Today in London striking herstory, 1995: Hillingdon Hospital cleaners strike against casualisation

‘We’ve met people from all over the world who are supporting us: from Russia, India, South Africa, America, Germany – even Winnie Mandela! They know we are low-paid workers. They know we are mostly Asian workers. But the point isn’t that we’re Asian, black, white, women or whatever. This is a struggle of workers against greedy bosses.’

The Hillingdon Hospital Strike began on October 1st, 1995 when 56 domestic and catering workers were sacked by private contractor Pall Mall for refusing to accept a £40 per week wage cut.

The strike continued for five years.

On October 30, 2000, UNISON shop steward Malkiat Bilku led her members back to work on their original terms and conditions with no victimisations, having also won maximum compensation for unfair dismissal.

The women were ‘outsourced’ in 1986. In September 1985 at the civic centre, the District Health Authority had voted to privatise the Hospital cleaning service, with the loss of 213 jobs.

Hillingdon was one of the first private contracts after St Helier, Hammersmith to be forced through by the Tory government.

This had not taken place without any resistance – for instance a One Day strike organised by COHSE and NUPE had taken at Hillingdon Hospital on 23rd May 1985, in protest at the hospital’s privatisation programme and in support of strikers at Barking hospital.

Hillingdon Hospital Management had put a vote to domestic staff – asked them either to lose their bonus or be privatised. The staff voted overwhelmingly against cutting their bonus.

After privatisation, some 320 ‘domestic’ staff at the Hillingdon Hospital found themselves employed not directly by the NHS, but by private contractor ICC Hospital Services Ltd. ICC took over the contract from February 1st 1986.

A series of NHS reforms had been introduced by the Thatcher Government – it was still politically inadvisable to launch a frontal assault on the principles of the NHS itself – which imposed the ‘contracting out’ of specific services, like catering and cleaning, to the lowest bidders in the private sector. ‘They thought that the people could do more work for less wages,’ said Malkiat Bilku. In the process the staff lost sick pay, bonus and pension rights.

In 1989 another company, Initial, took over the contract and cut working hours. The number of staff fell to 220, though the work remained the same. Then, in 1994, the contract was passed on again, this time to Pall Mall, part of the Davies Group international conglomerate, which proposed a 20 per cent wage cut.

Greater ‘efficiency’ at the Hillingdon Hospital was being paid for straight out of the purses of these women – already among the lowest-paid in the country. To increase its efficiency still further, the hospital also announced that it would refuse admission to patients aged over 75.

Then Pall Mall went one step further. The company demanded the women’s passports – an intimidatory move, questioning their immigration status – and presented individuals with new contracts. ‘They told us, if you don’t sign this, you’ve got no job,’ said Malkiat Bilku. ‘We’d already had our wages cut, we’d already been transferred to a private company. We did not refuse to work. We did not even ask for more money. We did not ask for anything. And they asked for our passports and they wanted to force us to accept.’

In May 1995, Pall Mall announced that they were bringing in multi-skilling, intended to cut wages by what amounted to £40 a week, and change working conditions.

The 53 women refused to sign the new contracts and were duly locked out. In October 1995 the strike began, reluctantly supported by their union, Unison. Subsequent negotiations between Unison officials and Pall Mall produced a cash offer of $500 for each of the women as ‘compensation’ for the loss of their jobs.

The membership had voted for action, but the union officials did not call a strike, so the strike started off as an ‘unofficial’ action on October 1st, 1995.

The strikers had to battle with the trade union leaders for nine weeks to force them to make it official. UNISON organised a national demonstration on October 21, 1995 and Hillingdon strikers went along.

They fought to place themselves at the front of the march, as they were leading the fight in the NHS against the privateers, defying the stewards, who tried to physically remove them. At the rally in Kennington, the demonstration demanded that strike leader Malkiat Bilku be allowed to address them, which she did.

There were many demonstrations and marches that the strikers participated in. They organised two lobbies of the UNISON headquarters to demand their strike be made official. At one, where the NEC was meeting, the strikers occupied the building until the then General Secretary Rodney Bickerstaffe came down to speak to them.

Finally on November 17 1995, the UNISON Industrial Action Committee was forced to make the strike official. At the 1996 National Delegate Conference, a resolution was carried unanimously which said that the Hillingdon strike would be supported by the union until the remaining 53 strikers won their jobs back on their old terms and conditions.

But the trade union leaders resisted all calls for national action to win the Hillingdon struggle, while boasting that the strike had stopped Pall Mall cutting wages in their other NHS contracts. The irony being that, largely because of its behaviour at Hillingdon, Pall Mall had been losing numerous NHS contracts – much to the benefit of those who might otherwise have had to work for them, but not of the strikers themselves.

The strike remained official until January 16, 1997, when UNISON declared that the strike was over and told the strikers to accept the Pall Mall offer of £6,000 compensation as this was the best they would get and further, that they would not win their Industrial Tribunal.

They did allow a ballot but, as far as they were concerned, the strike was over!

Everything was being rushed through as a general election was coming in May, and they wanted the struggle out of the way so as not to ‘embarrass’ Labour. However, the strikers rejected the offer, insisting that they would continue until they got their jobs back and the Industrial Tribunal must proceed as well.

On January 16, the strikers lobbied the UNISON head office again where they found two rows of police armed with batons guarding the door of the head office.

At a strike meeting the following Sunday morning they resolved to fight back, continue their strike, and defy the UNISON leadership.
They would not return until they had won back their jobs, on the old terms and conditions.

A conference was called to announce their intention and in spite of the SWP and others, insisting that the strikers must accept the UNISON decision and call off their strike, the Conference overwhelmingly supported the strikers’ decision to continue their strike.

The strikers continued unofficially; they toured the country tirelessly for the next 18 months, winning huge support everywhere and raising enough money to pay £100 weekly strike pay to all the strikers.
They attended every demonstration and challenged Bickerstaffe and TUC General Secretary John Monks if they were there.

Just one month later, the Annual General Meeting of the London Region of UNISON voted to give £10,000 to the Hillingdon Strikers’ Support Campaign – a donation which was stopped by the UNISON leadership. They also tried to stop other branches and districts making donations.

Meanwhile, Pall Mall pulled out of Hillingdon Hospital and media giant Granada – a prominent money-spinner in the catering and media trades – took over the contract.
A High Court injunction was brought by the hospital against the strikers picketting outside the hospital, and refusing them entry. The strikers were forced to move from the hospital entrance but picketing continued (despite racist taunts directed at them from passers-by).

On the second anniversary of their strike, on October 1st, 1997, 3,000 people marched through Uxbridge, to a rally, on a working day, with a number of trade union leaders and MPs speaking at the rally.

In January 1998, the strikers won their appeal to the Employment Appeal Tribunal which meant that their claims for unfair dismissal by Pall Mall would now be heard.

Then at the UNISON conference in Bournemouth in 1998, in the last five minutes of the Conference, overcoming all the objections of Standing Orders and the attempt by the union’s bureaucracy to delay the resolution, the vast majority of the Conference voted for the emergency resolution which called to make the Hillingdon strike official again and restore their full membership.

The strike was once more back to being official, with national negotiations by the union to ‘ensure reinstatement’.

Then at their Employment Tribunal, Pall Mall admitted that they had wrongfully dismissed the hospital workers. Granada was left to meet the unfair dismissal claims.

The Tribunal ruled that the maximum compensation must be paid to all the strikers and that the employers should restore them back into their jobs at the hospital. Although this was carried, Granada did nothing. There were pickets of the Granada HQ to demand they take the workers back.

But Granada challenged the ruling and organised an appeal against this decision. Once again at the Employment Tribunal, Granada was defeated and the decision upheld. The strikers were paid maximum compensation and they also won the right to their jobs back at the hospital.

Every cynic said this would never happen but on October 30th 2000, Malkiat Bilku walked back into the hospital, to the first day back at her job after five years. She was subsequently elected as UNISON shop steward.

In 2004, she stood for the leadership of UNISON challenging for the position of General Secretary and received 30,000 votes.

Today in London anti-fascist history, 1985: Anti Fascist Action founded, ‘to fight fascism physically & politically’

Anti-Fascist Action was an important organisation that took a position of fighting the far right on the streets as well as combatting their ideas politically wherever they arose. Founded in 1985, AFA effectively ceased to exist around 2000-2001.

Here’s an account of Anti-Fascist Action in their own words, published in 1999, as the organisation was in effect winding up – or as they saw it, moving on to other arenas of the struggle against fascism…
Some thoughts in AFA and their winding up follow their text.

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From the day Anti-Fascist Action (AFA) was founded fourteen years ago, we have always been best known for the use of physical force against fascists on the streets. While being rightly proud of this record the present situation requires that militant anti-fascists develop a political strategy that is just as effective as the physical one has been in the past.

There has never been a blueprint for militant anti-fascism, either political or physical, and AFA has had to develop its own strategies. As the general political situation changes anti-fascists need to move with the times. In Britain, where the main fascist threat comes from the British National Party (BNP) who have withdrawn from ‘street activities’, there is a danger that if anti-fascists don’t follow the fascists in to the political mainstream then we will be outflanked.

Some anti-fascists think that adopting a political strategy means the physical side of the struggle has been abandoned, but the key to AFA’s future success lies in our original founding statement which commits the organisation to “physical and ideological opposition to the fascists”. The physical side of the strategy has been implemented so successfully that the fascists were forced to withdraw from the streets in 1994 – now is the time to develop and implement a political strategy with the same level of enthusiasm and commitment.
To understand the position we are now in it is helpful to look at the history of AFA as it has developed over the years.

1977 – 1985 The beginnings…

Although AFA was formed in the summer of 1985 the roots of the organisation can be traced back to the anti-fascist squads in the late 1970s. The squads were the physical force wing of the Anti Nazi League (ANL) which had been launched in 1977 to counter the growing threat of the National Front (NF).

The NF had made inroads into the white working class, and in 1974 they set up the NF Trade Unionists Association and were actively involved in a number of industrial disputes. This growing support among the white working class led to increased opposition from the Left and the Trade Union movement and when the National Party (a split from the NF) won two council seats in Blackburn, in May 1976, it was clearly time to turn the growing anti-fascist protests into something more dynamic.

By 1977 organised opposition to the NF reached new heights, in particular at Lewisham in south London where an NF march came under heavy and sustained physical attack from several thousand anti-fascists.

Shortly after this the Anti Nazi League was formed by the SWP arid every fascist activity was now opposed.

The ANL strategy combined imaginative propaganda and physical opposition. Popular bands, sporting celebrities and other individuals with a high profile were used to endorse the anti-fascist message, making sure it had a wider appeal than the usual left-wing campaign. Hundreds of thousands of leaflets were dished out, badges sold, stickers and posters put up. The message was simple but effective; the NF=Nazis.

In the 70s this message was still effective, bearing in mind that the Second World War had only ended 30 years previously, and Britain was very much out of step with the rest of Europe where the Far Right were small and isolated and could only dream of reaching the level of support that the NF had. Indeed the French FN sent activists over to Britain to study the methods of the NF which they have subsequently put to good use.

The propaganda on its own would never have been enough, and the ANL squads provided the necessary physical opposition. The previous years had seen the NF pursue a traditional fascist strategy of trying to control the streets. Left-wing paper sales were attacked, public meetings smashed up and demonstrations harassed.

Between 1977 and the general election in 1979 the ANL squads systematically turned the situation around – attacking fascist paper sales, meetings and marches. The damage that was done to the NF at Lewisham was methodically reproduced around the country. The middle classes would no longer turn out in public, women and old people found it increasingly dangerous to attend activities and anti-fascist successes in the street battles drove away many more. The tide had turned and the fascists were starting to become isolated.

Many original members of AFA learnt their ‘trade’ during this period and saw how the effective combination of mass propaganda, carnivals, stunts, and physical confrontation could be However the political situation was about to change dramatically as the Tories won the 1979 general election, playing the race card as Thatcher talked about understanding people’s fears of being “swamped” by an alien culture; the NF vote collapsed.

The NF split into 3 smaller organisations and entered a period of reorganisation, but anti-fascists remained active. The first problem to be dealt with was the closing down of the ANL, the only active anti-fascist organisation. The ANL’s main sponsors, the SWP, had themselves entered a period of reorganisation and started to close down all the campaigns they had launched which had succeeded in drawing in significant numbers of working class people, like the ANL.

With regard to the ANL, the SWP’s argument was that now that the NF vote had collapsed and the organisation disintegrated, the Tories were the real enemy. The squads were to be disbanded and the organisers, many of them SWP full-timers, were withdrawn. The only problem was that many of the activists refused to go. Although the NF was in decline the fascists were still active, and now that their electoral prospects had disappeared there was a new intensity to their violent attacks on the ‘opposition’. Apart from attacking political opponents they also maintained high profile paper sales at places like Brick Lane and Chapel Market (in London), held demonstrations, recruited among the disillusioned young working class at football grounds and around the punk/Oi/ska music scene. As well as maintaining this high level of activity they provided the political justification and motivation for the rapidly increasing level of racist attacks.

This provided the ‘squadists’ with the necessary reasons for keeping up the momentum that had been built in the anti-fascist movement. The fascist gangs could be confronted and beaten and the squads were able to attract working class support. The importance of challenging the racists and fascists in working class areas should not be underestimated, and when the middle class leadership of the ANL/SWP, with absolutely no understanding of the situation on the ground, decided to expel the `squadists’ in 1981, the future became much clearer. The so-called ‘squadists’ were never just `streetfighters’ and had always had wider political ambitions – and becoming independent of the conservative Left started the process of challenging the traditional left-wing blueprint of how to achieve progressive social change which now sees AFA in the forefront of a new attempt to build a genuine, independent working class movement.

The early 1980s was a period of intense anti-fascist activity, without the media coverage of the late 70s and involving smaller numbers. Nevertheless, the battle for the streets was still being fought. The ANL still existed in name up to 1982, but the occasional activity they called would simply be a protest march on the other side of town from the fascists. While this sort of non-confrontational activity had no effect on the fascists, it also failed to attract anyone else to the anti-fascist movement.

Increasingly, independent groups of anti-fascists were taking the initiative, with solid bases in Manchester, Hatfield and London. In Manchester eight anti-fascists were jailed in 1981 for taking a firm line on fascist intimidation while in London a year-long campaign saw the NF driven off their prestigious sales pitch at Chapel Market. Hatfield, a small town north of London, was an example of how anti-fascists, based in the community, could win popular support for their views and when the ska band Madness played there in 1980 a large contingent of fascist skinheads who had travelled up from London were severely beaten by the locals who turned out in force.

At this time there were also high profile campaigns in support of young Asians in Bradford and Newham who had been arrested for defending themselves and their communities from racist attacks. Although there was no national co-ordination there was militant opposition to the racists and fascists. This increased level of militancy inevitably led to growing police interest in those responsible, causing further problems for anti-fascists who were in danger of being isolated and picked off.

While militant anti-fascists were having increased success on the streets there was no political strategy running along-side that would have allowed them to fill the political vacuum that was being created with the removal of the fascists. Getting rid of the fascists seemed sufficient. After the ‘squadists’ were expelled from the SWP in 1981 a decision was taken to form a new organisation in order to stay politically active. This group was Red Action and was the link between the anti-fascist activists in Manchester, London and Hatfield. Militant anti-fascism was consistently promoted in the Red Action paper and not surprisingly it was Red Action who, out of practical necessity, were soon to initiate the launching of a new, national anti-fascist organisation.

1985 – 1989 AFA’s Early Years

As the fascists started to reorganise (the British National Party was launched in 1982) and with racist attacks increasing, it became clear that anti-fascism needed to be put back on a wider agenda and a new national organisation was required. One incident in particular led to its formation.

In 1984 the Greater London Council organised a large open-air rally and concert as part of their campaign against unemployment. Halfway through a group of 70 or 80 fascists appeared and attacked the audience and the bands on stage. Initially taken by surprise anti-fascists quickly reorganised and drove the fascists off. A retaliatory attack was launched on a fascist pub that evening to make up for the earlier lack of preparedness. The point was that the fascists were getting bolder, attacking large left-wing activities in broad daylight, and Red Action decided this had to be dealt with.

A leaflet was drawn up and circulated to anyone interested and as a result of this discussions took place with a variety of groups about launching a new anti-fascist organisation. A conference was called in the summer of 1985 and attended by 300 people representing a wide range of groups. The militants, represented by groups like Red Action and the East London Direct Action Movement, made a crucial mistake at this conference because although it was their initiative, acting on information received that the fascists would attack the meeting, they spent the whole meeting outside on stewarding duties. This meant that from the very outset the political orientation was being dictated by others.

Political naivety played a part as well, the militants wrongly assuming that regardless of what was decided in meetings everything could be rectified on the streets, and when the fascists were themselves ambushed after the meeting this seemed to underline the point. Despite this error, which wouldn’t be resolved until the relaunch in 1989, the new organisation quickly set about achieving some important results.

The first activity took place in November 1985 when AFA took over the assembly point for the annual NF Remembrance Day parade. These parades were an important part of the fascists’ activities attracting several thousand at their height, providing an annual focal point for their supporters and frequently gaining media coverage. On this occasion the fascist stewards were unable to remove AFA and the NF march had to assemble elsewhere and was delayed for an hour. Not that dramatic but a signal of intent for the future.

It is worth looking at the Remembrance Day marches over the next few years because they illustrate the differences within AFA. Although the larger left-wing organisations did not join AFA (eg. SWP, Militant, Communist Party, etc.) it was made up of some smaller socialist and anarchist groups, various groups active within the race relations lobby like the Newham Monitoring Project and the Refugee Forum, Searchlight, and non-aligned individuals. It ranged from militant anti-fascists who had seen the effect of physical confrontation on the fascists to groups who wanted to put pressure on the government to change various laws and fund particular projects.

Initially the contrasting agendas worked together and when AFA called a National Demonstration on Remembrance Day 1986 over 2,000 people responded, making it the biggest anti-fascist mobilisation since the 70s. It made the front page of the Daily Mail on the Monday morning which was a significant step in putting anti-fascism back on the agenda. The struggle between fascists and anti-fascists, fought on the streets around the country since the collapse of the ANL, had been almost completely ignored up to this point.

The following year another march was called, basically because the previous one had been so successful and after the NF march a large contingent of fascists would make their way to Trafalgar Square to attack the Non-Stop Anti-Apartheid picket outside South Africa House. The AFA march was a way of getting a large number of anti-fascists into the area to confront the NF, which was successfully achieved.

By 1988 there was an argument about a third march; around the question of what was the point of having the march. The march was getting smaller, the media had lost interest, and it was becoming an annual event with no discussion about its effectiveness. The militants were keen to oppose the NF on Remembrance Day but felt a march wasn’t the best way.in the interests of ‘unity’ the militants-went along with the march again, and scored another notable success against the fascists afterwards.

By 1989 the Remembrance Day march caused a split. The liberals called a march which attracted less than 300 (compared to 2,000 in 1986) while the militants took over the fascists’ assembly point and controlled much of the surrounding area. A number of fascists were prevented from reaching their march and the NF were seriously delayed. Such was the pressure they were under, coupled with the defeats they had suffered in Trafalgar Square over the previous 2 years, that for the first time the NF didn’t try to attack the anti-apartheid picket afterwards, presumably relieved just to get out of the area in one piece.

For the militants this episode highlighted a key component of anti-fascism – to be effective. There is no blueprint but any mobilisation must have a specific purpose. While the liberal agenda called for protests against fascist violence, for more police involvement, and for the State to deal with the problem of a growing Far Right, the militants were developing a strategy that would stop the fascists being able to operate openly and challenge them in the constituency they had most success in – the white working class. Rather than appealing to the victims of fascism the militant strategy was aimed at the potential recruits.

The first four years of AFA’s existence weren’t negative, the decline of the NF Remembrance Day parade being one example of AFA’s success. In 1986 an NF march in Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk was so thoroughly disrupted that the then NF leader Nick Griffin (now a senior BNP figure) actually stopped holding demonstrations altogether.

Another area of fascist activity was the NF’s White Noise Club, set up to promote fascist bands, but ‘financial mismanagement’ soon saw the bands break away from the NF to set up their own Blood and Honour organisation (B&H). By 1988 they had established themselves in London’s West End, getting two shops just off Carnaby Street to stock their merchandise and using local pubs as meeting places. At this time the European situation was changing rapidly with the Far Right gaining support in many countries. In Europe the fascist skinhead scene was an integral part of these moves and many European delegations arrived in Carnaby Street to meet Skrewdriver and B&H supremo Ian Stuart.

AFA set up Cable Street Beat (CSB) in 1988 to address the problem of B&H and of fascists attacking gigs by bands they considered a problem – the Pogues (Irish), Desmond Dekker (black) and the Upstarts (socialist). Some high profile gigs were organised and got national media coverage which allowed AFA/CSB to highlight the growing problem of fascism at home and abroad, and to promote a strategy to deal with it – no platform.

The key date in the campaign against B&H was 27th May 1989. The fascists had booked Camden Town Hall for a thousand strong rally, which at £10 a head would raise a fair bit of money. AFA discovered the venue and got it banned, despite opposition from Searchlight who wanted to monitor the event, and called a counter-demonstration at the fascists redirection point, Speakers Corner. Hundreds of fascists were attacked and chased off and never made it to the rearranged gig in Kent, and later that evening one of the fascist shops was attacked and ransacked. So on one day B&H’s boast of being in control was cruelly exposed to an international audience and the last of their shops was forced to close down. Shortly afterwards lan Stuart moved to the Midlands. Their efforts to operate openly and move into the mainstream had been defeated.-

The other important point about 27th May was the hundreds of anti-fascists who rallied to AFA’s call to confront the boneheads. This highlighted another internal problem which was having an organisation but no structure that could accommodate activists. AFA had been ‘run’ by individuals who represented only themselves. This meant that in London, for example, half a dozen individuals could outvote the two Red Action delegates who represented 100+ stewards!

Apart from the lack of democracy there were other hostile agendas at work, and at the very first national conference in 1986 a Searchlight-led anti-anarchist smear campaign was launched which led to Class War being suspended and all the other anarchist groups and Red Action walking out in solidarity. Red Action returned later to prevent the initiative being lost altogether. The following year there was an attempt to get Red Action expelled on a host of trumped up charges. These were defeated but clearly signalled that there was a fight on for the future direction and effectiveness of anti-fascism.

The 1987 conference also saw a proposed name change for the organisation, from AFA to Anti-Racist Anti-Fascist Action (ARAFA). The significance of this was that it was an attempt to change AFA from having a very practical, sometimes physical, strategy designed to fight fascism that was meeting with growing success to a more conservative lobbying group, grant-funded and establishment friendly. This strategy is still familiar today, one of putting race above class. This move was also defeated.

By 1989 these internal disagreements had come to a head over the Remembrance Day march and the good response to the May 27th mobilisation showed there was a receptive audience for militant anti-fascism.

London AFA called a conference and relaunched itself around the original founding statement with the additional point that we were not fighting fascism to maintain the status quo but from a pro-working class position. On this basis the anarcho-syndicalist Direct Action Movement (DAM) rejoined (after the Class War walkout) along with the Trotskyist Workers Power. The liberals withdrew.

So with Red Action, the DAM, Workers Power and non-aligned individuals AFA started to reorganise. Branches were set up to accommodate activists and a structure implemented that meant AFA was run from the bottom up; in other words controlled by the activists. AFA was now democratic and had an agreed strategy.

While the Left spent most of the 80s failing to ‘kick out the Tories’ the militants in AFA recognised that it was the Far Right who had the potential to recruit in the white working class. The first step in trying to build any progressive working class movement was to remove the fascist influence from these areas. Only then, once the space was created, could the Left fill the vacuum. The Left’s failure to prevent the fascists from physically dominating them meant that anti-fascism assumed a key role.

The early AFA years had succeeded in getting anti-fascism onto a wider agenda and as the Far Right started to grow in this country and especially Europe it was an important achievement. This period had also shown that it was not possible to have an effective anti-fascist organisation with two contradictory strategies. The liberal anti-fascist strategy is ‘Anyone But Fascists’ (ABF), as seen on the Isle of Dogs where a Labour council’s corruption and indifference to the local working class population led to the situation where the Far Right, in the absence of any credible left-wing alternative, was able to get a councillor elected in 1993 (the BNP’s Derek Beackon).

The ABF response was to campaign vigorously for the Labour Party in the next election, which succeeded in unseating the BNP, but leaves the situation unresolved with Labour back in power who were responsible for the problem in the first place. The militant strategy is more ambitious: create an independent working class alternative to Labour and the BNP.

Although this example is more recent, it summarises the contradictions that existed in the 1985-89 period. It is often wrongly assumed that the difference between liberals and militants is simply about the use of physical force, but in AFA’s case it was a political difference.

With three national organisations on board it was now planned to expand AFA’s field of operations. Although there were other AFA groups around the country the only group outside London organised around a militant strategy was in Manchester. Of the other groups the two best known were Tyne and Wear Anti-Fascist Association (funded by the local council) and Leeds, both active but following a Searchlight pro-State agenda.

1990 onwards

Almost as soon as AFA had been relaunched the BNP initiated their Rights Far Whites campaign (RFW) in 1990. Starting in London’s East End when a white boy was stabbed by Asians, it soon spread around the country and focused on the bad conditions experienced by an abandoned white working class. The BNP started to work in local areas, dealing with local issues, and by August 1990 they won 25% of the white vote in a local election in the East End. While the electoral strategy showed a level of support for the Far Right, because the BNP held public election rallies and meetings it allowed AFA to play havoc with their organisation on the ground.

In September 1990 3 AFA activists were jailed for a total of 11 years for an attack on a prominent fascist skinhead; clearly meant as a deterrent. The level of fascist violence against AFA was also increasing, with a bomb being thrown into an AFA public meeting in east London in November 1990. (No one was injured.)

The BNP had completely overtaken the NF as the dominant fascist party now and their activities started to cover the whole country. In Scotland they became active focusing on support for Ulster Loyalism rather than the traditional anti-black racism south of the border.

As the temperature increased it was obvious the rest of the Left would become involved. Left-wing paper sales, especially the SWP, were being regularly attacked throughout the country and as the fascists continued to pick up support the Left would suffer if AFA was seen to be the only organised opposition. Initially AFA’s attitude was to approach these groups with a view to co-operation. Although there was no intention of surrendering AFA’s independence or strategy it was felt the increased forces available to these groups could, if working to an agreed plan, increase the pressure on the fascists and help to stop the State picking off the militants. AFA’s approaches were rejected out of hand by the entire Left.

Despite this, 1991 saw AFA’s most ambitious campaign to date being launched in east London, which had been made a national priority by the BNP. 60,000 leaflets were distributed on the estates, work was done with schools and community groups, the Unity Carnival attracted 10,000 people, the fascist paper sale at Brick Lane was put under pressure, the BNP were forced out of local sympathetic pubs and in November 1991 a 4,000-strong AFA demonstration marched through Bethnal Green – the supposed BNP heartland – completely unopposed. Young white Eastenders had seen the ‘lefty’ stereotype challenged and the BNP turned over, and contact was made with groups of young Asians. As 1991 drew to a close the situation looked promising, but all that was about to change.

The Left did get involved, but not with AFA, and having withdrawn from anti-fascist politics since the 1970s they now launched their own anti-fascist [organisations]. Instead of filling the political vacuum they simply tried to duplicate what AFA was doing. The SWP relaunched the ANL, Militant set up Youth Against Racism in Europe (YRE), and the Labour Party, Communist Party and black careerists established the Anti-Racist Alliance (ARA).

April 1992 saw the national relaunching of AFA which was now vigorously pursuing the strategy particularly in Scotland and the North West. The BNP were very active around Rochdale, Oldham, and Burnley, towns just outside Manchester’s fascist – free zone. The success of AFA in disrupting the BNP’s efforts can be seen by the response of the police who arrested two AFA organisers the night before a planned activity in Rochdale. They were released without charge once the day was over.

The level of confrontation was very high during this period, which included the now famous Battle of Waterloo in September 1992. B&H and the BNP were working fairly closely together at this time and had hoped a successful gig (pre-gig interviews were arranged with the Press on Waterloo Station) would enable B&H to operate openly with all the political and financial advantages this would have created for the fascists. The anti-fascist victory once again put paid to their plans.

AFA had deliberately adopted the single issue approach because when it was relaunched in 1989 around a pro-working class position the political composition of the organisation ranged from Trotskyist to Anarchist, Stalinist to Social Democrat. To keep the necessary unity on the streets for the important battles at the time there had to be an agreement that AFA’s role was to create the space for a progressive working class organisation to fill; it wasn’t AFA’s job to fill it. By the time the BNP had won a council seat in 1993 it was becoming increasingly clear that no one was willing or able to fill the vacuum. This was underlined by the Left’s support for Labour in the subsequent election 6 months later which saw the fascists lose their seat. The wheel had turned full circle, the Left had capitulated.

Although the BNP lost their council seat they actually increased their vote by 30%. This continuing electoral success led to a radical change in policy by the BNP, and in April 1994 they called what in effect was a ‘cease-fire’. They issued a statement saying that there would be “no more meetings, marches, or punch ups.” They would now concentrate on a Euro-Nationalist electoral strategy, hoping to emulate the success of the French FN.

The intensity of this period proved too much for some of the groups in AFA. For some the physical demands proved to be too much, but politically it was becoming clear that AFA would have to break with the traditional Left and this also caused problems. It was Labour’s indifference to the white working class that allowed the BNP to appear as the radical alternative, and yet most of the Left wouldn’t break with Labour. Those that did had absolutely no credibility; to illustrate this point the Communist Party of Great Britain (formerly the Leninist) got 1/10th of the BNP’s vote when they stood in Tower Hamlets in the 1992 general election.

The situation in London was slightly different from the rest of the country, partly because the BNP felt they could build on the political base they already had without the public activities, and partly because AFA was more established. The battle on the streets continued elsewhere for about a year. After B&H got smashed in London on May 27th 1989, Ian Stuart moved to the Midlands to run the B&H operation from there because the fascists were relatively strong.

By 1994 the tide had turned and both east and west Midlands were being fiercely contested with AFA setting its own agenda. In the North West the experienced BNP organiser ‘retired’ at the beginning of 1995 due to the continual pressure from AFA and later that year the BNP’s public activities ceased in Scotland and the Midlands. To some it may seem that the war had been won, but the reality was that the conflict was simply moving into a new arena.

The BNP’s change of strategy inevitably meant that AFA needed to adapt to the new situation, but the emergence of Combat 18 (C18) kept the prospect of street confrontation alive. Although it is now clear that C18 were set up by the State, primarily to examine links with Loyalist paramilitaries, there was also an attempt to divert AFA away from addressing the major political issue of the BNP’s growth by getting involved in ‘gang warfare’ with C18. Although they had previously existed as the BNP’s stewards group from the outset they were promoted by Searchlight and the media as something new and extremely dangerous.

Something didn’t add up. C18 published hit lists and bomb manuals that broke every law possible and yet they were allowed to continue. It was clear the State were pulling the strings and it was also clear that Searchlight and their supporters were heavily involved.

AFA helped discredit the myth of C18 on the ground, in particular by disrupting the Ian Stuart Memorial concert in 1994 and a UVF march in Central London in 1996, but the role of Searchlight in promoting them showed a greater allegiance to the State’s agenda than the anti-fascist movement.

As pressure on the street forced the BNP to make political adjustments, by 1994 AFA was also making changes. AFA recognised it was a three-cornered fight against the fascists, the State and the conservative Left. The damage that groups like the ANL did to anti-fascism has already been mentioned, but when they started claiming responsibility in their propaganda for AFA victories like Waterloo it was felt they must be publicly attacked. A 4-page leaflet called ‘Don’t believe the hype’ was produced to answer their lies and expose their strategy as being counterproductive.

From this point on AFA was quite prepared to attack the conservative Left. In the past AFA had been reluctant to get involved in what were seen as being internal arguments, but the result of this was that AFA was either written out of history or completely misrepresented. When John Tyndall (BNP leader) stood in an east London by-election in the summer of 1994 AFA produced a leaflet which took ‘anti-fascism’ as far as it could go. It described the BNP as being ultra-conservative and showed their policies as being to the right of the Tories.

