Danny Boyle surprised the most cynical about the London Olympics with an opening ceremony closer to the country we recognise than expected. Collective action, dissent, humour and our public services featured centre stage in a revision test for the ideal citizennship test. The Olympic flame has been lit, the scene is set, the greatest show on earth can begin. For the next 16 days, we’ll have a feel good factor in the UK on a scale we haven’t had for years, decades even. We’ll forget about the corporate whoring, the absurdity of branding police monitoring bagel shops in East London, the easy profiteering on the back of this early peace movement. We’ll kick back, crack open more beers than are healthy and cheer the greatest athletes of eternity compete for the highest glory. Along the way, a new generation of one day British Olympians will be inspired to concentrate their lives on the good things, especially the ones we’re good at, like cycling.
Last night’s spectacular was not all the world saw of London last night. Thanks to twitter, newly emboldened by the English High Court decision earlier in the day (here’s my commentary and full appeal judgement in Paul Chambers’ case, readable on any device), a confusing alternative vision of London emerged. This other story also involved a celebration of sporting endeavour, dissent, humour and, erm, violent arrests. The occasion was critical mass, a monthly event, a peaceful plea for the pleasures of cycling.
The last Friday of every month London witnesses this a good natured mass cycle ride, which has been the subject of considerable legal argument already. The highest judges in the land (then known as the Law Lords), decided in 2008, with reference to the Public Order Act 1986, that was “inconceivable that Parliament could have intended … to outlaw events such as Critical Mass“.
Ever since April 1994, cyclists have met near the National Theatre on the South Bank and ridden as a block on the roads on a follow-my-leader basis. In other words, as the agreed facts in that case put it, “there is no fixed, settled or predetermined route, end-time or destination; where Critical Mass goes, where and what time it ends, are all things which are chosen by the actions of the participants on the day“. Yet last night, the police met them with truncheon blows and pepper spray, with kettling and multiple arrests. Cyclists were pushed to the ground. The very emblem of London, the red bus, was used to store confiscated bicycles.
View Location of cyclists arrested at Olympics on 27th July 2012 in a larger map
100 cyclists were contained by police at the junction of Stratford High Street and Warton Road, where they were held for most of the Opening Ceremony. It appears that most of them were arrested, although the police have not given any figures. Doubtless the authorities are edgy about the prospect of violence during the Olympics. Without any obvious threat, they seem to have picked on these politically minded cyclists, despite the social networks to which they belong having repeatedly declared that they do not wish to disrupt the games.
English cycling has finally come of age. Years of solid campaigning has converged in the common goals of our personal and planetary health. A few days ago, an Englishman won the Tour de France. Hopes run high for gold medals in the Olympics. Yet all this has been despite our culture of criticism of cyclists. After the last Olympics, our greatest two wheelers announced that they were going abroad to train because it was too dangerous in the UK. That’s just the road traffic for you. Last night’s action by the Metropolitan Police ramped up the risks still further. The message is, if the trucks don’t get you, the boys and girls in blue will.
I attended a London critical mass in 1996, a couple of years after it started and long before the Law Lords declared it a customary procession. Normally such processions are not required to observe the traffic lights, as anyone who has attended one will know – the normal rules of the Highway Code are suspended for the duration of the event. Having accidentally become a freelance legal observer the month before, I put my newly acquired orange bib on and went to watch what happened. I wasn’t at yesterday’s mass, this post is based on reports I’ve received. I’ll be attending the Brighton Critical Mass next month, which meets at The Level on the last Friday of every month at 6:00pm and starts riding at 6:30pm. The Metropolitan Police have inspired me again, so thanks to them for that.