Bikes During Wartime: Cycling Against the Persian Gulf War

Historical Essay

by Greta Shred

Previous to the 1991 Gulf War, the bike scene was politicized, but it was all exercising the riqht to have fun and be addicted to adrenaline. Then with the advent of a hugely unpopular,thinly-veiled oil war, bike riding took on a new urgency and relevance. There were always environmental bikeys, but we drunken bikers didn't hang out with them, really, and vice versa. Now we all had something in common.

During the war, the bicycle became the symbol of constructive protest. It was the opposite of a car. Cars, and the attendant oil-based economy, were the enemy of the people, and everyone finally admitted it. Protest rides swelled to mammoth numbers, and were a graceful, beautiful, leaderless current of riders, a quiet orchestra of free wheels spinning inevitably towards the Bay Bridge, or some other vulnerable major artery, enormously successful at halting traffic, causing untold chaos, and almost always avoiding injury by the fuzz.

Like after the earthquake, though, there was a weird sense of, like, power-outage. This was because the riots and protests that we saw and caused each day were 100% blacked out of the broadcast news. My understanding was that during the Vietnam war, the news media were VERY interested in reporting protest and war footage, even if only to boost ratings. But conversely, in the Iraq War, even the most sensational flagburning and street-lying-in and property destruction and fuzz-baiting failed to make it into the public information pool. The news just wasn't showing it.


San Francisco Chronicle, January 17, 1991.

This began as curious, but grew more and more eerie and distressing. It soon became apparent that the consolidation of the TV networks and defense industry was more of a force than sensationalism. That's what was really creepy. ALL THOSE PARANOID LEFTIES WERE RIGHT! It made you feel like the whole city could be reduced to ashes and the news would still be showing cockpit images of .smart bombs via infrared, and flashing the president's approval rating...

Which in a way, is what happened. One of the fun things that people did were starting fires in the middle of Market Street, in front of the Chevron building, like EVERY NIGHT. I don't know where the rest of the populace was at that time... But no one seemed to want to drive on Market, or stop us. I'm not a big fan of hippie drunming, and in a weird way the appearance of a large fire in a crowd seems to signal the onset of some shirtless individuals with drums between their knees, so that would be my cue to leave.

During the nights, there were so many simultaneous protests that you could ride around downtown from one to the other, torchlit decentralized outbreaks of anger and. indignation in the streets. From Folsom and First, or so, you could see the masses up on the Transbay Terminal overpass thing, in mano a mano combat with the overwhelmed riot police. There were a number of us below, stopped on our bikes with our cardboard signs, watching in wonder. It was really neat to see.

There must have been HUGE numbers of us, though, because for most of it, the police just did nothing. They certainly did nothing effective. I remember being chased down U.N. Plaza by some fuzz, after defacing a federal building, but his pursuit was half-hearted, and not really a threat.

After a day of holding signs and a night of breaking windows, we would head back to the Mission to regroup. Someone would turn on a TV, and once again we would be enraged by the boosterism. Even our own lame KQED got in on the censorship, by refusing to air any dissenting opinions.

So,in one of the coolest events of the resistance process, somebody put together a show where they projected video footage of protests from all over the country, on the side of the KQED building on York Street! (the flyer said something like “see the real news on KQED!”) There wasn’t a sound system, but I think the organizer was narrating and commentating on a bullhorn. It was at night, and a huge crowd was there, and the KQED supposed-liberals were hunkered in their studios, sucking up to their corporate sponsors through the whole event (and the whole war, frankly). It was neat to see that people in all these other towns were as outraged as we were; I mean aside from that it was fun to have a movie party in the street in the Mission, it was really great to see the footage, and see people in Madison, Wisconsin and Butler, Pennsylvania, running onto basketball courts during games and laying down on the floorboards with protest signs (and more stuff that didn’t make it to the major network news). Well, fuck KQED, we saw it ourselves!

I don't like to write about stuff from long ago, because I've always prioritized imagination over accuracy. I just can't remember what really happened, it seems, because certain details seem really vivid to me, details which may be completely fictitious. That said, I remember going to a noontime bike ride/protest on a beautiful surmy day, by myself. There were a few hundred people there already. As usual, during massive protest rides, the bikes replaced the cars and spread out over all the lanes, and so an eerie quiet took over.

This was before Critical Mass, it's important to note. The bike riders didn't usually ride together, and many cyclists were sort of eyeing the others around them with appraisal, or even suspicion. There was no whooping, no bell-ringing. It was a tense anticipation, not a monolithic mob. Plus, it was daytime, downtown, so no one was hardly even drunk. There was a little chanting of anti-war slogans, and there was a half-assed police motorcycle escort. The ride, started heading east on Market, and turned south on Second street. Soon enough, we were all at the foot of the on-ranp of the Bay Bridge, on Harrison and First. It seemed like there was no leader, just everybody heading towards the bridge in unison. The police were scurrying to head us off, but they were never fast enough. It was as if they couldn't bring themselves to believe that we would go there.

There was a sort of a wordless standoff at the edge of the ramp, where two sorry cops were standing alone at the head of it, trying to look big enough to intimidate what must have been 300 or 400 bikes by that time... After maybe twenty seconds, some biker said, "Fuck it, I'm going!" Then we all surged forward and the two fuzz had to step aside. We merged onto the bridge, more motorcycle cops showed up, and we pretty much used the west end of the bridge to block all the traffic.

Once on the bridge, the actual protest was fairly uneventful (except when Iraya kicked over the WHOLE ROW of cop motorcycles, achieving instant arrest and a “FREE IRAYA” campaign). The exciting thing was that we were successful, we effected the sneak attack, we were where we were not allowed, it was a rare view. It was spontaneous, energetic, dangerous, and not bogged down by bureaucracy. It was everything the Critical Mass is not.

My favorite thing, though, and a weird side effect of the Iraq War, was the bike rides that took place after the initial anti-war effort. I mean, in retrospect, it was a fleeting moment. The first 49-mile ride, for example, was a bonanza of both spandex and beer—it seems to me that do-gooder cyclists and drunk punk bikers and messengers were like the peaceable kingdom (that painting where the jungle animals are all kickin’ it in harmony). Guys in shiny shorts were sharing beers at each stop (well, at least they were waiting patiently while the rest of us shared beers) and we, for our part, were all more or less sticking to the route.

Now we have Critical Mass, and way more bikes in general. I guess that means progress. There are enough bikers that people have gone back to their separate cliques, and they have plenty of event to go to so they don’t need to really intermingle… Maybe I don’t even want to intermingle, to tell you the truth. But it was a cool thing while it lasted.

Anti-war flyers