DONATE

Becoming Traffic: Critical Mass, Visual Resistance and the Ghost Bike

Debra Levine | New York University

Abstract:
This paper considers the repetitive practice of group cycling in urban environments as a mode of “becoming traffic.” The embodied knowledge imparted through participation in Critical Mass bicycle rides engenders new modes of kinesthetic alliances and cultural activism such as the Ghost Bike Project. Installed by Visual Resistance, a New York City-based artist collective whose members regularly ride in Critical Mass, ghost bikes appear in public intersections where cyclists have been hit and killed by cars and trucks. Reconfiguring the topography of streets and sidewalks with these phantom bicycles, Visual Resistance marks the how automobiles and trucks have been naturalized as traffic, how city streets have been regulated to prioritize labor and capital circulation, and how individual bodies circulating outside that paradigm are rendered vulnerable. The Ghost Bike Project also indexes what can be produced politically by merely moving “differently”—how the joy and pleasure produced by groups of cyclists “becoming traffic” in the Critical Mass rides disrupts the quotidian traffic-time duration of capitalism and serves as an affective springboard from which to invent or imagine alternative usages of preexisting social terrain.

It was close to midnight and we were returning home, walking along Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn. My eleven-year-old daughter stopped and asked me, “What is that?” On the corner of my street, a bike was chained to a traffic sign. Walking toward it, I replied, “It's a ghost bike.”

Why could I articulate a name for this object? According to philosopher Henri Bergson, I had made a leap from the virtual un-extended past, and formed a recollection image that my perception acted upon (Deleuze 1991: 63). A diffused image became useful. I had an image of a segment of time. Elizabeth Padilla had been riding her bike, had been hit by one truck and then run over by another. She died at this corner one week before. I among many others was present for that event; I was walking down my street a few minutes after she had been hit. Her body lay in the blocked off intersection for hours. As with many other tragedies, I only learned who she was and what had happened in bits and pieces, in the newspaper, on the street, in the park while I was walking the dog. She wasn't wearing a helmet; she was a lawyer; she was a neighborhood person; she had just graduated law school; she loved riding her bike; she was trying to pass a ten-wheeled Edy's ice cream truck when the driver of a parked P.C. Richard & Son truck opened his door and she ran into it and fell. The Edy's truck ran her over. The truck driver, Jorge Cruz, stopped. The parked driver said he never saw her coming. No one was charged. She was lying on the street for over six hours before the police took her body. The crowd who witnessed her death wouldn't leave until she was taken away.

I attend to this ghost bike as a recollection-image in order to reconstruct disjunctive elements which seem to have some affinity for each other: a white bike locked on a street corner, a woman's death, the traffic patterns formed by the forces of late-capitalism and globalization. Visual Resistance (http://visualresistance.org), an anonymous collective of artists who met through their participation in New York City's Critical Mass bike rides, installed the ghost bike on my corner. To date they are responsible for most of the twenty-one ghost bikes in New York City. Visual Resistance is a leaderless group of artists concerned with the privatization of public space in New York City and their own vulnerability as pedestrians and cyclists. The ghost bike project is not only a memorial for a set of singular events; it works to restore an awareness of an alternative urban spatial-political choreography.

In New York City, before Robert Moses created the “public authorities,” which oversaw large-scale transportation projects (like the Henry Hudson Parkway and the Triborough Bridge) in the 1930s, only the mayor of New York City and the governor of New York State could propose capital spending projects such as roads and highways. If they did, they had to levy new taxes to pay for the project. A tax increase is always a political liability for any politician and furthermore it requires approval of the state legislature. These factors made it difficult to build large-scale capital projects without democratic support. Moses surreptitiously changed the laws governing these “authorities,” making them autonomous agencies responsible only to bondholders. They became sovereign corporations not beholden to either executive or legislative branches of the state or the city (Caro 1975: 625). Moses’ use of “eminent domain,” the state power to reclaim private properties and whole neighborhoods without the owner's consent for use in public construction projects, destroyed socially viable immigrant and working class neighborhoods. His vision for the development of a network of roads and highways diverted municipal funding for public transportation and instead contributed to the dominance of automobile culture. Robert Caro, in his brilliant biography of Moses, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, writes:

Moses displayed a genius for using the wealth of his public authorities to unite behind his aims banks, labor unions, contractors, bond underwriters, insurance firms, the great retail stores, real estate manipulators [...] he made economic, not democratic, forces the forces that counted in New York [...] By building his highways, Moses flooded the city with cars. By systematically starving subways and the suburban commuter railroads, he swelled that flood to city destroying dimensions... he insured [...] that the New York metropolitan area would be—perhaps forever—an area in which transportation—getting from one place to another—would be an irritating, life-consuming concern for its 14,000,000 residents. (Caro 1975: 18-19)

