After its first big shindig in Camden High Street had hit the news with a bang in May 1995,
the second London Reclaim the Streets party was held on Sunday, July 23, at the Angel intersection in Islington, North London.
It was much bigger than Camden, with over 2,000-3000 demonstrators participating. Crowds met a mile or so away near Kings Cross, and were then led to the party location, while other activists blocked the road with tripods constructed from scaffolding, placed in the middle of the road: tripods that could be dismantled only if the person who is at the top of them comes down. Two tons of sand were piled in the road to make a children’s play area, (reversing the famous slogan of May 1968, ‘underneath the paving stones, the beach’. On this occasion, the beach spreads out on top of the asphalt)… banners went up to stop more traffic, stalls were erected and a huge tank rolled in with a sound system pumping. The party had begun before the police arrived. The Highbury Islington street party coincided with a week of hot weather and a smog alert. In only two month since Camden, the number of people who took part in the first RTS event increased tenfold.
The following account of the Angel street party was published soon after, written, we think, by the late post-situ writer/provocateur Michel Prigent – published, at least, by his BM Chronos imprint, as an issue of an occasional bulletin on urban space, roads and traffic, The Sprint. We have re-published the account in its entirety, cause we like it…
LIBERATING THE ANGEL
A nostalgic whiff of the future
By 1.30 in the afternoon ‘Street Party #2’ was in full swing.
Already the air smelt better and you could breathe comfortably. Less choking and irritating dirt and dust was blowing around.
Children could walk and run around safely without their parents having to scream warnings or worry about drivers who have long grown insensitive to the vulnerability of pedestrians. The elderly were no longer harassed to cross the road as quickly as possible.
The sound of conversation, dance music, people enjoying themselves and even birdsong displaced the mighty roar of London’s traffic. It was no longer necessary to shout in order to be heard. Gone were the sickening, dull vibrations of passing vehicles. The buildings of Islington became visible once again and urban vistas of more than one kind opened up.
This was the transformation which took place within minutes of us closing Islington High Street and Upper Street to traffic.
The liberation of Islington High Street had never happened before, not even in 1945 when people were officially informed they were free from another kind of tyranny, and took to the streets in London and elsewhere to celebrate the fact. The events of Street Party #2 were an animated critique of modern Britain’s domination by the spectacular commodity economy which seemed to have lain dormant for too long. The reward for being so bold was greater than any great day out.
The greatest One O’Clock Club in the land comes to town
The party started with an assembly of hundreds of people in a disused building behind Kings Cross railway station. All-night dancers, anti-motorway action groups, civil rights groups, cyclists, environmentalists, mothers concerned about pollution-induced asthma in children, punks, ramblers, ravers, squatters, those with disabilities concerned about poor access, travellers, senior citizens’ groups, walkers and many many more extraordinary ordinary people were there.
Being an open affair it was perhaps inevitable that a few individuals turned up for nefarious reasons. One was a member of the security forces dressed in ‘civvies’, unconvincingly clutching a book entitled “British Theatre”.
From the outset many were unaware which streets were going to be barricaded against motor traffic and some police mistakenly prepared themselves to go to Piccadilly Circus. Instead, we went down to the Underground at Kings Cross and assembled on the Southbound platform of the Northern Line where in 1989 people were burnt to death, partly because of the UK Government’s intransigence
in the face of crumbling public transport and unsolved traffic problems on the surface.
Unfortunately this was too much to expect of the Northern Line, but for a change the delays were not caused not caused by the ‘clapped out’ technology of the Misery Line but by members of the Metropolitan Police deliberately obstructing the train doors [An offence under the byelaws of London Underground Ltd.] After 15 minutes we finally moved off.
When the first overheated tube train chugged into the Angel Station, packed with sweaty bodies, it was “Everybody Out!”. We surged onto the new wide platform, and up Europe’s longest escalators to the booking hall on the surface.
The staff at the Angel station set two of the three escalators to travel up and suspended the down escalator so that it could be used by passengers walking up or down. This helped to speed our journey to the surface where we surged onto the road and blocked the junctions of Pentonville Road and Liverpool Road with Islington High Street and Upper Street.
The 2000 to 4000  who actually made it to the Angel did so because they were angered and appalled by the massive deterioration of life in our urban and rural environments due to the corporate and Government-stimulated growth of “…the great car economy…”, plus the new legislation drafted to eradicate legitimate protests, particularly the Criminal Justice Act.
Demo at my Angel
A tank painted pink and covered in anti-car banners drove up and parked in front of the station, blocking the traffic. Banners were strung between lamp posts, a mobile disco and radio station took up its position, a sandy beach was constructed and bands assembled.
