This is a little old now – but still important!
The Olympics may be over now, but for 182 cyclists the Olympic nightmare continues as they challenge punitive bail conditions and await the next moves of the Metropolitan police for their crime of cycling north of the river on the opening night of the games.
As millions of people were watching the Olympic opening ceremony from the comfort of their sofas at home, or in the stadium itself, hundreds of cyclists found themselves sitting on the pavement within sight of the stadium having been arrested for the crime of ‘cycling north of the river’. Whilst the Olympic ceremony was supposed to be a showcase of the achievements of the UK, the events occurring on its doorstep gave a much more sombre picture of the state of our democracy. With suffragettes and miners parading happily on the stage, free from the police violence that had been the reality of their struggles, perhaps the police felt the need to reassert their presence. The heavy clampdown on cyclists that night reminded us – that despite the distractions of the glorious kitsch of the Olympics – not to take our so-called freedoms for granted.
Critical Mass is a monthly celebration of cycling, and other self-propelled wheel-based forms of transport including skateboarders, wheelchairs, and roller skaters, that takes place on the last Friday of every month in over four hundred cities all over the world. In April of this year it had celebrated its 18th birthday of monthly jaunts around London which see 200-1000+ cyclists take to the roads on a spontaneous and ever changing route guided by whoever happens to be at the front. Music blaring from bike sound systems turn the mass into a giant street party, but what Critical Mass is and means is different for the huge diversity of participants. It is precisely this random nature that saw the highest law court in England overrule Metropolitan police attempts to ban Critical Mass from taking place back in 2008. Showing an impressive understanding of the nature of Critical Mass, Lord Brown of Eaton-Under-Heywood spoke eloquently in favour of the bike rides and declared them legal, ‘Spontaneity is at their heart. To insist upon a settled route would be to destroy their character and purpose…Individually cyclists feel threatened; en masse they feel in control. There is nothing intrinsically unlawful about these events, inconvenient though they sometimes are to other road users’.
Despite this ruling, the police seem to have come to the conclusion that this Olympic Critical Mass should not take place. As cyclists and skateboarders gathered on the Southbank at Waterloo bridge there was a strong police presence. Police were filming the group from the top of Waterloo bridge, other police were on bikes in an attempt to keep up with the mass, and an army helicopter flew above – a bit of an overreaction to the group of 600 or so whose aim was simply to ride around the city. Despite this unpromising start, the mass set off as usual and headed towards Waterloo bridge to cross over to the north side of the river. East London and perhaps the Olympic stadium would perhaps be sites of interest for the mass which usually pays a visit to the latest London spectacle; some cyclists and skaters had even dressed for the occasion with head sweat bands, one man sporting a gold medal around his neck with the Chariots of Fire theme song blasting out from his sound system backpack. Yet this clearly did not convince the police that we were harmless sports aficionados. They blocked the top of Waterloo bridge to prevent cyclists from passing. The mass, trying to figure out as a collective how to respond to the police obstacles in their paths, ended up splitting off into 4 different groups which all weaved their way eastwards.
Just as the spontaneity of Critical Mass had evaded the police ban in the lords, so on the ground that night, the hundreds of cyclists managed to dodge past police blockades and continue on their way. The police tactics went beyond that of blockades to the use of violence on cyclists. One youtube video shows a policeman lashing out at cyclists with his baton – a disabled man who tried to intervene after this policeman had assaulted a woman was sprayed in the face with pepper spray and arrested. Another incident saw police beating people out of the way of a car which ‘sports role model’ David Beckham was driving. Beckham then proceeded to drive dangerously along the road, narrowly missing a pedestrian and a cyclist, illustrating precisely some of the issues that Critical Mass is trying to raise.
As the hundreds of cyclists in their different groups got within sight of the Olympic stadium cyclists overheard a policeman speak into his radio ‘this is game over’. 60 police vans swarmed into the area, their sirens flashing and blaring to surround the cyclists. The police clampdown saw the largest mass arrest since the riots last August as they kettled hundreds of cyclists just over the Bow flyover. The police made 182 arrests for breaching section 12 of the Public Order Act (under which police had set conditions that cyclists must not cycle north of the river) and causing a ‘public nuisance’. Only three of those arrested have been charged suggesting that the police themselves are uncertain as to the legality of arresting people for cycling. Lawyers are looking to use the previous lords ruling to argue that these arrests were unlawful. All arrestees have strict bail conditions not allowing them near any Olympic venues and banning them from entering the borough of Newham on a bike. These punitive bail conditions may be seen as a form of extrajudicial punishment. Those who were arrested included a 13 year old boy and Aedewan Adnan, a tourist who had cycled to the Olympics from Kolkata for charity and who often joined the Critical Mass in his hometown of Kuala Lumpar. Adnan was later realised by police without charge after they realised that he was a tourist, demonstrating the police’s flexibility with their interpretations of the law.
Not only do arrests for the mere act of cycling raise deep concerns for our civil liberties, but the treatment of those who were detained by police also paint a picture of British democracy conveniently overlooked in the opening ceremony. One woman who was arrested described the experience as ‘punishment by process’. Arrestees were denied their rights as the Police and Criminal Evidence Act didn’t apply to them as they had not yet been processed. They found themselves being transported across London on double-decker buses for hours on end, denied access to the toilet, food and water (one youtube video shows a young man pleading for water to break his Ramadan fast having been denied water by the police), and with some eventually dumped in a windowless garage.
The irony of a grassroots cycling event being criminalised and clamped down, violently and possibly illegally, during this supposed worldwide celebration of sport could not be greater. To further rub salt in the wound, the opening ceremony featured fluorescent ‘dove’ cyclists circling the stage with one taking to the air as the 182 cyclists around the corner watched their bikes being thrown carelessly onto a bus by the police. This smug and complacent opening ceremony is a distraction from the real issues that our society faces, the parallel events that occurred on that night remind us that the few civil liberties we have are under constant threat to the point where riding on a bicycle can see you arrested.