Moses changed which forces counted—not those of a citizen democracy but those of private industry and capital markets. He made sure that the grid of streets and pedestrian crossings prioritized commodity circulation over the movements of the city's residential population. The P.C. Richard and Edy’s Ice Cream trucks that caused Elizabeth Padilla’s death are a quotidian part of the parade of trucks and automobiles that always assume the greater right to occupy the streets of New York. Moses ensured that both walking and biking have become “alternative” means of transportation, and that citizens have forgotten U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert's admonition in his 1939 majority opinion in Hague v. Committee for Industrial Organization (307 U.S. 496) that “streets and parks are traditional public fora that have immemorially have been held in trust for the use of the public and [...] for purposes of assembly, communication, thoughts between citizens, and discussing public questions” (Roberts 1939).

The ghost bike reminds the public that, far from obstructing the normal flow of traffic, practices of cycling, both individually and as a group event, can be construed as a form of First Amendment-protected communication. This modest mode of kinesthetic communication seems to be disproportionately threatening to the current New York City municipal government, especially its police department, as it maniacally seeks to restrict cyclists to limited paths (which are still not respected by automobile traffic) and deny bicycles the designation of “vehicle” in certain instances, to exclude them from consideration as “traffic.” But the Vehicle and Traffic Laws of New York define “traffic” as “[p]edestrians, ridden or herded animals, vehicles, bicycles, and other conveyances either singly or together while using any highway for purposes of travel” (VTL § 152), and the New York State Highway Law grants cyclists “all of the rights [...] applicable to the driver of a vehicle” (VTL § 1231).

The definition of traffic is crucial to this analysis because ever since the 2004 Republican National Convention (RNC), officers from the New York City Police Department have been videotaping, harassing, abusing and arresting bike riders who have been riding in groups through the streets of Manhattan as part of the monthly Critical Mass bike rides. Critical Mass, according to one of its “unofficial websites” (there are no official websites because Critical Mass has no official organization—participants refer to it as an “unorganized coincidence”), is a monthly group bicycle ride on city streets that originated in San Francisco in 1992 and now happens in 327 locations worldwide in every continent except Antarctica.1 A “Critical Massifesto” posted on one of the Critical Mass websites explains the purpose of the rides by contrasting the feelings of isolation we regularly encounter in our daily travel patterns to the “euphoric vibration” of a group cycling experience:

The Critical Mass experience gives its participants something tangibly more than a mere bike ride […] Critical Mass offers itself as an antidote to the elimination of public space which plagues our lives. We no longer know (if we ever did) why we need public space, and we surely don't know what to do with it when we have it. So we roll along in a Critical Mass, vibrating with the peculiarly unique euphoria that comes from displacing the noisy, dirty stream of cars and being surrounded by interesting and attractive people. (Carlson 1994)

Critical Mass rides had been taking place in New York City mostly without incidents or harassment since 1993, but on the evening of 28 August 2004, when between 5,000 and 10,000 riders took to the streets, the New York City Police strung plastic netting across the streets in the East Village to break up the crowd and, dressed in full riot gear, arrested 264 riders. Charged either with “parading without a permit” or “obstructing the flow of traffic,” there have now been over 400 criminal prosecutions to date. Group cycling is a suspicious activity and, by virtue of the level of surveillance employed by the New York City cops, one could assume that they even find it an “anti-patriotic” practice.

From 1985 up until the enactment of the USA PATRIOT Act in 2004, the police were prohibited from participating in or gathering information on events unless there was a “criminal predicate and they had specific evidence to justify such spying” (Stolar 2006). That changed after 9/11; although the FBI's guidelines specified that the police still had to allege a criminal predicate, Interorder 47 allowed them to attend any political event and videotape and hold that tape for as long as they wanted. The NYPD now tracks individuals who publicly display expressive acts that the police view as threatening the wellbeing of the city. Because the Critical Mass Bike rides were viewed as disrupting a normative flow of political events and economic exchange during the RNC, the August 2004 Critical Mass ride was singled out as a threat that could potentially lead to terrorist activity. This enabled law enforcement to place undercover police in the rides without informing organizers of the event. The Critical Mass bike rides pissed the cops off more than any other demonstration during the RNC and the continued existence of Critical Mass has only escalated their anger.