Scaffolding tripods occupied by ‘warriors’ soon went up at junctions. Roads were roped off.
“Trapped’ drivers were given snacks and then waved on out of the area.
The five-hour reclamation of Islington High Street had begun and a repressed ‘will to live’ was gratified and flourished. The tarmac became a bandstand, circus, dance floor, forum, kitchen, playground and rest area.
In the hot sunshine and cool breeze a new world took shape. People were relaxing in hammocks and on three-piece suites tastefully and informally arranged on carpets spread over the tarmac. They were cooking gourmet food, making sand castles, dancing in the road, juggling across the street and stilt-walking.
Gifts were exchanged.
An impromptu band consisting of 17 percussionists swelled in time to include saxophonists and guitarists.
At the junction of Liverpool Road and Islington High Street the mobile disco and radio station played to dancers as they reclaimed ‘the black stuff’ as a space for life. The disco unit itself was reclamation in action too, consisting of a matt black, converted ex-military armoured car with speakers mounted on the front.
And it worked! Some of the music was a bit mindless but overall it was varied and danceable – appropriate for anything from a heavy metal, head-banging rave to a sedate tea dance organised to commemorate 50 years since ‘the end of hostilities’ in 1945.
One burst of creativity which attracted a lot of attention from by-standers and onlookers was the construction of Islington Beach which evoked graffito created by the Movement of Occupations in France, 1968: “Sous les pavés, la plage”.
Sand was dumped along the northbound carriageway of Islington High Street just at the point where the bus stops add an extra lane’s width to the road. With great charm toddlers and babies, their carers and parents soon got stuck in with buckets and spades. Water was supplied by hose pipe from nearby buildings. There was no wind-surfing at the beach that day but a lot of mind-surfing.
Some party-goers painted in the road markings for a cycle lane along the High Street which were promised by the ‘progressive’ local authority several years before. In the meantime the same authority allowed many hundreds of thousands of pounds of public funds to be spent on up-grading a few hundred metres of motorway junk on the Archway Road, just north of the Angel, and at the very point where the pedestrian subways were left to rot to such an extent that most pedestrians chose not to use them at all.
One cycling party-goer displayed his prototype for a solar-powered machine designed to carry goods which can revert to pedal power when necessary. In fact the weather was great for harnessing solar energy but use of wind energy was confined to kite-flying in the middle of the road and propagandist leftists on the sidelines.
The groups of homeless people who usually hang around the Angel station all day long joined in. It was probably the only party they had been to all year, and one of the few times when they were not made unwelcome or verbally abused.
Generally the reactions to Street Party #2 were very appreciative.
In “The Islington Gazette” it was reported that “Most local workers supported the demonstrators’ aim to free city roads from traffic.” A barmaid at a local pub who joined in the action was reported as saying: “It was really peaceful and everyone was having a good time.”
A local cafe worker remarked to the author: “Yeah, it was very good. Everybody liked it.” A bus driver trapped right in the middle of the celebrations with his empty bus said: “Isn’t this fucking great? It’s really great. I can’t wait to tell the others. I’m alright, I’ve got my sandwiches, I can sit here all day.” According to “The Independent” “…one bus driver, trapped in a queue of about 20 empty buses, said he was in favour of the demonstration…” “It’s anti-car not anti-bus, so I can’t complain.
And they’ve been giving out free drinks, too.” 
On the organisational side of things the marshalls made good use of portable phones. There were some good slogans on banners, placards and lollipops: “Smog Off”, “Let London Breathe”, “Support the Railworkers”. First Aid facilities were not needed. Hardly any debris or rubbish was left behind afterwards because party-goers cleared it up.
The Leftists were there. It speaks volumes that the Socialist Workers Party commandeered liberated road space with stony-faced young party members selling a political newspaper rather than joining in. It seemed like they had missed the whole point. By setting up their bookstall in the road, CND’s contribution seemed only slightly better.
After Eight thuggies
For the street party-goers who stayed till late things ended badly,
or as the “Islington Gazette” correctly put it, “…summer fun turned to horror”.
It is fair to say that ‘soft’ policing started right from the beginning, with a presence of about 80 police standing on the other side of the barricades. It ‘hardened’ up around 16.30 hrs to 17.00 hrs with new shifts. Then the Territorial Support Group (TSG or riot police) moved in between 20.00 hrs and 20.15 hrs when only about 150 party-goers were left.
All this time there were about 15 legal observers from the Legal Defence & Monitoring Group (LDMG) present who wore orange day-glo bibs for easy identification. They were stayed throughout the Party and helped out over-night with those arrested, and on into the Monday. They also issued small leaflets to people involved in the action entitled: “Legal Information for this demonstration”. As a
result of their commitment they need funds and support.
