1996 was proclaimed (by the car industry) “Year of the Car”.
Reclaim The Streets turned that into ‘the Year We Squatted a Motorway’.
July that year saw RTS mount what was probably their most ambitious and gloriously subversive action – squatting a stretch of motorway. The short M41 link in Shepherds Bush – the shortest motorway in England then – was turned into a party zone for an afternoon and evening. The sight of thousands of people running onto an empty motorway shut off by large tripods is an image that stays with you…
The M41 was a hangover from a previous era of uninhibited road-building in the 1960s, similar to (if not worse than) the early 90s program that had sparked RTS’s existence. This was the West Cross Route of the Ringways project, a plan to encircle the capital with concentric rings of motorway and dual carriageway, with radial motorways and links roads fanning out in various directions. Two major elements of the Ringways scheme got built – the M25 and the North Circular Road. The South Circular expansion got bogged down; so did the third and innermost proposal, the ‘Motorway Box’ which would have formed an ‘inner ring road’; this was to have meant the demolition of thousands of homes and the relocation of over 100,000 people. In the north of the city new eight-lane motorways on raised concrete pylons were to be erected through Dalston, Highbury, Camden, Canonbury, Kilburn, Shepherds Bush… The South Cross route of the new autobahns would have driven through Barnes, Balham, Battersea, Clapham, Brixton, Camberwell and Peckham to Kidbrooke and Greenwich.
The M41 was one of only two sections of the Ringways actually ever built (along with the A102 in East London) – massive popular opposition scuppered the rest. Locals in all the neighbourhoods threatened with mass demolition got together and fought the ringway proposals in the later 1960s and early 1970s. In 1971, opposition movements coalesced into the London Motorway Action Group. The massive economic cost and opposition eventually led to the vast majority of the ‘Motorway Box’ being shelved in 1973.
Following on from two successful street parties in 1995, Reclaim the Streets set their sights on taking over a motorway.
Thousands of partygoers were invited to gather at Broadgate near Liverpool Street, on Saturday 13th July. “a good humoured crowd gathered in the sunshine, buzzing with anticipation, as a handful of baffled policemen did their best to look like they were in control of the situation.”
Leaflets were distributed asking people to “follow those with pink armbands” and to “expect the unexpected”. At 12.30pm word spread that it was time to go and a three hundred strong Critical Mass set off, while the main group, aided by undercover organisers, moved underground to the westbound Central Line. “A huge roar went up as the first of the ribbon holders was spotted heading into Liverpool Street tube station, quickly followed by the surging crowd. The sound and spectacle of a multitude of drummers echoing down the tiled corridors and a kaleidoscopic range of hair and face colours proved a little too much for a party of Japanese tourists who stood by the escalators, jaws wide open in stunned amazement. This wasn’t in the tourist book!”
Fourteen stops and six packed tube trains later the crowd emerged at Shepherds Bush; the party commuters emerged to see the entire Shepherds Bush roundabout completely gridlocked and the exit surrounded by police vans. The cops, who had merely watched to his point, blocked off the roundabout exit to the M41. Some people, thought this was the actual party site, and began dancing there.
“Some guy felt inspired to jump up and down on a traffic box stark naked, gesticulating wildly at the unamused massed ranks of officers. Unfortunately, further down the road some potential road ragers were frothing madly at the hold-up. I argued with some guy who was effin’ and blindin’ loudly from his huge shiny car.
After some debate he came up with the conclusion that he didn’t mind if he was held up because of traffic, but being held up by *people* was an absolute outrage!
The crowds continued to build to a soundtrack of drums and car horns (not all sympathetic) until we embarked on what could only be described as a military-esque pincer movement.
The mass split into two, one heading directly to the roundabout, the other slipping round the backstreets to meet up at the opposite entrance to the roundabout behind the police blockade.”
At the opposite end of the motorway the blockade crew, aware that people had arrived, went for it; outmanoeuvring police spotters, they ran onto the road, crashed two cars to block the road, and quickly threw up three tripods across the southbound carriageway. At the foot of the convoy two sound system vehicles drove on, chased by dozens of cops on foot, who managed to surround the vehicles on the empty motorway.
“The drivers were pulled out and arrested by smug police officers, certain that they had stopped the party. But the police had under-estimated the creativity of the crowd. Hearing that the road had been taken people began finding alternative ways onto it. Like a river breaking through a dam, the trickle grew into a flood. One large group walked far around the police line, coming up from behind and simply running past it onto the street! Others found ways through back streets and climbed onto the road further up… At the blockade, those not already arrested had clambered onto the sound system trucks and witnessed the amazing sight of thousands of people running up the motorway towards them. Police faces dropped quickly and as the crowd neared they began backing off. The arm-twisted, quick-cuffed arrestees, on a nod from a sergeant were swiftly de-arrested… and the vehicles were soon swarmed with partygoers. The sides of the lorries were opened and the sound systems kicked off. The people roared. The party was on!”
Within ten minutes the whole road was completely jammed with (in the parlance of various Sections of the 1994 Criminal Justice Act) a ‘large number of persons pursuing a common purpose’, enjoying the space and freedom to dance to ‘repetitive beats’ and take in the glorious sunshine.
