“Bike swarm” helps Portland keep the peace

Revised and updated:

All that the bicyclists did was ride around and around the contested parks through a long, sometimes tense, mostly peaceful night in Portland, Oregon—November 12-13, 2011. Watching on the continuous television broadcast, you could see the cyclists coming along SW 3rd Avenue through the darkness, their headlights softened by the wispy fog of the damp night air.

Each time the “bike swarm” approached, the tightly packed members of Occupy Portland who filled the street and the solid phalanx of Portland police officers arrayed against them yielded space, almost like the parting of the Red Sea when Moses raised his arm (Exodus 14:21). Fifteen or twenty cyclists at the beginning and as many as a hundred during the early morning hours, they traveled around and around and around the contested space.

They meandered along at an easy speed and stopped for red lights at intersections. Ordinary bikes, for the most part, a tall bike now and then, cyclists in jeans and hoodies, some with helmets, the bicycle brigade conveyed a sense of friendly goodwill that eased tension and softened the tightness of the knots of people.

Jonathan Maus, who rode with the swarm off and on from about 11:45 until 5:45, described the ride this way:

As cops in full riot gear encircled the parks, a stream of people on bicycles would ride by — dinging bells, lights blinking — and the very appreciative crowd would yell “thank you!” and give high fives as we passed. The ‘bike brigade’ (as I heard one reporter call it), seemed to provide everyone with a little stress relief. The passing line of bikes also helped break the monotony of what was a very long morning.

An especially significant moment came near the end of this intense but remarkably peaceful period of time. Again, quoting Maus:

At the end of the night, after occupiers respected a request from police to retreat back to the parks, all that was left of the police force was a line of cops in riot gear blocking SW Madison Ave. The crowd chanted, “Who’s blocking the street now?” and the bike brigade rolled right up to them. The cops relented and the bikes rolled through. A magical moment and one that saw bikes take center stage for a brief — yet very poignant and pivotal moment.

Although I have rarely participated in demonstrations, I now wish that I had been part of the bicycle swarm. This small group of Portlanders used the unique features of human powered, two-wheeled vehicles in a wonderfully creative manner.

By rolling along through streets jammed with people, they maintained the principle that these streets are there to provide places for traffic to flow.

By their personal vulnerability on their fragile machines, they accented the importance of using modest modes of demonstrating power.

They manifested a whimsical spirit that seemed able to soften both sides of the often-tense face-offs.

While the intention of many (perhaps all) of the cyclists was to support Occupy Portland, they did so in a manner that was distinctly different from the main features of the encampment itself.

Portland has embraced bicycling as an important part of the city’s life, and cyclists are always to be seen throughout the community. Despite the generally positive attitude of the public toward the “bicycling community,” there are continuing tensions, some of them the direct result of bizarre behavior by cyclists. On this one long night, however, a  few cyclists earned the respect of the city in a way that increases my delight that I too am a cyclist in this wonderful place.

Note: Later that Sunday, the Portland Police Bureau completed its announced goal of closing the Occupy Portland encampment. During the week since then, Occupy Portland has continued to hold General Assemblies, marches, and demonstrations. Police officers have demonstrated a steady determination to allow assembly and free speech while keeping streets and public places open for their ordinary uses. There have been moments when the harsher aspects of confrontation have briefly taken place, yet a certain degree of civility has continued to characterize the occupy movement and the peace officers of the city.

Bicycles continue to be an important element in the  Occupy Portland story. Again, Jonathan Maus reports from the vantage point that only direct participation can provide. In his description of the actions on N17, he comments on the humanizing effect that police officers on bicycles bring to engagements that might otherwise be much more tense. 



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