by Our Bicycle Lives
Happily, I have had little contact with the police, both on and off the bike. I remember being stopped some years ago by two officers on the beat in Leicester Square, who asked me to get off my bike and walk. Which I did. Who was I to argue with two stern blokes who have the law for them? That pretty much sums up my feelings towards the force, as they are aptly named: they are the embodiment of the Law, and being a law-abiding or even a law-fearing citizen, the less I see them the better. I know of friends or colleagues who have been fined or given a good talking to for cycling through red lights, or arrested for taking part in Critical Mass but nothing of the sort has ever happened to me.
I imagine that our personal attitudes towards the police stem from our behaviour as road users and cyclists: do we feel that we have rights or that we have duties over this shared space? I sometimes wish I could echo a friend who once said to me: ‘I enjoy skipping lights, I reckon it’s one of my rights as a cyclist.’ If I believe I have a right to be on the road, I am generally – unfortunately! – firmly on the duties side and have never managed to rid myself of the need to be accountable for my actions. More’s the pity! So I live in fear, or guilt when I occasionally break the law: pavement cycling, amber gambling, moon gazing . . .
Even a (mostly) considerate cyclist like myself views the police with diffidence. I’ve never thought of them as being ‘on my side’, so to speak. On the road, we’re the small fry, an easy target if we have the misfortune to put a wheel wrong. It’s Catch Us If You Can, and as in the 1965 John Boorman film (nothing to do with bicycles, only some 1960’s harmless fun), they easily can, much more so than a speeding motorbike for example. I once chuckled when I saw a police car catching up with someone cycling without lights, the same cyclist who had overtaken me dangerously only seconds before, but I am yet to see motorists who put me at risk being chased by the police.
This seems to me a classic case of the majority protecting its own rights and privileges. Years of being part of a minority – diversely known as a menace to smooth traffic flow, red-light-jumping louts, or an eccentric and bizarrely attired lot – and of getting used to being the underdog, have perhaps trained me to think in these terms. If we were policed by meditation aficionados or vegan mums, I would probably think otherwise, and it would feel different too. I am obviously being unfair: such a large organisation as the police force must necessarily be diverse, but on the other hand, exercising some kind of power over ordinary citizens does appeal to certain people and is probably not the dream job of freethinkers. The police? Mr Average in a car. No reason why they would think differently from the man in the street, and one shouldn’t expect them to set the standards either.
While I do feel some kinship with the bicycle police, who like me have to contend with headwinds and potholes and HGVs, the only positive contact I’ve ever had with the police was when they very helpfully security-tagged my bike. All of a sudden, I was given advice and support instead of negative vibes (cue being fined for not cycling in the bike lane, which is not mandatory and this is why). Other bloggers write about prejudices and reactionary policing. The many incident reports I’ve come across online (bicycle thefts, collisions, assaults) certainly build the image of an unconcerned and unsympathetic police force, even if, as someone put it, ‘evidence is not the plural of anecdote’. Tom Richards hits the nail on the head when he writes that ‘The Met’s attitude towards Critical Mass represents in microcosm the profound disinterest in engaging with cycling that permeates all of our public institutions.’ So sadly true. Let’s only hope that, as the status of the bicycle is rising and cycling is becoming a more mainstream activity, with rush hour cyclists outnumbering cars on some of London’s busiest commuter routes, we will gain more clout with traditionally conservative authority figures.