In an area where people don’t vote Tory this was the best propaganda AFA could produce, and yet it was becoming increasingly clear that AFA was fighting the fascists with one hand tied behind its back. No progressive working class forces were moving in to fill the political vacuum that existed in working class areas aid just being ‘anti’ BNP was not enough. On top of that the police actually prevented AFA from distributing this leaflet while the BNP were allowed to canvass door to door. Militant anti-fascism was being criminalised.

As the BNP’s public activities petered out, where there were clashes the police came down hard on AFA. An AFA mobilisation in Kirkby in the Midlands (April 95) was attacked with extreme force by riot police, one activist’s leg being broken in 5 places. In Edinburgh shortly afterwards a plainclothes police squad attacked a small group of AFA activists and only revealed their identity when they started losing. Ten AFA members were arrested.

More recently public AFA activities have been subjected to heavy policing -suspected activists stopped in the street and photographed, special squads assigned to monitor AFA, coppers on the street armed with mugshots of suspected organisers, AFA groups surrounded on the street and held for hours.

Interestingly, an anti-fascist protest in Central London (May 98) called by the ANL but not supported by AFA, had a very low key police presence; precisely because AFA wasn’t there. So although there is very little public fascist activity, when there is, a great deal of time and money is spent by the State to prevent AFA from making an impact.

Politically AFA addressed the problems thrown up by the BNP election successes, particularly in east London, by developing a new strategy. ‘Filling The Vacuum’ was agreed in May 1995 and still remains the key to the future. Essentially `Filling The Vacuum’ recognises the limitations of only being ‘anti’ fascist and not being ‘for’ something else. Now it is up to the anti-fascists to take the initiative and fill the vacuum in the absence of anyone else. The alternative is to allow the fascists a free run.

The ‘single issue’ aspect of AFA, introduced in 1989 to maintain unity as we entered an intense period of street activity, has run its course. Although AFA will always maintain its independence, militant anti-fascists must now see it as their duty to ensure that the vacuum is filled. The election of a Labour government in 1997, with the Tories discredited and divided after 18 years in power, gives the BNP the opportunity to pose as the radical alternative.

The battle for the streets has been replaced by the battle for hearts and minds, and it is in the direct self-interest of militant anti-fascists to get involved. The ‘revolutionary programmes’ of the Left are not relevant to working class people and the fascists know this. An independent working class movement can fill the vacuum if it addresses the concerns of ordinary people as its priority.

In different parts of the country AFA activists have got involved with, or initiated, campaigns around working class issues. This is the territory that the BNP have chosen to work in, as the Front National has successfully done in France, and this is where the new chapter of anti-fascism begins.

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Some thoughts on AFA, and on the decision to effectively move on from AFA ‘s single issue stance.

It’s worth pointing out that the above article, while giving a good overview of Anti-Fascist Action as an organisation, its origins and development, was written at a very particular time – when dominant forces within the organisation had decided to move away from AFA’s ‘single-issue’ concentration on combatting organised far right activists, and towards a strategy of winning working class support away from rightwing ideas to a left wing class-based program. This led to the founding on the Independent Working Class Association. The push towards founding the IWCA came largely from red Action, who had been instrumental in founding AFA, and remained a dominant group within it throughout its existence. But some anarchists and other activists also joined the IWCA, which did attempt to organise within a number of working class communities for a number of years tough now seems largely defunct. Red Action had a vision of a clear strategy of departing from the practice of what saw as a leftwing scene paralysed by dead ideas, dominated by middle class activists, and identified in many working class minds with the problems they encountered in daily life. Despite many positive activities in some areas, the IWCA did not live up to this vision; though the rise of first the BNP in its electoral period (post-1993), the EDL, and subsequent far right activists and groups, have to some extent confirmed the fears that motivated its creation. To what extent is Brexit and current surge in rightwing, racist and British (English?) nationalism an outgrowth of the failure to challenge these ideas effectively from the left?

AFA and the IWCA were always going to struggle to challenge rightwing ideas in the working class across the board; despite the best intentions of groups of activists whoever they are, ideas are usually wider spread in general society than can be pinned down to the influence of fascists. AFA had an undeniable impact on keeping organised far right groups from gaining a foothold on the streets, but fascists swim in a sea, and the sea of racism was larger and more pervasive. The 1999 analysis that running around constantly after boneheads was not completely addressing the problem was not off the mark; but just as a few hundred anti-fascists cannot be the answer to rightwing organising, leftwing organisations generally are not going to be able to adequately tackle that whole mindset, which has a long history, tied up with British imperialism, the island mentality, a clever ruling elite that always played ‘native’ working class sensibilities against migrants. Where anti-fascism and/or left ideas have been most successful is where they have developed organically, evolved through struggle, grounded in people’s experience of daily life. If that made for a more collectively-self organised and self-conscious working class which resisted fascism because it identified its fundamental anti-working nature – those days have gone, and can’t be easily rebuilt, and not by small groups of lefties. No matter how (rightly) critical of other lefties they may be…

Some of us also who has involvement with Anti Fascist Action and anti-fascism in the 1980s-90s ended up with some criticisms with some AFA practices, and with how it was organised. All of us, I think, had no problem with the AFA core programme – that you had to oppose fascism physically on the streets, as well as ideologically in working class communities. That seemed to us to make sense.

AFA at its most dogmatic saw itself as having the key to all problems with fascists; Red Action generally saw itself as the guiding spirit of AFA, and was intolerant of dissenting opinions. This led to a number of rifts within AFA ranks (later than the early disputes with liberal types detailed above) not mentioned in the above text. Many of these were with thoughtful, long term anti-fascists who came to view some of AFA’s practices critically and tried to discuss problems. The critics from within were in almost all cases NOT arguing for abandoning the physical confrontation plank – instead that force alone in the streets was not enough. Some Red Action members responded to this with denunciation, threats and bullying. A leading irony of several of these disputes was that non-Red Action activists were often accused by RA cadres of wanting to water down AFA’s physical approach to the Nazis, of being liberals, of wanting to be the ANL – usually for basically suggesting a more political approach, in ways which in a number of cases pre-figured the direction RA too when launching the IWCA…

AFA was obviously dominated by a culture, a kind of left hooligan culture if you like, which was useful when you’re actually trying to fight fascists physically…! In practice though it also meant AFA was overwhelmingly a club for men, largely white. Not to say there weren’t women involved, or black people, and AFA did make a point of working with some black groups against fascism. But voices of women and any black members or those who were not hard or experienced streetfighters were often isolated within AFA or felt alienated from it.

AFA’s structure became increasingly authoritarian and centralised. from the beginnings of AFA in 1985 it had shrunk down from being an alliance of a wider range of political strands, with some groups and individuals who had been involved early on, falling away or being kicked out. By the early 90s it was dominated in practice mainly by members of three groups, which is red action, the anarcho-syndicalist Direct Action Movement, and Trotskyist group Workers Power. Many of those who turned out for AFA mobilisations or did anti-fascist work along AFA lines were not aligned with these organisations however; and a number of non-aligned AFA activists came to feel too much power was held by them – the groups had political delegates to the AFA London Organising Committee for instance, beside delegates from devolved local groups – the LOC basically made or passed down decisions for local groups to implement. A Stewards Committee was also set up, which had final word on aspects of AFA work, notably security and physical confrontations, again giving power to the 3 dominant groups.

AFA activity also tended to become all consuming; to the exclusion of other struggles. You couldn’t be part time. There was quite a lot of pressure to be committed full time to the exclusion of other political activity, and people who were also involved in a variety of other struggles and saw anti fascism as only a part of their activities, did tend to be shut out of decision making, and be considered lightweights.

Red Action in particular opposed attempts to overturn the power imbalances and tight control by a small group. Independent AFA activists who complained about the domination of the 3 groups were effectively told to join one or another of them, shouted down and smeared.

These were political, organisational problems, including information being kept tight to some people’s chests, and some areas being considered important to work in, not others. Obviously, some of that information came from confidential sources; possibly even infiltrators in fascist ranks. So closedmouthness sometimes make some kind of sense. But some of the some of the way information was disseminated to people, on a hierarchical basis, did leave some of us feeling out of the loop, and when we were in our area feeling like info had been kept from us it left us confused and pissed off.

There were many problems between Red Action and anarchists, non-aligned anti-fascists, in London and elsewhere. For those involved in AFA on a daily level, there was lots of friction. Red Action did tend to swagger around try to intimidate people who were supposed to be comrades; their view was effectively that they did all the work – untrue – and that anyone who opposed the centralised and authoritarian structures and suggested a more democratic or decentralised structure was out to wreck AFA, were liberals and splitters etc. Although in AFA their closest allies were anarchists (mainly DAM members) the Reds were also constantly denigrating anarchism, particularly in their paper…

These issues caused tensions and splits in North London AFA a couple of years later, with most of the non Red Action members leaving AFA completely to form an independent group.

The IWCA had its own success in some areas on London and beyond for a while, though it fell victim to RA’s basically Leninist tendencies, admitting all sorts of Stalinist losers; the IWCA also had some similar problems to AFA with RA bullying, leading to at least one London branch leaving to form an independent group.

Part of the problem arose from AFA’s origins and founding basis – the idea that the white working class, in some areas susceptible to fascist influence due to disillusionment with social conditions, alienation from Labour & the left, could be won away from fash ideas by showing that the nazis were beatable on the street, and undermining their claim to be the hardest political thing in town. This was meant to go in hand with an ideological thrust – arguing the anti-working class nature of fascism in those communities. All well and good, but in reality, AFA ended up downplaying the extent of racism that permeates many working class people’s thinking. In AFA’s earlier days (1985-89) there had been an attempt to construct a kind of anti-fascist patriotism of sorts, attempting to portray the fash as essentially anti-British, trying to lay a wreath at the cenotaph for Remembrance Day (a fave event for National Front organising)… Though AFA was always much wider than this, and arguments were always going on around this.

The other problem AFA had was the sense of ‘parachuting’ – that they came in as a mob from outside and sorted the fash out then left. Although only half true, there was enough truth in this to make it worth discussing. Security dictated a certain approach; but realistically this kind of intervention is no substitute for community organisation on the ground. Sometimes you can’t wait for that to develop organically, true. The flipside was that when you’d left the area there was often retribution, and this was usually targeting of black people, racial violence, the usual schtick. This was another hotly debated tactical question among anti-fascists, and within AFA there was a consciousness of the problem.

As we write, racism and support for far right groups are rising again. So are there any lessons to be drawn from the glimpses of fascism and anti-fascist response we have briefly detailed here?

It’s not easy to translate lessons across time and space. The UK’s organised fascism has changed and evolved; organising resistance has changed correspondingly over the decades. the rise of a more ‘respectable’ far right and alt-right presence and the populist harnessing of racism into Brexit etc poses questions about tactics and strategy. Still, we think there are some ideas and thoughts that come out of seeing AFA and other anti-fascist movements in action, in the 1980s-early 90s, which may be useful in considering how to oppose the current rise of the far right. These are thoughts, incoherent if anything, not intended to be a lecture or a program, but a stumbling towards something.

Firstly anti-fascism works best when it takes the form of an organic, community-based resistance; when it emerges from communities, rather than being a separate ‘movement’, imposing themselves on a situation from outside. (NB: AFA at its best was much more useful and successful than this).

Successful anti-fascism is at its best when it is based in a wide, diverse spread of people – look at all the wildly different contingents, local, national, from the left, counter-culture and feminist movements and beyond, who turned up to oppose the National Front march through Lewisham in 1977. But at its best, resistance to fascism comes most effectively from communities targeted themselves by fascism – Jewish communities of the East End of London in the 1930s, Asian communities who built the Asian Youth Movement and many other self-defence groups in the 1970s, from Bradford to Birmingham and many other parts of the country, to defend their communities against racist attacks. It’s not to say that people can’t stand in solidarity with one another – but these initiatives created militant anti racism, which to some extent stands in contrast to other strands of anti-fascism, coming from left scenes, sometimes isolated and self-defining as a separate movement. AFA emerged from committed activists and no-one doubts the organisation’s record. But even AFA tended to think of itself as ‘THE militant anti-fascism’ in a way that often blinkered people to other ways of organising. Other anti-racist groups who coalesced around opposition to fascism, meanwhile, laid themselves open to the charge of bottling the fight and diverting attention and support from grassroots self-organisation: at times, you would have to say, this was deliberate, or at least an inevitable result of their hierarchical and centralised ways of thinking, of considering people not involved in their brand of politicking as not capable of collective action on their own behalf.

At its most problematic, AFA did have an element of separation, of going into an area to ‘do the business’ and then coming out again. It’s not it’s not to say that AFA’s efforts in themselves didn’t have many positive aspects, inspiring others, denting fascist efforts and preventing events from taking place: overall, AFA did have an important impact.

Some further info:

Links: Heroes or Villains gives a good intro to the history of anti-fascism in Britain.

For some AFA actions see Bash the Fash, by Kay Bullstreet

ANTI NAZI LEAGUE: A Critical Examination 1977-81/2 and 1992-95 is good on the ANL’s two periods of existence and AFA’s origins.

Anti-Fascist Archive generally is very useful

Some Books worth reading: Beating the Fascists, The Untold Story of Anti-Fascist Action, by Sean Birchall

No Retreat: The Secret War Between Britain’s Anti-Fascists and the Far Right
by Dave Hann, Steve Tilzey

Anti-fascist action: an anarchist perspective, by an ex-Liverpool AFA member.

Some of this post duplicates (partly) a post we wrote about South London AFA’s opposition to the British National Party in Camberwell in 1991 and related matters.

Today in London festive history, 1996: Reclaim the Streets Re-Wild the M41 motorway, Shepherds Bush

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.

The Party

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.”

A complete living room was set up in the fast lane, with people relaxing on a selection of sofas, playing guitars and reading newspapers, while their dog slumbered on the rug..

“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.
(‘Charlie Fourier’)

Watch M41 – the film

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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.

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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…

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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) 

 

 

Today in London’s festive history, 1999: J18, the Carnival against Capitalism

“Around the world, the movement grows – from the forests of Chiapas to the streets of London, from the grain farmers of India to the landless in Brazil to the unemployed in France. Inspired by the Zapatista struggles in Mexico and the Intercontinental Encuentros, and by the global actions against the G8 (most powerful) nations and the World Trade Organisation in 1998, activists from many countries are planning co-ordinated actions around the world to oppose neoliberal capitalism.

On June the 18th this year the G8 nations will meet in Koln, Germany, to further promote their vision of “free”trade, economic growth and corporate dominance. Meanwhile across Europe, in Canada, Nigeria, Venezuela, Argentina, Mexico, South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brazil, Australia and many more nations, activists will occupy and transform their local financial districts (stock exchanges, banks, corporate HQs) .

Autonomously organised events ranging from educational forums, pickets, protests, discussions, blockades and street parties will disrupt business as usual and show the world that things could be very different, just Imagine…”
(from the original proposal for a global day of action and parties against capitalism, 1999)

On June 18, 1999, thousands of demonstrators converged at Liverpool Street train station, for a spectacular day of action in the City of London in protest and rebellion against capitalism, timed to coincide with other actions and demos all around the world on the day of the G8 summit – the leaders of the world economic powers meeting to set their agenda.

In this post we re-publish some of the events that took place on the day in London, plus some reflections on J18 published afterwards, some of which are more critical of the event and of the movements it arose from…
Much of this material is available elsewhere online, and we have flagged that up where we could.

June the 18th was the product of many streams, coming together, including UK anti-roads campaigns and Reclaim the Streets, movements that has arisen in solidarity with/inspired by the Mexican Zapatista uprising, the European Social Forum and People’s Global Action, and drew on anarchist, environmental, anti-war, animal rights, anti-capitalist and autonomist strands, and many other movements, across the world…

In the UK plans for a spectacular day of action in the City of London had been under discussion since mid-1998, arising from a merging of Reclaim the Streets (RTS) and older anarchos who remembered events like Stop the City were putting their oar in. [we hope to post some of the history of Stop the City sometime soon on this blog]. There was a definite influence from discussions within RTS in 1998, as well as the Bradford Mayday 1998 conference.

Although we concentrate here on London, it very important that J18 was planned as an international series of protests and parties on the same day… Here’s a list of some of the events planned around the world. 

In London, 1000s of people met at Liverpool Street Station, from where participants broke up into four different marches in order to divide and confuse police; organisers distributed masks in four different colours. A spontaneous fifth march emerged, as well as a Critical Mass composed of hundreds of bicyclists. Meanwhile a series of occupations and actions took place at various targets by autonomous groups of activists. The marches converged on the London International Financial Futures Exchange (LIFFE), where they hung banners, set off a fire hydrant to symbolise the liberation of the lost river Walbrook beneath London’s streets, adorned the walls with graffiti, disabled surveillance cameras, and set up sound systems for DJs and punk bands to perform. A raucous afternoon of dancing, exuberance, and street fighting followed, during which participants bricked up the front of the LIFFE building, broke in and trashed its ground floor. Partying continued into the might across the city.

LONDON TIMELINE: June 18th Hour by Hour

From the thread posted up as it happened on the day – slightly edited for readability…

8:00am – 600 Cyclists take to the streets of the City of London
Report with pictures here

Critical Mass blocked Liverpool St with a car, its tyres slashed to prevent movement. They also dropped a banner from London Bridge. 3 people were arrested during the action. 700 people are currently blocking London Bridge. The action is ongoing. Liverpool St McDonalds is currently blocked in a ‘festival type’ action where 200 people are currently ‘dancing and whistling’. A banner has been hung which says ‘McDonalds are guilty of exploiting their workers, destroying the environment and murdering animals’

9:00 am- Campaign Against The Arms Trade occupy Friends Provident office near St Pauls – Banner dropped from building.

9:30am – 30 Protesters occupy another office in the City
“The company does not know that they have been occupied yet – more details when they do”

9:30am – Lloyds Bank in St. Pauls occupied
4 People are locked on inside the bank of British Aerospace. More protesters are picketing outside the building.

9:45am – Office occupied at 9.30am revealed to be huge capitalist auditors and administators KPMG

10:00am – Activists in occupation of Natwest Bank

11:45am – Business comes to a halt as activists occupy Lloyds Bank in protest at support of arms export industry

1:00pm – Liverpool Street: A banner has been unfurled on the roof of the building above Liverpool St. This is a company called Walburg and Reeves. Many people are dancing and there are costumes and huge heads on sticks. The station is crowded. There are police at the perimeters of the protest but people are going in and out. The place is full of protestors, organisers and average people on the street – many wearing green hats. ….city workers are dancing !

1.40pm – Thousands of protestors demonstrate outside McDonalds restaurant. City workers dancing in the street with carnival goers. Liverpool Street and Old Street are blocked by 3,000 partying protestors…more arriving all the time

Masks of four different colours were handed out with text on the inside…

1.00pm – Several thousand people demonstrated outside McDonald’s in the City. Old Street was blocked by police vans, and people ran back towards the station. Inside shops, parties were held. TV crews were present, but the police presence was low-key.

1.50pm – Thousands protest outside Mcdonalds restaurant. City workers dance in the street with carnival goers. Liverpool Street and Old Street are blocked by 3,000 partying protestors…more arriving all the time…

2:00pm – London Wall: A crowd, estimated at about 3,000, in London Wall, in the City, near Circus Place.. At 2.02pm, outside number 3 London Wall, witnesses said they saw protesters climbing on the roof of a police van. The police then drove into the crowd at “high speed”. One person apparently was run over by two sets of wheels. Reportedly, three or four people were injured. An activist said he saw blood spilled. Some panic and difficulty getting an ambulance through to the area because of the crowds. Reportedly growing hosility from the crowd. Riot police always believed present.
A second witness at Walbrook Street reported a line of mounted police who galloped off – presumably towards London Wall. There was growing hostility between city workers and protesters outside Capital (Bank?); “Bank workers seemed to be looking for agro,” said a witness.

Another witness said others in the crowd, by about 2.20pm, were trying to calm the situation.

2.40pm – 2.45pm – Protestors unfurl huge banner at UK carnival…

2.50pm – Person injured by police van, ambulance needed. Police drive at speed into crowd.

3.50pm – LATESTPolice aggression continues even after earlier incident when protestor was injured by police van…3 storey fountain cools hot partygoers…giant heads bring music to the masses…

4.05pmPolice aggression continues even after protestor was injured by police van…3 storey fountain cools hot partygoers…giant heads bring music to the masses… “7 giant heads have been spotted (each atached to a backpack) and each containing a small sound system. The heads represented different nationalities, to draw attention to the fact that June 18th is a global event and that the current economic system affects everyone. The Spanish Head played Spanish music, African music was piped from the African Head etc.”

MONEY RAINS DOWN ON CANNON ST: Mysterious ‘construction’ workers in yellowjackets appeared on the bridge next to Cannon St tube and cast ‘silver’ banknotes down on city workers and protesters alike. ‘They came down in a beautiful shower,’ reports a witness, ‘a soft and shiny rain’.

Carnival goers bricked up the London International Financial Futures and & Options Exchange building to make the point that there is no future in the current financial system. ‘There is no future in Futures.’ The wall was built to a height of 5 feet using breeze blocks and cement brought into the city during the carnival. The building was evacuated.

6:15pm – Southwark Bridge: Police beating indiscriminately after they blocked the bridge. Many of those trapped receiving serious beatings with head injuries etc.
While the news reports have made a point of stressing the peaceful nature of the majority of the participants, it is regrettable that the other focus of the reports has been on the violence and the prevailing traffic conditions as a result of the event, rather than the extra-ordinary global coalition that has united in over 40 countries to protest against globalisation.

6.25pm – At 18:00 hours in a report by a UK radio station the first accurate descriptions of the serious injuries sustained by protestors throughout the afternoon was broadcast. Many of the UK media news reports were surprisingly accurate, reporting on the diverse and peaceful nature of the day. As the Carnival like atmosphere spread throughout the city, demonstrators seeped through the initial police cordon and proceeded to dance through the streets.

7.00pm – North side of Blackfriars Bridge
300 people dancing to the sound system (now out of the city). Very low police presence. Other groups now dispersed across central london.

8:00pm – Around 2,000 people were cleared from Southwark Bridge by police who blocked roads as they moved forward. Whitehall, the Mall and Charing Cross road were blocked by the police

8:00pm – Meanwhile up to 2000 others bring the Strand to a standstill for over an hour, police vans following at a distance. UPDATE – at end of Strand police pushing crowd towards Trafalgar Square.

8:30pm – Leicester Square
Police clearing protestors from Leicester Square

9:00pm – Carnival sound system impounded by police – surrounded by riot vans in Kings Cross… “French girl arrested and taken to Kentish Town police station.”

9:30pm – Trafalgar Square still full of thousands of protestors. Police have cleared the roads surrounding. Mixed reports but seems peaceful.

9:30pm – Trafalgar Square still full of protestors. Mood more relaxed – full party in progress – drummers and dancing in the fountains…

11.45pm – Square still peaceful, party atmosphere 🙂

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Media:

June 18th was not just panning out on the streets – the event saw technological developments in activist media which built on existing methods of countering mainstream media blackouts on or misrepresentation of protests.

1000s of copies of a newspaper, Evading Standards (taking off the rightwing London daily Evening Standard), were distributed.

Pirate TV put on a webcast all day, Click here for the stream.

In London Radio Interferance was broadcasting continuously on 106.8 FM (or somewhere near that frequency)

There was also a live chat feed, being regularly updated from around the world, and a map which you could zoom and click on to see reports of events everywhere.

These latter developments would be refined for later anti-capitalist actions at Seattle and help to create the global Indymedia network… which then on to other alternative news web sites…

LONDON: One Personal Account FROM THE DAY

The June 18th demo against the G8 Summit in the City of London was amazing! It was possibly the best riot in London since the Poll Tax one. The cops totally lost control of the situation and got a good beating, and various business like McDonald’s, car showrooms, banks and the Futures Exchange were trashed. According to the press four cops were hospitalised. The City was also covered in anarchist graffiti. Every time you were with a large mob thinking this is great all these people, you’d turn the corner and there’d be an even larger crowd there creating mayhem!

The day began (for me) at the Smithfield Meat Market at 10.30am. There was a few hundred activists and quite a few cops. The meat market usually operates in the early hours in the morning but there are normally a few people around at this time. Not so on the 18th: all the loading bays were shuttered up and the entrances were heavily locked. So instead there was a march to the British Poultry Association HQ on High Holborn, stopping outside while before going on to the Imperial Cancer Research Fund offices at Lincoln’s Inn Fields via various McDonald’s.

After that the march made its way into the City where it met up with the other activists at Liverpool Station. There must have been tens of thousands of people there totally filling the station concourse and the surrounding streets.

There were drummers in the middle of the station and the acoustics were excellent – you could hear the sound booming out from outside despite the absence of electrical amplification. Other drummers and musicians were outside “entertaining the troops” whilst some people climbed up the walls of the banks and tied banners from them.

The weather was very hot and most of the office workers came out to enjoy the carnival-type atmosphere.

But lurking in the background, down side-streets, were the massed forces of the state: the City of London police (who are just for the square mile that is the financial district), the Metropolitan Police, and also vans from the Kent police. At this point they were taking a low-key approach.

People were drinking and there was allegedly some consumption of recreational drugs. The situation was a powderkeg gently simmering (excuse the mixed metaphor) waiting for a spark to kick things off.

Down the surrounding side roads were lines of riot cops in balaclavas, helmets, black boiler suits and shields blocking the way. After an hour or so people wanted to move off around the City and weren’t too happy at being prevented from doing so. The situation built up with the help of the ever-present “brew crew” (crusties fond of drinking ‘Special Brew’ extra-strong lager) and the cops came under bombardment with bottles and cans and whatever else came to hand.

But the ‘thin blue line’ couldn’t hold out forever and eventually the mob surged through them and surrounded several riot vans. The police shit themselves and beat a hasty retreat into the relative refuge of their vehicles. Some people climbed on top and were dancing and stomping on the roof while other kicked the sides in and tore off bumpers and numberplates. After a short while the police decided they’d had enough and reversed down the road at speed. A few people were knocked down by the fleeing vans and one woman required an ambulance and fire engine after she was trapped beneath a riot van.

After this the cops stopped trying the direct confrontation method and watched from the sidelines as windows were put in and graffiti was liberally daubed over merchant banks and public monuments.

A McDonald’s on the route was totally ransacked by activists who put through every window, smashed up the inside and sprayed graffiti on the inside walls. The cash tills were also removed and broken open on the road outside so people could help themselves to the money.

Just down the road was the LIFFE building (the Futures Exchange) where some sort of trading in stocks and shares goes on. Protesters tried to storm the building and the foyer was totally trashed. Police were trying to intervene but the number of people opposing them forced them to retreat. The security managed to repel a fullscale invasion but all trading was suspended for the day. Someone sprayed “Bankers = Wankers” high on the wall of the building.

Next to this a sound system had been set up and thousands of people were dancing on the road. Some water pipes had been unstoppered and jets of water four storeys high were spraying out. A group of people protesting for the right to be naked in public stripped off in the middle of the crowd. A nearby Mercedes-Benz car showroom was trashed and a car was torched by protestors.

After a few hours of this people moved off to Trafalgar Square to “reclaim” it from Royalists under the slogan “Fuck the Royal Wedding”. The whole square was filled with hippies, punks, crusties, ravers and anarchos, with fire jugglers and drummers providing entertainment. Nelson’s column was daubed with anti-police and anti-royal graffiti. People stayed well into the evening and as far as I know nothing kicked off after that.

There were also smaller actions happening simultaneously across the City such as sit-ins at various banks, protests against Third World Debt and “Critical Mass” cycle ride in the morning to bring traffic in the City to a standstill.

When I went round the day after (Sat 19) smashed windows were boarded up and glaziers were hard at work. Cleaners were already starting to scrub graffiti off the buildings (strange they don’t work so quickly in our parts of town). The City is deserted on Saturday and Sunday anyway so weekend business won’t really be affected.

The Evening Standard (London local daily paper) claimed in its early editions: “A ragbag of causes but no real anarchy”. They’ll have to amend that belief in their Monday issue judging by the headines in the Saturday papers.

In summary: the day exceeded my already high expectations, but in hindsight if more people had been properly “tooled up” there was the potential for much more damage to have been caused. Also, due to the hot weather people weren’t excessively masked up, so it remains to be seen whether the police will pick people out at a later date from security video footage.

If there’s another one of these demos I would urge everyone to come – it’s definitely not an event to miss and you won’t be disappointed.

Across the world:

There lots of reports from J18, in London and all around the world, here

A post-J18 press release:

“RECLAIM THE STREETS

0171 2814621 – 0835 536 537 – rts@gn.apc.org

June 18
Press release – for immediate release – 18 June – 11.45pm

Protesters slam police ‘brutality’ after pitched battles hit City

Forty six protesters were tonight in hospital after police violence led to serious confrontations at a Reclaim the Streets carnival in the City of London.

One woman had her legs and abdomen run over by a police van as it accelerated through the crowd. She was taken, clearly in great pain, to the Royal London Hospital, where staff were still assessing her condition at 9.40pm.

Witnesses said one man became trapped under a riot van when he fell behind it as it reversed. Fire crew had to jack up the vehicle to free him. In total up to fifty people have been reported hurt.

Many witnesses told how, in both cases, police failed to acknowledge warnings from bystanders that people were trapped under their vehicles. “I actually saw the van bump up and down as it ran over the woman. But they didn’t stop, they just kept on accelerating through the crowd, scattering people in all directions,” said one witness. Investment banker Simon McKeown reported later: “In ten minutes, as a result of the police actions the atmosphere went from carnival to very tense.”

Following these incidents, the atmosphere of the carnival deteriorated, and led to confrontational situations in some areas. Reclaim the Streets spokesperson Mark Sully said: “Today thousands of people came to the City of London to party and protest. The carnival celebrations were unfortunately partly overshadowed by police over-reaction, however most participants managed to keep up a positive spirit.”

June 18 is a loose global network of organisations, and protests also took place today in 43 countries around the world. In Tel Aviv, Israel, a street carnival was held, and torches lit for the victims of corporate human and animal rights abuse. In Belarus, picketers handed toilet paper to customers leaving McDonalds. Thirty people were arrested in New York at a carnival in Wall Street.

For more information, contact Reclaim the Streets: 0171 2814621 0835 536 537. Video footage and pictures are available on request.”

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Original J18 proposal and flyers

Texts of the original J18 proposal and the leaflets put out to publicise the event.

“A PROPOSAL FOR:
A day of protest, action, and carnival in financial centres across the globe on 18th June 1999.

….Wherever there is oppression there is resistance…..

A proposal has been made by various groups and movements of activists from England to hold an international day of action aimed at the heart of the global economy: the financial centres, banking districts and multinational corporation power bases. The suggested date is the 18th June 1999. Movements involved include Reclaim the Streets (RTS, a popular movement seeking the liberation of city streets and public spaces using direct action, and now Western European Conveners of Peoples’ Global Action Against ‘Free’ Trade and the World Trade Organisation), and London Greenpeace (a group independent of Greenpeace International, recently involved in a large successful battle with McDonald’s). This proposal is made in the spirit of strengthening our international networks and follows from the success of co-ordinated global action during May 16-20th 1998. These days saw actions, protests and demonstrations on all continents, for example over 30 ‘Reclaim the Streets parties’ in over 20 countries – a combination of illegal carnival, protest and direct action, catalysed by RTS in London. In Brasilia 50,000 unemployed and landless peasants were on the streets, while in Hyderabad, India, 200,000 were protesting. These events coincided with the ‘G8’ meeting in Birmingham, Great Britain, and the third ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation in Geneva, Switzerland. The ‘G8’ consists of the leaders of the eight most industrialised countries and exists solely to promote economic globalisation, ‘free’ trade and corporate dominance.

Next year between the 18th-20th June the G8 will meet in Koln, Germany. The idea is to take action around the globe to coincide with this meeting. This also links with the proposed tour of Indian farmers/activists in Europe to campaign against the World Trade Organisation and multinational corporations. The proposal is to encourage as many movements and groups as possible to organise their own autonomous protests or actions, on the same day (June 18th), in the same geographical locations (financial/corporate/banking/business districts) around the world. Events could take place at relevant sites, e.g. multinational company offices, local banks, stock exchanges. Each event would be organised autonomously and co-ordinated in each city or financial district by a variety of movements and groups. It is hoped that a whole range of different groups will take part, including workers, peasants, indigenous peoples, women, students, the landless, environmentalists, unwaged/unemployed and others….everyone who recognises that the global capitalist system, based on the exploitation of people and the planet for the profit of a few, is at the root of our social and ecological troubles.

