As much of the world prepared to tune into the spectacle of the Olympics Opening Ceremony, around 500 cyclists were gathering at one of London’s central stations to participate in a pro-cycling event through the English capital that ended with the arrest of over 130 of its participants by the Metropolitan Police.
This has ignited a freedom of speech and movement debate as well as one surrounding the extremes Britain will go to ensure a smooth, safe and secure Games.
Critical Mass is an international movement founded in 1992 in San Francisco with regular pro-cycling events taking place in over 300 cities worldwide; it aims to raise awareness of car-clogged cities and claim the city’s streets for cyclists. It was in this spirit that the event on Friday was organized.
Police presence is usually minimal at their events in London, and the pro-cyclists are left alone; however in an atmosphere of hyper-sensitivity (and around five times the number of regular attendees, according to police reports), police decided to intervene believing that the event presented a potential disruption to the Games traffic. Some reports suggest efforts may have been made to engage with the riders before Friday to discuss their plans, and on the evening, the police used loud hailers and leaflets to explain the restrictions. Yet, the riders defied these restrictions and sought to exercise their freedom of movement rights.
Critical Mass encouraged its participants to “as usual ... peacefully assert the right of cyclists to travely safely wherever they want in London” as they immediately headed towards the Olympic Route Network despite warnings to avoid it, and after efforts by police to cordon the riders, more than 130 participants were detained under Section 12 of the Public Order Act for causing a nuisance. Although all detainees have now been released, one man commented that one of his bail conditions prevents him going within 100 yards of any Games venue for the remainder of the Olympics. This seems a little extreme for peacefully cycling on London’s roads.
The greatest irony and hypocrisy of the incident is that Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, has for months been encouraging Londoners to opt for cycling as the best means to get around the city during this period of heavy congestion. While the Critical Mass cycling event was no means “essential travel,” it certainly fell in Johnson’s cycling spirit. Although individual cyclists are unlikely to be targeted in future, ordinary Londoners may think twice about cycling for the remainder of the Games.
Controversy has further surfaced following claims that the participants were being “kettled” by the police near the Olympic Stadium; a practice that has previously resulted in legal challenges in the UK. This is a policing tactic for controlling crowds during demonstrations or protests, which essentially aim to contain the crowd in a limited area to either, force them to exit or to prevent them from leaving. What’s more, one participant remarked that he “saw several cases of police being aggressive and physical, dragging people off their bikes to the ground.” This police response appears to be very disproportional to the threat that the cyclists posed.
The Critical Mass cyclists were fully in their rights to take to the streets as they always have even in their inflated numbers. Even though their presence may have caused a slight “nuisance” to Games traffic, the London authorities should have focused instead on the event’s positive aspects that fell in line with their encouragement of cycling as a preferred means of transportation and excellent type of exercise.