When is a protest not a protest?…When it’s Critical Mass

A bike blog post on The Guardian concerning the trial of 9 cyclists prosecuted after last summer’s Olympic Games Critical Mass.

The case seemingly revolved around the definition of protest, and whether the ill-fated ride constituted a protest event or not. The London Metropolitan Police thought it did. Critical Mass participants, arguably, did not. It is described by the author of this piece as an ‘explicitly apolitical social event’.

Critical Mass rides are patently not ‘explicitly apolitical social events’ but neither are they hotbeds of wanton anarchy either. Unfortunately and inevitably, they seem to have been drawn into debating whether or not it constituted a political event in order to contend the London Met’s deployment of section 12 of the Public Order Act (“to prevent serious public disorder, serious criminal damage or serious disruption to the life of the community”).

‘Serious disruption’ is obviously a supremely subjective term. Serious public disorder and criminal damage maybe less so. But in truth, this section is readily mobilised if a “senior police officer…reasonably believes” disorder, damage disruption or intimidation is to take place.

So no matter how hard you argue to the contrary, if the senior officer has reasonable belief – and really, that’s no great burden of proof – whatever event, procession, march or ‘apolitical’ bike ride is going to be halted and offending participants arrested. Spinning them as harmless social events won’t quite cut it, despite the obvious injustice.

Protest and Place

(Re)constructing the meaning of place, even in temporary ways, can be a tactical act of resistance along with the tactics we traditionally associate with protest, such as speeches, marches and signs.[…P]lace (re)constructions can function rhetorically to challenge dominant meanings and practices in place. Place is a performer along with activists in making and unmaking the possibilities of protest.

(Emphasis added)

From: Endres and Senda-Cook (2011) ‘Location Matters: The Rhetoric of Place in Protest’. Available here (subscription required). I’ve italicized that final sentence because it makes an incredibly important point: who, or what makes or ‘unmakes’ the possibilities of protest? Place is no container of action; no empty grid of co-ordinates waiting to be filled by protesters. Place can be made and re-made by anyone and anything – including non-human matter, and protest equally is an event comprised of and changed by bodies, words, data, legal instruments, musical instruments, walls, temporary barriers and more.