Squeaky Wheel

Filmmaker Joe Biel on the rise and fall of Critical Mass in Portland.

Like all great protests, the idea behind Critical Mass was simple. In September 1992, a group of San Franciscans gathered to ride bikes after work. And cyclists kept riding together, in cities around the world, on the last Friday of every month. In Portland, these rides gave way to events like Pedalpalooza and Sunday Parkways. Critical Mass itself virtually disappeared.

In 2009, Joe Biel—activist, zinemaker, filmmaker and founder of Microcosm Publishing—began researching the history of Critical Mass in Portland. In court documents and through interviews with Charlie Hales (before he was elected mayor) and bike icons like Congressman Earl Blumenauer, Biel unearthed a long and complicated struggle between City Hall, the media, cops and bike advocates. On one side, mayors went on undercover rides; on the other, police arrested protesters and hired spies. Biel's film Aftermass: Bicycling in a Post-Critical Mass Portland, debuted in May and will screen again Friday, Sept. 12, at the Clinton Street Theater. WW spoke to Biel about cops dodging questions, Portland's protest culture and the need for grassroots activism.

WW: The film shows police giving unjustified tickets and using other questionable tactics to discourage riders. Was this point of view—pro-bike and anti-cop—intentional?

Joe Biel: I tried to rid myself of my inner teenager who is distrustful of police officers. I met with so many different officers, probably a total of a dozen meetings, to give them an opportunity to express a different point of view. A number of different people in city government said the police were approaching the problem as: Bikes don't belong in the street in the first place, period. All the conflicts arose from there.

Why did police respond this way in Portland and not, say, in San Francisco?

It was 1993 and they didn't like that Portland was being referred to as "Little Beirut," with the Bush riots just a month before the early meetings to organize Critical Mass. Portland didn't have that identity yet, whereas San Francisco did. There was validity in public protest there. Portland was still a sleepy town with strong conservative elements. From the letters of the public employees at that time, you can see people are very concerned about this. It was the battle of what the city's legacy would be.

In one interview, then-acting traffic cop Eric Schober says he has no idea what the criminal investigation department is. In the next clip, he tries to explain the use of wiretapping and spies. Can you talk about the resistance you faced from police during your research?

It bewildered me. I'm not experienced in reading court documents, so it took me a year to figure out what they said and why it was so threatening. Schober sent me an email that said, "This is real garbage you got here that you'd find in a trash can." There was an officer, Robert Pickett, and I sat down with him half a dozen times. He said, "Every time I put my olive branch out to a cyclist, it stings me at work. Every time I lean toward the department, I burn bridges with the cycling community." That was the saddest part. But that conflict has largely subsided.

What's your favorite moment in the film?

Where reporters introduce a news segment and say [Critical Mass] are anarchists riding bicycles, and in the very next clip, most of the attendees say they are not anarchists. It just gets better and better and better.

At one point, Bike Transportation Alliance employee Michelle Poyourow describes Danish bike planners who visit Portland and say, "Aww, it's so cute you think you ride bikes," and that we'll know we're a bike city when we stop having to make such a big deal about it.

What I took from her statement was how advocacy can be pushed further by street-level activism, in turn allowing us to have bigger asks from elected leaders. You need to have all three for it to work. Otherwise, you have this conservative stagnancy. In people's perception, we already have everything we need, so there's no reason for activism to exist. It's an attitude I've encountered over and over. That was the motivation to make the film, to explain how that sort of political will and process occurs. 

SEE IT: Aftermass: Bicycling in a Post-Critical Mass Portland is at the Clinton Street Theater, 2522 SE Clinton St., on Friday, Sept. 12. 7 pm. $7.

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