Epilogue to “Send in the Clowns”

Upon my return to Manhattan, the heroic business of finding a purchase upon the oncoming and varied crises of the world was, of course, still underway — and clowns riding bicycles had a small part in it. The thing about clowns and bicycles, as I began to see, was that both effectively suggested that there was room enough for everyone to join in the enterprise of saving the world. On the streets of New York City, performance artist Bill Talen, known as Reverend Billy, enlisted his considerable oratorical skills to the cause of the Critical Mass bicycle rally, which now faced an anti-assembly ordinance that many took as an infringement upon the First Amendment right to peaceably assemble. Reverend Billy, who, with his Stop Shopping Gospel Choir, regularly performed exorcisms at Starbucks, Walmart, and other big box retailers across the country, was arrested for reciting the First Amendment in Union Square through a cardboard megaphone. The Bicycle Clown Brigade began staging a number of post-oppositional actions, in the name of bicycle safety. They rose early and in small groups of no more than a dozen, wearing costumes and miniature roadside cones for hats, they patrolled the streets, looking for cars that were illegally parked in bike lanes. The Clown Brigade would surround an offending car, and, in pantomime, before crowds of bemused spectators, try without effect to push the car out of the way. They would get on their knees and beg the car to move. They would begin to cry. Then they would issue a fake parking ticket, which looked more or less like a real traffic ticket — the kind of heart-stopping bright orange one dreads seeing on the windshield–but theirs contained only a message: You could have gotten a $150 ticket. Please share the road.

Post-oppositionalist theater of this sort was, of course, a kind of paradox. It did, in fact, involve direct action, a furthering of a concomitant, if sometimes deeply implied, cause; that is to say, a stance in opposition to established policy — it’s just that the “actions” involved were often not the kind you might expect. Overnight, fluffy anarchists might, for instance, plant a beautiful garden in the middle of a public square. News cameras descending, the local authorities were thus placed in the awkward and embarrassing position of ripping out beautiful gardens on the six o’clock news. In France, a mysterious organization sets up instant lavish dinner parties in public spaces, then disperses just as quickly. Anarchists traded these exploits like a kind of currency. But most activists combined such ephemera with the more conventional methods of direct engagement. The hard-nosed legal tactics from environmental organizations like Time’s Up, for instance, had obliged the City of New York to make it easier and safer for people to commute on bicycles. Indeed, Times Up, using lawyers, news conferences, and megaphones had scored a few important victories. The city had recently issued a new Bicycle Safety Plan, promising to add 300 more bike lanes, and the Police Commissioner had been obliged to withdraw a plan that would have required all future Critical Mass rallies to file a parade permit. The number of people participating in Critical Mass rallies, according to Barbara Ross, the press coordinator for Time’s Up, had not diminished, despite the city’s best efforts to thwart a movement that was populist, environmentalist, and globally minded to its core. This was a form of progress, of direct engagement–slow and steady, the product of dozens of volunteers, a number of very good lawyers, and a few persistent clowns, extracting, in a motley sort of civics practicum, concessions from big city government. It was the exercise of liberty, at the level of the street, where the rubber literally hit the road.

And some of them were Scary clowns — like Black Label, a bicycle gang whose members, many of them art students living near the Brooklyn Navy Yard, rode bicycles around Brooklyn, Austin, Chicago, Minneapolis, Reno, and other places across the country wearing black boots and Dumpster clothes and hooded sweatshirts and sleeveless jean jackets emblazoned with gang colors — other gangs included “Chunk 666,” “Rat Patrol,” and the “Cutthroats.” They drank beer, took the tires off their bicycles and then clanked down the streets, heaping abuse upon the world, sparks shooting from bare rims. They were an underground, non-consumerist, anti-petroleum movement of radical bicyclists, outsider all, (they had a special group for misfits called the “Nowhere” chapter), with a deeply pessimistic view of the future. One afternoon, a day or two after my first Critical Mass rally, I rode my bicycle across the Brooklyn Bridge to an annual gathering of Bike Kill hosted by Black Label in Green Point. On one side of a closed-off street was a tall chain link fence on which people were perched, in silhouette, for a better view. Black Label gang members lounged on a junk car, which served as an entry point, and boisterously hailed each other with obscenities and hugs. There were mutant bike chariot relays, an obstacle course, and tall bike jousts. It was impossible, I was repeatedly reminded, to wipe out on a bicycle gracefully. What the events had going for them was this singular, clown-like insight, repeated throughout the afternoon in wincing, bone-snapping, head-over-handlebars slapstick. Later, as evening approached, I noticed a crowd had begun to push the derelict old car from its spot on the street. I turned to follow the procession as they moved the vehicle to the end of the block, and then I watched as the members of Black Label, and the Rat Patrol, and the Cutthroats, and Chunk 666 spent an hour or so, with crow bars, and sticks and their own feet and fists, taking turns systematically smashing and tearing the car to pieces to the cheers of the surrounding mob.