The Bike Swarm: The Cavalry of the Occupy Movement

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On a cold November night in Portland, Oregon, as police in riot gear attempted to evacuate the Occupy campers from a downtown park, a contingent of about fifty bike riders took to the streets. Circling the blocks, slowing car traffic, riding around and around, ringing their bells, they were an important part of the struggle. The cyclists aimed to serve as a barrier between the police and the protestors and prove that the streets are for the 99%.

The cyclists that night responded to a call put out by several local activists. It was their first pubic action, and in the months since November 13th, they have engaged in various other acts of protest and celebration, fulfilling their stated goal of “putting the fun between your legs” and of being the two-wheeled cavalry of the Occupy movement. Naming themselves The Bike Swarm, the group of bikers, moving along together joyfully, was a logical addition to the protests since bikes are allowed on the street unlike protestors on foot.

What started as a single act in support of those facing eviction has developed into a coherent project, with its own actions, web site and a playful mission statement. “We are the Occu-riders, the cavalry. We fill the streets with our wheels and our voices. We are a peaceful, convivial band of riders, reminding our fellow demonstrators to stay nonviolent, excited, and diligent. As busy bees, we can fly through downtown and protect the march with our buzzing mobility. We circle sites of civil disobedience, bring messages to and fro, and draw the interest of other Portlanders – including the agents of the empire. When not in flight, we use our bikes to form a protective honeycomb around those on foot. We ride swiftly and stand strong. We are a team. We are a tactic. How can you swarm?”
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The bike swarmers are a diverse group. They include men and women, students and bike mechanics. Some, such as artist and filmmaker Katherine Ball, have been involved with political activism for a long time, while for others political engagement is more recent.  During a strategy session, held at a local pub, Rich Chase spoke of coming from a military family, and at one time supporting Reagan. A soldier for nine years, it was while stationed in Honduras and Korea that he began questioning the role of US bases around the globe and the war-machine. An Horizon Airlines mechanic and union activist, his involvement in a successful organizing effort convinced him that protesting and standing for one’s rights is essential.

The Swarm has made known its opinions and presence about both local and international issues. It has paid attention to transportation concerns but also to civil rights, work conditions, and war. While great strides have been made in increasing bicycle ridership and resources, Portland is still a car-dominated city. To emphasize alternative options, cyclists circled the hall where mayoral candidates were discussing issues, including a new 12-lane 3.6 billion dollar freeway bridge planned over the Colombia River. Several dozen also turned out on a snowy day to demand the right to ride bicycles in a suburban skate park. The Swarm has galvanized support from other cyclists and people concerned with civil liberties after the police confiscated the “Disco Trike” that its rider, filmmaker and activist, Dan Kaufman says has “the power to tame any crowd, cause any group of people to break out in spontaneous dance, and provide the soundtrack to the Occupy movement.“ The mayor ultimately decided to release the bike.

Other Swarm actions have included demonstrations against banks, against a possible attack on Iran, and in solidarity with immigrants, Federal postal workers facing mass layoffs as part of the privatization of their workplace, and with port workers. The latter action, on December 12th, was in support of workers whose working conditions have been under attack.  During the daylong protest, riders aided in blocking the entrances to the port, helping to shut it down.  Several weeks later, acting in solidarity with longshore and warehouse union workers of the Longview, Washington port, (where multi-national agri-business corporations control facilities) they again aided in blocking grain shipments meant to be unloaded by scab-workers. In February, the workers’ demands for union recognition, safe working conditions, job security, and fair wages were achieved.

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Responses to the Swarm have varied. Some Portlanders, such as conservative radio talk show host Victoria Taft, have complained that “they are nothing but anarchists on wheels…they use their bikes to frighten and assault the people trying to get to work. After the initial ride, where obstructing the police in evicting campers was a goal, some local cyclists have said that they would prefer that bicycles not be “politicized,” to avoid a backlash against local cyclists. Bike swarmers have responded, insisting that they are committed to non-violence. A more supportive response was by Portland historian of religion and passionate cyclist, Keith Watkins: “the bicycle brigade conveyed a sense of friendly goodwill that eased tension and softened the tightness of the knots of people…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. “

It is impossible not to “politicize” cycling, in a society where cars, speed, and the ideology of expansion and consumption dominate.  The Portland Bike Swarm along with the San Francisco Bike Cavalry are part of a long tradition of cyclists/activists contesting the use of public space and power relations. Recent incarnations include the Dutch Provos, Montreal’s Le Monde à Bicyclette, global Critical Mass rides, Reclaim the Street protests in The UK, and rides during the Copenhagen Climate Conference. At the latter, a Bike Bloc, comprised of activists including from the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination, organized actions. Much earlier antecedents include late 19th century cyclists organizing for better roads and safety and groups such as The Clarion Cycling Club spreading socialist propaganda and organizing, and Suffragettes who took to the streets on their metal steeds to show that women’s place is everywhere.

The Portland riders have promoted a peaceful and positive atmosphere, as a strategy of reaching those still on the sidelines, and also as part of the Occupy movement’s values and practices. Whether the Swarm’s future actions will change if police repression increases is yet to be seen. What is clear however is that like their illustrious ancestors, the Bike Swarm is making another dent in the empire’s shield, and aiding in the toppling of those fortified walls, while having fun in the process.
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by Alon Raab
Alon Raab rides, teaches classes on the history and culture of the bicycle (as well as religious studies courses) and is  involved in environmental and peace work, in Portland, Oregon. He is currently co-editing an anthology of global bicycle literature.

For more information on the BikeSwarm and future actions see http://www.pdxbikeswarm.org/

Occupy Portland Encampment Eviction Protest & Bike Swarm http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WlKwSgl9K8Y

Swarm the Port! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oGirwETgUdg

2 Comments

  1. Posted 27 February, 2012 at 20:42 | Permalink

    Thank-you for the great article.

    I love the BIKE SWARM!

  2. Posted 22 June, 2012 at 05:20 | Permalink

    If you like this sort of thing, visit Bike&Chain, velorutionary literary art still free and responsible until the end of June, 2012.

    Once believed riding in a posse or group was productive or sensible. For last several years preferred to go alone. Can thereby keep whatever pace I feel like and never have to stop to repair someone else’s poorly maintained clunker.

    Who really craves public nudity? Spandex is bad enough! At least it keeps you cheeks from chaffing.

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