The proposal has already been discussed by movements and groups on all continents, for example the Karnataka State Farmers (KRRS, India), the Rainbow Keepers (ecologists from ex-USSR states), Proceso de Comunidades Negras (Colombian Black communities movement), Friends of the Earth, Uruguay (Environmentalists), CTERA (Argentinean teachers Union), Reclaim the Streets (New York, USA; Prague, Czech Republic; Sydney, Australia), COMUTRAS (textile workers union, El Salvador), peasant movements in Mozambique and many more. Plans are already well advanced in London, and Koln, Germany.

Ideas are flowing and enthusiasm is growing. We’d very much like to hear what you think.

There is an email discussion list. To subscribe, send an email to listproc@gn.apc.org with the following request:

subscribe J18DISCUSSION Your e-mail address

then messages sent to J18DISCUSSION@gn.apc.org will automatically go to other interested groups around the world to facilitate wider discussion of this proposal. Or write to ‘June 18th’, PO Box 9656, London, N4 4JY, Great Britain.

OUR RESISTANCE WILL BE AS TRANSNATIONAL AS CAPITAL!

for more information on Peoples’ Global Action visit http://www.agp.org

for more information on Reclaim the Streets visit http://www.gn.apc.org/rts/

for more information on London Greenpeace / McLibel visit

http://www.mcspotlight.org

June 18th web-site: http://www.gn.apc.org/june18

PLEASE PASS THIS PROPOSAL ON TO OTHERS.”

Text of J18 call-out leaflet:

“June 18th 1999 International day of action aimed at the heart of the global economy: The financial & banking districts

“The collapse of the global marketplace would be a traumatic event with unimaginable consequences. Yet I find it easier to IMAGINE than the continuation of the current regime.” George Soros, speculator and high priest of the markets

IMAGINE

Financial districts across the world filled not with profit and plunder but with the sounds and rhythms of party and pleasure.

IMAGINE

A world where people have control of their own lives and communities

IMAGINE

A society based on mutual aid, sharing and the respect of nature.

IMAGINE

Taking your desires for reality

IMAGINE

The resistance will be as transnational as the capital June 18th 1999 On the eve of the 21st century the list of woes facing us seems greater than ever – economic meltdown, the millennium bug, environmental crisis, war, famine, poverty – all unconnected, we are told by the experts – to be solved only by more ‘growth’ and ‘free’ trade. The global market economy however, which had come to be seen as unquestionable dogma, is crumbling. As usual talk of reform is in the air, but a system based on the ‘survival of the fittest’ and ‘growth’ can only continue to cause human misery while destroying the ecology of the planet. A new world is possible. A global movement of resistance is rising – people are reclaiming control of their lives. Across the world, social and ecological movements are coming together, talking, taking direct action and enacting radical alternatives to ‘globalisation’. In May 1998 their voices were raised during meetings of the G8 world leaders and the World Trade Organisation, when many local actions and demonstrations took place – autonomously organised, yet globally co-ordinated. These ranged from 50,000 landless peasants on the streets of Brasilia, to 30 simultaneous street parties across the globe, to 200,000 people on the streets of Hyderabad in India. Next year the G8 will meet in Koln, Germany, between June 18th-20th. Groups are already organising for actions to happen simultaneously on Friday June 18th in the financial districts, markets and institutions around the world. ‘The City’ of London is one of the key hubs of the global economy and this will be the main target of UK actions on June 18th. We will only realise our collective visions by taking action together, so June 18th will only work if a whole range of different movements and groups get involved; environmental, workers’ women’s, unwaged/unemployed, students, trade unionists, peace, pensioners, gay, anti-deportation… the longer the list, the more effective the action.

Involve yourself

Dream up amazing action

Organise local planning meetings or come to the monthly London meeting.

Choose your favourite Transnational Company, Bank or Investment Fund, find out as much as possible about them – location of HQ etc and prepare fun and games.

Spread the word – print leaflets – talk to people – network.

Take a day off work or go sick on 18/6/99

WHAT?

demonstrations, protests, actions, pickets, stunts, shut-downs, sabotage, leafleting, blockades, games, hacktivism, parties & more Simultaneously transforming the city of London and other financial centres across the world

WHY?

IN recognition that the global capitalist system is at the root of our social & ecological troubles

WHEN?

18/6/99 – To Coincide with the annual meeting of the G8 leaders

WHO?

A growing alliance of social and environmental movements “We are more possible than they can powerfully IMAGINE.”

Shouted from the top of a crane during an occupation of a building sit, No M11 Link Rd campaign, London, 1994.”

Gold Leaflet text:

“Game Over

Liverpool St. Station >< City of London, Noon

On June 18th the leaders of the eight most powerful nations will meet for the G8 summit in Cologne, Germany. Their agenda will be the intensification of economic growth, “free” trade and more power for corporations as the only way towards a bright future. But these ‘leaders’ are not in control… Our planet is actually run by the financial market – a giant video game in which people buy and sell blips on electronic screens, trading life for money in their search for ever-higher profits. Yet the consequences of this frenzied game are very real: human lives, ecosystems, jobs and even entire economies are at the mercy of this reckless global system.

As the economy becomes increasingly global and interdependent those resisting its devastating social and ecological consequences are joining forces. Around the world, the movement grows – from Mexico’s Zapatistas, to France’s unemployed, to India’s small farmers, to those fighting road building in the UK, to anti-oil activists in Nigeria – people are taking direct action and reclaiming their lives from the insane game of the markets. Resistance will converge on June 18th as hundreds of groups simultaneously occupy and transform banking and financial centres across the globe.

If you act like there is no possibility of change for the better, you guarantee that there will be no change for the better.

The choice is ours.

Carn’ival n. 1. An explosion of freedom involving laughter, mockery, dancing, masquerade and revelry. 2. Occupation of the streets in which the symbols and ideals of authority are subverted. 3. When the marginalised take over the centre and create a world turned upside down. 4. You cannot watch carnival, you take part. 5. An unexpected carnival is revolutionary.

Cap’italism n. 1. A system by which the few profit from the exploitation of the many. 2. A mindset addicted to profit, work and debt which values money more than life. 3. An unsustainable ideology obsessed by growth despite our finite planet. 4. The cause of the global, social and ecological crisis. 5. A social system overthrown at the end of the 20th century…

A massive carnival in the world’s biggest financial centre – the city of London – will be Reclaim The Streets’ part of the day. Let’s replace the roar of profit and plunder with the sounds and rhythms of party, carnival and pleasure!

Friday June 18th – An international day of protest, action and carnival aimed at the heart of the global economy: the banking and financial centres.

Reclaim The Streets

Meet 12 noon, Liverpool Street Station, London EC1

Bring a radio and disguise yourself to blend into the City. Office worker or bike courier costumes work best!

Don’t play their game, call in sick on Friday June the 18th

Do not underestimate the power of global resistance.

By taking direct action, people make connections, they talk and communicate with each other, they break down the isolation and fragmentation of this alienated society. These connections are now spreading across the globe…”

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Reflections on June 18, 1999

A collection of responses by participants, originally published in 1999

Discussion papers on the politics of the global day of action in financial centres on June 18th 1999. [NB, the order these appear here is slightly different to the order they appeared in the published edition]

This project arose during the run-up to June 18th, as a result of the need felt by people with varying degrees of involvement with J18 to stimulate critical debate around the politics behind the international day of action in financial centres. Contributions were invited. The point was made that this was not intended to be a discussion of the minutiae of the organisation of the day or the effectiveness of particular tactics, although the line between these questions and the “politics” of J18 is of course blurred. Originally the idea was to produce the discussion booklet before the event. It soon became apparent that this would not be feasible, nor necessarily desirable. Many potential contributors wanted to see what happened on the day and asked for more time to be able to reflect properly and chew over how such a ‘day of action’ could relate to capitalism and the movement to overthrow it, the significance of the ‘globalisation’-buzzword and other issues raised by the whole process. Deadlines passed and were extended, the e-mail system crashed and some days’ messages were lost forever – we just hope that no contributions were sucked into that particular black hole in cyberspace! An open editorial meeting was announced to decide the editorial policy and to coordinate layout etc. Unfortunately because of space limitations we had to leave out one lengthy contribution (the author made it clear that he did not want his piece “Nine Meditations On a Summer’s Day”, by Over The Water Charlie, to be edited). So apart from that it only remains for us to thank everybody who contributed and say “let the debate continue!”

Editorial Collective, October 1999

This project arose during the run-up to June 18th, as a result of the need felt by people with varying degrees of involvement with J18 to stimulate critical debate around the politics behind the international day of action in financial centres.

June 18th – If I can dance, it’s not my revolution?

A contribution to the “Reflections on J18” collection.

June 18th in the UK indicated once more that we have yet to realise the impasse contained in a politics of carnival expressed in the form of a street party. Indeed, I am going to suggest that the very concept of the street party is, in its current guise, part of the difficulty, a contributory factor to the spectacularisation of resistance which celebrates an idea of ‘party as protest’, thereby repeatedly mobilising the same constituency, without appealing beyond a narrow sub-cultural ghetto. Where, in the past, our critique has successfully illuminated the staid and self-disciplined marches of other social movements, the purpose of which appears to all intents and purposes to be the alienation of those participating, I want to suggest that we are now in a similar position, having imposed our own self discipline in what amounts to a carceral continuum of ‘protest’. ‘Participants’ turn up at the meeting point, await instructions, follow their leader(s), have a party, and express their frustration in the inevitable confrontation with the police. Whether at London Wall or Upper Thames Street, we still led, or were led (most peoples experience), to a space which we accidentally liberated through force of numbers, before being invited to trash something symbolic, and then either defend that space with force from the police, or retreat under the threat of state intervention. During all of this it was possible to ‘party’ if you could get out of the way of charging horses and baton wielding police. Despite having approximately 10,000 people in the City of London, only a handful of occupations took place on the morning of June 18th, and the actions that were taken were generalised in the sense that they were organised in established fashion, CAAT actions involving locking on in banks, Critical Mass, etc. Despite the notable attempts to block London Bridge most peoples involvement was to choose to meet at Liverpool Street and await instructions, rather than to plan their own autonomous actions.

June 18th in London whether we liked it or not was essentially an RTS, and was more revealing for being so. Previously the action of blocking roads was in itself politically significant, in rediscovering their potential as streets, the party became a celebration of a world turned upside down, the liberation of enclosed space. However in bringing the same tactic to the City, our challenge was not in the decision to move from the pavement to the street, but from the street in to the closed citadels of capital, and unfortunately many of us were happier to stay in the street, excluded from the real party, that of the owners of capital, rapidly enclosed, and then beaten down, our frustration taken out in unimaginative graffiti – ‘bankers=wankers’, the breaking of windows, and the entirely bland re-enacting of iconic revolutionary moments of the past. The burning of documents might have had greater resonance, if it wasn’t for its ritualised performance by a handful of militants who entertained the crowd with their daring, but ultimately reaffirmed their own separateness from those spectating. This was the theatre of protest married to the spectacle of the party, the unrefined anomic disorder of the dispossessed, frustrated and angry but ultimately controlled, allied to the hedonism of the party scene which often perceives the political as an ‘off yer face – out of mind’ distraction. This is what I mean by ‘party as protest’, it inverts Emma Goldman’s often quoted affirmation of revolution as a celebration, and replaces it with the conceit that to party is revolutionary. I’m bored in every sense with ‘protest’, the very notion of a fragmentary objection to some ‘thing’, and I celebrated the repeated assertion of ‘resistance’ in June 18 agit-prop, yet everywhere I still hear the same mantra about ‘protest’, as if it were possible to protest against capitalism, to turn out for one day a year and object to the very relationships within which the rest of our everyday lives are embedded. And, here lies some of the difficulty of the street party, difficulties which have long since bedevilled a politics of carnival. Despite the wonderfully erudite reading of carnival that has peppered RTS agit-prop, much of it derived from Bakhtin, a street party is unlikely ever to become the revolutionary moment, because it contains within it all the aspects of carnival which have been, and continue to be recuperated within the spectacular, participants in the street parties we organise have everything to gain by playing it safe. Nowhere was this more evident than in the City. We have seen commentators lamenting the police actions in breaking up a ‘peaceful party’, and the police in the City of London, despite our best imaginings, have given us little indication that we are conceived as a serious threat, ultimately they sat back and let us go where we pleased, not because they couldn’t stop us, but because we create the conditions of our own confinement. When they wanted they were able to split the crowd, drive us away from the LIFFE building and beat those who tried in vain to hold their ground. Tactics which are reminiscent of the Met’s recent handling of RTS events, where they have deployed minimal control during the ‘rolling’ stage of the party, waiting until we’re stopped and then surrounding us. What are often celebrated as temporary autonomous zones, can just as easily be conceived as prisons of our own choosing. The availability of between 5,000 and 10,000 people as a core constituency on any street party in London means that the risk associated with attendance is minimal, minimal risk – maximum attendance, yet there were 7,000 people 3 years ago, and after months of work we can still only attract similar numbers, which is far from a ‘critical mass’. Lots of symbolic actions, little meaningful disruption for the City, and to make it worse we then congratulate ourselves through commodifying our resistance, 2 million quid of damage – good demo!

Despite our good intentions party and carnival are not synonymous in the context of the street party. Party here means the ‘party scene’ and just that, an opportunity to let off steam see your mates, get off your face and go home, bar a few highly distinguished exceptions, the party scene is a semi commercial enterprise run by entrepreneurs marketing a niche in sub-cultural chic – witness the flyers distributed for pay parties and whistles being sold to the crowd outside Liverpool St with little challenge. What I want to know is where are the people that marched with us to Trafalgar Square (accepting the failure of other plans for the day!) on the March for Social Justice, the dockers, the RMT dissidents, disaffected trade unionists, Kurdish workers, pensioners groups, twice the number of people we attracted to the City. People whose tradition and history speak volumes about differing forms of resistance, from whom we might learn differing repertoires of activism and to whom we might teach certain tactical innovations. The Inter Continental Caravan, should have raised many questions for our movement in the UK. Why have we failed to mobilise large swathes of people whose lives are touched everyday by the machinations of the City, whose communities have long traditions of resistance and whom we have worked with in the past. Part of our difficulty is articulating a sustainable form of resistance outside of activist ghettos, finding forms of engagement which enable others to participate and constructing networks which go beyond those already in place. The movement has diversified since the prominent mass actions against road building, and whilst this diversification is healthy in that it opens avenues of access to participation at different levels, with differing emphases, drawing from differing traditions, if we are to have further mass actions aimed at key nodes in the operation of finance capital, part of this process has to be an escape from the well established routine of the street party as it is enacted currently. Let me illustrate the problem through reference to one of the key moments on June 18th in London. I was present outside the LIFFE building when there was an organised attempt to gain access, despite the presence of long term activists, with a significant history of engaging in direct action, many of whom I respect enormously, they were met by other misguided people calling for ‘non-violence’ who, alongside the obligatory security, managed to physically obstruct their attempts to gain entry, these confrontations opened the way for the crude anarchism often displayed in such situations whose advocates merely seek to smash things up and lob bottles from distances which imperil those at the front, thereby bringing in the riot police, it also encouraged the spectacle of protest, many happy to watch things develop despite being implored to occupy the building. There was little resolve in those present for an occupation, and yet with 100 or more people the building could have easily been occupied and perhaps even barricaded, with greater enthusiasm this could have been achieved with little in the way of violence and would have sent a resounding message around the globe. So why didn’t it happen?

Because the crowd gives the illusion of action but is essentially passive, there is a ‘peaceful party’ to be part of which seeks little in the way of serious engagement, we are stuck between the virtual activism of the party and the dedicated efforts of a far smaller number of activists whose vision is of a revolutionary carnival. We have the ambition but the means we have chosen dissipate our energy and allow our recuperation. Let’s not pretend any more that being forced away from the Futures Exchange and smashing the odd Mercedes dealership is some kind of great success, this is merely anomic disorder with little merit or conviction. We might be able to mobilise 10,000 people but how many of them were willing to take instrumental direct action which is aimed at the interference, disruption and symbolic appropriation of key nodes in the operation of informationalised capitalism, we have this capacity, and such as RAND (‘Cyberwar is Coming’, Arquilla and Rondfelt, 1993) have been theorising our capacity to cause such immense disruption for years, yet still we engage in the same theatre of collective action, tacitly affirming the relations of power to which we are finally subjugated.

Suggestions for further mass actions.

If we are to hold further mass actions against finance capital they should be explicitly targeted against key nodal points in the network of institutions, corporations, and exchanges which facilitate the current globalisation of neo-liberal capitalism, not at its totality which despite our understandings of the ‘spectacle’, or the ‘military/industrial/entertainment complex’ remains an abstract proposition for most people. This could involve a call to stop a particular institution working for a day, a wonderfully old fashioned mass picket (call it whatever you want) by the people whose lives are affected in the everyday by its operation. We could explain very clearly how the institution works and why it should be stopped, local groups could research the impact it has in their region and tie it to local pollution, poor working conditions, health and safety etc. Our energies and resources could b e focused on research to uncover every last detail of their operations, it would be easily communicable through our own media and quickly picked up by the external media post June 18. It would be a return to the single issues that politicised so many of us previously, but it would be the single issue of capitalism itself expressed in a less abstract manner. We could target a different institution every six months, explaining and demonstrating the links between them and calling for actions against their offices or buildings globally. We could forget about the secrecy of locations and be overt in our choice of target, those coming to participate would know why they were there and it would be made apparent that the aim was to shut the choice of target down. Tactics could involve occupations (where possible), mass pickets (as carnivalesque as possible), cyber attacks – hacking/fax attacks/e-mail bombs, phone actions, letter writing campaigns, street parties outside Director’s houses and wanted posters of them in their own communities, etc etc. Instead of dissipating our energies rallying against something so big it disappears, we would be uniquely focused on the points at which their system is weakest. Inevitably we would be the subject of massive police attention, but besieging such institutions would allow for a clearer articulation of how capital operates and the means of operation upon which it is dependent. Imagine the police defending a sieged building of a major multi-national or financial exchange when for weeks before local groups had distributed information about how it effects the lives of people in their region, before going to take part in the action. The police role as puppets of private capital would be increasingly revealed to a wider constituency of support who could participate in numerous ways, many people in our area would love to participate but haven’t reached the point where they can take to the streets, there would be nothing to stop them phoning this or that institution/exchange on the day. Unions could be contacted and sympathetic workers engaged with, allowing for further information and possible internal disruption/sabotage. This broadening of our support base would diminish the range of repressive actions the police could take and might if we exhibited the same organisational capacity as we did during June 18th, lead to them advising our targets to cease work/dealing etc for the day. In the event of violence by the police, the representation of a thin blue line sweeping a rabble from the streets could not be sustained as easily, think of previous struggles such as the miners strike, the printers at Wapping or even the poll tax riot. If we can articulate a strong case why a particular corporation/exchange should be stopped and threaten to lay siege to it, they will be forced at some level to articulate a counter position. Once they engage in a debate they effectively legitimate opposition, two positions are known and people are able to side with one or the other, this strengthens us immensely. The City was able to appear as sanctioning June 18th during its ‘peaceful party’ phase, before expressing shock at later events which were represented as random and chaotic violence, they had no need to defend their part in global death and destruction because they were never called to do so. Trashing a Mercedes showroom, whilst it has my sympathy, is not going to make others question the logic of capital, it’s merely a means of relieving frustration. We all know that stopping the City whilst it sounds wonderful is unlikely to happen whilst we fail to engage those outside our number who won’t come for a party. However, stopping London Clearing House or the Metals Exchange or the god forbid the Futures and Options Exchange….

If we could stop them once it could be done again, and if they can be stopped once the utopia of stopping them permanently would appear almost in sight. Imagine 5 years from now when everyone knows how the City operates because they’ve seen it sieged, exchange after exchange, bank after bank, institution after institution. Imagine it permanently cut off from the rest of London its own need for security strangling its operation, whilst its reputation as a key player in the global network of finance is devastated. Imagine the ripples it would send throughout our networks, the same hope many of us have seen in the audacity and tactical brilliance of the Zapatistas. It’s possible but we need to move from a celebration of its possibility to the enactment of its downfall. There is nothing here which is at all innovative, I’m merely suggesting a replication of tactics that have achieved differing degrees of success elsewhere on a smaller scale, think of live animal exports or Hillgrove and EF!’s national campaign against Tarmac. Neither am I calling for the abandonment of RTS events, rather I’m attempting to suggest a way forward from the impasse of challenging finance capital through the ‘party as protest’ route, which despite its ability to mobilise large numbers, does so at the risk of inducing a political vacuum in the heart of our resistance. As one of the people that occupied Freshfields law firm in the City of London on June 18th, I found their own reporting of our action very telling:

“Freshfields has been stormed by the protesters waving banners and playing bongo drums! The dancing is pretty dreadful but it’s made for an exciting morning” (Squall Web Site). The time of us dancing to their tune should be over, I’m not interested in making their work exciting – but stopping it. At the same time as our occupation and again over the weekend, other activists from within the Lancaster J-18 group launched a cyber attack against Freshfields which disabled their e-mail system, whilst others still occupied Acordis Acetate’s plant in Lancaster, leading a critical mass there and storming the building. Acordis pump carcinogens in to the air over Lancaster, and Freshfields are the lawyers that facilitated them doing so. So when we danced in Freshfields it wasn’t because we considered that in itself was enough, but to celebrate the storm that was coming their way. If we are to use the metaphor of carnival to frame our politics, let’s not have another carnival against capitalism, but turn capital in to the carnival, juxtaposing its grotesque greed and excess, its viciousness and inequity to our world of chaotic order and beautiful anarchy.

Much love from Lancaster.

Lancaster J-18 Collective

Mustn’t Grumble?

A contribution to the “Reflections on J18” collection from Paul Petard.

Oh what a lovely day for smashing up the city. June 18th; Well yes I came along too and found myself pleasantly surprised by the outcome. Several thousand carried off a big loud aggressive “carnival against capital” in the city of london. Buildings invaded, roads blocked, stock exchange temporarily besieged, cars munched, big swanky bank plate glass windows crunched, police van looted!… such excitement and entertainment we haven’t seen for a long time. Plenty of running around with cops at various points, quite a few injuries, but no instant mass arrest on the day. What with this being the end of the nineties inside the city’s ring of security this sort of thing isn’t supposed to happen any more under the post riotous consensus end of politics and history and such. It brought back fond memories of stop the city, or the days of the poll tax. And it was all simultaneously coordinated with demos in a whole load of cities around the world. With a score like that at the end of the day it was easy to get quite distracted by the adrenalin rush and the euphoria of the occasion and lose all perspective of what the politics was supposed to be about and what had really been achieved. The riot was a case of “enjoy” (SPGB leaflet) and it made us feel big and powerful for the day. But unfortunately let’s face it, we are not big and powerful, we are still small and weak, and if we are honest about it the “success” of the riot was more of a fluke than anything else. We got away with making the demo/carnival/riot happen because in effect the authorities allowed it to happen that day. Tube managers had already shut down the circle line all of a sudden that morning creating commuter chaos while other parts of the tube were disrupted as well. Also charing cross station had been shut. The police operation was bungled with police commanders losing control, while police on the ground, part of the time, were just standing aside either for fear of obstructing city workers or through laziness. I witnessed several occasions when seriously naughty things were committed in full view of nearby tooled up police who had the strength to intervene but just stood there watching and did nothing. The rest of the time the police whipped up chaos with their usual viciousness, clubbing people, injuring people, running people over etc. If you lived in a part of the world where street fighting was a daily occurrence you’d soon find that the novelty wears off. It becomes a routine, a daily listing of arrests, injuries,… not so thrilling or glamorous, it bogs down your community in a rut, saps its energy and ability to do much else. It has always been a mistake to fetishise street rioting and streetfighting and constantly try to read something social revolutionary into it. A mistake I’ve been guilty of myself over the years.

But nowadays, in this part of the world “riots”, when they still occur, are often either the product of bureaucratic screw ups or sometimes pre-arranged police and journalist set-ups. Increasingly rare events here, street riots, like prison riots, tend to happen because the authorities have wilfully or negligently allowed them to happen. This could be because of simple bureaucratic and managerial inefficiency and wrangles (maybe they’re deliberately dragging their feet because they want to be paid more, or they’re just bored with their jobs, or they’re arguing with each other and their communications have broken down), maybe it’s sinister machiavellian intrigue by the secret police to create more work for unemployed glaziers.

Usually it is the first kind of reason. Smashing windows is smashing windows, piling up rubbish in the street is piling up rubbish in the street, throwing things at police is throwing things at police, a buzz yes, but none of these things automatically imply the refusal of capitalist wage labour and commodities, the creation of common wealth and the building of world human community. The social revolutionary process we desire will sometimes involve a riot or two on its periphery, but a street riot does not a social revolution make. Nor does proletarian bargaining power come primarily from streetfighting. Proletarian bargaining power comes from collective withdrawal of labour, organising solidarity, sharing free goods in the community,…

It is not as if on June 18th some group of workers in the city like secretaries or cleaners were in dispute and called on other workers and unemployed to join in with them in picketing out the city. Nor is it a question of some big industrial struggle or social struggle elsewhere giving rise to a flying picket going to the city to create a diversion and open up some sort of a “second front”. There is certainly an element of proles and lumpenproles who are struggling informally or in diffuse small groups around work/dole/housing/community who express their alienation and frustration by turning up and coalescing at events like June 18th and this is a positive development. At the moment they cross over with these events but they don’t lead them. It is still a professional/semi-professional protest activist sub-culture which leads them. it is the predominantly white, majority middle-class, protest fashion scene putting on the style. Some of them are seriously bourgeois, megarich, or in high powered professional career paths.

So the class composition of an event like June 18th is heavily confused and contradictory, leading to confusion and contradictions in the politics and tactics. It is funny how politicians are expected to declare their personal economic and financial interests but political activists can conceal theirs. Not even Class War would introduce the means test for membership, it might be too embarrassing for them in what it would reveal. R.T.S.; a good way of getting laid, shame about the class composition. Meanwhile the city folk have a clever line of argument they use half seriously half jokingly: Why if it wasn’t for the city hustling and dealing generating money and bringing in revenue from around the world there would be much less money for the nation to spend on social security and welfare handouts. The government wouldn’t be able to pay giros to dole scrounging squatters and anarchists and scruffy anti-roads protesters and the like. Indeed if it wasn’t for the city generating the money to subsidise it there wouldn’t be hordes of drongo greens and anarchists blocking the streets and grumbling about the trees and GM crops. The stereotypical (in their view) grungy doleite anarchist who every few years gathers in the city to breathe bad breath on poor office workers and moan and whinge about world capitalism is in fact protesting against the very thing that pays for them to exist. The protesters are just the dropout sons and daughters of the bourgeoisie while it is they, the ordinary boys and girls turned city whizzkids who are the real rebellious working class, so they love to tease. There is a danger of just turning some of this upside down and taking the reverse line of argument in order to reply to them. Why if it wasn’t for anarchists and half the population cashing their giros or getting their pay out of the bank and spending it as good individual consumers in the off license then there wouldn’t be so much money for big companies. It is the money we spend as consumers, buying products produced by the multinational corporations, that gives rise to their profits and helps make the mean and nasty city institutions rich and powerful so they can rule the world like Dr. Evil. Better then that we spend our money on alternative products in the wholefood shop. Of course both lines of argument are silly, neither explains what is really going on in the capitalist economy or where the wealth really comes from, but there are plenty of people who would take one or other argument quite seriously.

The city of London and other financial districts around the world are just one particular part of a much wider global financial system. The global financial system is itself just one part of capitalism as a whole, it is a reflection of the whole capitalist industrial production process, everywhere built upon wage labour. This includes the local flower shop on the corner as well as the big corporation and the chemical plant. Big global capital is not more nasty than little local capital. Today one is an expression of the other and vice-versa. Big horrible banks in the city are simply an expression of all the big and small businesses that put their money in them. Small capitalists will grow into big capitalists. The financial districts are not the real “centres” of capital. If it means anything at all to talk about “centres” of capital then from our point of view as dispossessed proletarians (“The proletariat is the industrialisation of the third estate, a class now amounting to almost half the population of the world”, Two Hundred Pharoahs… Manifesto, Box 100, 178 Whitechapel Rd, E1 1BJ) the real “centres” of capital are not the financial districts but….

  1. Working in a job in order to live (wage labour)
  2. Housework, washing the dishes, changing baby’s nappies, queuing in the supermarket, running for the bus, when one has no real choice (reproductive labour).

These are the real “centres” of capital for us. These are the two points where we come up against capital as a social relation that exploits us in our own lives. And it is these two points where we as proletarians might have any direct or indirect bargaining power to pull the plug on the system and start collectively transforming things. “Capitalism” is not an external “thing” to protest against. It is an exploitative social relationship which has come only in recent history to dominate virtually everything and in this part of the globe everyone is involved or trapped in it to a greater or lesser extent. None of us, not even nutters like Green Anarchist shouting “direct action” while holding a loaf of bread impaled on a stick, are outside capitalism. The June 18th carnival was certainly not devoid of proletarian subjectivity but this tended to be contained and something you had to feel apologetic about, or again something external to be “linked up” with as a separated thing in a cringy way(“support the such and such workers”). Despite the day’s spontaneous happenings (and many of the crowd also missed the more hardcore stuff as they were in other parts of the city), the event remained in part a somewhat alienated exercise protesting against the evil corporations and the immoral things they do. It wasn’t based primarily on confronting one’s own role within the system and as a result it continued to obscure our potential subjective bargaining power as proletarians against capital, whether revolting at the point of wage labour or reproductive labour. Some individuals managed to successfully sneak off work to get to the demo but to what extent might this have influenced or involved their colleagues? Attacking capitalism means revolting against one’s own life not just going for a day out in the city to have a go at other people about their lives. That is too easy and safe. Not everything bad in the world can be blamed on “yuppies” and anyway there are thousands who work in the city who are neither yuppies nor bosses. Many of those present on the day were conscious of this but at the same time there is still a big lazy minded element who just want to “bash the thing”, whatever the “thing” to blame everything on happens to be that day; the car, the office window, the police officer’s hat, the person wearing a suit.

This is far too often an excuse for a cover-up: a refusal to talk about oneself, one’s history, one’s own daily life, and the power one might have within the class struggle to revolt against that. This cover up and the refusal to talk about themselves and their own interests and desires is a recurrent theme amongst the “protest against the thing” protest activist scene. This sometimes leads to a kamikaze-martyr small group mindless direct actionism as a substitute for a self-critique locating one’s own struggle in the wider society of which one is a part. This in turn can lead to an elitist activist meritocracy, sneering at the majority of working class who “don’t do anything”, i.e. don’t spend all their waking hours engaged in alienated activist “protest against the thing” kind of petty guerrilla actionism.

We are living in a part of the world , particularly britain, where capitalism is very strong and the state very entrenched. The infrastructure and machinery is very much developed and working well. Much of the traditional industrial bargaining power that once existed has been defeated and shifted to other parts of the world since the seventies. Reproductive labour has become a lot more atomised and individualised. So for the time being class struggle here is bound to be sluggish, weak, only partially visible, but it does go on (electricians’ strike, waterloo building wildcat strike, council worker grumbles, still some successful domestic squatting,…). The déclassé protest activist scene appears hot and lively and glamorous in comparison. But this is a bit of a seductive illusion. The problem we face isn’t just the media or consumerism, it is the successful redevelopment of fixed capital. Nowadays the architecture changes shape a lot faster than it used to. town centres, roads, housing estates, prisons, transport systems, leisure complexes, warehouses and industrial areas, all these can be completely redesigned and rebuilt in a matter of months. They keep building and rebuilding everything at a faster rate. Add computer technology and it gets more awesome by the day. As the infrastructure has been redeveloped since the seventies and early eighties on such a vast scale and at such a dizzying speed it has left proletarians feeling trapped and unable to move. In the face of a formidable infrastructure, constantly changing shape, they feel physically powerless.

