Reclaiming Defiance through Critical Mass
For many cyclists in London the last Friday of each month represents an opportunity for them to reclaim the streets. The Critical Mass bike ride has occurred in London monthly on the last Friday since April 1994, and whilst many may consider the ride to be an overtly political act most will attend to celebrate their love of cycling. Political or not, it is by its very nature defiant; roads are blocked and cars are stopped as hundreds of cyclists, for a few hours a month, reclaim the streets they have otherwise lost to the busy metropolis sprawl.
Critical Mass, like protest, can be controversial. Previous attempts by the Metropolitan police to criminalise it have failed with the landmark judgement in Kay v Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis  UKHL 69 finding the group to be a ‘customarily held procession’ under Section 11(2) Public Order Act 1986. This ensures Critical Mass do not have to notify police in advance and in theory prevents conditions being imposed under Section 12 of the act.
This theory was first tested on the 27th July 2012 when the Metropolitan police mounted an exorbitant operation which sought to restrict Critical Mass moving north of the Thames and anywhere near Stratford; their justification for this was fear that anarchists had infiltrated the mass, the purpose of such a response was because on this day the world’s attention was on London which was at the time holding the opening ceremony of the Olympics. Whilst 182 defiant cyclists were arrested for breaching a restriction imposed under Section 12, many of whom were held in a bus garage overnight with no access to food or water and all being released with disproportionate police bail conditions not having been given the opportunity to see a solicitor, what I found most disconcerting was the response to Critical Mass that followed on the 31st August. The legality of the police operation in July will be considered when those arrested have their trial later this year, with the veracity of the police intelligence undoubtedly being challenged in civil actions yet to be taken yet it was not clear to me how shenanigans of July could justify the police response in August. Incidentally, all but 16 of the 182 have since had their cases dropped.
The Critical Mass of the 31st August was my first; I was excited to experience the mass and given what happened in July I chose to go as a legal observer. The mass whose numbers apparently swelled following the events of July set off without incident with a police helicopter monitoring from above. Swarming around London I found the Mass liberating. It only became apparent the Mass was being watched when upon reaching Marble Arch a contingent of 3 police vans full of police officers attempted – unsuccessfully - to stop the Mass. As it reached Hyde Park Corner a police blockade developed with orders for the cyclists to dismount their bikes and place them flat on the ground. It was unclear whether the intention of this was to allow the police to make arrests without having to wrestle people off bikes as had been the case in July, but this was academic as shortly after this the mass diverted. Passing through Hyde Park another blockade developed where police numbers swelled. Speaking with an Inspector I was informed that the Mass were being stopped because the helicopter had reported numerous accounts of criminal activity and as the Mass broke through this line police units followed. This continued as we approached Parliament but broke off as the Mass continued through the West End.
It was not clear what intelligence justified the police helicopter in the sky and given the exorbitant costs associated with it I would hope it was justified. There were no arrests made for breaking the police line and so seemingly no justification for the blockade being imposed. As we traversed the West End it dawned on me; was the helicopter and blockade an attempt to justify the arrests the previous month? Was police deployment political? Big Brother was watching, and it appeared to be for nefarious reasons.
Surveillance is a reality of London, and given that statistically only 1 crime is solved for every 1,000 cameras each year it still perplexes me how the level of surveillance we endure is accepted. Whilst each Londoner is inevitably captured on multiple cameras each day, it is usually not as blatant as a police helicopter in the sky; the mass was not a riot, in fact it’s activities had not differed from any previous Mass going back years. Why was this surveillance necessary?
Reflecting what Critical Mass represents semantically, one might consider it by its very nature to epitomise defiance; by virtue of its critical mass it is disruptive. In many ways it’s existence is an affront to well established standards in public order policing that state those planning processions should give police 6 days notice. Consequently the judgement in Kay presents the Metropolitan police with an anomaly – yet this does not in turn justify criminalisation of the Mass.
Peaceful defiance, in whichever form it should take, should be protected. Whether this defiance is through overtly political acts, or though a bike ride for the love of cycling, we all lose if our right to be defiant becomes criminal. During the Mass it was not clear what criminal activity had been committed, nor was it clear that this activity would have been evident had the helicopter not been in the sky. What the August Mass epitomises is the importance of defiance but more-so the value of a critical mass. It is only through establishing a critical mass that defiance can truly be felt. The police intervention was, I fear, an attempt to break this – to break a mindset. This is what I find disconcerting, and what I hope will inspire others to reclaim and be defiant.
 ‘CCTV in the spotlight: one crime solved for every 1,000 cameras.’ Independent available at’http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/cctv-in-the-spotlight-one-crime-solved-for-every-1000-cameras-1776774.html’