The Velorution

By Ferrell, Jeff | Alternatives Journal, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

The Velorution


Ferrell, Jeff, Alternatives Journal


Bicycle activists and street militants are taking anarchist tactics on the road

It's a cool summer night in Berkeley, and I'm bicycling through the dark with "The Twenty Inch Crank" -- a bicycle militant and Critical Mass activist. We are heading for the clandestine studios of Berkeley Liberation Radio. Once there, we'll broadcast two hours of Bicycle Liberation Radio, dubbing pro-cycling raps over rock and punk CDs and reading from "Bike Summer," a 16-page newspaper promoting a series of events "dis-organized" by the Bikesummer Ad Hoc Organizing Committee.

The newspaper lists a remarkable range of activities, from Critical Mass rides and self-defence classes for women cyclists to a "bring out your bike's inner fabulousness" workshop. There is also a revealing quotation, borrowed from the Zapatista uprisings in Chiapas: "'We hope you understand that this is the first time that we have tried to carry out a revolution, and we are still learning.' Subcomandante Marcos, EZLN, 10 June 1994."

Before we can get to the studio, though, we encounter the couch. A big heavy back-busting foldout bed model, stinking of too many years of sweat and spilled beer, it sits abandoned on the sidewalk near a major north/south parkway. Dismounting the bikes, we pick it up and, waiting for a break in car traffic, stagger with it out into the intersection. Aligning the couch north and south with the parkway, we slouch on its sagging cushions and rest as traffic speeds by before and behind us. And as we mount our bikes and ride away we look back, pleased by the politics of it all, by the way the couch occupies the centre of the street, a big dirty non-automotive presence glowing in the yellow radiance of the streetlights

As it turns out, Tooker Gomberg and Angela Bischoff (see their article on page 19 of this issue) know something about illicit couches too. A few months before our sofa relocation, they had found a similarly discarded couch on a Montreal sidewalk, pushed it onto the edge of the street, and sat down - for two hours. Pedestrians laughed, a crowd gathered, the police arrived. Arrested for interfering with the flow of automobile traffic, they were handcuffed, driven to the police station, held three hours, and each fined $135. Upon their release, they took the Metro back, found the couch moved to the sidewalk, and sat back down again.

But just what are the politics of this alternative world? In what sort of universe -- or, with Subcomandante Marcos, in what sort of revolution -- does one organize collective Critical Mass rides, produce pirate radio bicycle broadcasts, and reposition couches as acts of resistance?

The ecological politics of this revolution can be glimpsed with Gomberg, Bischoff and their arrest in Montreal for public couch-sitting. I first learned of their adventure in the magazine Car Busters -- which, in the same issue, includes articles on Exxon and British Petroleum, airport expansion and airplane pollution, cars and climate change, and anti-car and pro-bicycle activism around the world.

Their report is in turn reproduced in the Bike Summer newspaper, which includes in its "Bibliography for a Velorution" not only Car Busters, but magazines like Auto-Free Times, Sustainable Transport, and Transportation Alternatives. Gomberg identified himself as an "activist, writer and former Edmonton city councillor who now works for Greenpeace Canada," an organization that itself knows something of symbolically reclaiming public and natural spaces from whalers, toxic dumpers, and others.

In his report, Tooker noted that in pushing the couch into the street:

We gloried in giving back a bit of space to people. Imagine mini "Reclaim Some Tarmac" actions popping up all over the paved planet. A sofa here, a carpet there, a rocking chair. Little chunks of convivial, neighbourly space can be found in any city. Tiny plazas; non-commercial people-places. …

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