This feeling of physical powerlessness expresses itself as a conspicuous proletarian silence. A lot of politicos and activists usually mistake this silence as “apathy”, full of notions of their own specialised importance it suits them to do so. But this silence is not apathy at all. They may not speak it out loud but in the back of their minds millions of proletarians are deeply aware and anxious about their own situation. They have also learnt the hard way over two decades not to get dragged into every limited partial struggle, particularly in cases where there is no chance of winning. Their refusal to get dragged into this issue or that issue is often a sign of collective intelligence rather than indifference. Like a submarine gone to ground at the bottom of the sea maintaining radio silence while the battleship capitalist restructuring circles above we face a difficult waiting game, waiting for that window of opportunity to finally move and attack. There is no easy solution to this.

But back to the surface, sunshine and June 18th: One comrade did point out to me that despite its shortcomings it was de facto the most revolutionary demo that had happened in london in many years, in the sense that it was a loud aggressive manifestation of several thousand in the city, simultaneous to demos coordinated by internet worldwide, demanding nothing less than the overthrow of capitalism and the creation of global commonwealth amongst its leading slogans. How many other demos in london have that as slogans! And as we said above proletarian subjectivity was not lacking, nor will it be next time.

paulp. 1999

The Ideology of “Globalisation”

A contribution to the “Reflections on J18” collection.

In order to be able to resist more effectively it would be useful to have as clear a picture as possible of the lines of advance taken by capitalism and conversely its weakpoints. A number of the terms most often used to describe the present situation don’t meet this need and possibly even go so far as to actively obscure the most essential aspects of capitalist society, thereby only making it harder to understand how it lives and dies. ‘Globalisation’ and the perceived dual need to oppose it and provide alternatives is rapidly becoming one of the most dominant themes across a wide range of oppositional groupings and milieus (as well as within other mainstream political groups and parties). Virtually every group involved in left/green or direct-action politics has at the very least stated their opposition to ‘globalisation’ or gone a step further and declared it to be the most serious problem facing us today – “The final act of enclosure” (RTS ‘global street party’ agitprop). Yet despite this wave of ‘enthusiasm’ any analysis of the content of this supposed devastating change seems to have been largely confined to the repetition of a limited range of ideological positions which are at best superficial and at worst reactionary. The mere fact that the terms like ‘Globalisation’ and ‘Neo-Liberalism’ are applied uncritically to describe any and every change taking place within the global economy suggests a lack of thought and analysis.

Over the past twenty years globalisation has moved from being a term utilised by academia1 into everyday usage – it has become common currency amongst politicians, commentators and theorists across the political spectrum. Words are not neutral abstractions, they signify real material content or potentiality. The most fundamentally antagonistic and corrosive concepts (such as ‘freedom’ or ‘community’) are twisted and turned upside down, emptied of their content and put into hard labour by the ruling order to maintain our present misery. Globalisation, on the other hand is universally accepted on the same basis by virtually the whole of the political spectrum. The point in the instance is not whether it is considered to be a positive or negative phenomenon but the acceptance of the world view upon which it is based. Both its advocates and the majority of its critics utilise the dominant ideological categories and assumptions within capitalist society; meaning that they are limited to repeating the banalities of conventional wisdom as propagated in a variety of forms by academics, leaders and self-proclaimed ‘experts’. Amongst western activists at least, works by left/liberal authors such as David Korten (When Corporations rule the World) and Gerry Mander (The Case Against the Global Economy) provide the (mostly unacknowledged) theoretical basis for much of their propaganda and in a less direct way for the forms and focuses of activity and direct -action campaigns. Theoretical understanding and criticism is not ‘just a matter of words’ or in this case producing ideas which aren’t connected to a particular situation or movement; discussion and attempts to mutually understand new lines of attack taken by capitalism are important and useful because global resistance and perhaps solidarity is growing after years of relative stagnation and retreat. Every form of activity has to find its theory and vice versa, theory and practice have to be interdependent; inadequacies in either area lead to weaknesses in the whole project – the gaps through which ideology and recuperation are able to immediately penetrate. Globalisation and Neo-Liberalism are not simply descriptive terms which have objective meanings. Like all ideologies on one level they do refer to actual processes of change, but obscure far more about both the form and content of the capitalist system than they actually reveal. They don’t exist as things in themselves but rather as theories, strategies and tendencies within the overall context of capitalism. To situate both your activities and theories in opposition to them implies that we should be attempting to force those in positions of power to simply adopt different and hopefully nicer ways of exploiting us – for example a global ‘neo-Keynesianism’ or perhaps an end to ‘corporate rule’ and a return to some grossly idealised pre-globalisation democratic nation state. This is unlikely to happen, although even it did ‘victory’ would hardly be the word that would immediately spring to mind. Focusing on opposing the most recent manifestations of capitalism (e.g. restructuring, the global market, free trade organisations, the power wielded by multinational corporations) means that an attack on the real heart of the capitalist system has been either forgotten or ignored. Capitalism is not a place (‘financial centres’) or a thing (‘multinational corporations’), it is a social relationship dependent upon wage-labour and commodity exchange where profit is derived from capital’s theft of unpaid labour. Being “against Globalisation” suggests that we would be better off under some form of national capitalism. Such an outlook is an open invitation to local activists in each country to join ranks with nationalistic and protectionist elements among the middle and (in some cases) ruling classes who are also opposed to ‘free trade’ and the penetration of ‘international capital’. This is evidenced in this country by repeated references in activist publications which by their lack of critical qualification appear to bemoan ‘loss of national sovereignty’ or ‘democracy’ and governments’ inability to restrict foreign investment under the terms of the MAI.

In other countries the process appears to have gone much further; two of the most vigorous opponents of globalisation in France and the US are respectively Le Pen and Pat Buchanan. Le Pen is the leader of the National Front in France and Pat Buchanan is on the right of the Republican Party. It can only be a matter of time before globalisation arouses ‘little Englander’ sentiments amongst right wingers in Britain. This is not to say that all of those who oppose globalisation are right-wing or ultra-nationalists or even in danger of becoming so, the point is that defending the nation state and national or local capital even in terms of the loss of ‘democratic accountability’ or ‘local culture’ is possibly more insidious than outright nationalism, it also allows for points of commonality with those who would normally be beyond the political pale, e.g. the late and mostly unlamented James Goldsmith erstwhile financier, founder of the Referendum Party and “mad, fascist crook” has a piece in the book The Case Against The Global Economy.

By limiting ourselves to being “against Globalisation/Neo-Liberalism” local exploiters be they land owners, factory owners managers of state enterprises or for that matter any ‘local business’ may be considered to be on our side! It can only be a mark of capitalism’s present strength that even to talk about it is seen as outmoded and passé. Globalisation/Neo-Liberalism are no less problematic than capitalism is perceived to be by some. The Zapatistas for example seem to studiously avoid using the word capitalism, preferring ‘Neo-Liberalism’. Whilst some have interpreted this as a tactically astute refusal to be burdened by the past; the end result is merely confusion as to whether the struggle or in Marcos’ words the “Fourth World War” is between the rich and the poor or between globalising Neo-Liberalism and ‘national sovereignty’.

S.

  • 1. Since the beginning of ‘the capitalist crisis of accumulation’ in the late 1960s, a range of terms such as post-modernism, post-industrialism, risk society, post-Fordism and of course globalisation have been introduced ostensibly in an attempt to provide an adequate understanding of contemporary changes in the global economy. (Bonefeld 1997) Whilst some of these have remained largely confined to academia, others such as Globalisation and post-modernism have entered into common usage.
WTO – Why Totemise Oppression?

A contribution to the “reflections on J18” collection.

After identifying capitalism or the “global capitalist system” as “the root of our common social and ecological problems”, many of those who took action on June 18th are now running headlong into the next “big day”, November the 30th -N30 – for action against the WTO (World Trade Organisation) and free trade.

Is this the same enemy? Many would argue that the WTO is just another incarnation of the global capitalist system and therefore a worthy target. But this thinking reproduces some of the flaws of the thinking behind J18, in that it fetishes the institutions which manage global capital (J18 fetishised the abstract side of capital – finance capital – as opposed to the material side – production or industrial capital). The institutions of capital are targetted instead of capitalist social relations, with the added problem that the majority of opposition to the WTO invokes that lofty bourgeois ideal – democracy – in complaining about the lack of democratic accountability in these institutions. The system of wage labour (the basis of capitalist social relations) is not attacked, instead darts are thrown at fetishes. PGA (full name: Peoples’ Global Action Against Free Trade and the World Trade Organisation) calls for the abolition of the WTO because it is inherently “undemocratic” and incapable of reform, implying that what is needed is some type of genuinely democratic institution (presumably like the World Peoples’ Parliament that someone on the J18 discussion list keeps on proposing).

Worse still, opposition to free trade is effectively an appeal to protectionism on the part of (“democratically elected governments” of) nation-states. Undoubtedly the strategy of global capital has been to attempt to guarantee continued accumulation by imposing further attacks on the international proletariat by what has been described as the “race to the bottom” ie competition between sections of the working class in different nation-states (the threat of relocation etc), and the MAI (Multilateral Agreement on Investment) and its WTO-sponsored successor represents an attempt to remove the regulations which stand in the way of this competition (by enabling corporations to sue governments for labour and environmental law etc)

While resistance to these attacks is to be encouraged, it would be foolhardy to see the question as one of defending the nation-state against the power of the transnational corporations – as the Do or Die (No. 8) article “Globalisation: Origins-History-Analysis-Resistance” points out, these are false opposites (capital and state are not in opposition, rather the state is a tool in the hands of capital). Surely the challenge is for the international proletariat to defend its common class interests against both the nation-state and global capital…

To target the WTO rather than, say, the system of wage labour upon which capital depends, is to blur the question, and inevitably leads to the formation of dodgy or even reactionary alliances (many Far Right groups, such as the Front National in France and One Nation in Australia, as well as parts of the Left have opposed globalisation and free trade from a nationalist perspective). Some activists have taken sides in the WTO bananas dispute, defending Caribbean producers against North American interests, often arguing in favour of “local economies threatened by free trade”. So small, “local” capitalists are good, and big, global corporations are bad (especially if they are American)… This naive kind of thinking enables the battle lines to be drawn between nation-states (or even between “North and South”, as if there were no Northern proletariat and no Southern capitalists) rather than between classes (international proletariat vs global capital).

Undoubtedly some people are opposing the WTO on an anti-capitalist basis, but is this the best strategy for consciousness-raising struggle?

Rudolf The Red

Beware of Bad Bed Fellows

A contribution to the “Reflections on J18” collection.

The Dutch antiracist organisation “De Fabel van de illegaal” (The myth of illegality) and other left-wing organisations involved in the international campaigns against free-trade agreements like the MAI, regularly get compliments from the extreme right. Although unwanted, these compliments are not accidental. The critique of free trade has long been a speciality of the extreme right, and has proven to easily turn anti-Semitic. We will all become “slaves” to the “international capitalists living on the Riviera”, the Dutch National-Socialist Party (NSB) ideologist Hylkema said in 1934. Free trade would bring the Dutch factories and farms down. Dutch goods would be pushed off the domestic market by cheap imports, he feared.

The only chance for survival was a fascist economy, he wrote. “We should control our national household in such a way that our people will not perish, when this group of people without a fatherland starts flooding us with imports. We don’t want our factories to close down because Eastern coolies work for a few dimes a day.” Hylkema called for resistance against “the trade and bank world, which still speaks of the principle of the open door. But the farmers feel that if things go on like this, the end is near.”

“But don’t think that the import trade capital and trust capital will save us then. They are extremely mobile. In one aeroplane they can bring billions in paper money across the border in just a few hours. Holland can then be bought by international speculators for a couple of guilders and we will become a poor and dependent people”, the angry fascist wrote. If Hylkema, half a century later, had been able to surf the Internet, he probably would have been pleasantly surprised looking at some of the anti-MAI homepages. Hylkema’s present-day successor Rüter certainly is very enthusiastic about them. Rüter is the main ideologist of the Dutch new-right think tank Voorpost. He advised his readers to check the Internet pages of “MAI niet gezien?!” (MAI, didn’t see it / MAI, don’t want it), the Dutch anti-MAI campaign. The new-right Dutch Student Organisation even linked their homepage to that of the anti-MAI campaign. The Dutch fascists are not the only ones interested. The German Republicans and the French Front National also turned against the MAI. In some countries the New Right even popped up at left-wing campaign meetings. The state against globalisation? For some time now extreme-right intellectuals have been working on renewing fascist thinking. The ideas and concepts of the current campaigns against free trade seem to be of good use. These are not specifically left-wing and even seem to be easily integrated into the traditional extreme-right worldview. For instance, take a look at the very fashionable concept of “globalisation of the economy”, which is very central to the international campaigns against the MAI. This concept implies that capitalism is originally a local system, and has only recently begun to spread its tentacles around the world. But in fact capitalism has from the start been a global system, and has been able to evolve only because of the plunder of the southern parts of the globe.

By pointing to this so-called globalisation as our main problem, the anti-MAI activists prepare our thinking for the corresponding logical consequence – the struggle for “our own” local economy, and as a consequence also for “our own” state and culture. Some movements in the South that also fight against free trade draw exactly that conclusion. Taking their situation into account, it may be understandable, but it is certainly not emancipatory. In the rich countries, promoting a struggle against globalisation could create a fertile ground for the extreme right to grow. Fascists have always valued a self-sufficient economy. “No imports of things that our own people can produce, are happy to produce, are able to produce very well. Because there is no better worker than the Dutch worker”, Hylkema thought already. Sixty years later, new-right Voorpost ideologists write about the “globalisation of American capitalism” and call for “a large-scale people’s capitalism and small-scale worker participation”, because that would offer the best “guarantees for the safeguard of our own industries.” In it’s first pamphlets “MAI niet gezien?!” wrote that the agreement “would put up enormous barriers” for states to “direct their own economies”. But according to new-right ideologist Rüter, “the political elite doesn’t even want to guide or decide any more – they gave up their power, only to serve an economic system that, because of its hegemony, doesn’t need the specification ‘capitalism’ anymore”.

Notice that both the anti-MAI activists and the new-right ideologists think the state and the capitalist economy are separate entities. In reality they are completely interconnected. The modern state and capitalism developed at the same time and pre-suppose each other. They are symbiotic twins. States create the social and physical circumstances for the continually changing capitalism and that is precisely why they are working on agreements like the MAI, together with the companies. The anti-MAI activists with their resistance against the “globalisation of the economy” run the risk of ending up calling for a strong state. Already, some of them are speaking in positive terms of the Malaysian state, which is supposedly curbing the free circulation of capital. But Malaysia is close to being the prime example of a modern fascist state. Productive versus speculative capital? Traditionally, left-wing thinkers have pointed out the dividing line between capital and workers as the main political economic conflict. However, when activists start using concepts like globalisation, they tend to start thinking in terms of a conflict between “local capital” and “international capital”, in terms of good “productive capital” and bad “trading and speculative capital”. But production and trade are inseparable parts of capitalism. And both parts of capital grow by stealing from the labourers (both paid and unpaid) and by plundering nature. Regularly, the international anti-MAI campaigns have used the image of the small local company being destroyed by a large foreign, if possible American, multinational. Many activists call for investment in regional companies or in social projects that would bring jobs and positive prospects. Such investment is also believed to bring more economic stability than the “casino capitalism” that is held responsible for the recent large economic crises.

This way of thinking perfectly resembles traditional extreme-right thought. To Hylkema only one real economic duality existed, the one between the “national, creative and productive capital” and “reprehensible international big capital”. The extreme right never principally opposed capitalism and even denies any difference in interest between the “national capital” and the workers. “The owner, the staff and the workers together share only one central goal – a flourishing company”, Hylkema explained. For him the main thing was to reduce “class hatred” and to strengthen the unity of “the people” as a whole. For that reason it is very convenient for the extreme right to have a common enemy, one that can be held responsible for the economic problems, crises and insecurities that will always accompany capitalism. “International capital” can fulfil that role perfectly. Modern nazi-ideologists also understand this principle very well. “Solidarity within the nation gets replaced by some sort of universal solidarity between the rich, the managers, the industrials: on many an international congress they secretly decide on their strategies”, according to new-right Voorpost.

Capital without a fatherland

Once ideologically separated from the rest of capitalism, the “reprehensible international capital” can easily be associated with “the enemy” – some other state or a certain well-defined group of people. Following this line of thought, a critique of the system as such can gradually turn into the crazy idea that a small group of hostile people completely controls our lives. Such thinking is historically very closely linked to anti-Semitism. In the deeply rooted and mostly European anti-Semitic tradition there’s always this connection made between “the international capital”, America and “the Jews”. This tradition holds that the “international speculative capital” is in the hands of Jews who conspire to rule the world. This “Jewish capital” supposedly operates from New York. For centuries right-extremist and nationalist movements have repeatedly revived this anti-Semitic way of thinking. Usually by saying that “the fatherland” or “Europe” is being threatened by – and this depends on the audience – “international capital”, American multinationals or “the Jews”. It’s all the same to the ideology behind it. Of course, criticising free trade doesn’t have to lead to anti-Semitism, but the two combine surprisingly easily. Hylkema’s fascist party NSB, for instance, was not anti-Semitic in the beginning of the thirties. But, by its constant propaganda against “international capital” it did lay a strong foundation for its later turn to anti-Semitism. In the beginning of the forties it was just a small step for the party to start inserting the word “Jewish” in front of the phrase “international capital” in their propaganda pamphlets. Anti-MAI activists putting “international capital” apart ideologically, are not by definition anti-Semites, but the analysis behind their reasoning surely is potentially anti-Semitic. History shows how easily the one can lead to the other.

The New Right also loves this type of anti-Semitism. In a recent article on globalisation, Rüter for instance wrote that “whoever arranges and controls the loans, also controls the economic cycle and economic development.” It is most certainly no coincidence that he throws in a quote of Amschel Meyer van Rothschild, a Jew who, according to Rüter, once said: “Give me control over the currencies, and I don’t care anymore who makes the laws.”

At the start of the international campaigns, autumn 1997, the anti-MAI activists strongly emphasised that the talks on the agreement were secret, and their attention swiftly turned to the individual decision-makers. “MAI niet gezien?!” wrote about a “multinational coup” and a “silent taking over of power”. Actually, the talks were partly secret, but not as totally as the activists suggested. Forced by an assistant leaking official documents, the talks quickly became more open. Many contemporary “conspiracy fans” were drawn towards the anti-MAI campaign. The campaign office received frequent calls from these nuts, probably alerted by the long article on the MAI published in their favourite magazine Nexus. This article was written by a left-wing organisation that is central to the international anti-MAI campaigns. Until the beginning of the nineties the Australian-based Nexus was openly anti-Semitic, but after that it backed down a bit. However, the stories remained essentially the same. In recent issues, articles on the political power of “Jewish capital” popped up again.

Conspiracy fans also visited anti-MAI meetings. On such a meeting in Geneva in August 1998, titled “Globalisation and Resistance”, one participant wanted to publicly read excerpts from the books written by Jan van Helping, a hideous German anti-Semite. Around about the same time, “conspiracy expert” Kohl’s came into contact with the Dutch campaign. For several weeks he was able to spread his anti-Semitic poison in anarchist circles before being unmasked.

Liberalism replaces capitalism

The central concept of globalisation has recently filled the analytical gap that was left when some 10 years ago the critique of capitalism went out of fashion. In the middle of the nineties left-wing circles first turned to the concept of “neoliberalism”. Especially the popular Zapatista uprising in Mexico stimulated its use. But neoliberalism is not the same as capitalism. It is rather the ideology that gets delivered together with the changes of capitalism that have been imposed from above since the mid-seventies. Among these changes are the flexibilisation of the workforce, the privatisation of government services and the development of new computer and biotechnology industries. Also part of these developments is the trend towards an increased international division of labour. By the end of the nineties this latest trend became central to left-wing analysis, especially when activists started campaigning against the MAI and WTO. This change in analysis and focus of attention undoubtedly is a result of the overall political swing to the right that we have all witnessed this last decade. This raises the question of what might still constitute a left-wing analysis, and what makes a political line right wing. Political discussions are getting scarce, especially in the Netherlands, which poses great problems to campaigns like those against the MAI. Knowledge of the history of left-wing politics is also scarce.

Earlier campaigns and discussions on international solidarity seem to have been almost completely and collectively forgotten. Most left-wing groups joined the anti-MAI campaigns without giving it much thought, upset as they were by apocalyptic stories about a new secret “world constitution”. And they kept on going without a thorough discussion that could have lead them to a radical change in their political direction. This last decade has seen non-governmental organisations (NGOs) taking on a more central role in campaigns, unhindered by the rapidly shrinking left-wing movement. Especially in the realm of international campaigns this can be clearly seen. For the left it is problematic that the NGOs’ criticism usually does not see beyond neo-liberalism and free trade. They do not consider capitalism as such as a problem. That is of course not in their interest. They are too much a part of the system themselves, and have a lot of jobs to lose as well. Too much leftist talk doesn’t pay. NGOs therefore don’t like political discussions. The professional NGO campaigners rather spend most of their time flooding their fellow activists with details on free trade from every corner of the world. The activist who does not have access to Internet or e-mail will easily get the impression that he or she is not able to seriously participate in the campaigns. An extra problem with this NGO-provided information is that it usually has a top-down focus. Information from a grassroots point of view is getting very rare. And because of the information overload, even the most experienced activist in the end starts to overlook the difference between the two.

Nowadays left-wing groups are most often not powerful enough to get an international campaign off the ground without the help of NGOs. The choice of limiting criticism to free trade so as not to endanger the help of the NGOs is apparently easily made. With the result that left-wing groups are spreading an ideology that offers the New Right, rather than the left, bright opportunities for future growth.

Eric Krebbers
Merijn Schoenmaker

De Fabel van de illegaal, July 1999

Keep it up, don’t let violence divide us

A contribution to the “Reflections on J18” collection.

I’ve been trying to write something for the J18 “critique” publication for some time now, but I have been finding it difficult after being swept up in Friday’s events in London, and the subsequent media fall-out. Originally, I wanted to write a piece about the ups and downs of electronic discussion groups, the challenges of global networking, etc., but I find myself unable to. I should have done it before Friday! Now I have seen so much vitriol written about the “violence” at the carnival, that I feel compelled to write a more sympathetic account. However, before I do that I want to consider some lessons that our movement can learn from the organisation and execution of this global protest against capitalism. Given the police and the media response, I think it would be fair to say that we have hit capital, and we have hit it hard. At times like this, I always worry about state reprisals. My thoughts go out to comrades who have been arrested, and to those who have faced house searches or intimidation from the police following the demo. And then there’s those lying in hospital beds, or nursing wounds at home following the bloody police repression on the day.

As the police sift through video evidence and photos, many more may face knocks on the door in the days and nights to come. However, I have faith that our movement will support all of those who face difficulties at this time. The media have made much of the use of the “Internet” in J18, and I believe that we must now expect increased monitoring of our electronic activities (I know that not everybody has computer access), and further repressive legislation against free speech on the internet. Such moves on the part of the state (perhaps in concert with the multinationals that now provide much of the internet’s “structure”) must be resisted at all costs. We do not yet know how sophisticated state monitoring of our electronic networks is, if it exists at all. At this time, the police seem to be playing “catch up”, but we should not assume that they will be so naive in the future. Further attention must be paid to the use of secure web and e-mail servers controlled by ourselves, and to the use of strong encryption software for increased security in individual-individual communications. On the other hand, J18 demonstrated that open and un-moderated discussion lists are an excellent way for us to network across continents. More importantly, they provide a useful interface between activists and non-activists. This sort of contact with others, be they sympathisers or detractors, can only strengthen our movement, and is a useful means of ensuring that our movement does not become “ghettoised” and that we maintain contact with others outside of the activist milieux. Of course, we must remember the class nature of the internet, and help to realise the goal of free internet access for all, perhaps through info-shops or libraries.

I think the other big success of the events was the media work. Although I would normally be one who is suspicious of any contact with mainstream media at all, we have shown that by careful use of press releases, we can partly influence what is written about us. All of the mainstream June 18 news reports that I have seen mentioned that the events were happening in many countries, were timed to coincide with the G8 summit in Koln, and were constituted by an amalgam of many different groups. Most importantly, the London events were billed as an “anti-capitalist” demonstration. They can’t write us off as “anti-car” protestors any longer. Plus, the J18 web site team did an excellent job presenting our own media and our own voices on the day.

The planning and organisation of the days events was incredible. I have never known such networking, and all done autonomously, with groups and individuals in charge of themselves and their own actions. In my opinion, the whole day stands as a tribute to anarchist methods of organisation, and shows how far commitment and careful planning can get you. On the day itself, seeing all those autonomous groups in action was incredible. Within the so-called “riot” lay the seeds of an alternative society, an alternative reality. Our reality.

Before getting into the thorny subject of violence, I want to drop in the following passage lifted from the Australian publication, “Anarchist Age Weekly Review,” No. 355:

“Violence? So Kim Beazley the leader of the opposition was blessed with a pie in the face over the weekend. Listening to the media’s response to this little episode you’d think that protesting about the Group of Seven’s activities promoted violence. The corporate media conveniently forgets that the G8’s success is due to their ability to be able to mobilise the dogs of war. Violence is an integral component of the G8 group of countries. These countries have a political and economic system that promotes inequality. The G8’s power is reliant on their ability to mobilise weapons of mass destruction. Their economic and social infrastructure promotes hunger, poverty and inequality. Violence is the main instrument that cements their hegemony over their empire. A few thousand protestors throwing a few rocks or a single protester pieing a leading politician can by no stretch of the imagination be considered violent behaviour. The real violence occurs as a consequence of the power of the G8. The poverty that is endemic in so many nation states and many of the pointless wars which exist, occur as a consequence of the power of the G8. The concentration of power and wealth that occurs in the world’s G8 economies is real sustained violence. The response to this institutionalised violence is essentially self defence not pre-mediated violence. Every time the media describes the skirmishes that occur between the G8 group of nation states and protestors as violence, it reinforces the idea that the state and the corporate sector have a God given right to use violence to defend their interests. In their eyes anybody who protests against the concentration of power and wealth which exists in the G8 nation states is guilty of violent behaviour, irrespective of how tame or peaceful their demonstrations are.”

We must be very clear that the media concentration on the “violence” on Friday is a deliberate attempt to discredit our movement and to try to divide us along the lines of whether we agree that (always carefully targetted please) “violence” is a legitimate tactic or not. I do not like to see members of our supposedly diverse movement condemn people for smashing windows or fighting with the police. One activist wrote a message to an internet news group saying that he wished that those people who smashed down the entrance to the LIFFE building or those who were throwing bottles at the riot cops had been arrested so that the rest of us could get on with our “peaceful demo”. First they came for the violent activists, and I did not speak out because I am not a violent activist. Then they came for me, and there was noone left to speak out for me. Through the whole planning stage of the June 18 events in London, there was always a concern that the whole thing would turn into a (really massive) riot, or that the cops would simply nick everyone when they turned up. One way or another, this demonstration was always going to have the potential to be a bit “heavy”. Furthermore, many people felt that the purpose of our actions, to disrupt the epi-center of global capitalism, demanded radical action in the extreme. In the circumstances, I believe it is to the credit of both the organisers and some of the street fighters that more people were not hurt or arrested on that day. Although there were some drunken bottle-throwers who chucked stuff anywhere (as others have reported), people have not reported the “positive” aspects of the way that autonomous groups of militants defended the demonstration from police repression on the day. In contrast to what others have said, for me one of the highlights of the day was when the entrance to LIFFE building was trashed. I think that these symbolic “breaches” are important. This was a modern day Storming of the Bastille (well, almost) and there was nothing that the cops could do about it. With their security guards, all their cops and their “ring of steel” they could not prevent the mob, the voices of the victims of capitalism worldwide, from bursting their way into one of their temples. This is the stuff that dreams are made of.

But, yes, people got hurt. The police went absolutely fucking crazy (of course). Amongst their first victims were activists who had been trying to calm the situation down between the blue line and the Carnival. After they had beaten the crowd away from the LIFFE, calm returned for a while, and I believe that it would have been possible to prevent further violence at this point. But it was not to be. Oh, as an aside, when the fighting started with the riot cops outside the LIFFE, I saw a bonehead with a t-shirt with a bulldog, union jack and “England” written on it join the crowd to fight with the police. I appreciate that everything is not always as it seems in a Carnival. Most people don’t like crazed drunks who lob bottles at the police. However, once a largely peaceful crowd is being indiscriminately attacked by riot cops, you are grateful for those people to defend the mass from brutality. I must say that it was at this point that the standard of the street fighting improved dramatically. I saw teams of activists forming lines of their own to repel police charges. When the police tried to use horses against this section of the crowd, the crowd charged back at the horses. This happened a second time and a couple of coppers were pulled off their mounts. The horses were not used against this section of the crowd again. In the main, missiles were transported to the front line before being discharged at the cops. Behind the front lines, the carnival continued! As the cops pushed us up the road, militants smashed bank windows. Although the destruction sometimes seemed arbitrary, e.g. people dismantling traffic lights, in the main it was “targeted” (again, the media used this phrase a lot, which I think is a success on our part as we managed to get this over) at bank windows, McDonalds and posh cars. An awful lot of people sustained injuries on Friday. By no means all of them were behaving “violently”. I saw some really horrific injuries, most of which seemed to be head injuries. I heard that a couple of people (at least) got run over by police vans. I hope everyone is recovering.

Okay, so what lessons should we learn from all of this? Firstly, I think that although we have achieved some successes this time around, we should certainly not rest on our laurels. Although we seem to have caught the cops off guard this time, we should not expect to be so lucky next time. However, we have shown the benefits of anarchist or autonomous methods of organisation in our struggles and we need to continue with these methods. On this occasion, the police chose to behave with extreme aggression towards the crowd. Although this seems to be a “new” tactic, there is no guarantee that they will do the same next time. Although many people clearly trained in methods of self-defence for the event, and there were definitely many tactical successes, we need to learn lessons for the future from this event. In particular, we need to think more carefully about how to defuse violent confrontations. We need effective ways of dealing with possible agent provocateurs who may provoke violence at our events. We need to educate people in our own movements about the time and place for violence. Violence should always be used sparingly, and should be dictated by the nature of the struggle. Violence should primarily be used against capitalist infrastructure and for self defence against riot cops and over-zealous security guards. Once everything has “kicked off”, we need trained and experienced street fighters who can respond tactically to different situations. However, at the end of the day, it’s perhaps a mistake to look for “order” in “chaos”. Seeing all those bleeding heads on Friday, I can’t help but feel that we should have the same protection that the riot cops have – notably crash helmets, shields and padded clothing. I seem to remember that there used to be a tradition amongst Amsterdam squatters and German radicals for wearing motorbike helmets at demos.

I began this piece by saying that I didn’t like the media concentration on violence, and then all I’ve done in this piece is talk about it myself. Violence was only a miniscule portion of the global J18 project and most J18 manifestations passed off peacefully. I am glad about that. Solidarity to all June 18ers,

Amusing Pseudonym

Why theory?

A contribution to the “Reflections on J18” collection.

(Article written before June 18th)

Why bother theorising1? As we rush headlong into another action (the June the 18th international day of action – J18), what’s the need for theory? After all, for many people theory is just a load of “intellectual wank” or pointless “navel-gazing”. (There is a scene in a Woody Allen film – possibly Annie Hall, where the character played by Allen is at a party surrounded by literati types, and he says “Did you hear that the Nazis are going to march in New Jersey”; pretentious party-goer replies “Oh yes I read the most devastating critique in the New York Times Review” “Review? What? We should be going down there with baseball bats or something!”).

