On 16th February hundreds of anti-road protesters were evicted from a row of houses in Wanstead by an army of 600 police, security guards and bailiffs. The houses were flattened to make way for the infamous M11 link road through East London. This and many of the following protests were to define the way for increasingly diverse direct action for years to come.
An account from a participant (nicked off Indymedia)
“For me and many others involved in the campaign against the M11 link road this was the most intense period of my life. The protests were always incredibly full on, we gained enormous respect for each other and lifelong friendships were forged as a result of being engaged in – as it seemed to us then – such an epic and sometimes dangerous struggle against injustice. I feel that it was such an important episode in the social history of London that it’d be good to use the anniversary to share some of my photos and experiences which will hopefully be of interest to those who were too young to have been around and will also be a good nostalgia trip for those who were as similarly involved as me.
Some background history:
The M11 link road had to be one of the most unjustified road schemes bulldozed through during the Thatcher government’s insane “greatest road building program since the Romans”. 1000 people were to be evicted by the demolition of 300+ houses in a swathe of destruction through Wanstead, Leyton and Leytonstone. It went against all the planning guidelines because it was not an orbital road but a radial one, funnelling yet more traffic towards the centre of London. It had been planned decades ago in a time when few people predicted that you cannot indefinitely build your way out of traffic congestion because traffic invariably grows to fill any newly built road to it’s maximum capacity.
Map of the first areas of destruction here:
There had been several public enquiries as hopelessly biased as all road enquiries are/were. The simple statistics were that about 95% of proposed road “improvement” schemes sent to public enquiry were given the green light. This was hardly surprising because:
No one was allowed to question the terms of reference of any enquiry.
Decisions were taken almost entirely by cost benefit analysis. This meant that motorists’ time wasted by sitting in self inflicted traffic jams was deemed to be worth 8 pence/minute. If the product of all those motorists’ time was more than the cost of road construction then the scheme could go ahead.
No financial cost was ever placed on communities being ripped apart, the effects of climate change, pollution, priceless landscapes destroyed etc.
The decision was never made by a judge and independent jury but instead would always be made by just one establishment figure appointed by the government itself. In the case of the M11 link road enquiry, a retired army colonel who would have spent his working life being chauffeur driven from one traffic jam to the next authorised the destruction of entire communities that he had absolutely no connection with.
In the very rare instances when planning was refused by an inquiry the transport minister would often overrule the decision – and we’re told we live in a democracy.
It was because of this appalling bias in favour of reckless road building that the direct action campaign against all the senseless destruction sprang up in the early 90’s starting at Twyford Down – a famous beauty spot near Winchester. Once protests at Twyford Down had subsided, the focus moved to the distinctly urban M11 link road campaign and to many other sites around the country. After every legal challenge was lost in the high court, we used any means that our active imaginations could come up with to obstruct the destruction at every step by squatting condemned buildings, living in trees and invading the work sites and stopping everything by placing our bodies in the way of the machinery.
Interest in the M11 campaign started slowly when destruction commenced in September 1993. In the early days while we were defending small trees by perching up them on scrubland that was being trashed by bulldozers it was difficult for us to even get coverage by local newspapers. Local support was sparse but this dramatically changed when 8 foot high fences were erected around a 250 year old sweet chestnut tree on George Green in Wanstead prior to its felling. Wanstonians were furious at this as they had always been led to believe that their village green would be untouched because the road would pass under it in a tunnel. So one Saturday an inadequate number of security guards and cops could only watch in amazement when an extraordinary display of spontaneous revolt took place as local school kids and adults and seasoned activists flattened every square metre of the fences, burned the posts and used some of the panels to build a tree house in the reclaimed tree.
The camp fire around the tree became a regular gathering point not just for protestors but all kinds and classes of local people from 8 to 80 year olds who would never normally have spoken to each other let alone to all the Earth First crustys. As one local social activist commented:
“I’ve been trying to get the local people to meet together like this for years but these people have succeeded overnight”.
A piece in the Guardian resulted in one reader spontaneously sending a letter of support addressed to the tree house and this was followed by about 400 others later to be collected into a book entitled “Dear tree”. This letter actually delivered by the postman was used in the high court to establish the tree house as a lawful dwelling thought to be a legal precedent at the time. The department of transport were then further delayed by having to go through the lengthy process of a court order in order to evict the tree house occupants before they could fell the tree. Finally in the very early morning of December 7’th 1993, 400 cops swarmed into Wanstead to enforce the felling of the tree. Despite entirely passive resistance by 250 protesters surrounding the tree, the cops resorted to apalling violence, punching kids and pensioners in the face and breaking my ankle by deliberately stamping on it under cover of darkness. This was the day that the campaign made it big on the mainstream media as the national TV news that evening showed crowds of Wanstead women and children in floods of tears as a digger callously tore the tree from its roots in the name of progress. The policing costs for the day were £100,000 and this was to be one of many increasingly costly and high profile operations during the life of the campaign.