With the crowd invading one side and the tripods and cars on the other, both sides of the motorway were now taken over… people set about transforming the landscape. Huge banners were unfurled from lamp posts… A huge sun, colourful murals; while others proclaimed ‘Destroy Power!’ ‘Support the Tubeworkers’ [who were in dispute] and the old Situationist slogan: ‘The society that abolishes adventure, makes its own abolition the only adventure’… musicians, stalls, bands, street performers and sound systems started playing… kids played contentedly in the ton of sand that had been dumped in the road. Graffiti was painted all along the concrete walls on the side of the road…
“A struggle ensued when police tried to stop other decorations and equipment being brought in from a nearby estate. One van containing the p.a. rig for live bands was impounded, but once again, faced with an active crowd, the authority of the police dissolved.”
“Three thirty foot ‘pantomime dames’ glided through the party throwing confetti. Food stalls gave away free stew and sandwiches; graffiti artists added colour to the tarmac; poets ranted from the railings; acoustic bands played and strolling players performed. The tripod sitters, isolated by a police line from the party, negotiated their inclusion and joined the mass of people. The police retreated to the ends of the road settling for re-directing traffic and arguing amongst themselves.”
Some 7,000 turned up – “as far as the eye could see there were people dancing on the road and crash barriers with DJs and sound systems doing it for love not lucre. This was rave music as it should be heard – defiant, proud, full-on and communal – without a bomber jacketed doorman in sight!”
“Despite the vibe being very friendly and totally peaceful, a few of the police (as ever) did their best to get themselves a ‘situation’ or two, using the old tactics of intimidation and confrontation.
I went up with a small posse of 15 to help out the guys sat on the tripods, and we found ourselves in the ludicrous situation of being surrounded by over 90 (yes ninety!) officers – including several officers from an armed response unit with a helicopter hovering above!”
At the height of the festivities, beneath the tall pantomime dame figures on stilts, dressed in huge farthingale Marie Antoinette skirts, people were at work with jackhammers, hacking in time to the techno, to mask the sound to the officers standing inches away, digging up the surface of the road until large craters littered the fast lane. Collectors were later seen comparing ‘chunks’ of motorway!” As far as I know a trade in ‘bits of the M41’ has never sprang up like the ‘bits of the Berlin Wall’ you can buy (I bet if you put them all together it’d be larger than the possible total concretage of the actual wall, like the bits of the true cross found in various catholic/orthodox churches….) Tree saplings – rescued from the path of the M11 link road – were then planted in the craters –
– quite simply brilliant, literally rewilding the motorway.
“As the sun set on an extraordinary day fires were lit on the road, litter was collected and the banners removed. The sound systems announced another free party elsewhere in London, then at 11pm the music went off, and the trucks drove off to the cheers of a grateful crowd.
For nearly ten hours the M41 vibrated, not to the repetitive roar of the car system, but to a human uprising; the living sound of a festival, and as one activist put it to a disgruntled copper, ‘Think yourself lucky, we could have gone anywhere: Buckingham Palace, Downing Street, thousands of people climbing up Parliament.’ “
The police later traced down two people who hired one of the drills used to dig up the road surface. One was visited in the early morning and arrested. After searching his house and confiscating some belongings, including teenage diaries (very embarrassing), police could not find the other “suspect.”
All this would be laughable, as neither of them actually did any digging.
On the same day, police visited the (tiny) office of Reclaim the Streets and took computers containing among other things, the data base… Luckily all important information had been encrypted.
Shortly after the M41 party, one Jim Sutton turned up and got involved in Reclaim The Streets, proving useful and practical, as he had a van he could shift gear in etc; always willing to drive here to there… Only his real name was Jim Boyling and he was an undercover policeman from the Met’s Special Demonstrations Squad (SDS), protege of previous spy opportunity Bob Lambert.
Interestingly for spycops nerds to examine Jim’s record – even after his involvement, it looks like his intel was not really used to prevent actions, in common with a lot of other SDS and other infiltrators. It’s true that exposing an undercover in return for stopping actions like street parties might have been weighed up and someone supervising might have felt the continuing source of inside info more valuable than busting one day’s activities/disruption. Perhaps they were waiting for ‘more serious disruption’: though June 18th definitely comprised this… But also – this isn’t Line of Duty. The Met and their secret arms have their own distinct interests and strategies, and allowing odd days of street blockading, occupations, even more serious sabotage etc, can be employed as an argument for more resources, greater powers and so on. They are also not homogenous, and struggles over strategy occur within the police too. Jim did commit perjury in court, testifying in defence of arrested RTS activists, and went on to drive for activists involved in sabotage of genetically modified crops, as well as exploiting several women for sex and fathering two children. Ever so sadly exposure from former ‘partners’ and activists has led to him being sacked from the police for misconduct – an unusual act for the cops. But then his usefulness was long at an end, publicity was bad, and the police hierarchy will shaft officers on the ground, dump them without even a thought, even undercovers, in the wider interest of their own PR and continuing operations. Prospective spycops take note.
