Aftermass explores how Portland, Oregon’s unique combination of city planning laws, bicycle advocacy actions, and Critical Mass protests led to a major culture shift in urban cycling. Rife with pitched legal battles, police conspiracies, and (mostly) peaceful mass protests, it’s a great 90 minute case study in how to wage a pedal powered revolution. We caught up with filmmaker Joe Biel of Microcosm Publishing to discuss the film while he was on tour in Texas.
Outdoor Tech: What triggered the idea to make a documentary about Critical Mass-era Portland
Joe Biel: Circa 2007, Rev Phil and I were sitting around talking about the next big thing we wanted to work on. Phil started talking about how much he would enjoy watching a film that told the history of Portland’s Critical Mass. Portland is a town full of transplants. We have an awkward relationship with our own history, and more and more of the stories we hear are false. You start to take it personally after awhile. I’ve lived in Portland since the 90s and saw how hard fought those battles were, so it was pretty heartbreaking to hear flat-out falsehoods.
OT: You were part of that Critical Mass scene. Did you have to do much research to understand all the players and events?
JB: I was never ticketed or arrested—but I did ride easily 100 times or so. As such, I came into the story assuming that I knew it. So I was shocked to learn how much the police tried to define the city’s legacy and personality in 1993. I knew about the Bicycle Bill and the BTA lawsuit. I was also aware of the zoning laws going back to the 70s that protected city size and farmland. But I didn’t understand how it all came together with the flowering of the Critical Mass movement. I spent five years working on the film and probably two of those years were spent in the city archives, doing FOIA requests and deciphering mountains of paperwork.
OT: Aftermass has some great clips from protest rides back then. Where did you find those?
JB: Thanks! I began shooting in 2002, though I wasn’t sure what I was going to use it for. We also had the cooperation of a ten-year freelance K2/KOIN news cameraman who let us use his footage. The remainder came from public domain materials on Archive.org.
OT: Given what you’ve learned, do you think that radical protest is necessary for a marginalized subculture (like cycling) to be taken seriously?
JB: Yes, it seems that in Portland, Amsterdam, and virtually everywhere except a town we visited in Wyoming, in order for real political change to happen, you must have three elements: 1) Cooperative leaders influenced by 2) Effective advocates who are able to ask for more because of 3) Street-level activists. It doesn’t need to be Critical Mass and it doesn’t need to be radical. We saw a pub crawl have the same consequences in Spokane where hundreds of cyclists would drain bars of their beer on the monthly Full Moon Ride.
OT: The police attitude towards cyclists was much more adversarial in the 90s. Was there a tipping point that changed things? Any one ride or event that was pivotal?
JB: I believe the city-sanctioned “Bike Summer Critical Mass” in August of 2002 was the climax for Portland’s cycling conflict. As you can see in the film, up until that point the police had this idea that bicyclists only commuted to inconvenience cars and be in the way. But the fallout from pepper spraying babies and arresting numerous people for “appearing to be a leader” in a city-sponsored event resulted in a massive pile of angry letters to the city (that are a bonus feature on the DVD). After that, the 2009 police training video made a point of distinguishing that “these [cyclists] aren’t aimed at traffic disruption. They bike for health, thrift, or the environment.” Despite it being literally the same people in question.
OT: You point out in Aftermass that Portland still has a long way to go to be on the level of truly bike-friendly cities like Amsterdam. What do you think the biggest obstacle is to getting there?
JB: I think we need advocates who utilize street-level activism to create a bigger ask at the city level. Amsterdam accomplished it through tens of thousands of people protesting the murder of children by cars. But in the U.S. we think of that kind of strategy as toxic. Why? The city of Portland, its residents, and planners are ready for this. The political strategy is not.