However many others are also frustrated by the tendency of the “direct action movement” to lurch from action to action without any discussion on what is being done and why. As an older friend in the Valencian squatters’ movement used to say, a movement which is incapable of creating its own theory will never get anywhere. (Arguably, the Valencian squatters’ movement never got very far). This is the critical thing, it implies revolutionary theory must be created as a result of action, as well as being a precondition for it. “So what is to be done? For a start we can look for opportunities to intervene in radical situations to try and speed up the revolutionary process. To identify the real demand – the demand for real life: the one demand the Spectacle cannot meet…. The only way to develop a revolutionary theory is try and put it into practice” Theory which is divorced from practice degenerates into ideology, dogma: “We must start to build the world we want now – in our relationships, our interactions and interventions and in the way we conduct ourselves in our daily lives. Revolutionary theory is developed on the basis of lived experience. Its goal is the total supercession of the commodity spectacle. A revolutionary movement based on the development of a revolutionary theory is participatory. A movement based on an ideology is about as participatory as a painting-by-numbers kit. Revolutionary ideology is a mausoleum. We need to develop a living revolutionary theory. We start with our dreams and desires and try to put them into practice and to develop our theory, which in turn instructs our practice and we progress.” (From a 56a Infoshop leaflet “Situationist Theory For Beginners”)

So why the rejection of theory? Because all too often it is divorced from reality, is reduced to mechanical ranting or a points-scoring exercise without any suggestion as to how intervene practically: “People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have a corpse in their mouth.” (Comite Enrages – Internationale Situationniste)

The “direct action movement”, something loosely referring to activists campaigning on a whole host of single issues including road protesters and other environmentalists, some peace activists, anti GMO activists, Reclaim The Streets, anti-oil campaigners etc etc, has not created a whole lot of its own theory (perhaps the odd article in a coffee-table book or Do or Die). Some innovation has been shown in the organisation of conferences (such as Earth First! gatherings and the direct action conferences in Brighton, where a mixture of small and large group formats have enabled some interesting discussions), but it’s debatable whether the ‘movement’ has a much better understanding of itself and the problem of revolutionary change as a result. In recent times the slogan has often been heard “No Issue Is Single”, and as the “direct action movement” gropes its way out of the fog of New Age mystification2 (“it’s a battle for hearts and minds in the struggle between good and evil, between us and the forces of darkness”) and Deep Ecology towards developing a critique of capitalism (the J18 action proposal identifies global capitalism as being at the root of our common social and ecological problems), the lack of debate is a serious handicap. A few RTS activists bemoan the lack of critical debate at RTS meetings, which are ostensibly given over to organising actions (and yet insiders will tell you that the real organising happens outside the meetings). And one of the problems at gatherings and conferences is that they can appear unfocused, probably because in a way they are removed from action; the challenge then is to unite theory and action, or better said to create theory from action and for theory to inform action, so that the two react on each other (to develop a praxis). This challenge for the groups involved in J18 will involve creating theories to make sense of their actions and interventions against global capitalism; questions such as what is capitalism? (and what is finance capital, which is described as the heart of the global economy in the J18 leaflets?), what is the relationship between the different movements involved? (eg some of the organising groups around the world are trade unions – so what role do trade unions play within capitalism?; some of the groups campaign for human rights and foreign debt reduction – what is the relationship between reform and revolution?); is the problem of capitalism one of class society? If not, what is it?

Nick X

  • 1. It has been pointed out to me that the use of the word “theory” in this context is maybe not quite accurate, as when we reflect on and discuss our actions we are not developing new theory, but using an existing theoretical framework. Theory is one level further removed, like reflection on reflection.
  • 2. I’m sorry, I’ve been told I’m slipping into caricature here, slap on the wrist!
The Challenge of June 18

A contribution to the “Reflections on J18” collection.

It is only now, after the dust has settled and the smoke cleared away, that I think I am beginning to understand some of the wider implications of June 18. Initial euphoria, which turned to paranoia following the state and media backlash, has given way to a more sober reflection. What was it all about? Why did I get involved? What has it meant for the movement? I feel the need to write from a personal perspective rather than an intellectual analytical one, because there has already been enough rhetoric written about June 18 – some of it, I admit, by me. Now though, it’s time for some honesty.

It’s safe to say – whatever the opinion of the police and right-wing media – that the organisers of the day did not set out to plan and encourage a riot. Perhaps, given the targets selected (the LIFFE building by the Reclaim the Streets’ Carnival Against Capital), and the societal polarisation that they represent, it is not surprising that widespread violence occurred. But that definitively was not the intention, stated or otherwise. A complication here is one’s definition of the word ‘violence’. In the narrowest eco-anarchist tradition, which seems widely accepted within the movement, violence means damage to living things. So while chopping down a tree is violence, burning a digger is not. However, there is a different meaning to the term – and one which is closer to how the word is understood within mainstream society. This ‘violence’ is any action which could endanger the security of human beings, and includes intimidation or threats – broadly speaking, it means the use of force.

By either definition, the Carnival Against Capital in the City of London on June 18 was violent. Objects were thrown at police which were clearly designed to cause injury (and in some cases did – to both sides). Fist-fights with LIFFE traders also more than adequately meet the first definition. Setting cars alight and causing damage to buildings meets the second definition, as does intimidating people stuck in cars or trapped in offices. Of course, the police were more violent than we were – but that’s their job. And two wrongs don’t make a right. So do we seek to justify this violence, or at least to explain why we condone it? Or should we ignore the fact that it occurred and seek instead to emphasise the exciting and diverse global movement which seemed to coalesce on June 18? It is easy to accuse the media of exaggerating the scale of the riot. Too easy in fact. Because it did happen, and the ethical issues it raised do need to be dealt with. I worry that one day people in the mainstream of society are going to wake up to the fact that the direct action movement is not in any way accountable to them. We often behave as if we have a direct line to moral superiority, when in fact we pretty much do exactly as we please. What’s to stop the enemy from occupying our offices, and how would react if they did?

The anarchist purists who dominate the belief systems of the movement have helped us all construct a convenient ideology to get around this unsettling issue. As far as I can make out, we see ourselves as a vanguard, acting on behalf of the biosphere and wider human society including unborn generations) against exploitation and oppression. To quote some old RTS agit-prop: “It’s about reclaiming the streets as public inclusive space from the private exclusive use of the car. But we believe in this as a broader principle, taking back those things that have been enclosed within capitalist circulation and returning them to collective use as a commons.” Stirring stuff – and protecting the commons has been an enduring theme of working class resistance to oppression throughout British history. The most obvious examples are the agrarian risings against the Enclosure Acts, and also the eighteenth century Luddite movement against the destruction of autonomous cottage industry and its replacement by wage slavery in factories. But unlike the Luddites, we are not a popular movement. Nor are we working class people seeking to protect our livelihoods from the encroachments of capitalism. We are a vanguard, acting on behalf of what we assume to be the wider interests of society and the planet, but not subject to any governance by them. This was a concept (minus the planet bit) taken to an extreme by Lenin’s Bolsheviks, who claimed to be acting on behalf of an ignorant peasantry by setting up a dictatorship of the proletariat. This was of course total nonsense. The Bolsheviks represented no-one but themselves, and ended up setting up a system unparalleled anywhere except in the Third Reich for its savagery and genocidal brutality.

Don’t worry – I’m not about to accuse the UK direct action movement of being on this track. But it does illustrate the dangers of acting on behalf of a group of people whilst at the same time not caring about what they think. There are times – such as in the campaign against genetics and in the later stages of the anti-roads movement – when by happy co-incidence we attract genuine popular support. This is bolstered by events which are both radical and genuinely inclusive – such as the rally at Watlington and the crop-trashing that followed it. It is then, and only then, that our battles are won. But the campaign against capitalism is not popular. There is some case for saying that in targeting financial institutions – those who oil the wheels of an increasingly destructive and globalised economy – we are acting on behalf of the billions of people in the Third World who are denied their basic rights. But who asked them? There is perhaps some small mechanism of accountability through the People’s Global Action network – but it’s very tenuous. The basic issue is one of who makes the decisions – and the targets in the City on June 18 were decided in London, not Lusaka. Perhaps it was worth stopping trading in LIFFE even for just one day – after all, it lost them millions. Millions which would otherwise have been poured straight into the system that we all oppose. More importantly still, the self-image of the City as an impregnable bastion was badly shaken. And any wider investigation of the word ‘capitalism’ can only be a good thing. However, all this will be for nothing unless it can engage with the sympathies and the interests of a wider social base in Britain and beyond. We’re drunk with our own power, titillated and ego-tripped by all the notoriety and media attention. Everyone wants a repeat of June 18, where we can cost the capitalists millions and all feel empowered at the same time. But what about everyone else? What about all those who either out of dignity or necessity feel they must work for a living, and that they have some stake in the system that we’re setting out to destroy? For me this is the crux of the issue. Take the perennial media debate. For anarchistic ideological reasons almost everyone involved refused to participate in any attempt to project a positive image of June 18 through the mainstream media. It then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy to grumble when we’re slagged off. (I’m trying not to be naive about the nature of the corporate media here. It’s always going to be difficult to communicate a moral case for bricking in McDonalds’ windows in a 20-second soundbite. I know because I’ve tried.

The reality though is that 99% of people will have heard about the day through the images constructed in the mainstream media – which we apparently should make no effort to influence.) Ultimately this kind of purism is surely counter-productive. Like a cult, it is alienating to all but the strongest of believers, and undermines diversity in its push for total obedience. It condemns us to the margins of political influence when we should be pushing at the mainstream. And when tried in countless collectives, squats and autonomous zones, it doesn’t even work.

Our heroes the Zapatistas are way ahead of us. They have faced up to the responsibilities that their success has forced upon them. They have called meetings and referendums. They have spent days and weeks consulting with the widest possible sections of mainstream Mexican society. There is legitimacy in their claim to be fighting alongside all those who are marginalised by the naked violence of semi-feudal landlordism and free trade. Of this legitimacy, we have none. This, then, is surely the most critical meaning of June 18. And the key message is not to the capitalists, it is to us. It says this: ‘If you have pretensions towards being a truly revolutionary movement, you must work with the people. You must listen, and not assume that you know best. Then, and only then, must you act.’

Anon. from Oxford

Dancing in the Ruins

A contribution to the “Reflections on J18” collection.

There seems to be a lot of informal debate going on about June 18th tactics. I’ve written this in the hope of encouraging people to respect each other’s angles on the day, and keep the debate positive rather than damaging.

What was it all about? Last year, I went to one of the very early J18 meetings. Something that came out very clearly then was the following idea: ”This is not another street party. We will even try and avoid using the words ‘street party’.Rather, we will be taking the fight against destruction and exploitation directly to the place where much of it is controlled. We will be targeting the Square Mile.” Though a Carnival did end up being part of the day, I feel the “targeting the Mile” line was carried right through in all the J18 publicity and planning. I personally was well aware of the kind of things that might – and did – happen, in the way of such buildings as the Futures Exchange & banks being damaged and occupied, and accepted – okay, hoped! – that this would just as much part of the day as dancing, boys in sexy frocks, sound systems, and running into old friends. I knew that I would be at risk perhaps of being arrested, or hurt (anywhere there are police that is a possibility), or – yes, of course – caught up in things that I personally would not wish to support. But I knew that the overall message of the day, resisting global capitalism globally, as a hugely diverse group of people, was absolutely, totally, worth these risks, no matter what happened, and that it was vitally important for me to go and take the action that I personally felt was right.

Media

After many years of campaigning, I have learnt that the mainstream media have, and work to, their own agenda. I do not any longer believe that our agenda influences theirs. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, our agendas coincide a little – an example of this being the anti-capitalist message getting through somewhat – it was clearly a weird enough concept for the papers to include it! I am not unduly affected by the way the mainstream media presented the events of June 18th because I believe we had no control over this. I think we knew beforehand that the sections of the media that wished to, would present it as a violent event; that those who wished to take the oh-so-worn-out “peaceful rally hijacked by drunken anarchists” line would, and that the liberal papers would include some political comment and maybe some half-decent comparisons to the Rebecca riots & other examples of the “tradition of British resistance” – as indeed they did. We should know very well by now the role we are placed in by the media – regardless of what we actually do. If everybody at J18 had done nothing but dance, we still would have been “eco-terrorists obstructing mums & kids needing to get to schools & hospitals” – and hell, I reckon the tabloids would have gone out and staged their own bottle-throwing photo-shoots. (Did you notice how so many of those photos were the same few scenarios just taken from different angles?) Remember the Reclaim The Future march? When the police arranged for the headline on every single news report to be “protester held for attempted murder in violent protest condemned by Dockers” – a complete lie?

As well as putting effort into using our own alternative media, I am still trying to learn what we can do with the mainstream lot. But I will not credit them with telling the truth, and I will not let their predictable lines affect what I do, and I will communicate to as many people as possible the way they work – something a vast number of ordinary people know anyway. And I will certainly not let the media affect my memory of my real experience of the day, or our own legitimate debate, as if they are something we are, or can be, responsible for.

What really happened?

Let’s not lose track of what in fact did occur. Thousands of people had a party. Hundreds of people occupied, prevented work in, or damaged buildings where a lot of outrageous stuff goes on. Hundreds of people resisted/fought tooled-up riot police who wanted us out of the space we chose to occupy. And, as at any crowd event, a small number of people got drunk or tanked up on excitement, and went for seemingly random, meaningless acts of destruction & intimidation.

AND NO-ONE HAD ANY CONTROL OVER ANYBODY ELSE’S CHOICES FOR THE DAY.

Now, frankly, from a personal point of view, I was kind of frustrated at the number of people who moved off with the sound system out of the square mile quite early in the evening due to police presence – although for some it was an attempt to move to a different part of the mile, apparently, this didn’t work and the majority of people shifted to Trafalgar Square. From a personal point of view, I wasn’t into fighting with the police (you don’t always have a choice, but where I was, for a long time there were enough of us to hold the space simply by holding our ground physically) but I do recognise that those who were doing so were making it a lot easier for the rest of us to stay where we were. From a personal point of view, I was pissed off with the nutters who were off their faces and intimidating random members of the public, and I felt strongly enough about this to try a) reasoning with a few (which didn’t work!) and b) physically getting in the way/away. Of course it’s easy to say “that had nothing to do with politics anyway”, but the point has been made to me that it does – the politics of alienation, poverty, discrimination, frustration. From a personal point of view I am totally chuffed by what happened to the Futures Building & other such places – it will be a cheerful memory for a long time. From a personal point of view, I thought the sight of a carnival in the centre of London, with little kids and everything, was very cool. But that’s just me. And not everyone felt the same as me about tactics and what they wanted to do. And I think that’s absolutely fine, because the people resisting the domination of global capital are hugely diverse, rightly so, and will only become more so as more people wake up to what’s going on.

But what will people think? That depends on a lot of different things. For a start, how much information they have. If they believe the media tell the truth, they’ll have a ridiculously inaccurate angle on the day – but as I’ve said, I feel we have little or no control over that. I would imagine a large proportion of the population take what they read in the papers with a lot of pinches of salt, and they’ll get some of the message, possibly, and perhaps think a bit themselves about the day and what it was about. Maybe. Maybe some will try to find out more. And those who get alternative media will have more of the truth & issues, and those who can be independent thinkers or have access to information or who already find out about issues for themselves will know more, etc etc etc. That’s the way everything works. Would the world be in the state it’s in if people normally had access to the truth? But my feeling all the way along was that the main point of June 18 wasn’t about “changing people’s minds”. It was simply about – in solidarity with folks all round the world, some of whom get shot when they try to resist the way we do – targeting the places that are fucking us all over. And shutting them down, just for a day. And we did. Changing hearts and minds? Communicating with as many people as possible? Building creative alternatives? OF COURSE. That is what we do the other 364 days of the year! All in our own ways, once again. And, having gone right back to doing that myself, I’ve been mentioning June 18 a lot, to a quite large variety of people. These are questions about tactics, but I answer these by going straight to the main issues. As in “do you know why people felt strongly enough to take such actions? Because in those buildings, they take decisions, and do deals, that are about destroying the very earth we live on, and murdering those who resist.” And I’m personally finding that people see the point. Some of them even say “I wish I could have gone.” Many say “don’t underestimate how much people are aware of what goes on.” And despite varying views on what they think is appropriate or effective, none of the “ordinary” people I’ve talked to have said much about personally feeling one kind of resistance invalidates another – they have been more into talking about the idea of resisting capitalism, and what it means. If “what will people think” is what you base your actions on, how far back do you go? Do you refuse to break the laws that make peaceful protest illegal, because people won’t take your message seriously if you’re a “criminal”? Do you move away when someone is being beaten up, because the police tell you to, and respectable people obey them? Do you pay taxes, despite knowing they go on bombing whoever Britain’s bombing currently, because “what will people think?” There are too many people out there, with too many different views, based often on too much erroneous information, to measure our actions this way. Our first duty is to ourselves, to do what we feel is right.

And when I remember the views I held a few years back, and wonder what I’ll be thinking in a few years time, I think “thank god no-one tried to cater to what they thought I could handle, what they thought wouldn’t turn me off. That’s not having respect for me, and I would have no respect for them. How would I learn anything without challenges?”

Respect

I guess that’s what I’m asking for us to hang on to. I am concerned that there has already been some “attacking” each other about what happened, from various different angles. How dare we intimidate eachother for being where we’re at? I have my own feelings about the tactics of the day, and I realise many people may disagree with me. That’s okay; a few years ago, I would have disagreed with me. And I think the debate that goes on about tactics, means & ends, etc, is healthy. But at the same time., let’s accept our diversity. Assume that people have carefully considered what they do and how they do it, and are making what they feel are the right choices for themselves at that time. I refuse to narrow my vision of where we are going collectively to exclude anyone who works differently from me. Yes, it would be easier to do that, and I‘ve had to work hard not to make that mistake myself with different methods of campaigning. But frankly, if all of you I have tactics arguments with, aren’t there with me, it’s not my revolution. I’m not going to sign this, for the simple reason that there will be some state follow-up to J18, and a signed paper feels a bit too much like evidence. I’ll be having discussions with lots of people hopefully anyway.

We should know very well by now the role we are placed in by the media – regardless of what we actually do. If everybody at J18 had done nothing but dance, we still would have been “eco-terrorists obstructing mums & kids needing to get to schools & hospitals”.

Don’t mention the (class) war…
(or, “okay, so we’re against capitalism…. but what does that mean?)

A contribution to the “Reflections on J18” collection.

J18, according to the propaganda, was coordinated by a wide range of groups. It is probably fair comment to say that in fact most of the groups involved are part of what is sometimes called the “direct action movement” or the “activist movement” (ie Earth First!, Reclaim The Streets!, genetics groups, animal liberation groups etc). The J18 proposal identified global capitalism, based on the exploitation of people and planet for the profit of a few, as the root of our common social and ecological problems…this could be seen as a consequence of the growing politicisation of the direct action movement over the years. This trend could be noticed in the movement away from single-issue politics (hence the commonly heard slogan “no issue is single”), the much vaunted link-up between “direct action activists” and striking workers (eg Reclaim The Streets! and the Liverpool dockers, and Critical Mass/RTS and the Tubeworkers..)…

On one level this apparent trend of increasing anti-capitalism within the direct action movement is very encouraging. However it often seems that many people within the movement are not too clear about what capitalism is (is it money? Banks? Transnational Corporations?), and so having put a name to the problem, are still not too sure about what it is. And this can lead to confusion when deciding what to do, how to take effective action to move towards that (maybe not so) distant objective of dismantling global capitalism. The purpose of this limited discussion paper is to briefly attempt to clarify a few concepts relating to capitalism, whilst recognising that no-one has all the answers..

Capitalism is often equated with money, so that you often hear people talking about the need to abolish money to achieve a “fair society”. Sometimes LETS schemes are proposed as an alternative. Similarly banks and other financial institutions are often regarded as the essence of capitalism (and this explains why the proponents of the June 18th international day of action are targetting financial centres across the globe). Alternatively the problem is seen as the expansion of the global market and free trade, (with globalisation and neo-liberalism the buzz-words) and accordingly the World Trade Organisation (WTO) (which polices free trade agreements) is seen as enemy number one. This is particularly the opinion of Peoples’ Global Action (PGA), the international network founded as a result of the Encuentros (the international gatherings catalysed by the Zapatistas) – indeed the full name of PGA is People’s Global Action against free trade and the WTO. A related view situates multi-national corporations (or, increasingly, trans-national corporations, TNC’s) at the root of the problem, with corporate dominance blamed for “disempowering local communities” (the local is often emphasised as an alternative to big, centralised, “undemocratic” corporations and institutions). What none of these views seem to bring out or emphasise is the essential relation within capitalism, the relation without which capitalism couldn’t exist. (Instead they focus on physical manifestations). Money, banks, financial institutions, markets, TNC’s, the WTO are all features of the capitalist system, but THE defining capitalist social relation is the relation between capital and labour. For it is wage labour, alienated labour (ie production not for the direct benefit of the producers, but appropriated by capitalists) which is the life-blood of capitalism. Capitalism depends on wage-labour for its existence; if the working population didn’t have to sell themselves for money each day (ie if we could produce for our daily needs) who would want to work for a capitalist or for the state? But we don’t own the means of production, capitalists do… and this is the way the capital-labour relation reproduces itself (by continually forcing people to work for a wage). The capital-labour relation is the relation between classes (this question of class is especially something which tends to dismay many in the direct action movement, perhaps unnecessarily1.

This question is vitally important for anybody seriously considering strategies for attacking capitalism. For if we recognise that it is capitalism, which by appropriating the process of production and by extension taking control of nearly all forms of human activity and subjugating them to its own need for constant expansion and accumulation, which is responsible for the exploitation of people AND the destruction of the environment, then the target of our attack should be the capital-labour relation itself. In this sense we can understand why ultimately the only way to “reverse the forces of environmental destruction” (Earth First!’s avowed aim) is to attack wage labour. Hence the importance of link-ups with groups of workers in struggle, such as the Magnet strikers, the Hillingdon Hospital workers, the Tubeworkers, the electrical engineers on the Jubilee line, etc. Many in the direct action movement are reluctant to get involved in these struggles, seeing a contradiction in being against work and yet fighting to get workers their jobs back. And it is true that these struggles are at present about the conditions of the exploitation of labour, rather than putting in question the exploitation of labour itself.. the challenge is to push beyond these boundaries through the intensification of struggle to the point where wage-labour, hence capital is threatened. One of the prerequisites for this intensification of struggle (and also a result of it) is an increased level of consciousness.. the point was made in the pamphlet on dole autonomy2 that many in the direct action movement depend on dole cheques for their survival, but paradoxically are mostly unwilling to get involved in anti-New Deal struggles, perhaps not seeing it as a sexy enough issue. Yet this “issue” is part of the ongoing offensive of capital against labour (yes, that’s you and me when they hassle us off the dole or onto the New Deal or into some crap job). The New Deal is intended to create a more disciplined workforce and to force workers to accept worse conditions and pay and more profits for capitalists. And as we all know, more capital accumulation means more environmental destruction (so anti-JSA actions are not just another “single issue”). This is not to say that all we should be doing is opposing the JSA, or supporting striking workers (or going on strike ourselves when we are forced to work). It is true that work-place/dole struggles are not the only way of attacking the capital-labour relation; another example is housing struggles. It is interesting that whereas the 80’s class struggle anarcho movement was sometimes criticised for focusing too much on the point of production (“workerism”) to the exclusion of eg gender issues, reproduction, the environment etc, the 90’s activist scene can be criticised for failing to recognise the importance of class. We can only realise our revolutionary potential when we break out of our isolation, and uniting with other workers/shirkers in struggle, overturn both wage slavery and dole slavery. Only by taking control of our human creativity and activity ourselves can we decide what kind of life we want to lead, what conditions do we want to live in, and what relationship with / impact on the environment we will have.

Nick X

  • 1. ), and it is this relation which must be abolished if capitalism is to be dismantled. So we see that by focusing on money, or on the financial institutions, or corporations, or regulatory bodies such as the WTO, we are missing the point if we do not attack the underlying social relation the tendency to understand capitalism not as a social relation but as a thing (eg money, banks etc) can be called reification (literally, turning a phenomenon into a thing), and to become obsessed with the thing rather than the relation can be called fetishisation (as in the fetishes or idols worshipped in religions, whereby an object is seen as possessing supernatural powers, or the force of the universe etc)
  • 2. Aufheben pamphlet “Dole autonomy versus the re-imposition of work”
June ’99 – A Critical Analysis

A contribution to the “Reflections on J18” collection, first printed in Undercurrent.

On June 18th, leading politicians of the eight biggest economies will gather in Cologne (Germany) to talk about the future of the world economy and as almost always, this will be the target of protests. A world-wide alliance is forming which is according to the bulletin of the British activists’ driven by the “recognition that the global capitalist system is at the root of our social and ecological troubles.” But what sounds like a point of departure for a critical analysis is unfortunately all the campaign has to say about its position. Instead of going beyond this kind of commonplace, it simply states that “a global movement of resistance is rising”, and reading the few propaganda leaflets produced so far one soon realises that it is all about quantities. We are thus told that there were lots of people on the streets at last year’s economic summit (“…200,000 people in India…”), lots of agit-prop material has been produced (“20,000 lovely little folding leaflets…”), lots of different groups are involved (incl. trade unions, peace groups, church against poverty, national union of students – to name but a few) and, last but not least, the campaign bursts of fantastic ideas for action: “giving out free food…lots more custard pies…laughing all the way to the bank…sound system in balloon floating above the City!”.

Them and us

“We are more possible than they can powerfully imagine” the campaign trumpets – but this them-versus-us-logic is odd on several counts. Not only has global capitalism – the alleged target – nothing to do with a simple “them”. What is more, the collective “us” that is being invoked is utterly vague – “a growing alliance of social and environmental movements”. The only thing all the different groups have in common is that in one way or the other they are affected by global capitalism – but that, again, is merely a commonplace, insufficient as a basis for collective resistance beyond the symbolism of raving a couple of hours against the gathering of some character masks in Cologne. But far from being a minor mistake of the June 18th campaign, this indifference towards the social content of movements is its very essence. In their own words: “The longer the list, the more effective the action.” Following the requirements of media representation, it seeks to bring together masses. The result is pure mystification. On the one side, we have the apocalyptic scenario – “economic crisis, the millennium bug, environmental crisis, war famine, poverty” – which then is countered by the celebrated diversity of countless movements all around the world. The assumption is that anyone suffering from the present social order is by his very nature for its overthrow. Yet the vast majority of the groups and movements listed is directed against specific consequences and aspects of capitalism. The secondary weaving together of all the single-issue-movements leads not to a rejection of the totality of society – quite the reverse, it is simply an incoherent patch-work of people who, at least for a day, come together and party – or throw some custard pies in somebody’s face.

“Global Capitalism”…

Preoccupied with listing groups and original ideas for actions, the campaign has dispensed with critical analysis. This is an immediate consequence of the aim to be as broad as possible: Any clarification of the political objectives of the June 18th campaign would reveal the lack of a political consent between e.g. the Zapatistas and the NUS, the trade unions and autonomist groups. This kind of short-sighted campaigning is based on the very absence of a clear critique of “global capitalism” in order to suit virtually everybody. What remains of the proclaimed anti-capitalism is but a bunch of slogans. However, while radical critique of capital is obviously out even amongst those who pretend to practically oppose it, various resentments against certain aspects of the present-day situation are rather growing, with “globalisation” being buzz-word number one. The talk of “global capitalism” the campaign displays without any clarification is perfectly well in harmony with the present media hype about globalisation. This consists mainly of bemoaning the fact that, confronted with an apparently unlimited fluidity of global capital, the power of the nation state is vanishing . Virtually everyone has a dislike for “globalisation”: Left-wingers are concerned about the future of democracy – since the politicians who are now allegedly rendered powerless were at least democratically elected whereas citizens have no say in the decisions that the vicious executives of multinational corporations take. Subcommandante Marcos, spokesman of everybody’s darling, the Zapatistas in Mexico, sees the organic cultures of peoples being threatened by the evil forces of globalised finance capital. The French fascists of the Front National reject it as an attack on the sovereignty of the nation state and a threat to national culture. The recent campaign against the MAI (Multilateral Agreement on Investments), in many regards similar to the present June 18th campaign, drew exactly upon this ideology: As the MAI sought to give foreign capital a better position against national legislation, the opposition against it displayed a sometimes extreme nationalism and was practically propaganda for the state. A common response to globalisation is thus the call for a re-regulation of the economy by the state. Neo-liberalism, another buzz-word used basically synonymously, is often countered with the demand for a Keynesian policy, popular especially among traditional lefty social democrats and trade-unionists. Keynes acknowledged that in order to prevent crises, the state has to intervene actively into the market by directly creating jobs (which, according to Keynes, could practically mean to make people dig holes and fill them afterwards) and generally raising demand (to compensate capital’s tendency to over-production). It is not at all surprising that in the present situation lefty intellectuals like Eric Hobsbawm proclaim “the end of neo-liberalism” and beg New Labour to adopt a more Keynesian strategy of taxation and redistribution. In general, there are hopes that the current hegemony of social democratic governments in Europe could clear the way for an alternative to “neo-liberalism”. While the June 18th campaign does not rally for social democracy, the vague opposition to “global capitalism” it spreads is totally compatible with addressing the state as a supposed counter-pole to the market. And in fact, many of the movements the campaign is glad to have on board work along these lines.

“The heart of the economy”

The uncritical concept of capitalism the campaign seems to subscribe to is illustrated by the concentration on the financial sector of capital: the global actions will take place in the financial districts, understood as the “heart of the global economy”. While production appears to be merely a technical process in which useful things are made, money and financial institutions are regarded as the essence of capitalism. Yet although capitalism cannot dispense with a developed banking system, it essentially depends on the production of surplus-value through the exploitation of wage-labour. The vast sums of value circulating in the banking districts represent the successful result of this process – and if they don’t, the next crash is imminent. Therefore it would rather make sense to occupy some factories – if there is such a thing as “the heart of the economy” it lies there and not at Barclay’s Bank. This may sound like an irrelevant footnote. But one has to keep in mind that especially the recent crises in the financial sector many have nurtured resentment against finance capital and prompted calls for a re-regulation of the world economy. The Times stated last summer that “the IMF’s reputation has sunk to its lowest since the body was set up in 1944”, and social reformists come up with proposals about taxation on “unproductive” speculative capital (so the state can redistribute money for the benefit of all and create jobs…). The campaign’s concentration on the financial institutions fails to distinguish itself from these productivist and populist tendencies. This misleading fixation on finance capital seems to be corrected by the second target of the campaign, the multinational corporations. But why privilege multinationals? Are national corporations less capitalist? Are small enterprises any better than “big business”? Significant parts of the campaign seem to stick to these notions: community-based cornershop versus Somerfield’s, small peasants versus agro-capital and so on. “Small is beautiful” was after all a fairly popular slogan among eco-activists. This perspective on capital gets professionalised by groups like Corporate Watch and the many initiatives busily cataloguing the many sins and crimes of individual corporations, which practically means most of the time to launch boycotts and thus spread the idea of “consumer’s power”. Thus, the opposition to Shell is based on their involvement in Nigeria, we are supposed not to eat certain chocolate bars because Nestle does this and that and so on. The critique of the fundamental logic of capital is replaced with a positivistic and moralistic approach. All this neglects the insight that capital in all its forms deserves abolition – and the family owned sweat-shop is by no means any less annoying as a workplace than AT&T.

Confusion and pseudo-practice

All this is not to say that the June 18th campaign would be in favour of sweat shops and state regulation, nationalism or social democracy. It is none of this, but at the same time shows no interest in analysing the dead-ends in which the articulation of social discontent runs today. Instead it employs a naive strategy of immediacy: the imaginative hippy-individual that “takes his desire for reality” is depicted as the ultimate response to global capitalism which essentially is comprised of banks and corporations, run by “them”, the evil inhuman managers and yuppies. Everything is supposed to be so clear-cut and self-evident that any further reflection can be dispensed with – hence the ignorance of the many ideological and practical ways in which opposition gets neutralised (if it is not complicit with capital right from the beginning, as probably most of the groups on the campaign’s list are anyways). The call for mass action amounts to confusion about the social objectives of the alleged “global resistance” and ultimately leads to mere pseudo-practice, i.e. much ado about nothing that gives those involved the illusion to lay the ground “for huge social and political changes”.

Undercurrent

Critiques and Caricatures: A Response to Undercurrent

A contribution to the “Reflections on J18” collection, previously included as part of a debate in Undercurrent.