Later on Sunday evening an observer from Liberty (NCCL) told a Jazz FM Radio interviewer that the attacks by the riot police were unnecessary and excessive. He witnessed the beatings and described them as: “trying to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.”
The police certainly used authoritarian and brutal tactics to finish of a fun day out and an environmental action designed to protest against the damage created by motor traffic. The tactics contrasted starkly with the humour and intentions of people at the Street Party.
The LDMG wrote an eye-witness account  of events as they unfolded after 20.00 hrs. It is included here.
“At 8pm a number of uniformed police officers backed up by up to ten riot vans started moving the demonstrators down Upper Street towards the Angel tube station. At this stage the demonstrators numbers had reduced to about 150. The officers were spread across the road. Demonstrators were moving down towards the tube station. The mood of the demonstrators (and the police) was still friendly.
At approximately 8.15pm, for reasons only known to the police, a number of officers from the Territorial Support Group (TSG or riot police) in full riot gear started assisting the uniformed police.
They were supported by at least 10 other vehicles, police in helicopters and video crews positioned on buildings. The mood of the demonstrators was still peaceful. At least 18 police vans full of TSG had been spotted some 50 minutes earlier in a back street near Upper Street. It must be asked why so many officers in full riot gear were on standby so early when the mood of the day had been so peaceful.
The deployment of the police in riot gear made the atmosphere a great deal more aggressive. A small bottle (ONLY ONE) was lobbed towards these riot police. It was NOT aimed at the uniformed police who were some way in front of the riot police at this stage. Within seconds of this happening the TSG drew batons, pushed past the uniformed officers and started assaulting demonstrators with shields & batons. Over approximately the next 90 minutes the TSG violently pushed and beat demonstrators towards, and past, Angel tube station and down Pentonville Rd. At this stage there were some 200 officers in full riot gear backed up by at least 100 further officers in uniform. There were under 100 demonstrators. The riot police pushed demonstrators down Pentonville Rd. They were asked on numerous occasions by Legal Observers from the Legal Defence & Monitoring Group (LDMG) where they were directing people to and to “calm down”. Needless to say their answers were less than helpful. Eventually (at approximately 9pm) demonstrators, whose numbers were less than 50, were moved into Northdown Street where all exits were blocked by police and riot vans. Many people trying to leave this area were searched. The reason the police gave, when pressed, was that there had been a public order incident, missiles had been thrown and offensive weapons had been seen – so they were checking if people had missiles or offensive weapons.
From the moment the riot police took over from the uniformed police indiscriminately and very heavy handedly arresting protestors. In total they arrested 17 people. At least one demonstrator needed hospital attention (head split open by a police truncheon) and two more were knocked unconscious by the police.
Every time a legal observer tried to get details of an arrested person we were threatened with arrest, were physically moved from the scene of the arrest or were assaulted.
Although the actions of the riot police were totally out of control throughout the whole episode we feel a number of incidents deserve special attention:
• One particular officer, in full riot gear, was seen on at least three occasions using his clenched fist to punch demonstrators in the head and face – one of whom was knocked unconscious;
• An articulated lorry was moving through the crowd and the police were violently pushing people past it causing a number of them to lose balance. It was only luck that somebody did not fall under the wheels of this vehicle, Police were asked to stop pushing for a while by legal observers who were told to move or be
• When one demonstrator was knocked unconscious legal observers and other protesters tried to see if he was alright, but were viciously pushed and beaten by the police. Although being told by a person with some medical knowledge that this person should not be moved the police continually tried to move him.
As soon as arrests were made the LDMG tried, with difficulty, to get solicitors to all of those arrested, and to find out information about them. We staffed our office throughout the night and next day receiving numerous calls asking the whereabouts of missing protestors. By 5am we had details of all 17 people arrested.
Charing Cross police station would only release 1 (who accepted a caution) of the 10 arrestees. The rest were held over night and appeared in Bow Street Magistrates Court the following day, which we monitored. Two of those held were refused bail and are presently on remand, at Brixton Prison until 31st July. We feel, the decision to hold them overnight at a police station and in prison was Vindictive and excessive. Three of those arrested were for possession of drugs and all three pleaded guilty.
We have set up a defence campaign for the 13 still facing charges.