What confounds and infuriates the police, and incites them to persecute Critical Mass with greater and increasing force, is its glorious anarchy; this movement has no fixed leaders and describes itself not as an organization but an event. Effective policing depends on isolating or arresting the leader or the exemplar in an effort to diffuse the will of the crowd. Most of the rich theoretical discussions on crowd behavior focus on the role of the leader in relationship to the crowd to explain group power dynamics. Freud hypothesizes in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego that the “psychology of the leader explains that of the crowd” (Arnason and David 2004: 39). He draws from his work in Totem and Taboo where the leader of the primal horde, the dreaded father, is “the group ideal which governs the ego in place of the ego ideal” and is the only member of the horde who has his freedom (Freud 1959: 76). Hannah Arendt, in her analysis of totalitarianism, understands the leader of the crowd (the crowd being the materialized concentration of the angry mass of individuals isolated and alienated from family, social and religious ties as they became politically enfranchised as equal citizens after World War I) to be “the embodiment of the dynamic of the movement” (Arnason and David 2004: 50) which already recognizes its individual participants as expendable. For Arendt, the leader is merely “the absolute concentration and the vacant space of power” (48).

But the Critical Mass pack is constituted in a unique manner. Its insistence on an ethic of leaderless dis-organization is vital to the manner in which power oscillates between the body of the crowd and the body of the individual. There is a “discharge”—the term used by Elias Canetti in Crowds and Power—which through the shared experience of movement the cyclists riding in a pack feel equal to all other riders. This is the moment in which Canetti says the crowd is constituted; the burdens of distance created by class hierarchies feel like they have been dissolved and “each man is as near the other as he is to himself [...] no one is greater or better than another” (Canetti 1981: 17-18). This is not a mass of people pressing up against each other in a space so densely packed that an individual loses all sense of the immediate physical outlines of the body and thinks solely with one mind. This is a practice of biking where each member of Critical Mass is conscious of two simultaneously operational body schemas. The crowd flows as one organism but that process is based upon an awareness that the habitual self-preservation skills inherent in the biomechanics of biking—balance, separation and perceptive attention to external obstacles—are still in play. Spreading in a rhizome-like fashion, Critical Mass is a thinking pack.

One of the beauties of this “dis-organization” is its nimbleness. There is no fixed destination, nor a predetermined leader; often riders who move into the lead tend to follow their luminance perception and drive the crowd toward the most brilliantly lit area. One person told me that if there were fireworks, the ride would always move in that direction (Anonymous 2005). Other times the crowd seems to gravitate towards the lights of Times Square. Individual members either stay with the pack, or if threatened, take advantage of egress provided by the side streets in order to disappear. These lines of flight provide the same pathway back the following month as paths that lead to a reconstituted pack. Leaderlessness and porousness are strategies rehearsed in these bike rides. Through this monthly practice, riders develop new habitual perceptions of how the city can be navigated differently and how their bodies can exist in a mass formation yet still retain individual agency.

Critical Mass is a critique posed by a collective public practice. While it revises one's habituated negotiation of streets and traffic, it demonstrates a mode of becoming; it is not a symbolic protest. When Critical Mass bike riders are commanded to move off the public street because they are blocking automobile traffic, their practice substantiates their performative response: “We don't block traffic, we are traffic” (Lynn, Press & Ryan 2005, emphasis mine). Indeed, the New York City vehicular laws define them as such. While the police strive to control them as some kind of exemplary parade, the Critical Mass rides are events that demand to be understood as a kinesthetic practice that trains bodies to revise their relationships to other bodies moving in unison through an urban landscape.

Critical Mass produces an alternative affect in, rather than intellectual critique of, bodies circulating. In its simple act of becoming traffic, it opens up the gap “between the pressure of society and the resistance of intelligence,” and something extraordinary is produced or embodied (Deleuze 1991: 111). Deleuze calls it “creative emotion.” He writes, “If man accedes to the open creative totality, it is therefore by acting, by creating, rather than by contemplating” (ibid). The event produced by Critical Mass acts to resist the quotidian traffic-time duration of capitalism and the mode in which it enforces the circulation of isolated irritable and alienated bodies. Critical Mass excavates a juncture in which the group literally cycles through both the present “what is done” and conflates the past before Robert Moses as a possibility for the future “what might be done” (Bergson 1998: 179). What is produced in that group ride is an affect which many riders describe as “joy or pleasure,” a springboard from which to invent or imagine alternative usages of preexisting terrains.

The ghost bike project is a product of this practice. It is a collaborative effort from Visual Resistance, whose ethos and practices are deeply rooted in an alternate understanding of what can be produced by moving differently. The ghost bike is not a personal object, nor a shrine to the dead, although shrines are built around them and offerings have been left. Neither is it a fetish object. Its impersonality relegates it to a liminal position; even as it is an object in itself, it co-exists dually in the past and present. The bike is not Elizabeth Padilla's and only has a vague representational connection to her—she died riding a bike, the ghost bike is a bike. A plaque mounted above the bike is the memorializing gesture: it, not the bike, indicates the significance of Padilla's death and ties her death to the space.