Critiques of the June 18th action, it’s aims, organisation and general relevance, are important and to be welcomed. Theory, critical or otherwise, is too often rejected in favour of action when we need to combine theory and action, fostering, articulating and inhabiting the tension between them. Lest this response be taken as saying all is fine with the aims and focus of the action let me emphasise it isn’t. There are fault line running through it – many of which the critique from Uniundercurrent identifies. If the critique helps to bring out and transcend the problems and contradictions of the June 18th action then it will have been worthwhile but if it elevates one position while parodying all others then it amounts to little more then theoretical point scoring

The long list campaign against the economic summit The lack of theoretical flesh on the bones of the June 18th action has been pointed out by the Sussex University zine ‘Uniundercurrent’. In an article entitled “The longer the list, the better the action” they argue that, on the strength of the first few propaganda leaflets, the organisers of June 18th are more interested in numbers then analysis; in how many groups they can get involved then in the commonality between them; and that this in turn leads to lowest common denominator theory and a spectacular practice. Such criticisms are well-placed and ultimately helpful, food for thought for those involved, but the article repeatedly falls more into caricature then critique – tending, in turn, to critique it’s own caricature rather then what the leaflets said or what might actually be happening. The quote the article takes for its title – “the longer the list, the better the action,” is part of a sentence from a leaflet encouraging involvement in the June 18th action. True enough, it’ s not true – a list that included the likes of, to use their example, the French Front National, would make for a longer list but a scarily incoherent action. To use this snippet though, as the writer does, to confirm the “campaigns” “essence” as “indifference towards the social content of movements” and to suggest that June 18th is all about masses and quantities is indicative of the writers disingenuous selective reading. The first part of the sentence reads: “We will only realise our collective visions by taking action together” then lists some likely suspect sectors – unwaged, students, workers, etc, before finishing “the longer…”. You could be forgiven for assuming this meant that the listees should share some collective content but, fair enough, the ‘visions’ referred to could do with some focus. With the articles subheading though, “the campaign against the economic summit” we are immediately in the realms of caricature. Nowhere in the leaflets produced or organising meetings held has it been suggested that June 18th is a campaign against the economic summit. The June 18th action can at most be called a co-ordination, not a campaign, and is, at best, precisely the rejection of the totality of the present social order that the article calls for, not an event opposing economic summits. From this unpromising start the article goes on to contend that “the campaign” posits a incoherent, vague, them and us logic; has dispensed with any critique of capital and critical analysis generally; is fixated on financial institutions and multinationals; has a positivistic and moralistic approach; all amounting to confusion and mere pseudo-practise. Such insight after reading a “few propaganda leaflets” is surely commendable but leaves little room to practise what you preach and do more than scratch the surface of a subject. To expect critical analysis from an A5 leaflet is possibly asking too much. While to conclude the rejection of radical critique (read as our radical critique) from such a leaflet is going too far. Tell the many people on the J18 email discussion list an international forum for interested groups and individuals set up at the start – that, “further reflection has been dispensed with.” They have been analysing and reflecting on capital, state, resistance and the like, for some time now. There are also groups around the UK organising meetings to discuss the plan where no doubt, some reflection may slip in occasionally. Then there is the London networks ‘What is Capitalism?’ conference – organised precisely for “further reflection.” The writer of the article may not have known all this but then if “the essence” of “the campaign” has already been revealed there is no need to find out.

In fact the lack of a critical analysis of capitalism in the direct action movement and its almost complete mystification in social life generally, is part of the point of organising the action. If a “recognition that the global capitalist system is at the root of our social and ecological troubles” was “commonplace” we might be in more encouraging times. The commonplace, in this instance, is for most people an obscurity.

Us and them

Juxtapositions for the sake of a propaganda leaflet such as, “We are more possible than they can powerfully imagine” are hardly to be taken as conclusive evidence of something’s “logic” or “essence”. Propaganda at least that which aims to get people active – often involves simplifications of a subject. By definition it aims to persuade or convince people and, yes, those working on J18 would like people to get involved and may initially be less concerned to ask to see the groups theoretical credentials; or to check whether or not they are “complicit with capital.” Furthermore the assumptions made in the text that our/their collective resistance is basically “raving for a few hours” or “throw(ing) some custard pies” might ring hollow for participants in ‘the south’ where doing either is not exactly top of the agenda. Far from positing a crude them and us the claim is that our problems are systemic, inherent within the socio-economic order. Interpretations as to the fundamentals of this order may differ, as may the methods for its disposal, but the need to act collectively is clear. Who knows, action may even affect their/our interpretations. Maybe even, a way into an understanding of capitalism is through the ‘globalisation’ debate that the article sneers at.. To denounce those who haven’t reached your understanding yet is akin to the vegans who attack potential vegetarians for not going far enough thus sending them straight back to the meat counter. That there are, within the June 18th network, conflicting views, simplifications, confusions and hopes of getting a diversity of groups involved, is undeniable. Such are the concerns of practise. The luxury of everyone acceding to your understanding or agreeing with your ideas and practises is often unavailable in small unified groups let alone large diverse movements. This is, of course, where analysis, argument, dialogue and discussion comes in.

The heart of the global capitalist economy

If June 18th is just a few leaflets then a few thousand people occupying the City for a day then it might well be exhilarating reason enough maybe – but it wont add up to abolishing capitalism. That will require a more consistent praxis. Then again, to be so sure of where a “weaving together of all the single issue movements” leads, that it is “simply an incoherent patchwork ”, is to forget that the outcomes that result from a practise are not always the ones intended. That the secondary effects may be wholly unexpected. This of course cuts both ways and is no reason to dispense with analysis or intention but just maybe, looking for the potential and possibilities of a situation is as useful as dismissing it in advance The coinciding of J18 with the G8 summit is not to put pressure on bad corporations via nation-states but to show the collusion between state and capital and the necessity to overthrow both; to contend that exploitation is also a political matter not just an economic one. That this is not bluntly said and arguably it should be – owes more to a desire to open a debate before concluding it, and to the perceived role of a propaganda leaflet, then any rejection of critical analysis. Starting from a recognition of the multiplicity of positions and interests irreducible to a single analysis and tentatively endorsing this divergence, the unity is then aimed at precisely the recognition of exploitation by capital from different but complementary experiences. It doesn’t presuppose that unity but attempts to open a space for critique that is available to all. To claim, as the writer does, that “if there is such a thing as “the heart of the global economy”” it “would rather make sense to occupy some factories” – makes no sense at all. Besides the literalism of its interpretation of a slogan, the autonomist insight that all of social life under capitalism tends to become a factory for the exploitation of surplus value not only wage-labour but the free work of students and housewives etc means that June 18th is an occupation of “some factories”: the social factories of the city streets and squares. And while June 18th may well be “in many regards similar” to the campaign against the MAI (Multilateral Agreement on Investments) – although the similarities are unspecified – there is at least one huge difference. The campaign against the MAI was mainly a lobbyist, letter writing opposition to one re-regulatory element of capital, the June 18th co-ordination is rooted in a direct actionist opposition to capitalism, full stop.

Practising pseudo-confusion

A call for mass action might indeed “amount to confusion”, if that was what was being called for. It isn’t. On the contrary, autonomous actions co-ordinated and focused – are being called for. Hopefully by those who have thought about what they are doing and why. One of the main organising principles of J18 is autonomy for the groups and movements involved. Meaning in practise encouraging self-activity and being less quick to dismiss other approaches. Not to build “a mass” but to make connections, encourage debate, open dialogues. Whether such confusing activity is leading “ultimately (to) mere pseudo-practise” is to be decided by those who know the true practise presumably we await their instructions…

The article ends with a summation of “the campaigns” strategy as naïve, using a slogan from the leaflet as illustration, but while “imagine taking your desires for reality” is on the leaflet it is hardly “depicted as the ultimate response to global capitalism” . The June 18th action may well be naïve but it is not just a “strategy of immediacy” by “hippy-individuals” against the evil “them”. That this is just clear-cut misrepresentation is self-evident. There are other “slogans” on the leaflet, which the writer does not mention, such as “imagine a society based on mutual aid, sharing and respect for nature” and “imagine a world where people have control of their lives and communities”. A less condemnatory reading may have suggested that those involved do feel creating a different world will require thought, collective action and an ongoing process and have presented some constructive ideas to pepper the criticisms. If the June 18th action is not the activity of a “significant movement that at least claims to be revolutionary” it is at least significant for revolutionaries; and if its participants, like the theorists at ‘Uniundercurrent’, are “remote from advancing a coherent line of argumentation” they are, at least, advancing arguments. As an attempt to put capitalism back on the agenda of resistance at a time when its logic is further cloaked in mystification; as a contribution to the rebuilding of international solidarity at a time of rekindled nationalism and as a forwarding of informed imagination at a time when radical visions are seen as withering away, the June 18th action deserves, not caricatures, but the sharpest of critical engagements.

as a contribution to the rebuilding of international solidarity at a time of rekindled nationalism and as a forwarding of informed imagination at a time when radical visions are seen as withering away, the June 18th action deserves, not caricatures, but the sharpest of critical engagements.

Caricatures of Capital

A contribution to the “Reflections on J18” collection, originally printed as part of a debate in Undercurrent.

While claiming that critique of J18 is much needed, the author to the reply dismissed ours as a caricature. We would be the last ones to deny that there has been a lot of caricaturing going on. But the only reason why our text might give that impression, is that its object – the information we have about J18 – is itself caricaturing the world of capital. Our critique of J18 consisted of a number of related points: the fixation on finance capital and evil multinational corporations, the participation in the hype about “globalisation”, accompanied by a problematic localism, to name but the most important ones. The response evades these issues and instead repeatedly claims that the meagre basis on which we wrote our critique led us to distort the issue. However, we criticised precisely that there is nothing further than this “meagre basis” – that is a few leaflets – on which the J18 campaign/co-ordination (whatever difference that makes) is based. It is not our fault that a few small leaflets are so far all the co-ordination has published – it is the very problem. Fair enough, there have been e-mail and other discussion groups, but they are very private discussions. It is the publications made publicly available that represent a certain underlying consensus, and as such are to be taken as expressing the gist of a campaign. Otherwise, what would their purpose be? That to the present day not a single pamphlet bringing together “the multiplicity of positions and interests” has been put out underscores our claim that crucial questions are being neglected in order to keep up a superficial unity of action. Instead of engaging with our critique, the writer explains to us the thorny path of bringing together the various movements around the globe. This obviously requires not asking for “groups’ theoretical credentials”. Yet while it is apparently too arrogant “to check whether or not groups are complicit with capital”, this political indifference does not prevent the writer from claiming that ”June 18th…is rooted in a direct actionist opposition to capitalism.” This contradiction remains a mystery to us, but our main point was something else: that a mobilisation of this type avoids a critical theory of capital and consequently reproduces ideology.

Of course, we are not in any way questioning the necessity of practice and we consider many of the actions planned for the day worthwhile. However, the reply to our previous article, as well as J18 generally, considers theory at most a secondary issue. The main focus is in the ‘action’, and any critical reflection is postponed indefinitely. Even more flagrantly, the author bets on the idea that “the outcomes that result from a practice are not always the ones intended” and that “the secondary effects may be wholly unexpected”… In other words, never mind if we reproduce social-democratic ideology, it might accidentally still end in a social revolution. Not only do we find in the response to our article no refutation of the points we make, but unfortunately they seem more relevant now than before: the latest agit-leaflet is worth quoting at length to illustrate this. It claims: “Our planet is actually run by the financial markets – a giant video game in which people buy and sell blips on electronic screens, trading life for money in their search for higher profits. Yet the consequences of this frenzied game are very real: human lives, ecosystems, jobs and even entire economies [!!sic!!] are at the mercy of this reckless global system”. In reality the world is, of course, not run by the financial markets. Capital is a system of relations of production of which the financial markets are but a (necessary) offspring. To fixate the attack on them is to turn the world upon its head, resulting in such absurdities as complaining about the damages made to “jobs” and even “entire economies” which are apparently just as innocent as “ecosystems and human lives”. Since of course these “entire economies” are capitalist, this J18 statement affirms what it pretends to attack1. This feels like stating the obvious. Although no one can deny the importance of financial markets, this passage simply reasserts a view of capitalism we tried to refute in the last article. Is this the further reflection resulting from the “what is capitalism?” conference?

This misconception of finance capital was one of the points we tried to raise, and not, as the writer claims, that nothing matters except the factories. We mentioned the factories in order to attack J18’s fixation on the financial centres; a fixation that is an obstacle for a critique of production. Of course, capital forms all of social life and not just production in the factories, and reclaiming the streets is one adequate response to this. The J18 co-ordination is undeniably one between many different groups with radically opposing views. This on the one hand shows a serious lack of consensus, and a blurry amalgam of groups that don’t even necessarily have the same basic aims. On the other hand, and paradoxically, it is also the expression of a consensus: anything will do, as long as it fits with the vague anti-globalisation attitude. That, as we noted, this resentment can also be found on the political Right, e.g. the French Front National, does not seem to bother the author – instead, he claims that we suggested that J18 would like to include the Front National in its long list. Obviously, we never did, but the co-ordination is already, even without any Fascists, “scarily incoherent”. Since the author dismissed our article as mere caricature and did not engage with the points we raised, there is nothing new we can say. Except maybe that “Economies versus Financial Markets” – this latest caricature of anti-capitalism – is even worse than the stuff we had referred to in the last undercurrent. It seems our critique was not a caricature, but an understatement.

P.S. We refuse to be compared to vegans (see ‘Hitler was a Vegetarian’, uniundercurrent #6)

(1) For an analysis of how capital presents itself in such a way as to facilitate the emergence of an “anti-capitalism” that is a one-sided attack on the abstract side of capital (e.g. finance capital) while affirming the “concreteness” of labour and production, and how furthermore this “anti-capitalism” relates to anti-Semitism, see Moishe Postone, ‘Anti-Semitism and National Socialism’, in Germans and Jews since the Holocaust: the changing situation in West Germany, ed. Anson Rabinach/Jack Zipes, New York and London 1986. We do not, however, want to suggest that J18 is anti-Semitic.

Undercurrent

Not just capitalism or globalisation

A contribution to the “Reflections on J18” collection.

J18 has managed to attract an amazing network of activists to work together, but I feel that a we need to clarify what we are trying to challenge. It is not enough to simply say we are opposing just capitalism or globalisation, the groups who have been working on J18 in the UK and many elsewhere are opposed to nationalism, war, centralisation, government, bureaucracy, sexism and a lot more. For a large part J18 identify with anarchism or radical ecology. For future proposals we need to debate more on how we strike a good balance between clarifying our radical politics and having a proposal that is simple, straight forward and inspiring for people outside our small political ghetto. We need to work on strengthening our radical diversity without falling into the trap of using vague liberal friendly language. In our efforts to build a huge anti-capitalist network we have attracted a lot of groups and it sounds impressive but unfortunately too many of them are liberal or are open to authoritarian or conservative elements. This is partly because of phrases like ‘ the longer the list, the better the action ! ‘ used in some early leaflets would have turned me of fthe entire event, if I didn’t know the good reputation of the groups putting it forward. I guess you’re never happy with a leaflet or proposal unless you’ve written it yourself.

– Decentralising, strengthen and expand our network/s ? By the time we are ready to start thinking about opposition to the start of next years G8 summit, I don’t know if I will be interested in repeating the strategy of targeting the financial centres. Perhaps to encourage greater local organising we should break from having a lot of the organising happening in London, instead taking actions where we live all on the same day. Thirty actions against different parts of the structure across the country and replicated across the world, linking local concerns to the global system, might have more impact then focussing on the financial centres. Perhaps it is not as empower as having thousands and thousands in the streets in one place, but in terms of building our local networks it may be a better strategy.

– Keeping up the momentum built by j18 ? Focussing all our other actions or energies towards one big day seems to have caused many people to get burnt out. Personally it will be a long time before I can focus on helping organise an international campaign. I think I will tend to focus on smaller actions. J18 I think has neglected local manifestations of capitalism which effect us everyday in favour of the financial targets. While it is true that uniting against the big corporations and the symbols of the capitalist system is a good way to bring people together to show what we are fighting against, it is another to challenge capitalism and the state where we live and work. Easier said than done I know, but by doing isolated actions we loose sight of the bigger picture and often paint ourselves into single issue corners. Brighton has a monthly gathering of anti-authoritarian groups monthly under the name of the ‘ Rebel Alliance. ‘ Another suggestion made was that similar groups organising all over the country would be a good idea. Perhaps working towards a couple of nationally co-ordinated actions, some smaller international actions and a big international action once a year (or more !)

– When should tasks be made accountable to other parts of the network ? When should groups be left to their own and not be accountable to others in their network ? Obviously this is not for me to dictate but it is an issue we should be constantly questioned. In the past I have had experience of groups where raising consensus is a painful process where it has takes so long to make a decision that things take forever to gets done. My experience however with various meetings and responsibilities in J18 groups has been that sometimes there is not enough consultation between different groups. There can be a slight ‘ tyranny of structurelessness ‘, due partly to deadlines and because the demands we make of ourselves are really huge. Sometime information is being held in too few hands because of perceived security (and sometime legitimate ) concerns, but sometimes I have felt it is just an unacknowledged clique or desire for control, intentional or otherwise. When information is held in a few hands it is easier for infiltrators to fuck us up than if no one really had control of it. Having never been involved in something so big its hard to criticise when so many people have been working so hard, but it is worse not to act on it when it does happen. In the run up to a couple of big actions, and to a smaller extent J18, we have dedicated discussion time at meetings to banner slogans, posters other agit-prop etc only for the people who have been producing them not to receive that information, or to ignore it and do their own thing, sometimes with good results and sometimes bad, either way they end up deciding the message, that represents others. On one hand I wonder if I’ve any right to criticise when I am not there to produce the banner, flier, or other propaganda, from the original ideas to the finished article, particularly when there are many people dedicating more of their time to the actions than myself. However when propaganda is widely circulation and designed to represent or inform about the actions of a group, they should reflect the thoughts of the ‘ members ‘ of the group. Sometimes I have felt that individuals doing the work hide behind the words ‘autonomously organised’ when they are just pushing their own angle, intentionally or not in effect creating a hegemony on information and an ideological hierarchy. This always needs to be challenged, by bringing in new people and not overusing perceived security risks to close out people so that cliques are broken before they develop. This is not a not an original idea, unfortunately it is not put into practice enough, due to oversight or because some people have specialised skills which make them a valuable member of certain groups all the time. We need more skills training and outreach.

– Grassroots radical diversity. J18 as I understand it is an attempt to create a network of diverse grassroots radical groups to fight capitalism ( and the rest ), unfortunately we have attracted some liberals. I think we have attracted liberals internationally because we put out the message stressing a coming together of a diversity of struggles without making it clear enough what we mean, ( or perhaps being liberals they are just stupid ! ) These liberals if they continue to become part of a hopefully growing post –j18 network, will actually rob it of its radicalism and diversity; and fall apart because of all the liberal hacks. The point I am trying to make is we need to be a bit clearer to keep J18 and whatever groups we try and build after, radical and diverse. Centralised decision making structures and reform platform acts to oppose diversity. As well as being autonomously organised internationally, groups should be decentralised locally also. It seems that some groups abroad do not organise like this, I said earlier that I haven’t had been enough consultation with people in different groups to have formed a definite answer, although the names of many of the groups and occasional comments of individuals in them give me some idea. Centralisation whether within Non-Government-Organisation (NGO) reform environment groups, in the form of union leaders, liberal or totalitarian states or within a fringe political party etc always enforces uniformity or ‘mono-culture’. What is passed of as diversity by liberals pale in comparison to the radical diversity of grassroots autonomous ‘ communities of resistance. ‘ I am fine with J18 groups like Chikoko ( the grassroots indigenous resistance to Oil in Nigeria Delta ), groups like the Industrial Workers of the World, Earth-first!, Reclaim the streets from what I know of them as they encourage diversity and have a flexible vision of a world in which individuals have as much control of decision that effect them as is possible.

The End

signed: anonymous and paranoid

Our resistance is as transnational as capitalism

A contribution to the “Reflections on J18” collection, made up of extracts from an article originally printed in Do or Die! #8

The following text is made up of extracts of the article “Friday June 18th 1999: Confronting Capital And Smashing The State” Do or Die #8. (c/o 6 Tilbury Place, Brighton, East Sussex, BN2 2GY) The author would like to point out that this represents just one voice, of an RTS’er in London

The June 18th (J18) international day of action in financial and banking districts across the world, was probably the largest and most diverse day of action against global capital in recent history1. Hundreds of actions took place ranging from a “Carnival of the Oppressed” in Nigeria, with 10,000 Ogoni, Ijaw and other tribes closing down Port Harcourt , to a spoof trade fair in Montevideo, Uruguay – from Barcelona where a piece of squatted land was turned into an urban oasis overnight , complete with vegetables, medicinal herbs and a lake to the City of London where a “Carnival against Capitalism” attended by thousands, radically transformed Europe’s largest financial centre, and included attempts to occupy and electronically hack into the Futures Exchange – from an anti nuclear demonstration in Gujerat, Pakistan by trade Unionists , to actions against child labour in Senegal – from Street Parties across the United States to domestic and garment workers demonstrating against the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Dhaka, Bangladesh … all “in recognition that the global capitalist system is based on the exploitation of people and the planet for the profit of a few and is at the very root of our social and ecological troubles.” But where did this extraordinary show of international solidarity spring from ? And how and why are such diverse groups building global networks of struggle to counter the globalisation2 of misery under capitalism ? As the economy has become increasingly transnational, so too has the resistance to its devastating social and ecological consequences. But until recently this world-wide resistance to the effects of globalisation has been little-recognised. June the 18th didn’t come from nowhere. There is a fascinating history and process which led up to the day. This is a story that needs telling. (For the full story see the Do or Die article mentioned above – ed)

The useful contradictions of globalisation International solidarity and global protest is nothing new, from the European revolutions of 1848, the upheavals of 1917-18 following the Russian Revolution or the lighting flashes nearly everywhere in 1968, struggle has been able to communicate globally. But what is perhaps unique to our times is the speed and ease with which we can communicate between struggles and the fact that globalisation has meant that many people living in very different cultures across the world now share a common enemy. An enemy that is increasingly becoming less subtle and more excessive – “capitalism with its gloves off ” – and therefore easier to see, understand and ultimately dismantle.3

Common enemy

The irony is that before the onslaught of globalisation , “the system” was sometimes hard to recognise in its diverse manifestations and policies. Abstract critical theory was confronting an abstract multifaceted system. But the reduction of diversity in the corporate landscape and the concentration of power within international Institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) , the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the financial markets has clarified things and offered a focal point for protest and opposition. It is a lot easier to oppose concentrated uniform power than diverse and flexible forms.4 As power heads further and further in this direction, those opposing it seem to becoming more and more diverse and fluid. Hence much harder to diffuse and undermine. As the elite, their transnational corporations and their puppets the IMF and WTO , impose “free market” policies on every country on the planet, they are unwittingly creating a situation where diverse movements are able to recognise each others struggles as related and are beginning to work together on an unprecedented scale. The global “race to the bottom” in which workers , communities and whole countries are forced to compete by lowering wages, working conditions, environmental protections, and social spending, to facilitate maximum profit for corporations, is stimulating resistance all over the world. People everywhere are realising that this resistance is pointless if they are resisting in isolation. For example – say your community manages, after years of tireless campaigning, to shut down your local toxic waste dump, what does the Transnational Company that owns the dump do ? They simply move it to wherever their costs are less and the resistance weaker – probably somewhere in the Third World or Eastern Europe. Under this system, communities have a stark choice; either compete fiercely with each other or, co-operate in resisting the destruction of your lives, land and livelihoods by rampaging capital.

Diversity v Uniformity

To accelerate profit and create economies of scale global capital imposes monoculture on the world. Making everywhere look and feel like everywhere else. The same restaurants, the same hotels, the same supermarkets filled with the same musak. Sumner Redstone the multibillionaire owner of MTV summed up this denial of diversity when he said: “Just as teenagers are the same all over the world, children are the same all over the world” – on his business trips he obviously forgets to stop of and visit the slums of Delhi or the impoverished rural villages of Africa – In New York, London and Berlin, kids may have succumbed to his spell of sameness, as they sit prisoners of their own homes, their dull eyes glued to the screen. But the majority of the worlds children would rather have clean water than Jamiroquai. Herbert Read in “The Philosophy of Anarchism” wrote, “Progress is measured by the degree of differentiation within a society”. The president of the Nabisco Corporation would obviously disagree, he is “looking forward to the day when Arabs and Americans, Latins and Scandinavians will be munching Ritz crackers as enthusiastically as they already drink Coke or brush their teeth with Colgate.”5 Progress in the present system is measured by economic growth, which inevitably means monoculture. Just because more money is changing hands doesn’t mean that life is getting any better, it is quite the opposite for the majority of the world. But by embracing diversity, social movements are proposing powerful challenges to capitals addiction to uniformity. Capital’s loudest message in the 90’s was that there is no alternative to the status quo, and that humanity had reached its highest level. The end of history had arrived. In the 1920’s and 50’s this same message was proclaimed by the elites – and the decades that followed, the radical upheavals of the 30s and the 60’s – showed them that as soon as the end of history is declared it is time for radical changes.

Space for Utopias

Capital was only able to become truly global after the fall of the Berlin wall and the break up of the Eastern Block. The fall of communism not only opened up the space for capital to be unrestrained, but also gave a new lease of life to radical movements . For more than 70 years, Soviet Socialism was seen as the main model of revolutionary society, and of course it was a total social and ecological disaster; but its shadow lingered over most radical movements. Those who wished to discredit any forms of revolutionary thinking simply pointed to the Soviet model to prove the inevitable failures of any utopian project. Now that the Soviet Union has ceased to exist, it has become a lot easier for those of us working in radical movements to conceive of different societies without having to refer to a failed model. Ideas of utopia can return un-hindered. The space has been cleared and the power of radical imagination is back at the centre of revolutionary struggle. Not only has the imagination been freed, it has also become more diverse and fluid than it was able to be under the shadow of the strict monolithic ideology of soviet socialism. There is no longer any need for universal rules, there is not just one way, one utopia to apply globally, because that is exactly what the “free marketers” are trying to do. The radical social movements that are increasingly coming together don’t want to seize power but to dissolve it. They are not vanguards but catalysts in the revolutionary process. They are dreaming up many autonomous alternative forms of social organisation. They are celebrating variety and rejoicing in autonomy.

The Ecology of Struggle

Murray Bookchin , in Post Scarcity Anarchism, wrote that “in almost every period since the Renaissance the development of revolutionary thought has been heavily influenced by a branch of science”6. He gives the examples of mathematics and mechanics for the Enlightenment and Evolutionary Biology and Anthropology for the 19th Century. Ecology has influenced many movements today and that is perhaps why their model of organisation and co-ordination resembles an ecological model, why it works like an ecosystem. Highly interconnected – it thrives on diversity, works best when imbedded in its own locality and context and develops most creatively at the edges, the overlap points, the in-between spaces. Those spaces where different cultures meet, such as the coming together of the American Earth First! and Logging Unions or London Tube Workers and Reclaim the Streets. The societies that they dream of creating will also be like ecosystems, diversified, balanced and harmonious.

The ecological crisis changes the way many of these movements think and act. KirkPatrick Sale illustrates the scale of the biological meltdown- “More goods and services have been consumed by the generation alive between 1950 and 1990, measured in constant dollars and on a global scale, than by all the generations in all of human history before.”7 The level of ecological destruction is mind blowing and the present generation of activists feel an incredible urgency about the future. The know mere reform is useless, because it is clear that the whole basis of the present system is profoundly anti ecological, and there is no longer any use waiting for the right historical conditions for revolution, time is rapidly running out. Radically creative and subversive change must happen now, because there is no time left for anything else. During the May ’68 insurrection in Paris, a message was scrawled on the walls of the Theatre de L’Odeon “Dare to go where none has gone before you. Dare to think what none has ever thought. “ Despite capital’s rapacious ability to enclose and recuperate everything, the space has now been opened up and we can pay attention to that message.

Transnational Resistance

On New years day 1994, the day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect, two thousand indigenous peoples from several groups came out from the mountains and forests of the Chiapas, the most Southern state of Mexico. Masked, armed and calling themselves Zapatistas, their battle cry was “Ya Basta” “Enough is Enough”. An extraordinary popular uprising, which was to change the landscape of global resistance forever, had begun. Five towns were occupied and 12 days of fighting followed. This was not an isolated local act of rebellion, through the Zapatistas imaginative use of the internet which could not be censored by the Mexican state, people all over the world soon heard of the uprising. These masked rebels, from poverty stricken communities, were not only demanding that their own land and lives be given back, neither were they just asking for international support and solidarity; but they were talking about neoliberalism, about the “death sentence” that NAFTA and other Free trade agreements would impose on indigenous people. They were demanding the dissolution of power and the development of “civil society” and they were encouraging others all over the world to take on the fight against the enclosure of our lives by capital . Public sympathy in Mexico and abroad was overwhelming, on the day of the cease-fire, celebratory demonstrations took place in numerous countries, and in Mexico City 100,000 marched together , Shouting “First World HaHAHA”. Phenomenal poetic communiqués came out of Chiapas ,and were rapidly circulated around the internet. There was a new sense of possibility, the Zapatistas and their supporters were weaving an electronic fabric of struggle to carry revolution around the world. Now resistance really could be as transnational as capital.8

Peoples’ Global Action

In 1996, the Zapatistas , with trepidation as they thought no-one might come, put out a call for a gathering, called an “encuentro” ( encounter) , of international activists and intellectuals to meet in Chiapas and discuss common tactics, problems and solutions. 6000 people attended, and spent days talking and sharing their stories of struggle against the ” common enemy”: capitalism. This was followed a year later by a gathering in Spain, where the idea of a more concrete global campaign, named Peoples Global Action (PGA), was hatched by a group made up of ten of the largest and most innovative social movements, including the Movimento Sem Terra, the Brazilian Landless Peasants Movement and the Karnataka State Farmers Union , radical Indian Farmers (KRRS) . Four “hallmarks” were proposed by this group (who became the PGA convenors committee, a role which would rotate every year) in an attempt to get people to rally around shared principles. These were:

“A very clear rejection of the institutions that multinationals and speculators have built to take power away from people like the WTO, and other trade liberalisation agreements (like APEC, the EU NAFTA, etc.)”

“A confrontational attitude, since we do not think that lobbying can have a major impact in such a biased and undemocratic organisations in which transnational capital is the only real policy- maker”.

“A call for non-violent civil disobedience and the construction of local alternatives by local people, as answers to the actions of governments and corporations.”

“An organisational philosophy based on decentralisation and autonomy.”

In February 1998, Peoples Global Action was born, for the first time ever the worlds grassroots movements were beginning to talk and share experiences without the mediation of Non Governmental Organisations (NGO’s), and the first gathering of the PGA was held in Geneva – home of the much hated WTO. More than 300 delegates from 71 countries came to Geneva to share their anger over corporate rule. From the Uwa peoples, to Canadian Postal Workers, to Reclaim the Streets, to anti-nuclear campaigners, to French farmers, to Maori and Ogoni activist, to Korean Trade Unionists, to the Indigenous Women’s Network of North America, to Ukrainian environmentalists, all were there to form, “a global instrument for communication and co-ordination for all those fighting against the destruction of humanity and the planet by the global market, while building up local alternatives and people power.”

One of the participants spoke of this inspiring event : “It is difficult to describe the warmth and the depth of the encounters we had here. The global enemy is relatively well known, but the global resistance that it meets rarely passes through the filter of the media. And here we met the people who had shut down whole cities in Canada with general strikes, risked their lives to seize lands in Latin America, destroyed the seat of Cargill in India or Novartis’s transgenic maize in France. The discussions, the concrete planning for action, the stories of struggle, the personalities, the enthusiastic hospitality of the Genevan squatters, the impassioned accents of the women and men facing the police outside the WTO building, all sealed an alliance between us. Scattered around the world again, we will not forget. We remain together. This is our common struggle.”

One of the concrete aims of this gathering was to co-ordinate actions against two events of global importance that were coming up in May of that year, the G8 meeting (an annual event) of the leaders of the eight most industrialised nations , which was to take place in Birmingham and the second ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation which was being held a day later in Geneva. For 4 consecutive days in May 1998, acts of resistance echoed around the planet. In Hyderabad India, 200,000 peasant farmers called for the death of the WTO, in Brasilia landless peasants and unemployed workers joined forces and 50,000 of them took to the streets, over 30 Reclaim the Streets parties took place in many countries, ranging from Finland, to Sydney, San Francisco to Toronto, Lyon to Berlin. In Prague, the biggest single mobilisation, since the Velvet Revolution in ’89, brought thousands into the streets for a mobile street party which ended the with several Mc Donalds being “redesigned” and running battles with the police. Meanwhile in the UK 5,000 people were paralysing central Birmingham as the G8 leaders fled the city to a local manor, to continue their meeting in a more tranquil location . The following day the streets of Geneva exploded. The G8 plus many more world leaders had congregated there for the WTO ministerial, and to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GAAT) the forerunner of the WTO. Over 15,000 people from all over Europe and many from other continents demonstrated against the tyranny of the WTO, banks had their windows smashed, the WTO Director General’s Mercedes was turned over and three days of the heaviest rioting ever seen in Geneva followed. The dust settled, the world leaders stuck in their glass bunker, beside lake Geneva, made a statement saying that they wanted the WTO to become “more transparent”! As if that was going to make the blind bit of difference.