The West Cross Route/M41 was downgraded from motorway to an A-road in 2000… What a comedown…
Here’s a fascinating account of organising the M41 party:
“I have a pain in my stomach. As the fog of sleep gives way to daylight, dawn and the strangeness of someone else’s house are the first things of which I’m aware. I don’t want to remember why. But my memory, usually unfailingly bad, lets me down again. It’s strange, this morning has been the object of so much nervous pondering over the last six months. Will it be raining? How will the police intervene? Will I panic? Will we panic? And now, as future and present collide, it’s as if there never was a past, there had always only been this day. I’ll explain. There’s a group organising what we hope will be a massive illegal street party. We want to fire an arrow of hope and life into the heart of our dying city. We’re going to take back the M41, reclaim it, steal it back from the machine. But occupying a motorway is no easy business. You can’t just walk up saying, “Excuse me, could you go away, we’re going to have a street party here.” We’ve been planning this for about five months. Everything has been looked at in detail. Every possibility scrutinised and coordinated. Even the likelihood (certainty?) that we’ll miss something. Backups for mistakes, contingencies for backups. It’s our own Frankenstein’s monster. Our own Catch 22. Once we’ve realised it’s essential to stop, to back out, it’s become impossible to do so. This is the basic plan. The crowd meet up at Liverpool Street station, the meeting place we’ve advertised in advance. Then when there’s around two thousand people, they’re directed onto the tube by people in the crowd. Then they’re taken right across London to Shepherd’s Bush where they’re directed out of the station in groups of eight hundred, and onto the motorway. The basic plan is quite simple but it’s the smaller details that really hold it together. The crowd block the northbound traffic, but for technical reasons they can’t stop the southbound traffic. That’s our job. At exactly the same time as the crowd arrives at Shepherd’s Bush, we have to drive onto the south lane, block it (by crashing two cars together and putting up tripods), and drive trucks carrying the sound systems, bouncy castles, etc. onto the road to meet the crowd. I’m in the group driving the trucks from their secret location to two points. One about two miles away, and then on signal, to another one about quarter of a mile from the motorway. A short wait, one more phone call, and we drive onto the road, block it and unload all the gear. That’s the plan anyway. I make Andy some tea. I’m staying at his address because it’s one the police don’t know. We guess they might bust the main organisers the night or morning before the event. It sounds paranoid, but it turns out to be sound thinking. I leave the house on my bike around 9.00 am. I don’t exactly feel calm but I’m on automatic, I’m pre-programmed. It’s a beautiful day. The bleached blue of sky cuts strange shapes against the jumbled horizon of a city full of question marks. I hope we can answer, I hope we can pull this off. After half an hour I arrive at the factory, our secret rendezvous. A group of Spaniards are squatting it and holding parties every now and again. Ian, a man with siesta in his blood, has sniffed them out and for the last few weeks we’ve been storing equipment and practicing the erection of our fortyfoot tripod which is to be used for blocking the road. The Spaniards hung out, sitting cat-like in the sun, looking sexy and listening to weird mixes of Mozart and techno. I think they liked us, the way you might like a furry alien. We must have seemed strange. Coming in at all hours, dropping things off, being very secretive. Then we’d rush around the courtyard, putting up creaking tripods in minutes with military precision. Well almost. Sometimes the contrast was ridiculous. Their endless dreamy siestas, us charging up and down shouting and sweating. One morning we caught the tail end of one of their parties. There were about 20 Spaniards lying around tired and happily stoned listening to very ambient, end of party music. We were there in the courtyard putting the upper section of our tripod on for the first time. Twenty bodies melting into the furniture haphazardly strewn around, us 12 maniacally constructing. Just as we lifted the last 20 foot section into place, the DJ started playing a dramatic remix of the Space Odyssey 2001 soundtrack. I realised that they were willing us on, hoping we’d succeed in our bizarre project. It’s quiet when I arrive. The sound crew are in the warehouse. They’ve been packing the trucks all night and their techno sculpture is now complete. My arrival is greeted with tired hostility which turns to laughter when they realise it’s me. But it’s the laughter of people bemused, worried even. The sound system people treat us with some suspicion. It’s not surprising. Ask anyone from a rig what they do and their answer will be reasonably clear. Ask someone from RTS and the answer will be as clear as the Thames on a foggy night. Ours is the politics of the margins, the margins where words fear to tread. But a shaman needs an audience, a religious site, and they know that we’ll try our best to provide it. Soon the RTS road crew (yeah I know) arrive, and yet despite enjoying the feeling of comradeship, the feeling of purpose, this feels like the spinning point around which months of fantasy become a terrifying reality. The two trucks are parked behind each other in the bigger of the two warehouses. The front truck contains one sound-system and three tons of sand (a beach for the kids). The other truck has a huge sound system and four 20 foot tripods, which together make the 40 foot tower. After some last-minute running around looking for that crucial remix, petrol for the generators, and so on, everybody is on board. Two drivers, two co-drivers, and the sound crews happily hidden in the back with their systems. It’s one of life’s rarer