Then what exactly is a ghost bike? It is a carcass of a mass produced utilitarian object which formerly enabled motion but has been rendered physically inert. The only force applied to it is that of another's perception. Its aura is its singular remaining use value. It adds in what an accident has taken away. But affectively, the bike, like the Critical Mass bike rides, already produces a different emotion as it indexes Padilla's absence. Bergson writes that “the representation of the void is always a representation which is full and which resolves itself on analysis into two positive elements: the idea distinct or confused of a substitution and the feeling, experienced or imagined of a desire or a regret” (1998: 282). Subtracting its potential to enable motion causes it to multiply its memory value. It hovers between virtual and real. It cites the emotion of Padilla's death and adds its own uncanny affect.

Its power to arrest habitual pedestrian movement comes from its unexpected occupation of a public sidewalk and its riderless stillness. The evening of my encounter, its flat white painted metal skin was precisely equiluminant with the night sky. That lack of luminance contrast made it appear to radiate heat and cold, light and dark; lack of luminance contrast between an object and its background “makes [the object] so brilliant it begins to pulsate” (Livingston 2002: 40). Those factors allow the ghost bike to move, to perform the rotation that allows human perception to attach to it. The bike demands that pedestrians stop and attend to it; it allows us to recall that our city streets are not just conduits for the movement of goods and labor. The bike triggers an empathic response that demands that we interrogate the undisputed dominance of motor vehicle traffic on city streets.

Elizabeth Padilla died because she was knocked off her bike by one truck door opening and a second truck running over her in the street. If one is to ride a bicycle in New York City, the authorities want you to do it alone, vulnerable and paranoid. New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has been quoted saying that the responsibility rests on the bicyclists; “Even if they're in the right, they are the lightweights” (Sullivan). For a while now, police officers have been breaking up the Manhattan Critical Mass bike rides using a “hook” maneuver—police vehicles force bikers to turn onto a side street and then ride behind them to trap them into a space, arrest them and confiscate their bicycles. More recently, the police have been using their new shiny black SUVs, purchased with funds the city received after 9/11 to prevent terrorism, to break up group cyclists. Officers in SUVs ride directly into the Critical Mass bike rides and open their doors, knocking riders against each other, deliberately causing accidents with the intent to foment dissent among participating cyclists.

The New York City Republican National Convention of 2004, staged to promote New York City’s “revitalization” after 9/11, was the site of a perfect storm. The NYPD was charged with insuring that business and politics were portrayed as smooth and uninterrupted, and was given increased authority to arrest and detain suspected terrorists via the USA PATRIOT Act, increased federal financial assistance for terrorism prevention, and a public willing to trade civil rights for personal security. The biggest threat to the city was not some alien specter seeking to “tear down our American way of life,” but the presence of bodies that exercised the very constitutional rights that still tenuously exist—the right to associate in public, demonstrate against the re-election of a president who engaged the country in an unprovoked war, and ride non-fossil fuel-consuming vehicles on public streets. This is one of the many videotapes of Critical Mass rides recorded by the NYPD's Technical Assistance Response Unit, (TARU) [INSERT video footage here]. The tapes document the unwarranted arrests of cyclists and the ride itself. The footage has been retained by the NYPD not to assist in any criminal prosecution, but instead to identify individuals they have labeled a threat to national security.2 For the NYPD, an act of political demonstration—hell, just riding a bike with the “wrong people”—is enough justification to designate the participants as a political threat, and that designation could potentially constrain their freedom of movement for the rest of their lives.

I have used my encounter with the ghost bike to regain “the simple movement that runs through the lines, that binds them together and gives them significance” (Bergson 1998: 177). The ghost bike engenders an affective experience, “a kind of sympathy, [...] breaking down, by an effort of intuition, the barrier that space puts up” (ibid). According to Bergson, intuition is a fragment of the élan vital that created the universe. It sets a montage-like assemblage of images in motion. Critical Mass and Visual Resistance, the ghost bike and Liz Padilla's body on the pavement co-exist alongside Robert Moses, whose political machinations initiated this grid of automotive traffic, and the New York City Police Department, whose policing tactics depend upon exacerbating the fear, irritation and anxiety inherent in the strategies of capitalist circulation. The intervention of the ghost bike on those same city streets appeals to the intuition of its interlocutors. It is a creative method of knowledge production that operates in the same way that luminance perception does for the visual system: they both subvert intellect's habitual connections of images along the line of causality and instead allow for images to be prioritized by affect.