June the 18th: keep on building

It was clear that things were really moving, and we had to keep the momentum going and build on the success of the May actions. But how? Then came an idea, why not go for the jugular this time. Why not aim at the heart of the beast, the pulsating core of the global economy , the financial and banking districts, the engine room of all ecological and social devastation. This time we could make it bigger, better and even more diverse.(…) the desire to do something in this small square mile of land right, on our doorsteps, Europe’s leading Financial centre, and one of capitals oldest and most powerful sites, proved too strong. Having a tendency to believe in the reality of our desires, we couldn’t let this one go.

Then during a hot summers day in June 1998 a conversation occurred between a Reclaim the Streets (RTS) activist and someone from London Greenpeace, (LGP – the anarchist collective not linked to Greenpeace International) who had been involved in the Stop the City demonstrations during the 80’s. It turned out that they had been thinking similar thoughts about having a City event this year, to bring all the single issue campaigns together around the common enemy of capital, and a date had already been set for a public meeting. LGP felt that the time was right to take on such an audacious target. The Stop the City’s in the 80’s had come out of the momentum of the peace movement. In the last few year the ecological direct action movement had been getting stronger, there seemed to be an upsurge in workplace action – the Jubilee line wildcat strikes, and the Tameside care workers being two examples , Street Parties had sprouted up across the country with thousands taking direct action and there was a sense that there was enough momentum to take on such an ambitious and cheeky action. The idea was taken back to RTS’s weekly public meeting and to LGPs . In mid August the first of many public meetings about June the 18th was held in a community centre in central London. As well as RTS and LGP, several groups were present, ranging from Mexico Support Group, London Animal Action, to McLibel, to Class War. A date was decided, June the 18th, which coincided with this year’s G8 summit and was a Friday – therefore a work day in the City.

(….)

Learning Together

There has been a tendency in the UK direct action movement to concentrate on action at the expense of more conscious thinking and ideological clarity. The positive side of this, is that it has enabled wildly imaginative actions and strategies to take place. It has also helped avoid the ideological factionalisation and bickering of much traditional politics. The downside of this however, is that if we want to build “organised popular movements which think things through, which debate, which act, which experiment, which try alternatives, which develop seeds of the future in the present society” then we have to get a lot better at thinking, talking and educating ourselves and others. June the 18th once again acted as a focusing agent, it brought together diverse activist some from different single issue campaigns, and got them to think about one question, the question of capital.

Few activists seriously understand economics and even fewer understand the complexities of the arcane currency, futures and options markets that lie at the heart of the worlds economy. There are very few places which will tell you about such things in clear and simple language. It is in the interest of the elites to make these things inaccessible, “difficult” to understand for the average citizen. In many ways it resembles the hold on power that has gone on for millennia within religious societies. The high priesthood would often hold arcane ceremonies in temples hidden from the populace; and for over a thousand years mass was held in Latin, which excluded the majority of the population from understanding it. Now in their towering glass temples of Mammon, the elite, the bankers, traders and financiers are still waking up at dawn and engaging in secret rituals. Aloof and isolated from the devastating effects of their magic, they sit safely in front of their screens playing with numbers and abstract mathematical equations, knowing that most people will never make a connection between these arcane games and the misery of their everyday life. As “a first step towards unlocking the City’s mystique” and to help educate ourselves on the issues of contemporary capital and financial markets, Corporate Watch and Reclaim the Streets produced a clear and concise 32 page illustrated booklet entitled; Squaring Up to The Square Mile – A rough Guide to the City of London. 4000 copies of this excellent activist tool were distributed to groups preparing for J18, to alternative book shops and conferences. A version was also put up on the Web. Tucked inside the booklet was a full colour map of potential targets in the City ; banks, exchanges, corporate HQ’s, Investment houses etc., to help activist plane their autonomous actions. A wonderful way of showing that theory without action is useless..

(…)

Meanwhile NATO is bombing Serbia back to the stone age, in order that Western Capital can enclose this last enclave of the Eastern Block. We asked ourselves – who is going to rebuild the bridges, oil refineries, roads, schools, hospitals and power stations and who is going to replace the millions of pounds worth of weapons used every day ? Could it possibly be Western oil companies, engineering, construction and arms companies. Many of us felt compelled to do something, to take action, but the timing was dreadful, and we were are all overworked with June 18 preparations, there was no way we could organise anything else. Would the war still be going on, on June 18th? The issues were clearly identical, but how could we successfully integrate it into the action?

(….)

A year on, from that hot summers day conversation, everything is set to go. Hundreds of groups in 43 countries have said they are going to do something on the day and the City of London Police estimate 10,000 people will turn up for the actions in the Square Mile. But despite all the endless meetings, careful preparations and military precision planning we know that only one thing will enable the day to succeed: spontaneity. The active spontaneous actions of the participants. Spontaneity is one more vital tool of resistance to join fluidity and diversity; it is the freedom to play beyond want and external compulsion, its the play of life itself, the very opposite of work, orders and hierarchy.

Revolutionary epochs are periods of convergence, apparently separate processes collect to form a socially explosive crisis -(…). A critical mass is building – every year, every month, every day it gets bigger and stronger – reports of strikes, of direct actions, of protest and occupations from across the world flow along the same lines of communication that carry the trillions of pounds involved in the reckless unsustainable money game of transnational capital. Soon there is going to be an explosion, an explosion which will be so different from any other revolutionary upsurge that those in power won’t even realise it is about to transform their world for ever. There is much work to be done, but the hope and possibility expressed during June the 18th brought us one step close to this wondrous moment.

Judy

  • 1. See the June 18th web site for a complete list of actions
  • 2. Globalisation has become a buzz word and can be a confusing term. I prefer the term Neoliberalism, used in Europe and Latin America, but will use the more common English term. My understanding of Globalisation is best summed up in this section of Reclaim the Streets Agitprop “Capital has always been global. From the slave trade of earlier centuries to the imperial colonisation of lands and cultures across the world, its boundless drive for expansion – for short term financial gain – has recognised no limits. Backed up by state power, capitalist accumulation has created widespread social and ecological devastation where ever it extended. But now, capitalism is attempting a new strategy to reassert and intensify its dominance over us. Its name is economic globalisation, and it consists of the dismantling of national limitations to trade and to the free movement of capital. It enables companies, driven by the demands of the rapacious gambling of money markets, to ransack the entire globe in search for ever higher profits, lowering wages and environmental standards in their wake. Globalisation is arguably the most fundamental redesign of the planet’s political and economic arrangements since the Industrial Revolution.” Global Street Party agitprop – May 16th 1998.
  • 3. Ironically this was one of the central weaknesses of the Soviet-Style state. Uniformity undermines diversity and the capacity to diffuse opposition.
  • 4. The engines of capital, the financial markets, may be “anarchic”, flexible, and fluid – but they are still governed by one unbreakable law – profit.
  • 5. Quoted in Trilaterism, edited by Holly Sklar, 1980 – quoted in The Case Against the Global Economy, and for a turn toward the local. Ed. Mander and Goldsmith , Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 1996.
  • 6. Murray Bookchin, Post Scarcity Anarchism- Black Rose Books, Montreal, 1971.
  • 7. Kirkpatrick Sale – rebels Against the Future – Lessons for the computer age. Quartet Books. 1996
  • 8. See the excellent writings of US academic Harry Cleaver about the Zapatistas and computer linked social movements – available on the web at http://www.eco.utexas.edu/faculty/Cleaver/hmchtmlpapers.html
Poor Substitute

A contribution to the “Reflections on J18” collection, originally from an article in Freedom newspaper.

The following extracts are from an article in Freedom Press at the beginning of the summer (written by Nick S)….

The left, though, whatever their rhetoric (and this goes for many anarchists too) conduct their politics entirely at the level of the moral and through entirely symbolic means. They don’t live in the communities they purport to address and they have nothing practical to offer those communities to improve their everyday lives. The left (and again, this has to include much of the anarchist movement) has believed it can win by ideology alone……… On 18th June, in what purports to be an exercise in freeing ourselves from the shackles of capitalism, a good many of us will converge on the City of London, to take part in “an international day of protest, action and carnival aimed at the heart of the global economy, the banking and financial centres”. If proof were needed of our movement’s resort to entirely symbolic activity, none better could be found. Most people who suffer at the hands of capital don’t do so in the heart of the City, they suffer through paying high rents on run down estates while local resources go to service local authority debts to the City, they suffer through hospital waiting list increases as bed capacities and staff numbers are lost due to health authority private finance deals. They suffer through exploitation at work, through higher prices and lower wages, through the increased cost of entertainment – football season ticket costs, club door prices, etc. Their quality of life is diminished through the actions of capital, but a demonstration in the City will do nothing to alleviate the conditions of exploitation. Hence, none of those most in need of liberation from the “roar of profit” (Reclaim the Streets leaflet) will go near such an event, because the “sounds of rhythms of party, carnival and pleasure” are a poor substitute for money in your hand and decent accommodation, and will take us no closer to their realisation………

Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin has suggested that the anarchist movement could learn much from the methods of the Black Panther Party, of which he was a member. Specifically he has referred to the Panther’s attempts to establish a survival economy for poor black communities, with the Panthers organising survival programmes to move towards community self-determination. Panther groups organised breakfast programmes for poor families, set up and ran medical centres in poor neighbourhoods, organised free transport for prison visits and established armed self-defence units to monitor and prevent police brutality. “Panthers established a network of community service projects designed to improve the life chances of African American people……..

As Huey P. Newton, one of the Party’s founders, noted: “In their quest for freedom [people] have to see first some basic accomplishments in order to realise that major successes are possible”……..

The Euro elections should have made it clear to all of us; if we allow our politics to be reduced to the ‘theatre of pseudo resistance’, we will be as irrelevant to most people as New Labour and the Socialist Labour Party are seen to be. If anarchism is committed to bringing about the autonomous organisation of working class communities its time for us to prove it in practice, and prove it where it matters most………

—– Nick S / Freedom Press
June 18th – a personal view

A contribution to the “Reflections on J18” collection.

For me, what happened on June 18th was both inspiring and disappointing. I was inspired by the sheer numbers of people there, as it’s always good to be among huge numbers every once in a while. It was particularly inspiring to see that this time, lots of people weren’t just happy with having a party but wanted to take direct physical action against capitalist institutions. I was disappointed that more people didn’t want to take this action, disappointed that more autonomous actions in the morning didn’t materialise, and above all, disappointed that J18 didn’t broaden out to include a wider diversity of groups and people, and that at the Carnival it was mainly just the usual RTS crowd. (I’m also disappointed that we’re not now living in post revolutionary utopia, but hey ho….)

While I feel that the most crucial discussion for us to be having is where do we go from here, and what worked and what didn’t. However, in my town, the criminal damage and fighting the police has yet again raised massive divisions, to the point where a significant number of activists have said that they’d never go on a demo like J18 again. We may be following the state’s agenda to be even discussing the ‘violence’ issue, but where I live, it essential that we explain our stances and have understanding for others in order that we don’t make ourselves so much smaller than we already are. I’m not going to defend the random meaningless acts of vandalism or untargeted insults physical threats or attacks. What I aim to do is put forward a defence of the economic damage caused by the trashing of LIFFE, of Mercedes Benz, of McDonalds, and any other capitalist institutions. For people who disagree with me, this issue appears to divide into two aspects – was this justifiable and was it effective.

Justifiable

I’m an anarchist, and the way I see it, anarchism is fundamentally opposed to violence. One of the main aims of anarchy in my eyes is to remove violence from all human relationships. However, up to the point where we live in an anarchist society, we remain living in a system which is founded on violence. For two sides to live in peace, both must want peace. If one side insists on using force to make the other obey them, and work for them, then the other, if they want to retain their dignity and not be reduced to slavery, must resist force with adequate means, despite their love of peace.

I don’t think it’s difficult to prove that the state and the capitalist system is founded on violence – requires constant force or threat of force to maintain the existing order. Government needs laws to maintain inequalities and their order, and therefore needs police and armaments to back it up and force people to obey. Otherwise only people who wanted to obey would do so. The state has used violence throughout its history to rob the poor of their land initially, and then to maintain their monopoly on power. They are then the side that does not want peace freedom or equality, that relies on violence to exist – not the anarchists.

So I believe that violence is entirely justifiable in defending yourself from the onslaught of violence coming from the state. But I don’t just mean it is justified against direct sudden physical attack (as in defending yourself from being beaten by police truncheon, which in my mind is quite clearly justified and doesn’t need to be explained), but against a much more insidious attack. Using force against all those institutions which use violence, be it physical or mental to keep people in a state of oppression, is totally justified.

“The slave is always in a state of legitimate defence and consequently his violence against the boss, against the oppressor is always morally justifiable” (Malatesta)

Some people would say that excusing individual acts of violence leads naturally to an excuse of any violence and so excuses the arms trade etc. I do not accept that self-defence by the people against its government, or against a section of the community which maintains its power and privileges by underpinning it with force, has any affinity with the self – defence justification used by states to stockpile weapons. “The violence of the oppressed is defensive, unorganised and individual and usually unarmed. The violence of the state is massive, systematic, aggressive, and frequently involves the use of sophisticated weapons.” There is no moral equivalence between the oppressor and the oppressed.

Some would go further to say not only is violence in self-defence justified, but that it is our duty to protect others in this way. And I don’t extend this to war e.g. in Kosova – when the state usually forces its citizens to war, to fight rival nationalist powers, and where the state controls and organises the means of destruction.

To bring this back to June 18. Here, it is clearly the City that is the oppressor – it’s veneer of respectability is underpinned by the laws and institutions of the state, and so by force. The deals that are done there cause ecological destruction, loss of livelihoods, debt, and death, on a massive scale. Everyone who opposes this in any way is acting not just in self-defence but in defence of oppressed people everywhere. Some people who argue for principled non-violence say that they would not criticise those in the third world for rising up and taking violent action, but that we in this country are not faced with such blatant oppression, we are not fighting for our lives in the same direct sense. We have a choice and we should avoid violence which only will lead to more violence.

Of course those in the Third World are on the sharp end of capitalism, but capitalism has a base in our country, at its heart is the City. I know we’re relatively okay with our dole cheques at the moment, and we can get away with more protests without getting killed, but do we not feel any solidarity with those fighting in say Mexico or Nigeria to join with them and target the root of their ills with a similar sense of urgency and desperation? If people could see in front of them, the results of what goes on in those glossy buildings in the city, the deaths and misery it causes, I think most people would feel they would be justified in doing everything in their power to stop it happening immediately. And there is no being fooled that we live in a nice liberal democracy where we would never be as oppressed as activists in other countries. As soon as we begin really threatening the foundations of capitalism, you can be sure we will be repressed with practically as much force and violence as anywhere else.

On June 18th, people saw the opportunity to take physical and very direct action to try and stop some of the destructive things that happened inside those buildings, and in my mind there is no question that this is entirely justifiable as a defensive act. I also believe that fighting with the police who come in using violence to prevent us from challenging and stopping the destruction of the City, is a defensive act, and is justified. Whether it is particularly effective, or whether the people involved really understood the politics behind their defensive violence is another matter.

Effective

So is it effective to smash up property, or fight the police. Is it an effective strategy, use of energy, efforts, possible prison sentences, sentences, and bearing in mind it may lead to increased surveillance and repression. Also others would say it alienates lots of people from our cause, and even puts off lots of activists. Well, I want real permanent change, and won’t be happy with small reforms. I want a revolution, and I want a non-violent revolution – as I’ve said, I’m not a lover of violence, and I’d struggle to eliminate violence from society. I think that for a revolution to occur and to be permanent, it’d have to be largely (I’ll qualify this later) nonviolent – as its success would depend on most people wanting it, and knowing what it was they wanted to achieve by it.

But to those who extrapolate this argument to say that therefore our actions must convince the majority of people, and that using violence achieves the opposite effect of putting people off, I say that this is not our role. Our ‘network’ is never going to create a mass movement, nor should we try to. I for one am not trying to recruit people to our cause (well, maybe a bit), nor do I think we’re a vanguard bringing lots of people to our side to sweep forward with a revolution. I’m fighting for my own life to improve, for my own right to be able to make decisions which affect my life, and fighting for a situation where everyone can run their own lives. In doing so, I hope that this will positively affect everyone else, but they have to make their own decisions and choices. I view our network as political agitators, stirring things up, forcing things into the open, onto the agenda, forcing people to think, informing people about alternatives, and crucially, inspiring people to believe that we can fight the system. You can smash the property of the rich and get away with it. You can fight back.

As a minority of people, who don’t have the informed support of the masses, due to their forced ignorance of alternatives to the system, we should seek to curb the excesses. We know what’s going on, and we should take action to stop it. We shouldn’t allow our radicalness to be watered down in order to appease public opinion, a public opinion which is largely formed by media and state influences such as education. And in any case, I don’t think people are as put off by this sort of J18 action as the state would have us believe. Many are inspired by what we achieved. What is so ineffective about trying to curb the excesses with counter-violence, and what alternative is there without having the support of the majority.

To return briefly to what I said about a ‘largely’ nonviolent revolution. Despite my desire for peace, I don’t believe that things can truly be changed without using defensive force, as the state is built on a premise of violence to maintain the status quo. They won’t hand their power away without a fight. They’ve been more than ready to kill, hurt, or imprison any resisters in the past, be they peaceful or not, if they threaten their hold on power. Even if the vast majority wanted change, the minority are the ruling class and they control the weapons. The numbers of people killed in insurrections or revolutions can never equal the numbers of people living in permanent slavery or dying in their thousands in the third world due to the sort of thing which goes on in the City. It’s horrific that we may have to use force, but it’s more horrific if we fail because we refuse to do so. I find it odd that we don’t hear many condemnations of the peasants revolt, of the loombreakers, or the Zapatistas, or of the Poll tax riots, all of which encompassed elements of violence. What is so different to J18?

“The state likes to present riots, revolts, and rebellions as isolated incidents and this helps deny their legitimacy, has reduced our recognition of their positive impact and has drawn attention away from the continual and consistent threat of state violence”

I also think it can be said to be effective because of the economic damage we caused to the city, we presented a very real threat to their institutions and profits, we engaged in real agitation, forced capitalism as a ‘bad thing’ onto the agenda, it allowed us to say why LIFFE is not in fact respectable and why it deserves the trashing, and above all, allows us to say who the real perpetrators of violence are in our society. It allowed us to remove the respectable veneer the city basks in. Finally, I hope that even if people disagree with the above, that they would not condemn the informed choices and actions of people on that day. For one, people don’t tend to publicly condemn people for being peaceful. But mainly it is following the state’s agenda – it merely deflects criticism away from the original issue and away from the state as the real evil savages.

This is adapted from an oral introduction at the beginning of a discussion on J18 (which took place in Manchester? -ed)

Give up activism

An important article from Do or Die issue 9 criticising the activist mentality in the direct action movement.

In 1999, in the aftermath of the June 18th global day of action, a pamphlet called Reflections on June 18th was produced by some people in London, as an open-access collection of “contributions on the politics behind the events that occurred in the City of London on June 18, 1999”. Contained in this collection was an article called ‘Give up Activism’ which has generated quite a lot of discussion and debate both in the UK and internationally, being translated into several languages and reproduced in several different publications.[1] Here we republish the article together with a new postscript by the author addressing some comments and criticisms received since the original publication.

Give up Activism

One problem apparent in the June 18th day of action was the adoption of an activist mentality. This problem became particularly obvious with June 18th precisely because the people involved in organising it and the people involved on the day tried to push beyond these limitations. This piece is no criticism of anyone involved – rather an attempt to inspire some thought on the challenges that confront us if we are really serious in our intention of doing away with the capitalist mode of production.

Experts
By ‘an activist mentality’ what I mean is that people think of themselves primarily as activists and as belonging to some wider community of activists. The activist identifies with what they do and thinks of it as their role in life, like a job or career. In the same way some people will identify with their job as a doctor or a teacher, and instead of it being something they just happen to be doing, it becomes an essential part of their self-image.

The activist is a specialist or an expert in social change. To think of yourself as being an activist means to think of yourself as being somehow privileged or more advanced than others in your appreciation of the need for social change, in the knowledge of how to achieve it and as leading or being in the forefront of the practical struggle to create this change.

Activism, like all expert roles, has its basis in the division of labour – it is a specialised separate task. The division of labour is the foundation of class society, the fundamental division being that between mental and manual labour. The division of labour operates, for example, in medicine or education – instead of healing and bringing up kids being common knowledge and tasks that everyone has a hand in, this knowledge becomes the specialised property of doctors and teachers – experts that we must rely on to do these things for us. Experts jealously guard and mystify the skills they have. This keeps people separated and disempowered and reinforces hierarchical class society.

A division of labour implies that one person takes on a role on behalf of many others who relinquish this responsibility. A separation of tasks means that other people will grow your food and make your clothes and supply your electricity while you get on with achieving social change. The activist, being an expert in social change, assumes that other people aren’t doing anything to change their lives and so feels a duty or a responsibility to do it on their behalf. Activists think they are compensating for the lack of activity by others. Defining ourselves as activists means defining our actions as the ones which will bring about social change, thus disregarding the activity of thousands upon thousands of other non-activists. Activism is based on this misconception that it is only activists who do social change – whereas of course class struggle is happening all the time.

Form and Content
The tension between the form of ‘activism’ in which our political activity appears and its increasingly radical content has only been growing over the last few years. The background of a lot of the people involved in June 18th is of being ‘activists’ who ‘campaign’ on an ‘issue’. The political progress that has been made in the activist scene over the last few years has resulted in a situation where many people have moved beyond single issue campaigns against specific companies or developments to a rather ill-defined yet nonetheless promising anti-capitalist perspective. Yet although the content of the campaigning activity has altered, the form of activism has not. So instead of taking on Monsanto and going to their headquarters and occupying it, we have now seen beyond the single facet of capital represented by Monsanto and so develop a ‘campaign’ against capitalism. And where better to go and occupy than what is perceived as being the headquarters of capitalism – the City?

Our methods of operating are still the same as if we were taking on a specific corporation or development, despite the fact that capitalism is not at all the same sort of thing and the ways in which one might bring down a particular company are not at all the same as the ways in which you might bring down capitalism. For example, vigorous campaigning by animal rights activists has succeeded in wrecking both Consort dog breeders and Hillgrove Farm cat breeders. The businesses were ruined and went into receivership. Similarly the campaign waged against arch-vivisectionists Huntingdon Life Sciences succeeded in reducing their share price by 33%, but the company just about managed to survive by running a desperate PR campaign in the City to pick up prices.[2] Activism can very successfully accomplish bringing down a business, yet to bring down capitalism a lot more will be required than to simply extend this sort of activity to every business in every sector. Similarly with the targetting of butcher’s shops by animal rights activists, the net result is probably only to aid the supermarkets in closing down all the small butcher’s shops, thus assisting the process of competition and the ‘natural selection’ of the marketplace. Thus activists often succeed in destroying one small business while strengthening capital overall.

A similar thing applies with anti-roads activism. Wide-scale anti-roads protests have created opportunities for a whole new sector of capitalism – security, surveillance, tunnellers, climbers, experts and consultants. We are now one ‘market risk’ among others to be taken into account when bidding for a roads contract. We may have actually assisted the rule of market forces, by forcing out the companies that are weakest and least able to cope. Protest-bashing consultant Amanda Webster says: “The advent of the protest movement will actually provide market advantages to those contractors who can handle it effectively.”[3] Again activism can bring down a business or stop a road but capitalism carries merrily on, if anything stronger than before.

These things are surely an indication, if one were needed, that tackling capitalism will require not only a quantitative change (more actions, more activists) but a qualitative one (we need to discover some more effective form of operating). It seems we have very little idea of what it might actually require to bring down capitalism. As if all it needed was some sort of critical mass of activists occupying offices to be reached and then we’d have a revolution…

The form of activism has been preserved even while the content of this activity has moved beyond the form that contains it. We still think in terms of being ‘activists’ doing a ‘campaign’ on an ‘issue’, and because we are ‘direct action’ activists we will go and ‘do an action’ against our target. The method of campaigning against specific developments or single companies has been carried over into this new thing of taking on capitalism. We’re attempting to take on capitalism and conceptualising what we’re doing in completely inappropriate terms, utilising a method of operating appropriate to liberal reformism. So we have the bizarre spectacle of ‘doing an action’ against capitalism – an utterly inadequate practice.

Roles
The role of the ‘activist’ is a role we adopt just like that of policeman, parent or priest – a strange psychological form we use to define ourselves and our relation to others. The ‘activist’ is a specialist or an expert in social change – yet the harder we cling to this role and notion of what we are, the more we actually impede the change we desire. A real revolution will involve the breaking out of all preconceived roles and the destruction of all specialism – the reclamation of our lives. The seizing control over our own destinies which is the act of revolution will involve the creation of new selves and new forms of interaction and community. ‘Experts’ in anything can only hinder this.

The Situationist International developed a stringent critique of roles and particularly the role of ‘the militant’. Their criticism was mainly directed against leftist and social-democratic ideologies because that was mainly what they encountered. Although these forms of alienation still exist and are plain to be seen, in our particular milieu it is the liberal activist we encounter more often than the leftist militant. Nevertheless, they share many features in common (which of course is not surprising).

The Situationist Raoul Vaneigem defined roles like this: “Stereotypes are the dominant images of a period… The stereotype is the model of the role; the role is a model form of behaviour. The repetition of an attitude creates a role.” To play a role is to cultivate an appearance to the neglect of everything authentic: “we succumb to the seduction of borrowed attitudes.” As role-players we dwell in inauthenticity – reducing our lives to a string of clichés – “breaking [our] day down into a series of poses chosen more or less unconsciously from the range of dominant stereotypes.”[4] This process has been at work since the early days of the anti-roads movement. At Twyford Down after Yellow Wednesday in December 92, press and media coverage focused on the Dongas Tribe and the dreadlocked countercultural aspect of the protests. Initially this was by no means the predominant element – there was a large group of ramblers at the eviction for example.[5] But people attracted to Twyford by the media coverage thought every single person there had dreadlocks. The media coverage had the effect of making ‘ordinary’ people stay away and more dreadlocked countercultural types turned up – decreasing the diversity of the protests. More recently, a similar thing has happened in the way in which people drawn to protest sites by the coverage of Swampy they had seen on TV began to replicate in their own lives the attitudes presented by the media as characteristic of the role of the ‘eco-warrior’.[6]

“Just as the passivity of the consumer is an active passivity, so the passivity of the spectator lies in his ability to assimilate roles and play them according to official norms. The repetition of images and stereotypes offers a set of models from which everyone is supposed to choose a role.”[7] The role of the militant or activist is just one of these roles, and therein, despite all the revolutionary rhetoric that goes with the role, lies its ultimate conservatism.

The supposedly revolutionary activity of the activist is a dull and sterile routine – a constant repetition of a few actions with no potential for change. Activists would probably resist change if it came because it would disrupt the easy certainties of their role and the nice little niche they’ve carved out for themselves. Like union bosses, activists are eternal representatives and mediators. In the same way as union leaders would be against their workers actually succeeding in their struggle because this would put them out of a job, the role of the activist is threatened by change. Indeed revolution, or even any real moves in that direction, would profoundly upset activists by depriving them of their role. If everyone is becoming revolutionary then you’re not so special anymore, are you?

So why do we behave like activists? Simply because it’s the easy cowards’ option? It is easy to fall into playing the activist role because it fits into this society and doesn’t challenge it – activism is an accepted form of dissent. Even if as activists we are doing things which are not accepted and are illegal, the form of activism itself – the way it is like a job – means that it fits in with our psychology and our upbringing. It has a certain attraction precisely because it is not revolutionary.

We Don’t Need Any More Martyrs
The key to understanding both the role of the militant and the activist is self-sacrifice – the sacrifice of the self to ‘the cause’ which is seen as being separate from the self. This of course has nothing to do with real revolutionary activity which is the seizing of the self. Revolutionary martyrdom goes together with the identification of some cause separate from one’s own life – an action against capitalism which identifies capitalism as ‘out there’ in the City is fundamentally mistaken – the real power of capital is right here in our everyday lives – we re-create its power every day because capital is not a thing but a social relation between people (and hence classes) mediated by things.

Of course I am not suggesting that everyone who was involved in June 18th shares in the adoption of this role and the self-sacrifice that goes with it to an equal extent. As I said above, the problem of activism was made particularly apparent by June 18th precisely because it was an attempt to break from these roles and our normal ways of operating. Much of what is outlined here is a ‘worst case scenario’ of what playing the role of an activist can lead to. The extent to which we can recognise this within our own movement will give us an indication of how much work there is still to be done.

The activist makes politics dull and sterile and drives people away from it, but playing the role also fucks up the activist herself. The role of the activist creates a separation between ends and means: self-sacrifice means creating a division between the revolution as love and joy in the future but duty and routine now. The worldview of activism is dominated by guilt and duty because the activist is not fighting for herself but for a separate cause: “All causes are equally inhuman.”[8]

As an activist you have to deny your own desires because your political activity is defined such that these things do not count as ‘politics’. You put ‘politics’ in a separate box to the rest of your life – it’s like a job… you do ‘politics’ 9-5 and then go home and do something else. Because it is in this separate box, ‘politics’ exists unhampered by any real-world practical considerations of effectiveness. The activist feels obliged to keep plugging away at the same old routine unthinkingly, unable to stop or consider, the main thing being that the activist is kept busy and assuages her guilt by banging her head against a brick wall if necessary.

Part of being revolutionary might be knowing when to stop and wait. It might be important to know how and when to strike for maximum effectiveness and also how and when NOT to strike. Activists have this ‘We must do something NOW!’ attitude that seems fuelled by guilt. This is completely untactical.

The self-sacrifice of the militant or the activist is mirrored in their power over others as an expert – like a religion there is a kind of hierarchy of suffering and self-righteousness. The activist assumes power over others by virtue of her greater degree of suffering (‘non-hierarchical’ activist groups in fact form a ‘dictatorship of the most committed’). The activist uses moral coercion and guilt to wield power over others less experienced in the theology of suffering. Their subordination of themselves goes hand in hand with their subordination of others – all enslaved to ‘the cause’. Self-sacrificing politicos stunt their own lives and their own will to live – this generates a bitterness and an antipathy to life which is then turned outwards to wither everything else. They are “great despisers of life… the partisans of absolute self-sacrifice… their lives twisted by their monsterous asceticism.”[9] We can see this in our own movement, for example on site, in the antagonism between the desire to sit around and have a good time versus the guilt-tripping build/fortify/barricade work ethic and in the sometimes excessive passion with which ‘lunchouts’ are denounced. The self-sacrificing martyr is offended and outraged when she sees others that are not sacrificing themselves. Like when the ‘honest worker’ attacks the scrounger or the layabout with such vitriol, we know it is actually because she hates her job and the martyrdom she has made of her life and therefore hates to see anyone escape this fate, hates to see anyone enjoying themselves while she is suffering – she must drag everyone down into the muck with her – an equality of self-sacrifice.

In the old religious cosmology, the successful martyr went to heaven. In the modern worldview, successful martyrs can look forward to going down in history. The greatest self-sacrifice, the greatest success in creating a role (or even better, in devising a whole new one for people to emulate – e.g. the eco-warrior) wins a reward in history – the bourgeois heaven.

The old left was quite open in its call for heroic sacrifice: “Sacrifice yourselves joyfully, brothers and sisters! For the Cause, for the Established Order, for the Party, for Unity, for Meat and Potatoes!”[10] But these days it is much more veiled: Vaneigem accuses “young leftist radicals” of “enter[ing] the service of a Cause – the ‘best’ of all Causes. The time they have for creative activity they squander on handing out leaflets, putting up posters, demonstrating or heckling local politicians. They become militants, fetishising action because others are doing their thinking for them.”[11]

This resounds with us – particularly the thing about the fetishising of action – in left groups the militants are left free to engage in endless busywork because the group leader or guru has the ‘theory’ down pat, which is just accepted and lapped up – the ‘party line’. With direct action activists it’s slightly different – action is fetishised, but more out of an aversion to any theory whatsoever.