Another indication of the state’s attempt to brutalise and criminalise us is the severity of the charges. Most are being Charged with section 2, 3 or 4 of the Public Order Act 1986. Our aim is now to:
X get the two out of prison;
X prove all 13 innocent;
X look into actions against the officer who punched demonstrators;
X and to assist people to sue the police for assault and false
The two demonstrators who were in court on July 31st, after a week in prison, pleaded guilty to lesser charges than the original ‘affray’ charges, and received £100 fines. LDMG provided them with money while they were in prison, but when LDMG solicitors attempted to see them, the police refused allow this unless they specifically asked for them. Presumably unaware of the LDMG solicitors, they both used ‘duty solicitors’. LDMG advises anyone arrested on a demonstration to ask to see their solicitors, who have a record of seeing justice done.”
Perhaps the main lesson for all those party-goers who earlier on in the day said that the Police seemed well-disposed to the party is that the sympathies of our polite, yet highly suspicious, police on ‘the beat’, or on ‘point duty’, can hardly be distinguished from those of the uniformed brute in riot gear who wields the latest in baton technology. How can things be otherwise when hard and soft police work hand-in-glove to defend the commodity?
Secondly, the flyers and most of the placards and banners could have done more to link up the separate issues represented by all the different groups who attended the celebrations. We will be ‘picked off’ one-by-one in future if we do not. Closest to the target were: “Pollution is the halitosis of the State” and “Support the Railworkers”, although even these were a bit traditional.
Unfortunately no leaflets giving a sound analytical critique of the whole mess with our countryside, the economy, public health, our towns and transport infrastructure were circulated.
It is a fine thing to proclaim a street “Car Free” or a High Street “Pollution Free”, but there is an urgent need to reclaim life as a whole from the clutches of an ideology which is anti-life. A radical social change is needed which abolishes the spectacular
commodity economy as a whole. The fallout from one spectacular commodity cannot be dealt with effectively on its own; in isolation
Although an anti-car stance is understandable it does not confront a salient fact of the modern capitalist system: its inability to foster the appropriate and wise use of any technology for the benefit of people.
Perhaps the biggest lesson for party-goers is that defenders of this modern phase of capitalism no longer pretend otherwise about their intention to force us all to accept the domination of the spectacular commodity system, regardless of its catalogue of
damage: social alienation, industrial accidents, the thinning of the ozone layer, the production of
‘Greenhouse gases, the lead poisoning which still continues, the incidence of asthma which is increasing, massive cleaning bills, road accidents, soil erosion, profligate use of oil and resources, the destruction of urban and rural communities and environments, atomisation, photochemical smog and noise, vibration damage to buildings and human activity. The modern capitalist system seems hell bent on messing up the planet and taking us with it.
Street Party #2 embraced all kinds of people, including the marginalised and most proletarianised. This is something that the dominant culture of modern Britain is incapable of.
The action was straightforward and even verged on the simplistic. But judging from the different people who took part it could never be called a single issue-based action.
Those who came along had a biting critique, enormous energy, guts, imagination and spontaneity. This is just what it takes to make the transition to an economic and social system which serves important humans needs and does not jeopardise public health, social life, the culture of human settlements, and our natural environment.
“the Guardian”, 24 July 1995 p 5 by Alex Macnaughton.
“the Independent”, 24 July 1995 p 2 by Tony Buckingham.
* the Times”, 24 July 1995, p 2.
“A-8 London Street Atlas”
“Green Line Magazine”, No 127, September 1995 pp 13 – 15.
“Islington Gazette and Stoke Newington Observer”, 27 July 1995, p 23
Completed January 1996
Editor: c/o BM Chronos, London WCIN 6XX
2. “The Times” 24th July 1995 p. 2 printed an article entitled “Anti-car protest ends in riot” which included five lines on the peaceful party in Islington High Street and twenty lines on the riot. This article gave an estimate of 2000 people. The LDMG gave the same figure. The author and a friend estimated 4000, perhaps more.
3. “Independent” 24 July 1995, pp 1-2. The article, “Riot police mop up anti-car protesters”, put emphasis on the riot too,
4. “Green Line Magazine”, September 1995, pp 13-15. This is a bi-weekly environmental publication. In the interests of accuracy the article is included just as it appeared in issue No 127, complete with ‘typos’.
A few days after the Angel party, RTS saw a prime opportunity for another action, visiting Greenwich, SE London, where parents and children with asthma were going to the High Court to force the Greenwich Council to close its main through road at times of high pollution. (At this time if I recall right, central Greenwich was calculated to be suffering the worst traffic pollution in London, possibly the UK). On Friday, August 4, RTS closed Greenwich down, blocking the major arterial in morning peak-hour traffic for two hours with scaffolding tripods. Pedestrians joined in and the local coffee shop delivered free coffee, tea and biscuits to the demonstrators. Even many of the drivers held up in the traffic jam that day came out in favour of the action.
What follows 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, it 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 relevance. Taken from the Antagonism website.