moments. Everything’s organised, we’ve taken our responsibilities seriously, and everything is going to plan. I feel like I’m going to burst but there’s also a sense of calmness that preparation allows you. Dean and I are in the front tuck. Dean’s driving, the others are waiting for us to move off. “Shall we…?” I venture. “Give us the keys then.” “Oh yeah, the keys.” I am water. The plug has been pulled. I’ve forgotten the keys. I’VE FORGOTTEN THE FUCKING KEYS. The keys to the truck. The truck with the stuff. The truck in front of the other truck. The other truck with the rest of the stuff. The truck with the tripods for the blockade, the truck with the sound systems, the beach, the everyfuckingthing. Two trucks. Eight sad tons of useless metal. One small piece of brass, a shudder of electricity, compression and life. But the key, the key whose ninety degree shift gives meaning, is four miles away. I slip from a rigidity of shock to a catatonic nothingness. It takes half an hour to drive to Muswell Hill. We’ve got to be parked up in three quarters of an hour. Without these two trucks there will be no blockade, no sound systems, and probably no street party. People are getting out, wondering what the hold-up is. I’m sitting in the cab shaking, unable to move or speak properly. This event confirms all my most firmly held doubts about myself. That: (1) I am, and always have been stupid. (2) I am not worthy of love, friendship, or trust. (3) That I will have a miserable life. Dean is staring at me from the driving seat. His eyes say it all. I know he’s thinking that I’m totally stupid, utterly untrustworthy and deserving of a miserable life. People, having discovered what’s going on, are pacing the courtyard like a troop of headless chickens. I pull back into my vacated self and maniacally start scraping every pore of my bag in the forlorn hope that…. A woman arrives in the courtyard in her car. It’s an old Fiesta, which to us shines with the perverted curves of a sports car. Like zealots we explain our plight to this goddess of fortune. She hands us the keys and a ghost of sadness shadows her face as we leave in the car, that in a strange, human way she kind of loves. Turnpike Lane passes in a blur as we speed towards the Hill. Somehow we get to the flat in 15 minutes. I charge up to the top floor. There are the keys. I run back to the car, clenching the key in fearful grip, a tiny sliver of brass thawing the ice that has entered my body. Dean’s smile mirrors my relief, and we race back towards the factory, our fragile hopes of success alive again. We arrive at the factory ten minutes over the 30 minutes we had in hand. A phone call to Liverpool Street establishes that the crowd has started to gather. I ask them to give us an extra ten minutes to get in place. Now we have to drive the trucks across London, park up in a quiet industrial estate and wait for a phone call which tells us to move to a final pitch less than half a mile from the motorway. We drive across London, every now and then spotting a group of people obviously heading for the meeting place at Liverpool Street station. I’m too vain not to feel a sense of pride, and too scared for it to make me feel anything but more nervous. We join the Westway, which rises majestically out of the chaos like a giant silver-backed reptile winding over the city. I feel young, like a child on a great adventure, the blue skies echoing our new found mood. London seems to be waiting, almost conspiring with us, as if somehow it’s a living participant in the day’s events. We pull off the motorway and drive to our first pitch. The industrial estate is virtually deserted. A jumble of silent, blank warehouses. Our cars, which are to crash and block the road, are parked at the back of the estate. With the cars are the four people responsible for the block: Louise, John, Anna, and Beth. You can tell they’re nervous. You would be if you had to stage-crash a car on one of London’s crowded motorways. A tailback of a thousand overheated motorists and you caused it. On purpose. We’ve bought the two cars for 100 pounds each. Scrap on wheels and it shows. One has died on us. NO amount of mouth-to-exhaust can bring it back. Blocking the road with one car is going to be difficult. Luckily we have a backup car. I call Des, the driver, who starts heading over. Now it’s just a case of waiting and hoping. Waiting for the call to say “move”, hoping that Des arrives before the call. So, of flesh and beating hearts we wait among the silent and formless warehouses. People are out of the trucks and lolling about in the sun. The phone rings. “Pete, it’s Des. I’ve run out of fucking petrol.” Maybe it’s right and proper that a group who claim to be against car culture should be jinxed when it comes to using them. Anyway, we’re going to have to manage the road block with just one. These problems aside, I feel surprisingly confident. It feels like some kind of miracle to be in this nowhere place waiting to pounce. If we can get this far, anything is possible. Every now and then the mobile rings. Things are OK at Liverpool Street. The crowds have started moving off and are heading towards us on the tube. And we wait. I feel like we’re on some strange island, isolated from a world we can only dream of. And then this guy wanders over, wearing a big coat and black clothes to match his long black hair. He seems vaguely pissed or stoned or both. “So, what’s happening?” “Errh… nothing much.” I sound nervous as hell. “So, what’s in the trucks?” It may have been a casual inquiry, but it’s like someone has thrown a bucket of icy water over us. I’m staring at the others and trying to look relaxed at the same time. Lee tries to shake him off, “What’s up, what you doing down here?” “Oh, my truck’s broken down. I’m parked up round the corner. Is that a sound system in the back?” Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. This is getting stranger. I’m feeling panicky again. My next words sound hollow, “Yea we’re doing a party in Hampshire tonight, should be good.” He ignores my synthetic voice and carries on, “Oh right, did you hear about the Reclaim the Streets party?” The words hang in the air like branding irons. He mutters something indiscernable and wanders off, leaving us to our paranoia. Then, as if to balance things, Des arrives. He’d managed to hitch to the petrol station and back to the car in under 20 minutes. Recent strangeness is soon forgotten as we explain the practicalities of the road-block to our new arrival. The crowd is on the way. We wait some more. The mobile rings again. It’s John. “The first tube’s gone past Marble Arch!” Now we have to move to the final pitch. It’s only just down the road, but we want to be as close as possible when the final call comes, so we can time our arrival just right. The next parkup is next to a riding school squeezed in behind a block of flats. We pull up and park in a line next to some bushes. This time there’s no lolling about, no jokes, just the weight of our nervous anticipation. If the plan goes well we shouldn’t be here for more than five minutes. The mobiles are going mad. There’s a call from Dee, her gentle nervous voice sounding strange amongst the aggressive chaos. She says there are police vans crawling all over the location, but that her group is in place. She’s part of a group of ten hiding behind a wall next to the motorway. When our cars crash, we pull the trucks up next to the wall and they all jump over, get the tripods out and put them up. We thought the police might work out where we were going by looking at the map and the direction we were heading. Our hunch was that by the time they’d worked it out we’d be too close for it to make any difference. Still, their arrival is like salt water to our already flayed nerves. In the distance we can hear police sirens above the low grumble of traffic. What is usually the slightly annoying sound of somebody else’s problem, today strikes fear into our hearts. There are probably only two or three of them, but to us it sounds like thousands. Then Clive calls. Clive is the spotter at Shepherd’s Bush, who will give us the final go ahead. He tells me that there’s a thick line of police blocking the crowd in at Shepherd’s Bush and they can’t get through onto the motorway. His words crash through me like a vandal in a greenhouse. In the background I can hear the noises of the crowd. It almost sounds like the party’s started. I tell the others, a desperate gloom envelops us, and our collective mood shifts with the speed of a retreating tide. I have spent months telling myself that even if we failed it will have been worth it. I could never have carried on if I’d thought everything hung on success. Now I see I’ve been conning myself. I feel sick. Everyone looks crushed. Jim calls. “Pete is that you?” “Yeah, fuck’s sake what’s going on.” “We can’t get through. We’re going to have to have it at Shepherd’s Bush. You’ll have to go round the back.” Even through the electronic echo I can hear the tension in his voice. He knows as well as I do that Shepherd’s Bush is a dire location. A strip of dog-shit covered lawn squeezed between two hideous shopping parades. It seems pretty unlikely that we could drive through the police cordons, and even if we could, would it be worth it? How could all those coppers get there so quickly? Why can’t the crowd break through the cordon? The hopeless, pointless, questions of loss drown out my thoughts. A mood of desolation fills me like the first cold rains of winter. It’s over. We fought the law and the law won. Sitting there in that truck in the London sunshine with those people feels like the end of hope. We start looking at the A-Z trying to work out a back route to Shepherd’s Bush. There’s no enthusiasm, this is a job now. Jen calls. She was to call if things were going badly. This call signifies a last ditch attempt to rectify things. When Clive sees there’s no way through he calls Jen. She’s waiting at the nearest station. She runs down the tube and tells people coming from Liverpool Street that there’s no way through. They then get out and approach the motorway through some back streets. “There’s a hundred or so people heading down through the back route.” By this time a small group of us are gathered round the front truck, analyzing all the information as it arrives. Everyone looks at everyone else. Hope releases tiny vascular muscles and blood lights our pale faces. A straw is floating out there on the stormy waters. This is the moment the plan comes alive. It’s like the question of artificial intelligence. I viewed the plan a bit like that. It was so complicated (too complicated) and intricate that I felt it might develop a life of its own. For months we’d worked on it in meetings without end, a tangled mess which often threatened to pull us under. Now, on the day, the plan is boss. Dean takes the initiative. “Come on, let’s fucking go for it.” The change of mood is instantaneous. A recklessness born of desperation, grabbing at straws that can give us our dreams back. This is it. The beginning. It’s like being interviewed for a job you don’t want – you can take it easy. An action that can’t succeed. I feel almost relaxed. As the convoy pulls off I’m hit by a wave of guilt. We may well be consigning thousands of pounds worth of other people’s equipment to the scrap heap. Appallingly, I ignore these moral qualms – my sense of relief is too great. It will take us a couple of minutes to reach the location. I swing between elation, “Thank fuck we’re doing something,” and profound doubt, “We’re doing this because we can’t face not doing it, we should be going to Shepherd’s Bush.” The cab is silent. Too much emotion, too much tension, words, forget it, they come from another dimension. I realise I haven’t called Dee. With fingers of lead I fumble desperately with the mobile. “Dee, we’re on the way.” “Oh, OK. I think we’re ready.” She doesn’t sound confident. We circle the final roundabout which leads onto the M41. There’s a riot van waiting on the roundabout. My