Two wheels bad – a bitter Olympic legacy

While the world watched winged cycling angels drift around the Olympic stadium in London during the bad and obscenely expensive trip that was Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony, outside, on the streets of Newham borough and nearer central London, cyclists were being kettled, beaten and arrested in large numbers by the Metropolitan Police and British Transport Police.

Take the following incident, which took place near Blackfriars Bridge…

The cyclists shown here were part of a Critical Mass ride. These take place every Friday evening in London, and are a both a communal celebration of cycling, and a bit of a windup for motorists who resent velopedists proving beyond doubt that cycling is the fastest and most efficient mode of terrestrial transport in England’s congested capital.

Last Friday, however, happened to be the day of the grand opening of the London 2012 Olympic Games, and the city’s cyclists are a little miffed at the additional restrictions imposed by the vast network of Zil lanes reserved for Olympic dignitaries and athletes. Hence the added protest element of this particular Critical Mass ride.

Having seen some of the online discussion prior to Friday’s Critical Mass, I’m aware of a division between the traditional Critical Mass crowd and those who would to use the event to stir things up for political ends. But despite the presence of a few “occupists”, or anticapitalist malcontents, it was no simple bipolar argument, and much of the debate was constructive.

As for those with an overtly political agenda, and who may or may not have been traditionally associated with Critical Mass, I have to say that picking a fight with the state can be a thoroughly decent and honourable thing to do, provided the rationale is sound, you are fully prepared to face the consequences, and are not bouncing others into following your agenda. In the case of the fracas near Vauxhall Bridge, I wasn’t there, and so cannot comment on the details. But given the nature of what kicked off, I wouldn’t necessarily trust the accounts of eyewitnesses.

On first inspection, what we can see from the video above is a young male British Transport Police officer identifiable as #4125 reacting in a violent and petulant manner to a provocation from a gobby young woman variously described as a “goth”. After the officer had employed CS gas to further inflame the situation, and had failed to detain the gobby one, he then lost control and lashed out at others who failed to respect his authority, thereby making the situation a whole lot worse.

It was unprofessional behaviour on the part of the police officer, and, based on the video evidence, I would suggest that he find another line of work more in keeping with his abilities. This does not justify the provocative behaviour that seems to have led him to lash out in the first place, but one expects better of a police officer.

I made a conscious decision not to attend the Critical Mass on Friday, despite being tempted to do so. My reason for not going was that Britain is currently caught up in a “National Hallucination”, to use the words of writer Ian Sinclair. I say “currently”, but there are welcome indications that we are already tiring of this wretched circus.

Instead of attending the Critical Mass, I stayed at home and watched part of the Olympics opening ceremony on the telly. Casting aside all the hyperbole surrounding the event, noticeably missing from Danny Boyle’s vision of occasionally bucolic and always youth-obsessed Englishness was the strimming of summer lawns contrasted with burned-out cars in run-down city estates. Still, on the plus side it led to the career implosion of a right-wing Tory MP, which was nice.

London 2012 is a Diana moment for the early 21st century, with those who cry foul at the ridiculous Spectacle cast as enemies of the people. Bravo, Herr Riefenstahl, you have served your masters well! Danny “Hug-a-nursey” Boyle has been co-opted by a ruling class considerably bigger than the Tory-Liberal government currently in power. I’m talking here of a cultural hegemony with a strong political underpinning.

Anyways, when it comes to Critical Mass and the like, we should be more careful about how we protest during the Olympic Games. Leave the serious score settling for when it’s all over. We’ve got a little list, and they’ll none of them be missed.

As for the Critical Mass protest, in the mass, 182 arrests were made, some of bystanders and by-cyclists, and only three have been charged with public order offences, including, as one wag puts it, the heinous crime of “cycling in a group north of the River Thames”. Three out of 182 speaks volumes, and this particular Olympic legacy is one that the police may come to regret.