But emotional values change over time. The affective line I trace leads from the uncanny sadness posed in my initial encounter with the ghost bike to an intuitive understanding of what can be experienced in the resistant practices of Critical Mass. From its act of “becoming traffic,” Critical Mass unleashes the kinesthetic knowledge that facilitates the cultural activism of collectives such as Visual Resistance. Their dedication to maintaining an ongoing presence of ghost bikes on city streets and sidewalks works to expose the political and social structures that prioritize the values of capitalist circulation over the bodies of urban inhabitants. Simultaneously, the ghost bike is also a gesture toward the alternative possibilities for experiencing movement joyously alongside others, in and through public space.

My thanks to the members of Visual Resistance and attorney Gideon Oliver for their assistance on this essay, and to Andre Lepecki for his generous intellectual support.


Debra Levine, a former theatre director, AIDS activist, and documentary producer, is a doctoral candidate in the Performance Studies department at New York University. Her work currently focuses on AIDS memorials, specifically those created for World AIDS Day and A Day Without Art, as performative practices of resistance.


Endnotes

1 For the date and time of a Critical Mass ride in a location nearest to you, consult one of the unofficial Critical Mass websites: http://www.critical-mass.org.

2 According to Gideon Oliver, the attorney who has represented over 200 cyclists, “[u]ndercover officers have been a regular fixture at Critical Mass rides since at least August of 2004. They interact with bicyclists. Some undercover officers participate in rides. Other undercover officers take Polaroid pictures and video footage. In some cases, they are even fake-arrested—handcuffed, placed in vans, and later set free. The City and the District Attorney’s Office have been notified about these practices, but many of the images and information these officers have gathered are never produced in criminal cases. Because the police apparently neglect to tell prosecutors that officers performing these functions are present at all, we have not been able to call them to account for their conduct by forcing them to testify in Court. The pictures they take often disappear. Videographers who attempt to document their presence and activities have been surveilled and/or arrested themselves. These practices are offensive and quite well documented.” See http://nyc.indymedia.org/es/2005/12/62432.html.


Works Cited

Anonymous Bike Rider. 2005. Personal interview with author. Critical Mass Bike Ride. Union Square Park, New York City (25 November).

Arnason, Johann P. and David Roberts. 2004. Elias Canetti's Counter Image of Society: Crowds, Power and Transformation. Rochester, New York: Camden House.

Benjamin, Walter. 1988. Illuminations: Walter Benjamin: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt. Harry Zohn, trans. New York: Schocken Books.

Bergson, Henri. 2002. Matter and Memory. New York: Zone Books.

---. 1998. Creative Evolution. Arthur Mitchell trans. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Canetti, Elias. 1981. Crowds and Power. Carol Stewart, trans. New York: Continuum Books.

Carlson, Chris. 1994. Critical Massifesto. (7 June). http://www.scorcher.org/cmhistory/cmassifesto.html (accessed 12 February 2007).

Caro, Robert A. 1975. The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. New York: Vintage Books.

Deleuze, Gilles. 1991. Bergsonism. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam, trans. New York: Zone Books.

Freud, Sigmund. 1959. Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. James Strachey, ed. and trans. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company.

Livingstone, Margaret. 2002. Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing. New York: Harry N. Abrams.

Lynn, Andrew, Press, Elizabeth, and Ryan, Chris, dirs. 2005. Still We Ride: The Movie. In Tandem Productions. http://www.stillweridethemovie.com.

Roberts, J. 1939. Majority Opinion in 307 U.S. 496, Hague v. Committee for Industrial Organization, Certiorari to the Circuit Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. No. 651 Argued: February 27, 28 1939 – Decided: June 5, 1939. http://supct.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/historics/USSC_CR_0307_0496_ZO.html (accessed 26 January 2007).

Stolar, Marty. 2006. Report on Handshu, from "Bikes, the Police and You," a public meeting at Cardozo Law School, New York, NY (22 February).

Sullivan, Robert. 2007. "The City That Never Walks." New York Times (29 January). http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/29/opinion/29sullivan.html?_r=1&oref=slogin.

"Traffic." New York Vehicle and Traffic Law Section 152. http://law.onecle.com/new-york/vehicle-and-traffic/VAT0152_152.html (accessed 26 January 2007).

"Traffic Laws Applying to Persons Riding Bicycles Or Skating Or Gliding On In Line Skates." New York Vehicle and Traffic Law Section 1231. http://law.onecle.com/new-york/vehicle-and-traffic/VAT01231_1231.html (accessed 26 January 2007).