sense of fatalism sets like concrete. We drive past, followed by the two cars. We take the second exit and follow the gentle curve of the slip road onto the motorway, a black unflowing river, the motorway of dreams. The slip road is held aloft by giant concrete pillars. A thin concrete wall bounds each side; on the left behind the wall there’s a skateboard park and our twelve hidden activists. Behind us the cars are slowing down to block the traffic, they hit each other, stop, and the road is sealed. We pull up next to the skateboard park and jump out. The tripod team are scrambling over the wall to join us. Now things just become a frantic chaotic blur. As we heave the tripods out of the truck I can see coppers coming through the blocked traffic towards us. Three tripods are up within 45 seconds and we’re trying to join them together. It’s like trying to communicate in a gale, we can’t hear each other above the adrenaline. The others look at me for direction, but my map has blown off in the wind. Only Dee knows what’s going on but she can’t raise her voice above the din of maleness. People climb the tripods. Incredibly the road is blocked. I look round and see the M41 stretching away from us like a desert. Utterly empty. No thousands of people, no hundreds, no-one. In the distance I can see the two trucks parked up on the hard shoulder. They’re already surrounded by coppers and still no party goers have arrived. I don’t think any of us know why, but we just start running towards the trucks. We arrive and find that Carl from Express Sounds has managed to dodge the police and get to our side of the wall. He looks dazed and wanders about aimlessly. He’s probably just lost his sound system. Just over the wall the police are arresting people and rifling through the lorry cabs. On the one hand I recognise that the street party is probably over, deep down I’m bracing myself for the humiliation of failure. On the other hand we’re all clutching at every straw, filled with a belief that even now it might still be possible. We realise that we’ve got to get onto the truck roofs. The police will want to move them, but the longer we can keep them there the more the chance of the mythical crowd appearing. The police are concentrating on their conquest. Flushed with the joy of victory they fail to see us skulking just feet away on the other side of the wall. They’re already arresting the drivers and searching the trucks. We see a space, a lucky moment when their attention is distracted. We haul ourselves over the wall and launch ourselves at the trucks. As we begin climbing I’m struck by a trembling fear that some unseen hand will grab my leg. But the police are too slow and two of us find ourselves standing on the thin aluminium tops laughing with relief. The coppers have handcuffed the drivers and sound crews, more of them are arriving all the time. Three hundred and thirty yards to the south, a wall of police vans and cop infantry has formed what looks like an impenetrable barrier blocking access from the roundabout. Anyone who managed to get through the cordon outside the tube station would be faced by this. And then we see it, our mythical crowd, shimmering mirage-like at the roundabout. They’ve managed to get through at Shepherd’s Bush. Ian and I start jumping and screaming at the crowd, our hopes alive again. Then, like a giant beast stumbling, the police line falters, and somehow the smallest breach seems suddenly to threaten the stability of the whole. The faltering becomes panic, police vans drive madly all over the place, and then the crowd bursts through. At first a trickle, the odd person sprinting onto the silent tarmac beyond the police line. Then, with sheer determination and weight, the dam bursts and 3,000 people charge onto the waiting road. At this point I look down and see a senior police officer walk over to the people under arrest and pinned to the wall. “De-arrest them.” If he hadn’t, we would have. I almost feel sorry for him. Within moments what was empty motorway, hot strips of tarmac, utterly dead, is living and moving, an instant joyous celebration. It is our moment; everyone and everything seems incredibly and wonderfully alive. Seconds later a sound-system fires up and our fragile dashed hopes become resurrected in the certainty of the dancing crowd.
Watch M41 – the film
For another view:
This is the text of a leaflet written for distribution at a 1996 Reclaim the Streets occupation of the M41 motorway, looking at the limitations of such occupations in the broader context of the capitalist restructuring occurring at the time.
Returning to Upper Street a week or two after July ’95 “Reclaim the Streets” was unsettling and strange. Heavy traffic now roared through the area where a children’s sandpit previously was and where a settee and carpet had been too.
Reclaim the Streets is a hundred times better than the average boring demo, trudging along between rows of cops to a “rally” where we’re talked at by no-hope politicians and union bureaucrats. By seizing territory and using it for our own purposes, our own party, it’s already a victory (whereas every union/Leftist campaign is already a defeat).
Still, Reclaim the Streets has its limitations, most obviously in time and space. The actions are usually strictly timed; the minority who held on after the official end last time were abandoned to our fate; a police riot. And it was bizarre the way in Islington last year diners carried on their meals outside Upper Street restaurants only a hundred metres from the blocked off street and police lines.
The use of space in the street party was highly imaginitive. The kids sandpit and grown-up’s settee in the middle of the road were a good bit of fun, demonstrating the opposition between rising traffic and human relaxation and play. The action was also one in the eye for the ‘radical’ left-wing Labour council of Islington, who try to make themselves real representatives of the local ‘citizens’. Still their attempts to do this don’t always go to plan.
