us out. Agent J was forced to stop his speech in the middle and come after us. During the ride, Agent J kept criticizing us for how the ride was being conducted: we were going too fast, we were going too slow, we were taking the wrong route, etc. This became so tiresome that the normally unassuming Agent K finally told him to quiet-down.

After that ride, Agent J was rather pissed-off and made an attempt to take back control, but it was to no avail. Someone had challenged his authority and gotten away with it. The ride would never be the same and he soon stopped attending in-person.

I started a website and discussion forum for Critical Mass Honolulu and Agent J would offer his opinions on why we should go back to doing it his way. But, by that time, no one was listening. Agent J started mouthing-off at me over how I was being disrespectful to him, but I brushed him off and so did everyone else. He soon stopped participating altogether.

But, CMH was already in a downward spiral of active participation. Those people who hadn't already quit soon had other things to do with their time, such as work or school and ultimately it came down to either just one or two people showing-up or no one would come at all. Even Agent K stopped coming.

One guy in particular - I'll call him Bob - was the ultimate True Believer for Critical Mass. He wanted to obstruct traffic, have confrontations with the police and be a general nuisance on the road. Usually, Agent K would keep him in-line, but after K's departure, there was nothing holding Bob back. There's no telling what would have happened if he had even taken some leadership role in CMH, but it ended in Honolulu before that could occur. Bob would write on the message board that he was doing One Man Critical Mass every month and inviting someone, anyone, to join him.

This was the state of Critical Mass Honolulu for quite a long time. I would offer my opinions on the message board about we should all take an active role in cycling activism. Some people felt that the Hawaii Bicycling League was too slow to accomplish much beyond taking whatever crumbs were offered by the City of Honolulu or State of Hawaii government officials. HBL was under the control of a director who held the post for quite awhile and it generally moved in whatever direction he felt that it should. Months and years would pass while HBL lobbied for a new bike path, while there was a notable lack of proper bike racks around the city. While HBL did make some things better for cyclists, some of us felt that more could and should be done. Issues like bicycle theft were almost never discussed in the pages of HBL's newsletter or on their website, for example.

I felt that CMH members should take an active role themselves as individuals in trying to make things better for all cyclists and some of my ideas included:
  1. finding places around the city which needed bike racks installed, making a list and presenting it to the appropriate city department. The contact person was discovered and he seemed quite eager for the added input from cyclists.
  2. reporting abandoned bikes locked to bike racks and other places around the city so that they could be removed and the space opened for people to lock their bikes. Long periods of time would go by while abandoned bikes remained locked to racks and were stripped of parts by thieves or simply left to rust where they were.
  3. reporting potholes on city and state roads that posed a danger to cyclists. Potholes can be particularly dangerous, since they can cause a tire to blowout, damage a wheel or even knock someone off their bike. Reporting them and getting them fixed would make it safer to ride on our streets. The city and state departments that handle these things often repaired potholes within a few days of my reporting them. If all of us in CMH did the same, the roads would become much safer for everyone.
Well, Bob didn't like any of my ideas and remained fixated on the notion that the purpose of Critical Mass was the ride itself, not any kind of activism on behalf of cycling or cyclists. He seemed content to harangue the message board on the lack of parking for bikes around the city and all the potholes on the roads, but would not lift a finger to even try to fix these problems by contacting the people who could get it done. He was content to simply complain. Critical Mass Honolulu languished like this for quite some time.

Suddenly, one day Critical Mass Honolulu was back out on the road! A new face arrived on the scene (I'll call him Agent D) and he would take CMH into a new and far more dangerous direction.

Agent D's philosophy was that CMH wasn't confrontational enough. In his view, masses of people should take to the roads on the last Friday of every month and be as obnoxious as possible and this included blocking entire lanes of traffic on the busiest roads in town at the busiest time of day. Naturally, Bob loved this plan.

I rode with CMH once after Agent D took the lead and never again afterwards because I knew what the end result would be. Sadly, my predictions were proven true.

Angry drivers called HBL to complain about us. HBL promptly and justifiably disavowed us entirely. The website contained links to HBL and assorted bike shops, who all contacted me via email to remove their links from the site immediately, which was done.

People also called the police, who responded by assigning officers to escort CMH on the rides from start to finish. When word got to us that HPD was going to begin doing this, Bob (who was the loudest one calling for confrontation until this point) and all the other instigators of the trouble on the rides under Agent D, stopped attending the rides. Now that the police were there, their courage failed them. CMH declined in attendance again, until only one or two people would show-up and eventually no one was coming.

Before the crackdown, I warned Agent D of the likely result and asked him to rethink the direction he was taking it in, but he wouldn't listen. Critical Mass Honolulu would take the form he wanted it to and nothing else. The crackdown was the result and Agent D stopped participating, too.

The message board soon grew silent and I closed the website down, due to lack of traffic and the fact that no one was offering to post content or help with paying for the site.

Recently, someone restarted CMH for the third time. I don't know who it is, but people were naturally concerned over a possible return of the CMH behavior under Agent D, but I didn't hear of anything bad happening this time.

Looking back, I see Critical Mass Honolulu as being a wasted opportunity. So much good could have been done for cyclists and cycling in Honolulu, but it wasn't because a few people wanted to make CMH into their own image, rather than truly working for the benefit of cyclists, which is what Critical Mass was supposedly first created to do.

A lot of people participated in Critical Mass Honolulu in order to raise public awareness of cyclists' right to the road. Many of us have been hit by careless drivers who weren't paying attention while driving and some of us have even been assaulted for simply riding our bikes. There have been incidents when a cyclist was purposely hit by objects thrown at them by passing cars whose passengers thought that hitting a cyclist with trash was rather amusing. Things like that inspired a lot of us to participate in the first place.

However, when Critical Mass Honolulu got mired in personality conflicts and got taken over by troublemakers who were unconcerned over the real issues affecting cyclists, the whole thing degenerated into something that no one could really get behind without losing their credibility. People who got involved, started-off caring about CMH and wanting it to succeed and be something that inspired. Most of them quit when it became obvious that the people who elected themselves to be its leaders were more concerned about simply being in-charge than about accomplishing anything.

Duane Browning
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