Critical Mass is a cycling event typically held on the last Friday of the month in over 300 cities around the world. London Critical Mass has happened every last Friday for over 18 years, gathering on the South Bank under Waterloo Bridge from 6pm. At the start of the September 2005 Mass police were handing out copies of a letter from Superintendent Gomm which began:
Organisers of public processions are required by law to notify police at least 6 days before the event occurs of the date, time, proposed route and name and address of an organiser. Failure to do so makes the event unlawful.
Well the date and time are public knowledge but because there are no organisers and no predetermined route it was clearly impossible to comply. The Mass occurred as normal but the uncertainty was worrying and in January 2006 Friends of the Earth filed papers in the High Court seeking a judicial review. The process dragged on until November 2008 when the House of Lords released this judgement. Basically the Lords deemed that London Critical Mass is a public procession with respect to the Public Order Act 1986 but it is one that is commonly or customarily held and therefore (according to section 11 subsection 2) notice is not required.
Fast forward to July 2012 when the last Friday happened to coincide with the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. Two days earlier police had invoked section 12 of the Public Order Act to impose conditions, which they are permitted to do if a senior officer reasonably believes that a public procession may result in serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community. The key condition was that participants must remain south of the Thames but despite closely following a London Critical Mass Facebook page and mailing list I was unaware of this when I boarded a train on Friday evening. Arriving on the South Bank I noticed an unusual but perhaps not unexpected police presence. An officer was attempting to communicate with participants using some sort of loudhailer but due to the large crowd and high level of background noise I couldn’t make out what was being said. Apparently police were also handing out printed copies of the conditions but I never saw one.
By 7pm there were perhaps 600 cyclists gathered, which is about what I would expect on any summer Mass when the weather is good. Of course I didn’t know everyone but it seemed like the usual crowd and the usual atmosphere. The most common start to the Mass is to go up the ramp to the IMAX roundabout and then over Waterloo Bridge. That is what we tried but the police were blocking our way so while some people stayed put others headed east hoping to find another way to cross the river. For those who knew about the condition to stay south of the Thames I think it just made many of them more determined to go north and I sensed a general feeling that it was only right and proper to head towards Stratford.
I posted my ride report on the cm-london list and won’t bother repeating myself. Suffice it to say that as we approached Stratford the police seemed increasingly determined to assert some sort of control and when I came within sight of the stadium I made a decision to leave while I still could. On the way home my fears were confirmed when a friend texted me from within the confines of a police kettle. When I phoned her she said that they had been expecting to be held for a few hours and released but an order to arrest everyone had just come through from Silver Command. She ended up spending the night in Charring Cross police station.
This police statement claims that 182 people were arrested but only four were charged while the rest were released on bail pending further investigation. I suspect most won’t be charged due to the difficulty of proving not only that they were participating in Critical Mass (as opposed to just cycling and being in the wrong place at the wrong time), but that they knowingly failed to comply with conditions imposed under section 12. My guess is that the main reason for the arrests was to allow the imposition of restrictive bail conditions for the duration of the Games (one arrestee for example is forbidden from entering the Borough of Newham while in possession of a cycle).
A number of arrestees are being represented by Hodge Jones and Allen who have put some useful information on their website. Helpful support and advice is also available from Green & Black Cross. If you want to support the Critical Mass 182 then you could start by signing this petition.