At the anti-Poll tax demo at Islington town hall in early 1990 the council showed their direct democratic principles and closeness to their electors by miking up the council chamber and relaying the sound to a PA outside so anti-Poll tax demonstrators could hear the process of democracy. This backfired quite a bit though as what we could hear was the Mayor saying things like “Can the demonstrators in the public gallery stop throwing missiles into the council chamber”! Fuck their democracy and their pseudo-radicalism! We weren’t letting them screw the Poll tax on us! We were penned into a small area just outside the town hall, surrounded by cops. The first violence I saw was when a few youngsters (10 to 12 years) started throwing bottles at the cops. When the cops dived in to arrest them we couldn’t do much to save them, just throw a journalist in the cops way to try and slow them down. The main trouble started when the demo was breaking up. I didn’t see exactly what happened, but a mini-riot started and we were chased all the way from the town hall down to the Angel: to the exact spot where Reclaim the Streets was last year and where the cops started chasing us from, when that finished!
There is more to the conflict between state and protesters over roads than just a growing environmental consciousness. The expansion of the road network has been a key element in capitalist political strategy for over two decades.
The defeat of fascism, and victory for totalitarian democracy in the West, and Stalinism in the East, marked a new phase in capitalism. Both east and west did their best to integrate the proletariat (people without social power or social wealth) through high employment and a high social wage (unemployment benefit, free healthcare and education etc.). This strategy was always a bit creaky in the east with its weak capital, but in the west combined with consumerism it helped bring relative social peace through to the late 60s.
But even in the rich west, not every section of the proletariat could be bought off, even temporarily. The first break with the post-war deal came from sectors normally ignored by, and incomprehensible to, the workerist left. First of all came the struggles by blacks, including many of the poorest and oppressed amongst all proletarians. Then developed a new wave of women’s struggles. Certainly both of these had their contradictions; they took time to find their feet and also the racial or gender basis, rather than specifically proletarian, made them especially wide open to co-optation. But even so these were important struggles, the first thrashings of a waking giant. As the sixties progressed, struggles spread amongst students in many countries. After several days of rioting around the Sorbonne in Paris in ’68, these “marginal” struggles kicked off a weeks-long general strike and occupation movement with strong revolutionary overtones. This strike sent reverberations around the world, with related struggles echoing in Mexico, Italy, Poland, Britain, Portugal, Spain and many other places over the next few years.
These struggles shook capital to its foundation but never became an authentically internationalist revolutionary movement. Capitalism’s knee-jerk response was to move investment from areas of successful proletarian struggle to more placid zones (or more fascistic ones). This original “flight of capital” was quickly developed into a coherent strategy. Industries or industrial areas with strong traditions of struggle were deliberately run down. Mass unemployment was used to slash wages, including the social wage. This was blamed on “the recession” as if this was some natural disaster. Capitalist production was dispersed and internationalised so as to make any revival of proletarian class power more difficult.
This dispersal of production naturally leads to greater need for communication, transport and co-ordination between the different elements of production. This strategic attack has had a major effect on the composition of the proletariat. In the UK for example, since 1981 job cuts in mining and utilities have amounted to 442,000; in mineral and metal products 435,000; in transport 352,000; in construction 307,000. All cuts in traditional areas of class power. The biggest growth areas have been information technology with 916,000 more jobs; as well as social work with 450,000; hotel and restaurants 334,000; and education 247,000. The biggest cuts have been in traditional industry, the biggest growth in IT, connecting together the new dispersed production system. This reorganisation has been carried out with the deliberate aim of atomising our struggles. So instead of using efficient rail transport, the new model has relied instead on road transport with massive state investment in road programs. The use of road transport against class struggle became crystal clear at the News International dispute in Wapping in 1986. The typographers’ jobs were replaced by computer technology and the rest of the printers sacked and replaced by scabs. Up till then, the Sun and Times had been distributed using British Rail. But Rupert Murdoch knew he couldn’t rely on BR’s workers to distribute scab papers. Part of his winning strategy was to use his own fleet of lorries instead of rail transport. Part of our struggle against Murdoch was the blocking of roads around Wapping to try and prevent the papers getting out.
Road building is a conscious strategy of capital against proletarian struggle. Reclaim the Streets sits in a long line of struggles including Wapping, The Poll tax, even May ’68.
Capital’s strategy has undeniably been fairly effective. Workers struggles in Britain reached an historical low a couple of years back. Most workers’ struggles remain trade union style disputes in the ever diminishing state sector. The newer sectors of the workforce have yet to make any major collective struggle. For the workerist left, this is a truly depressing time. But the increasingly politicised struggles outside the workplace; the interlinked struggles of the anti-roads, anti-Job Seeker’s Allowance, anti-Criminal Justice Act etc., are much more than so called single issue campaigns. These struggles are consciously linked and determinedly expansive. Their effectiveness is certainly limited, compared to the potential of a wave of wildcat strikes or riots, but who can say that these struggles won’t play the same role as the struggles of the blacks’, women’s and students’ movements in the 60s; first skirmishes of a new revolutionary movement.
This is a version of a leaflet that was written in Summer 1996, for the ‘Reclaim the Streets’ party on/occupation of, the M41 motorway in West London, UK. For various reasons, the leaflet was not produced at that time. This slightly revised version is made available here as the comments on restructuring and recomposition have a continuing relevence.
