Archive for the USA Category

Ghost Bikes, a lesson in co-feeling

Posted in Activism, art, culture, cycling, Manchester, USA on September 5, 2008 by Philonous

I’ve just read the horrific story of Stephen Wills, a Manchester cyclist who was killed by a hit an run driver in April this year. I have some vague remembrances of seeing an e-mail on the Critical Mass mailing list about this at the time but hadn’t quite realised what had happened.

Stephen Wills (see picture) was cycling along Princess Street when he was knocked off his bike by a silver Volkswagen Golf which had just been stolen. The drivers of the car left him in the street which, to be brutally honest, I didn’t find particularly surprising.

What I did find surprising was that no-one stopped to help him. Motorists decided that they would instead try and drive around him as he lay in the middle of the road. It was only when a passing pedestrian came upon the scene that an ambulance was called. Unfortunately, it was too late and Stephen died on the way to A&E. As if this wasn’t bad enough, it emerged in the autopsy that although he had died of severe head wounds, both his legs had also been broken, suggesting he had been run over by a passing car after having been knocked over.

This tragedy sparked a spate of articles in the tabloid press rightly decrying the callousness of drivers and of ‘modern society’. Among them however was this monstrosity from the Telegraph which (please correct me if I’ve somehow misinterpreted this) seems to try to justify drivers’ reactions from a personal safety viewpoint.

It’s too dangerous now for Good Samaritans
By Harry Mount
Last Updated: 12:01am BST 18/04/2008

I wonder if the original Good Samaritan would have stopped to help the poor bicyclist who was killed by joyriders in Moss Side at the weekend.

Several drivers swerved round the dying Stephen Wills and one ran him over, breaking his legs, before somebody called an ambulance.

Manchester police were critical about the fact that no one stopped to help, but I’m not sure I would have stopped either.

Things have changed a bit since the Good Samaritan’s day. Crime figures for 20 AD are hard to get hold of but the road from Jerusalem to Jericho doesn’t sound nearly as dangerous as Princess Road, the dual carriageway in Moss Side where poor Mr Wills was killed.

According to St Luke, the victim had a rough time of it – he was stripped, beaten and robbed. But the Gospel also says that the robbers quickly cleared off.

The priest and the Levite who passed by before the Samaritan turned up were just too lazy or selfish to help out; there was no suggestion that they were under any threat of attack themselves.

Nowadays any Good Samaritan who helps a crime victim is in danger of becoming one himself, particularly in a place as violent as Moss Side.

Recently, from my sitting room window in north London, I saw a boy of about seven walk down the street, holding an aerosol can at waist height and spraying a thick white line on a wall as he ambled along.

I didn’t move; nor did any of my neighbours. We’d all come to the same cowardly but logical conclusion – better to have an ugly white line across the wall opposite our houses than an ugly knife wound across our stomachs.

We’d have had to be not only Good Samaritans to intervene, but also Optimistic, Unworldly and Extremely Rash Samaritans, too.

Apologies for this rant, but it is a natural consequence of the pit-of-my-stomach disgust inspired by the utterly ridiculous whimsy (‘Crime figures for 20 AD are hard to get hold of…’ ) with which Mount seems to approach what was a tragic circumstance. I can only bring my own prejudices to bear when I suppose that he doesn’t cycle himself and so couldn’t possibly realise that for those of us who choose or are forced by financial circumstance to cycle that being knocked over is a perpetual stress. Alas, death is not corrected as easily as scratched bodywork or a diminished no-claims bonus.

It also reminds me of mast week’s Manchester Critical Mass. Cycling through Chorlton, a white van man decided on rashness over patience and drove into the oncoming lane to overtake the mass on a busy single lane road. An oncoming taxi swerved towards the pavement to avoid a collision, narrowly missing a pedestrian and crashing into a parked car with considerable force.

In his considerable haste and imperceptible wisdom, the white van man subsequently decided to drive off as fast as possible. Summoning the vigilante within, somehow, the seething mass of bicycling humanity seemed to telepathically decide in unison that something must be done and promptly caught up with the van, surrounding it and causing a traffic jam. Though berated at the time as public nuisances by passers by and other motorists, taking down his numberplate and threatening to call the police seemed to do the trick and he returned to the scene.

I must admit, it felt incredibly empowering to actually be the cause some tangible difference. This was clearly only made possible by the sheer number of cyclists taking part and some sort of mutual understanding or compassion in the sense of Kundera’s ‘co-feeling’

To have compassion (co-feeling) means not only to be able to live with the other’s misfortune but also to feel with him any emotion-joy, anxiety, happiness, pain. This kind of compassion therefore signifies the maximal capacity of affective imagination, the art of emotional telepathy.

(from ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’, Milan Kundera)



Perhaps this is the power of grass-roots movements such as Critical Mass. Ostensibly, the event is not ‘organised’ in any formal sense. There is no ideology, no creed and indeed no rules. Incidents such as this highlight the possibility of people linked rather superficially, here by an activity, nevertheless pulling together to some real effect. It is this more than anything else that really enrages me about ill-conceived articles such as Mount’s which serve only to antagonise the public.

These pockets of co-feeling are to be found in what I understand as ‘sub-cultures’. It seems to me that groups of people who to some extent identify with each other on some grounds be it political viewpoint or musical taste have some notion of solidarity and co-feeling.

A good example of this is the bicycle messenger subculture which seems to revel in motorists’ revulsion and is driven by its non-conformity. Particularly indicative of this is the Ghost Bike movement. When cyclists or pedestrians are killed in traffic accidents, people erect a ghost bike at the point at which the accident took place as a tribute. Check out this video of the tribute ride to all those who died on the streets of NYC.

A ghost bike was made for Stephen Wills and a memorial ride was organised.

Check out some links:

God Bless America

Posted in music, USA with tags on July 31, 2008 by Philonous

‘Cause it ain’t the only place on Earth, but it’s the only place that I prefer.