On Critical Mass and the First Amendment


Reverend Billy leads his flock during Critical Mass rides in New York. Photo by Fred Askew. www.fredaskew.com
Reverend Billy leads his flock during Critical Mass rides in New York.
Photo by Fred Askew, www.fredaskew.com

Reverend Billy—that would be me—was arrested while reciting the First Amendment during a Critical Mass bicycle ride in downtown New York City. I joined the hundreds of bicyclists who have been arrested over the years for their wheeled First Amendment expression. The New York police have curtailed, or demanded that we get Kafka-nightmare police permits for: dancing, shouting too loudly (as defined by the officer) with the unaided voice, parading, biking, postering, handing out political leaflets, using a battery-operated bullhorn, selling art on the sidewalk, well—you get the picture. We certainly do. We have our own adjustment to the First Amendment. “NYPD shall make no law… .”

People sense that now is the time to support the First Amendment. Critical Mass bicyclists are supporting it by saying that it is their only required permit. The rides are peaceable assembly. Their free expression comes in an intriguing form—the act of traveling by bicycle up streets and down avenues where defenders of the internal combustion engine have built a thick book of pre-emptive, car-friendly laws.

Critical Mass is leaderless and has no set route for its parades. To the cops it is like a mirage. Something in the sinuous mystery of the rides makes them gravitate to their power. The uninstructed bicyclists slowly circle out from Union Square and might suddenly take a hard left up 16th Street in an act like the flock-mind of birds. They just go.

Critical Mass represents freedom in public space, where ads, cell phones, surveillance, and traffic jams have melded together to make sections of Manhattan the outdoor equivalent of a privatized (First Amendment-free) super mall. These bikers don't wear logos; they are not en route to a purchase. The bicyclists are opening up public space as citizens see them wheeling by, and their trips through the city are ushered forward by a rolling citizens' cheer. Critical Mass bikers make it realistic that there is more in life than consumption, and people who see them feel relieved.

A nude bicyclist demonstrates freedom of expression for NY police. Photo by Fred Askew. www.fredaskew.com
A bicyclist demonstrates freedom of expression for NY police.
Photo by Fred Askew, www.fredaskew.com

What form would the Boston Tea Party take today, against our psychological traffic jam? What is our equivalent to Rosa Parks sitting in the front of the bus? … of Lenny Bruce talking dirty? … of Wangari Maathai lowering a seedling into the ground? We are instructed by all the enforcers of consumption that to speak up is inappropriate, to act up is illegal, and to ride a bicycle you must file your parade plans. But if we all begin to re-inhabit public space bravely, then there is a critical mass we can reach with the help of the First Amendment's 45 words.

There has been sacrifice for our freedoms, and not only sacrifice in war but also here at home as strikers, civil rights marchers, anti-war demonstrators, and now Critical Mass riders put their bodies on the line. We are walking around inside the freedom that has been opened up by brave people, their bodies, and their words.

The First Amendment offers all of us our sweaty bodies and souls back. Our 45 beautiful words invite us to appreciate who we always were, and that is the most powerful thing. I mean, that is my faith.

Reverend Billy wrote this article as part of Liberate Your Space, the Winter 2008 issue of YES! Magazine. Reverend Billy preaches the gospel of the Church of Stop Shopping on the streets of New York and nationwide. Photo of Reverend Billy. Source: onthecommons.org
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