What the (undistributed) Antagonism leaflet said about roadbuilding is interesting – but also links in to some thoughts we recently had about the M41. Roads have not only been used to defeat workers’ struggles; they are also a massive source of capitalist accumulation, of profit in themselves. The roadbuilding program of the early-mid 1990s – the trigger for the rise of Reclaim the Streets – was a hugely profitable policy for some of the UK’s biggest companies. In the end it was defeated by resistance – from the myriad anti-roads campaigns, from Twyford Down, through Oxleas Wood to the M11 and on to Newbury; there were lots of defeats, but the fightback, in the end, forced the road lobby onto the back foot and the government to pull the plug.
It was the same in the 1970s – the Ringways project was delayed and cut back so long by campaigns against the various routes, that the economy eventually ran out of steam.
The planners of all these projects always thought that massive destruction and obliteration of inner-city communities, or bulldozing through woods and fields, would be easily achieved… Massive destruction and upheaval did devastate cities in the post-WW2 decades, furthering the work of wartime bombers: building of new estates and highways made cities that functioned for car use, but isolated people in environments that quickly fell into decay or became alienating and ghettoised.
Roadbuilding has also been used to simply destroy areas – to just evict and disperse people seen as troublesome, unprofitable, rebellious, or just too poor. Some of London’s main roads were driven though ‘rookeries’ and slums in the 19th century with the deliberate aim of removing the thousands who lived in them – making profit for the road builders and shaving pounds for the well-to-do ratepayers; although quite often the inhabitants simply ended up in more crowded slums nearby…
Today the planners and developers need to be more subtle – the outcry when you bulldoze neighbourhoods is huge, so they do things on a smaller scale, usually now picking off council estates one by one. But added together, demolition and ‘regeneration’ are affecting hundreds of thousands of people across the city.
Campaigns against roadbuilding and the attendant destruction of older housing and communities in the 1970s, typified by the Ringway protests, were among the first stirrings of a stand against wholesale demolition in favour of conservation, but also of a human level grassroots sense of community asserting against hitherto all-powerful planners and politicians. Although sometimes voicing a kind of reactionary, anti-progress, middle class nimbyism, often in fact the campaigns were quite broad, if usually limited to the immediate rolling back of the project at hand. The 1990s anti-roads campaigns were similar, but transformed in one way, by the wandering eco-warriors who went from camp to camp, linking up one campaign with another, spreading and sharing experience and ideas.
Twenty years after the Ringways, Reclaim the Streets went out into the some of the same roads, with different and wider aims – to push for a redefinition of urban space itself, focussed on the road, and how it’s used, but looking to use the streets as a route to a bigger challenge – to capitalism and its control over our daily lives. If the anti-roads campaigns that RTS emerged from were mostly themselves defeated, the campaign itself was more eventually able to halt some of the government’s road expansion program. RTS’ challenge to capital was always going to be more difficult – it could only ever be the start of a conversation, a sharing of ideas and spreading of tactics.
We have written a little bit elsewhere comparing RTS and 2019’s Extinction Rebellion street demos and occupations, which echoed RTS while simultaneously large, and yet ideologically sometimes more hidebound. 2019 and XR now seem a long time ago! – what with virus lockdowns, Black Lives Matter, the last five months have seen first streets emptied – of cars, though not entirely of people, and then a resurgence of urgent street action against racism and violent racist policing, which we are still in the midst of. It would be interesting if the awareness of impending eco-disaster, the explosion of mutual aid covid-19 encouraged, the BLM movement, and the growing coming together of campaigners against gentrification and for a sustainable housing system, find common ground and common cause. Poignantly, as we partied on the M41, we danced in the shadow of Grenfell Tower…
Interestingly lockdown, and the partial relaxing of lockdown, have seen a re-colonisation of streets and urban space in some areas – less cars, more bikes, people sitting on the street; as pubs re-open and people ‘bubble up’ we’ve seen people sitting out in the roadway, on the steps, on the corners, again, in places where it had kinda died; it’ll be interesting to see if this continues. Can it be built on? There are lots of campaigns in many localities to re-design streets to reduce car use and encourage more human shared space; to reduce pollution and accidents as much as anything.
Taking over motorways is really fun – for me I will never forget the M41 party, and would love to repeat it. But I will always also remember seeing people sitting on the road in the street I lived in, during the Brixton RTS party two years later, when we’d closed the whole of central Brixton. Both felt brilliant, but the Brixton party was more direct to me – we’d taken over the streets I lived my daily life in, and showed the potential for our own areas… This is the true lesson of RTS for me, and the arena where change in roads and cars, the future, capital, work, play, locality and life can be effected, on a daily level.
But every once in a while, you also have to squat a motorway and plant some trees in the tarmac…
One of the biggest local victories against roadbuilding in the 1990s was the abandonment of the planned East London River Crossing – however, a new plan in the same area is being fought now in Silvertown.
Here’s an Archive of Reclaim The Streets parties (not by any means complete)