The people of Wanstead and fellow protesters were so sickened by the government’s brutal determination to push this road scheme through that they created the independent free area of Wanstonia by declaring unilateral independence from the British state for nos. 2 – 12 Cambridge Park. This was the next group of elegant but decaying Edwardian houses due to be demolished – right next to the green where the sweet chestnut tree had recently been fought over. Wanstonia passports were printed and distributed to friendlies, official looking letters were duly sent off to the foreign office and the UN and a massive barricading operation began to prepare for the next onslaught by the hated DoT.
Lock-on arm tubes were built into chimneys on the roofs and concrete filled oildrum lock-ons perched precariously on balconies. The large conker tree in the front garden of number 2 had a spacious platform built which was connected by a high level walkway to the house. A network of ladderboards was laid over the steep tiled roofs. One room in no. 2 had all it’s windows blocked, it’s walls reinforced with concrete and an ingenious sliding access trap door installed. Two women, one of them the house’s former occupant were locked onto a concrete filled washing machine in this inner citadel along with a video activist to record any evidence of torture by the bailiffs. We had thought of hiring our own digger to excavate a moat around the entire perimeter of Wanstonia but decided we couldn’t afford it. The campaign had so few funds then that we couldn’t even afford to buy proper carabiners for attaching wrists inside the lockons and we had to use bent nails instead. The bailiffs were to quickly discover that by pulling sufficiently brutally on the arms of people locked on like this they could unbend the hooked nails – saving themselves hours of hard work with Kango hammers.
Nothing like Indymedia existed then of course as the internet had not yet properly opened up to the masses but a phone tree was quickly established ready for activating once we received the tip off that eviction was to be on Ash Wednesday. In those early days these tip offs were usually very reliable as there were many sympathisers working amongst the forces of darkness.
There was a full on party atmosphere in the doomed houses the evening before the eviction as we had networked massively with Earth First groups all around the country and succeeded in filling all the houses and roofs to bursting/sliding off point with hundreds of people. These direct action protests were considered fairly novel then as well as being highly photogenic and it was becoming easy for us to attract coverage by the mainstream media. This was helped further by us having some very talented and imaginative press release writers and a fax machine. Because of all this interest, there were plenty of mainstream journos who had made it into the houses with us. It was comical watching them make their reports for the late evening news wearing immaculate suits and then having to doss down on the grubby floor with everyone else ready for eviction the next morning.
Just after dawn police Operation Barnard kicked off right on cue as 37 riot cop vans and several coaches glided into Cambridge Park road like one long express train. About 600 cops and security guards surrounded our nascent republic to prevent anyone else being able to enter and join us. The high sheriff used a megaphone to warn us all that we were required to leave the premises immediately in case any of us didn’t realise we weren’t actually supposed to be there. This was met with a deafening roar and a surge of adrenalin from everyone in & on the houses. Bailiffs then set about smashing every window and door of the barricaded houses using sledge hammers and crow bars and dragging protesters one by one from inside.
The largest hydraulic platforms (cherry pickers) in the country were driven to the road just outside the houses to pluck us one by one from the roofs. These cherry pickers were like massive siege engines – no part of the roofs were inaccessible to them as they could extend up to 200 feet vertically, almost the same horizontally and they came equipped with two bailiffs in each basket. One of them was a complete bloody psycho who had a smirk on his face all day and delighted in swinging his pet sledge hammer at the brittle tiles as close as he could to where we were clinging on.
We tried to keep the whole thing good natured for like nearly all evictions, it could only end as a glorious defeat for us. Our intention as always was simply to spin out the process for as long as possible so as to cause maximum cost and embarrassment to the DoT. We had an absolute ethic of non-violence then and not a single tile or brick was thrown from the roofs by us and yet the bailiffs took terrible risks with our lives as they performed vicious tug-of-war with our limbs and bodies suspended way above the ground. One of the digger drivers demolished an end wall holding up the roof that I was sitting on. Of course every single one of the police on the ground turned a blind eye to all these life threatening actions.
After this eviction we regrouped further on down the route of the planned destruction and prepared for Operation Roadblock….”
Photos and the original of this report (plus good comments) at:
Watch the movie made in 1994 about the protests
And another video clip:
The campaign against the M11 was to continue through 1994 and 1995, mainly through the squatting and resistance at Claremont Road…
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online