Although it is present, that element of the activist role which relies on self-sacrifice and duty was not so significant in June 18th. What is more of an issue for us is the feeling of separateness from ‘ordinary people’ that activism implies. People identify with some weird sub-culture or clique as being ‘us’ as opposed to the ‘them’ of everyone else in the world.

Isolation
The activist role is a self-imposed isolation from all the people we should be connecting to. Taking on the role of an activist separates you from the rest of the human race as someone special and different. People tend to think of their own first person plural (who are you referring to when you say ‘we’?) as referring to some community of activists, rather than a class. For example, for some time now in the activist milieu it has been popular to argue for ‘no more single issues’ and for the importance of ‘making links’. However, many people’s conception of what this involved was to ‘make links’ with other activists and other campaign groups. June 18th demonstrated this quite well, the whole idea being to get all the representatives of all the various different causes or issues in one place at one time, voluntarily relegating ourselves to the ghetto of good causes.

Similarly, the various networking forums that have recently sprung up around the country – the Rebel Alliance in Brighton, NASA in Nottingham, Riotous Assembly in Manchester, the London Underground etc. have a similar goal – to get all the activist groups in the area talking to each other. I’m not knocking this – it is an essential pre-requisite for any further action, but it should be recognised for the extremely limited form of ‘making links’ that it is. It is also interesting in that what the groups attending these meetings have in common is that they are activist groups – what they are actually concerned with seems to be a secondary consideration.

It is not enough merely to seek to link together all the activists in the world, neither is it enough to seek to transform more people into activists. Contrary to what some people may think, we will not be any closer to a revolution if lots and lots of people become activists. Some people seem to have the strange idea that what is needed is for everyone to be somehow persuaded into becoming activists like us and then we’ll have a revolution. Vaneigem says: “Revolution is made everyday despite, and in opposition to, the specialists of revolution.”[12]

The militant or activist is a specialist in social change or revolution. The specialist recruits others to her own tiny area of specialism in order to increase her own power and thus dispel the realisation of her own powerlessness. “The specialist… enrols himself in order to enrol others.”[13] Like a pyramid selling scheme, the hierarchy is self-replicating – you are recruited and in order not to be at the bottom of the pyramid, you have to recruit more people to be under you, who then do exactly the same. The reproduction of the alienated society of roles is accomplished through specialists.

Jacques Camatte in his essay ‘On Organization’[14] makes the astute point that political groupings often end up as “gangs” defining themselves by exclusion – the group member’s first loyalty becomes to the group rather than to the struggle. His critique applies especially to the myriad of Left sects and groupuscules at which it was directed but it applies also to a lesser extent to the activist mentality.

The political group or party substitutes itself for the proletariat and its own survival and reproduction become paramount – revolutionary activity becomes synonymous with ‘building the party’ and recruiting members. The group takes itself to have a unique grasp on truth and everyone outside the group is treated like an idiot in need of education by this vanguard. Instead of an equal debate between comrades we get instead the separation of theory and propaganda, where the group has its own theory, which is almost kept secret in the belief that the inherently less mentally able punters must be lured in the organisation with some strategy of populism before the politics are sprung on them by surprise. This dishonest method of dealing with those outside of the group is similar to a religious cult – they will never tell you upfront what they are about.

We can see here some similarities with activism, in the way that the activist milieu acts like a leftist sect. Activism as a whole has some of the characteristics of a “gang”. Activist gangs can often end up being cross-class alliances, including all sorts of liberal reformists because they too are ‘activists’. People think of themselves primarily as activists and their primary loyalty becomes to the community of activists and not to the struggle as such. The “gang” is illusory community, distracting us from creating a wider community of resistance. The essence of Camatte’s critique is an attack on the creation of an interior/exterior division between the group and the class. We come to think of ourselves as being activists and therefore as being separate from and having different interests from the mass of working class people.

Our activity should be the immediate expression of a real struggle, not the affirmation of the separateness and distinctness of a particular group. In Marxist groups the possession of ‘theory’ is the all-important thing determining power – it’s different in the activist milieu, but not that different – the possession of the relevant ‘social capital’ – knowledge, experience, contacts, equipment etc. is the primary thing determining power.

Activism reproduces the structure of this society in its operations: “When the rebel begins to believe that he is fighting for a higher good, the authoritarian principle gets a fillip.”[15] This is no trivial matter, but is at the basis of capitalist social relations. Capital is a social relation between people mediated by things – the basic principle of alienation is that we live our lives in the service of some thing that we ourselves have created. If we reproduce this structure in the name of politics that declares itself anti-capitalist, we have lost before we have begun. You cannot fight alienation by alienated means.

A Modest Proposal
This is a modest proposal that we should develop ways of operating that are adequate to our radical ideas. This task will not be easy and the writer of this short piece has no clearer insight into how we should go about this than anyone else. I am not arguing that June 18th should have been abandoned or attacked, indeed it was a valiant attempt to get beyond our limitations and to create something better than what we have at present. However, in its attempts to break with antique and formulaic ways of doing things it has made clear the ties that still bind us to the past. The criticisms of activism that I have expressed above do not all apply to June 18th. However there is a certain paradigm of activism which at its worst includes all that I have outlined above and June 18th shared in this paradigm to a certain extent. To exactly what extent is for you to decide.

Activism is a form partly forced upon us by weakness. Like the joint action taken by Reclaim the Streets and the Liverpool dockers – we find ourselves in times in which radical politics is often the product of mutual weakness and isolation. If this is the case, it may not even be within our power to break out of the role of activists. It may be that in times of a downturn in struggle, those who continue to work for social revolution become marginalised and come to be seen (and to see themselves) as a special separate group of people. It may be that this is only capable of being corrected by a general upsurge in struggle when we won’t be weirdos and freaks any more but will seem simply to be stating what is on everybody’s minds. However, to work to escalate the struggle it will be necessary to break with the role of activists to whatever extent is possible – to constantly try to push at the boundaries of our limitations and constraints.

Historically, those movements that have come the closest to de-stabilising or removing or going beyond capitalism have not at all taken the form of activism. Activism is essentially a political form and a method of operating suited to liberal reformism that is being pushed beyond its own limits and used for revolutionary purposes. The activist role in itself must be problematic for those who desire social revolution..

Notes
1) To my knowledge the article has been translated into French and published in Je sais tout (Association des 26-Cantons, 8, rue Lissignol CH-1201 Genève, Suisse) and in Échanges No. 93 (BP 241, 75866 Paris Cedex 18, France). It has been translated into Spanish and published in Ekintza Zuzena (Ediciones E.Z., Apdo. 235, 48080 Bilbo (Bizkaia), Spanish State). It has been republished in America in Collective Action Notes No. 16-17 (CAN, POB 22962, Baltimore, MD 21203, USA) and in the UK in Organise! No. 54 (AF, c/o 84b Whitechapel High Street, London E1 7QX, UK). It is also available on-line at: http://www.infoshop.org/octo/j18_rts1.html#give_up and http://tierra.ucsd.edu/~acf/online/j18/reflec1.html#GIVE If anyone knows of any other places it has been reproduced or critiqued, I would be grateful to hear of them, via Do or Die.

2) Squaring up to the Square Mile: A Rough Guide to the City of London (J18 Publications (UK), 1999) p.8

3) ‘Direct Action: Six Years Down the Road’ in Do or Die No. 7, p.3

4) Raoul Vaneigem – The Revolution of Everyday Life, (Left Bank Books/Rebel Press, 1994) – first published 1967, pp.131-3

5) ‘The Day they Drove Twyford Down’ in Do or Die No. 1, p.11

6) ‘Personality Politics: The Spectacularisation of Fairmile’ in Do or Die No. 7, p.35

7) Op. Cit. 4, p.128

8) Op. Cit. 4, p.107

9) Op. Cit. 4, p.109

10) Op. Cit. 4, p.108

11) Op. Cit. 4, p.109

12) Op. Cit. 4, p.111

13) Op. Cit. 4, p.143

14) Jacques Camatte – ‘On Organization’ (1969) in This World We Must Leave and Other Essays (New York, Autonomedia, 1995)

15) Op. Cit. 4, p.110

Give up activism – Postscript

Many of the articles printed in the Reflections on June 18th pamphlet repeated almost to the onset of tedium that capitalism is a social relation and isn’t just to do with big banks, corporations or international financial institutions. It’s an important point and worth making, but ‘Give up Activism‘ had other fish to fry.

Therefore the conclusion reached by these other articles was the point of departure for this one – if it is true that capitalism is a social relation based in production and in the relations between classes then what implications does this have for our activity and for our method of attacking it? The basic kernel of the piece and the initial idea that inspired the writing of it is the ‘Form and Content’ section. It had occurred to many people that there was something a little odd about a ‘day of action against capitalism’. The original inspiration behind the article was an attempt to pin down what it was that made the idea appear a little odd, incongruous, contradictory.

It seemed there was a similarity between the way we were carrying on acting like liberal activists campaigning against capitalism as if it was another single issue, another ’cause’, and Vaneigem’s critique of the leftist militant, whose politics consist of a set of duties carried out on behalf of an external ’cause’. It is true that the activist and the militant share this common factor, but it is about all they have in common. I made the mistake of carrying over all the other characteristics attributed by Vaneigem to ‘the militant’ and assigning them also to the activist, when they largely weren’t appropriate. As a result, large sections of ‘Give up Activism’ come across as far too harsh and as an inaccurate representation of the direct action movement. The Situationists’ characteristic bile was perhaps more appropriate when directed at leftist party hacks than as a description of the sort of politics involved around June 18th. The self-sacrifice, the martyrdom and guilt that Vaneigem identified as central to the politics of ‘the militant’ is much less a feature of direct action politics, which to the contrary is more usually criticised for the opposite failing of lifestylism.

As has been very neatly drawn out by an excellent critique in the American publication The Bad Days Will End!,1 the original idea that motivated the writing of the article and this rehashing of Vaneigem, translating the critique of the leftist ‘militant’ into that of the liberal ‘activist’, are incongruously roped together to produce an article which is an unwieldy amalgam of the objective (What social situation are we in? What forms of action are appropriate?) and the subjective (Why do we feel like activists? Why do we have this mentality? Can we change the way we feel about ourselves?). It is not so much that the subjective aspect of activism is emphasised over the objective, but rather more that the very real problems that are identified with acting as activists come to be seen to be mere products of having this ‘activist mentality’. ‘Give up Activism’ can then be read such that it seems to reverse cause and effect and to imply that if we simply ‘give up’ this mental role then the objective conditions will change too:

“[Give up Activism’s] greatest weakness is this one-sided emphasis on the ‘subjective’ side of the social phenomenon of activism. The emphasis points to an obvious conclusion implicit throughout [the] argument: If activism is a mental attitude or ‘role’, it may be changed, as one changes one’s mind, or thrown off, like a mask or a costume… The implication is clear: cease to cling, let go of the role, ‘give up activism’, and a significant impediment to the desired change will be removed.”2

The article was of course never proposing that we could simply think ourselves out of the problem. It was intended merely to suggest that we might be able to remove an impediment and an illusion about our situation as one step towards challenging that situation, and from that point that we might start to discover a more effective and more appropriate way of acting.

It is now clear that the slipshod hitching of Vaneigem to a enquiry into what it was that was incongruous and odd in having a one-day action against capitalism was an error, prompted by an over-hasty appropriation of Situationist ideas, without considering how much of a connection there really was between them and the original idea behind the piece. The theory of roles is perhaps the weakest part of Vaneigem’s ideas and in his ‘Critique of the Situationist International’, Gilles Dauvé even goes so far as to say: “Vaneigem was the weakest side of the SI, the one which reveals all its weaknesses”.3 This is probably a little harsh. But nevertheless, the sort of degeneration that Situationist ideas underwent after the post-1968 disintegration of the SI took the worst elements of Vaneigem’s “radical subjectivity” as their starting point, in the poorest examples effectively degenerating into bourgeois individualism.4 That it is this element of Situationist thought that has proven the most easily recuperable should give us pause for thought before too-readily taking it on board.

Revolution in Your Head
This over-emphasis in ‘Give up Activism’ on the theory of roles and on the subjective side of things has led some people to fail to recognise the original impetus behind the piece. This starting point and presupposition was perhaps not made clear enough, because some people seem to have assumed that the purpose of the article was to make some kind of point concerning individual psychological health. ‘Give up Activism’ was not intended to be an article about or an exercise in radical therapy. The main intention of the article, however inexpertly executed, was always to think about our collective activity – what we are doing and how we might do it better.

However, there was a point to the ‘subjectivism’ of the main part of the article. The reason why ‘Give up Activism’ was so concerned with our ideas and our mental image of ourselves is not because I thought that if we change our ideas then everything will be alright, but because I had nothing to say about our activity. This was very clearly a critique written from the inside and thus also a self-critique and I am still very much involved in ‘activist’ politics. As I made plain, I have not necessarily got any clearer idea than anyone else of how to go about developing new forms of action more appropriate to an ‘anti-capitalist’ perspective. June 18th was a valiant attempt to do just this, and ‘Give up Activism’ was not a criticism of the action on June 18th as such. I certainly couldn’t have come up with anything much better myself.

Although the piece is called ‘Give up Activism’, I did not want to suggest at all that people stop trashing GM crops, smashing up the City and disrupting the gatherings of the rich and powerful, or any of the other myriad acts of resistance that ‘activists’ engage in. It was more the way we do these things and what we think we are doing when we do them that I was seeking to question. Because ‘Give up Activism’ had little or nothing to recommend in terms of objective practical activity, the emphasis on the subjective made it seem like I thought these problems existed only in our heads.

Of course, thinking of ourselves as activists and as belonging to a community of activists is no more than a recognition of the truth, and there is nothing pathological in that. The problem I was trying to make clear was the identification with the activist role – being happy as a radical minority. I intended to question the role, to make people dissatisfied with the role, even while they remained within it. It is only in this way that we stand a chance of escaping it.

Obviously we are constrained within our specific circumstances. During an ebb in the class struggle, revolutionaries are in even more of a minority than they are in any case. We probably don’t have any choice about appearing as a strange subculture. But we do have a choice about our attitude to this situation, and if we come to ditch the mental identification with the role then we may discover that there is actually some room for manoeuvre within our activist role so that we can try and break from activist practice as far as we are able. The point is that challenging the ‘subjective’ element – our activist self-image – will at least be a step towards moving beyond the role in its ‘objective’ element also. As I said in ‘Give up Activism’, only with a general escalation of the class struggle will activists be able to completely ditch their role, but in the meantime: “to work to escalate the struggle it will be necessary to break with the role of activists to whatever extent is possible – to constantly try to push at the boundaries of our limitations and constraints.” Which was precisely the point of the article.

For if we cannot even think beyond the role now, then what hope have we of ever escaping it? We should at the very least be dissatisfied with our position as a radical minority and be trying to generalise the struggle and make the necessary upturn happen. Doing away with the activist mentality is necessary but not sufficient for doing away with the role in practice.

Up the Workers!
Although ‘Give up Activism’ neglected to recommend any actual change in behaviour outside of saying that we needed one, perhaps now it would be appropriate to say something about this. How can we bring ‘politics’ out of its separate box, as an external cause to which we dedicate ourselves?

Many of the criticisms of the direct action movement revolve around similar points. Capitalism is based on work; our struggles against it are not based on our work but quite the opposite, they are something we do outside whatever work we may do. Our struggles are not based on our direct needs (as for example, going on strike for higher wages); they seem disconnected, arbitrary. Our ‘days of action’ and so forth have no connection to any wider on-going struggle in society. We treat capitalism as if it was something external, ignoring our own relation to it. These points are repeated again and again in criticisms of the direct action movement (including ‘Give up Activism’ but also in many other places).

The problem is not necessarily that people don’t understand that capital is a social relation and that it’s to do with production as well as just banks and stock exchanges, here as well as in the Third World or that capital is a relation between classes. The point is that even when all of this is understood our attitude to this is still as outsiders looking in, deciding at what point to attack this system. Our struggle against capitalism is not based on our relation to value-creation, to work. On the whole the people who make up the direct action movement occupy marginal positions within society as the unemployed, as students or working in various temporary and transitory jobs. We do not really inhabit the world of production, but exist largely in the realm of consumption and circulation. What unity the direct action movement possesses does not come from all working in the same occupation or living in the same area. It is a unity based on intellectual commitment to a set of ideas.

To a certain extent ‘Give up Activism’ was being disingenuous (as were many of the other critiques making similar points) in providing all these hints but never spelling out exactly where they led, which left the door open for them to be misunderstood. The author of the critique in The Bad Days Will End! was right to point out what the article was indicating but shied away from actually mentioning: the basic thing that’s wrong with activism is that it isn’t collective mass struggle by the working class at the point of production, which is the way that revolutions are supposed to happen.

The sort of activity that meets the criteria of all the criticisms – that is based on immediate needs, in a mass on-going struggle, in direct connection to our everyday lives and that does not treat capital as something external to us, is this working class struggle. It seems a little unfair to criticise the direct action movement for not being something that it cannot be and has never claimed to be, but nevertheless, if we want to move forward we’ve got to know what we’re lacking.

The reason that this sort of working class struggle is the obvious answer to what we are lacking is that this is THE model of revolution that the last hundred years or so has handed down to us that we have to draw upon. However, the shadow of the failure of the workers’ movement still hangs over us. And if this is not the model of how a revolution might happen, then what is? And no one has any very convincing answers to that question.

A Vociferous Minority
So we are stuck with the question – what do we do as a radical minority that wants to create revolution in non-revolutionary times? The way I see it at the moment, we basically have two options. The first is to recognise that as a small scene of radicals we can have relatively little influence on the overall picture and that if and when an upsurge in the class struggle occurs it probably won’t have much to do with us. Therefore until the mythical day arrives the best thing we can do is to continue to take radical action, to pursue politics that push things in the right direction and to try and drag along as many other people as possible, but basically to resign ourselves to that fact that we are going to continue to be a minority. So until the point when some sort of upturn in the class struggle occurs it’s basically a holding operation. We can try and stop things getting worse, have a finger in the dam, try and strategically target weak points in the system where we think we can hit and have some effect, develop our theory, live our lives in as radical a way as possible, build a sustainable counter culture that can carry on doing these things in the long term… and hopefully when one day, events out of our control lead to a general radicalisation of society and an upturn in the class struggle we will be there ready to play some part and to contribute what things we have learnt and what skills we have developed as a radical subculture.

The flaw in this sort of approach is that it appears almost like another sort of ‘automatic Marxism’ – a term used to poke fun at those Marxists who thought that a revolution would happen when the contradictions between the forces and the relations of production had matured sufficiently, when the objective conditions were right, so that revolution almost seemed to be a process that happened without the need for any human involvement and you could just sit back and wait for it to happen. This sort of idea is a flaw carried over into ultra-left thinking. As is explained in The Bad Days Will End!, many ultra-left groups have recognised that in periods of downturn, they are necessarily going to be minorities and have argued against compensating for this with any kind of party-building or attempts to substitute their group for the struggle of the proletariat as a whole. Some ultra-left groups have taken this line of thinking to its logical conclusion and have ended up turning doing nothing into a political principle. Of course our response would not be to do nothing, but nevertheless, the point remains that if everyone similarly just waited for an upsurge to happen then it certainly never would. Effectively by just waiting for it to happen we are assuming that someone else will do it for us and maintaining a division between us and the ‘ordinary’ workers who will make this happen.

The alternative to this scenario is to stop thinking of the ebb and flow of the class struggle as like some force of nature that just comes and goes without us being able to effect it at all, and to start thinking about how to build class power and how to end the current disorganised and atomised state of workers in this country. The problem is that over the last twenty or so years, the social landscape of the country has changed so fast and so rapidly that it has caught us on the hop. Restructuring and relocation have fractured and divided people. We could try and help re-compose a new unity, instead of just being content with doing our bit and waiting for the upturn, to try and make this upturn happen. We will probably still be acting as activists, but to a lesser extent, and at least we will be making it more possible for us to abolish activism altogether in the future.

One way of doing this is suggested in the critique in The Bad Days Will End!:

“Perhaps, then, the first steps towards a genuine anti-activism would be to turn towards these specific, everyday, ongoing struggles. How are the so-called ‘ordinary’ workers resisting capitalism at this time? What opportunities are already there in their ongoing struggles? What networks are already being built through their own efforts?”5

A current example of exactly this sort of thing is the investigation into call centres initiated by the German group Kolinko, which is mentioned in The Bad Days Will End! and was also contributed to in the recent Undercurrent No. 8.6 The idea of this project is that call centres represent the ‘new sweatshops’ of the information economy and that if a new cycle of workers’ resistance is to emerge anywhere then this might just be the place.

It is perhaps also worth considering that changing circumstances might work to our advantage – the restructuring of the welfare state is forcing more and more activists into work. For example the call centre enquiry project mentioned above could represent a good opportunity for us as call centres are exactly the sort of places where people forced off the dole end up working and exactly the sort of temporary and transient jobs in which those involved in the direct action movement end up working also. This certainly could help make the connection between capitalism and our own immediate needs, and perhaps might allow us to better participate in developing new fronts in the class struggle. Or the increased imposition of work could just end up with us even more fucked over than we are at present, which is obviously what the government are hoping. They are attempting to both have their cake and eat it – trying to turn the clock back and return to days of austerity and privation while gambling that the working class is so atomised and divided by twenty years of attacks that this will not provoke a return of the struggle that originally brought about the introduction of these amelioration measures in the first place. Only time will tell whether they are to be successful in their endeavour or whether we are to be successful in ours.

In conclusion, perhaps the best thing would be to try and adopt both of the above methods. We need to maintain our radicalism and commitment to direct action, not being afraid to take action as a minority. But equally, we can’t just resign ourselves to remaining a small radical subculture and treading water while we wait for everyone else to make the revolutionary wave for us. We should also perhaps look at the potential for making our direct action complement whatever practical contribution to current workers’ struggles we may feel able to make. In both the possible scenarios outlined above we continue to act more or less within the activist role. But hopefully in both of these different scenarios we would be able to reject the mental identification with the role of activism and actively try to go beyond our status as activists to whatever extent is possible.

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PS: A critique of the anti-capitalist movement that J18 helped give birth to, can be read here: You Make Plans, We Make History

Today in London’s parklife, 1999: Crystal Palace eco-camp stormed by police

After the 1851 ‘Great Exhibition’, showcase for the British Empire, glamfest for capitalism, the entire glass “Crystal Palace”, which housed the Exhibition in Hyde Park, was dismantled and moved to a new permanent site on parkland at Sydenham in the south London suburbs. The area subsequently took its name from the building, and park and area became known as Crystal Palace. The destruction of the building by fire in 1936 left the top of the park still landscaped, with terraces and amazing views, but gradually this area fell into decline as it was left largely ignored.

The Park was built on the northern edge of what had previously, for centuries, been known as Penge Common, which had been enclosed in the 1820s after a protracted struggle over who owned it. Suffice to say, open space here has always been subject to struggle over its use – between landowners and peasants, between local communities and councils and corporate interests… [check out Martin Spence’s excellent ‘The Making of a Suburb: Capital Comes to Penge’, for more on the enclosure of Penge Common… and see pengepast]

Sixty years after the Crystal Palace burned down, the site was threatened by the local council of Bromley within whose borders the park lay, and who had taken over managing the park when the Greater London Council was abolished. Bromley proposed a wholly inappropriate development for the site – a 20-screen cinema multiplex with restaurants, bars and rooftop parking for a thousand cars, housed in a building, which was described by a local newspaper as having the appearance of an aircraft terminal.

This was no the first threat to the park – when the Crystal Palace Company went bankrupt in 1911, the whole park was due to be sold at public auction by Knight, Frank and Rutley. If that had taken place we would have had ranks of terraced houses instead of “a great, life-enhancing breathing space for south London”. There followed weeks of the protest; the subsequent sale led to the park being saved as open space.

A map of the park from the 1911 auctioneers’ brochure

In 1989 Bromley proposed the development of the site for hotel and leisure purposes, it culminated in the passing by the House of Commons of the Bromley London Borough Council (Crystal Palace) Act 1990, which limits development on the site.

In the late 1990s, Bromley Council’s plans to sell off the top end of South London’s Crystal Palace Park, to allow the development of a huge multiplex cinema complex, were widely opposed by locals.

The plans would have involved:

  • An 18 screen multiplex cinema 950′ long by 70′ high.
  • 9 eateries including fast food and takeaways.
  • 3 ‘leisure boxes’, contents to be decided by profit alone. Bowling alley? Video arcades?
  • Rooftop car parking for 950 cars.
  • Giant vehicle ramps on 3 sides of building.
  • Opening hours 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. 365 days a year.
  • Concrete tunnel entrance and roads in park.
  • Illuminated traffic signage.
  • Roads expanded to increase capacity.

A broadly based local Crystal Palace Campaign was formed by local residents and businesses, angered by the “monstrous edifice” which Bromley wished to impose on the landscape and the complete disregard for the site’s history.

Their objections included:

  • Loss of 12 acres of green open space, protected as Metropolitan Open Land.
  • Destruction of 200 trees.
  • Vast unsightly building, the size of 2 football stadiums, vehicle ramps, tunnel entrance and illuminated signage do not belong in a park.
  • Degradation of the historic site of the Crystal Palace, protected as Grade 2* listed historic park.
  • Noise, especially at night, with hundreds leaving at 2 a.m.
  • 17,000 vehicle movements each Saturday on narrow, Victorian residential streets, causing congestion and pollution. Traffic is the major cause of asthma in our children
  • Crime. Major leisure venues attract it.
  • Parking overflow. On-site provision is only 50% of what is needed.
  • Threat to local trade, leading to spiral of decline on the village high street.
  • Loss of village atmosphere. The surrounding area is a Conservation Area

There was virtually no local support for the development. The campaign held many meetings, demos, lobbies, etc., and led to strong legal challenges to the plans, including a High Court case, in London where the Crystal Palace Campaign sought judicial review of Bromley’s outline planning permission. The legal objection turned on the question of style. The Crystal Palace Act of 1990 stated that any building on the Park site should be “in the style and spirit of the former Crystal Palace”.

In parallel with this more orthodox campaign, an eco-protest camp was squatted in the threatened part of the park, in April 1998, by activists mainly drawn from the anti-roads movement, which had been growing throughout the 1990s and had been involved in high profile campaigns at Twyford Down, against the M11 in East London, and at Newbury… and many more…

The ‘Crystal Pallets’ camp remained occupied 24/7 for over a year, with treehouses and barricades built.

On 3rd March 1999, most of the camp was violently evicted by the police who arrived hidden in double decker buses lying down between the seats. We was there, in a tree.
Two protestors stayed in tunnels underground for three more weeks…

Here’s an account of the camp, from Earth First mag, Do or Die Issue 8.

Storming the Palace

Park Life in South London

Rising from flat suburban S. London and crowned with a huge 160ft television transmission tower, Crystal Palace Park boasts the tallest hill in the capital’s south. In one of London’s more surreal green spaces ornamental gardens, a football stadium, and geese covered lakes mix with grand stone staircases that go nowhere and 30ft hollow 19th Century metal dinosaurs.

This was the second site of the great exhibition in the last century, a celebratory extravaganza glorifying the power of the British Empire and its global reach. The vast glass palace which had held displays and artifacts from every corner of the world burnt down in the 1930s, ironically just as the Empire was beginning to face a re-emerging opposition in the Third World. All that remains now are piles of rubble, the odd column and the dinosaurs. Nineteenth century scientists misunderstood the bones they discovered so the monsters are hopelessly mis-shapen. Used in the Second World War as bomb shelters their main function now seems to be to create a bizarre backdrop for local kids to take drugs by moonlight. Already well established as a place of drama and weirdness, Crystal Palace seemed ideally suited for the direct action to come.

For three years locals had fought the local Councils plan to build a multiplex cinema but their legal campaign had got them nowhere. The multiplex will destroy the highest part of the park including the now wooded and wilded Palace foundation site. Following hot on the heels of the defence and eviction of a tree site in Kingston Park, it was almost by natural selection that the action site at Crystal Palace was established. So just after midnight on April Fools Day ’98 a crew of eighteen people (and two dogs) quietly reclaimed the site of the Palace.

The Rise of ‘Crystal Pallets’

By dawn we had tents, nets and squatting notices up, quickly followed by the first visit from the enemy who were politely told they were trespassing and could they fuck off and knock next time. It wasn’t long before the media circus arrived, fresh, alert and looking for Swampy. From day one the press and TV crews were invasive, seeking to dominate and exploit us while remaining aloof about their aims. With a degree of wisdom gained from our experiences maybe we can learn to control the media feeding frenzy by simply issuing statements whilst hand picking selective interviews.

Support from the local residents came quickly. For about three years their protest had failed, suddenly there was a new focus for their energies. People from all around this ancient hill top site arrived with food, clothes, shelter, tools, and mountains of pallets. If you haven’t been to a direct action site you won’t understand the sheer possibilities that lie in pallets. Nearly every structure, every treehouse, barricade and bender is made from them. The site was thus nicknamed ‘Crystal Pallets’.

Being a Sports Council site, no lottery cash could be thrown at the Palace, so the Tory council cooked up the old recipe of ‘regeneration’. Alarm bells woke up a dedicated band of local residents, who having exhausted their ‘democratic’ rights, accepted what they knew in their hearts was the only course of action left-the direct one.

Within six weeks a comfortable, if toxic, home for dozens was built. Toxic because after the Palace had burned down, the site was used to dump blitz rubble, resulting in an unusual concentration of lead in the soil. To add to this, the council had allowed flytipping including lots of asbestos! Anyway, back to the story. The support, both moral and material, continued to flood in. Surveys showing 85% local opposition to the development were the norm, and thousands were adding their names to petitions. Therefore it was no surprise to learn that Bromley Council were obstinately digging their heels in. They wanted these ‘filthy illegal squatters’ orf their land or…erm, they’d evict (surprise). Full moons came and went and with them, new direction, new impetus. According to the multiplex’s architect Ian Ritchie, ‘Building is an act of economic and cultural virility’

Mid-Summer Madness

Over the summer swathes of the Palace posse travelled, marched and danced to various parties/protests. The tour started from home on Beltane (May 1st), where spaced out goats played with the animals resident and visiting. Come the G8 Global street party on May 16th we put on our gladrags, tarted it up to the hilt and ‘ad it with them in Birmingham. The atmosphere in and around the sound system was fucking wild, fucking wicked, yet anyone near the upturned car won’t need reminding of the eerie intense few seconds as some lunatic attempted to set it on fire. A word of advice: Get the car near the pigs, not your family before you light the blue touch paper and retire. All day and night Birmingham had a electric air, resonant with the vibration of creative unified resistance.

With summer came the usual problems on site. Consumption of drugs increased and a mainly lunched out recycling program led to communal areas being spaces to avoid. In amongst the rats, flies, filth and beer cans, alcoholics flourish. Fighting authority takes sobriety.

Other things flowering and fruiting that summer were our fruit, veg, herbs and flowers. Attempting to work with a permaculture ethic, we harvested beans, tomatoes, courgettes, potatoes, nasturtiums, onions, blackberries and more I forgot. Establishing productive gardens can be as important as climbing up trees. Not everyone can live in trees but we can all look after plants. Rediscovering old skills for a brighter future.

Whilst the festivities all around were going on security was breached at the Palace three times or more. Firstly by the Police Forward Intelligence Team (FIT) who took the piss by storming onto site and filming this and demanding that. More vigilance was needed if the community was to keep the state off and be a true temporary autonomous zone.

Coupled with an influx of Babylon’s waifs and strays who took advantage of the welcoming atmosphere, site life took on a more strenuous and stressful atmosphere. During July thefts from site were happening, and regularly. Tools, money, even Tasmanian passports were going missing from under our noses. We have but ourselves to blame for not being a tight-knit crew.

These lapses, with ensuing witch hunts fuelled by paranoia, combined with the constant bombardment of microwaves from the TV mast meant focus and momentum was lost, and the days were noticeably getting shorter… and all the while Bromley Council were shuffling and squirming, issuing writs and threats. The camp decided to take the fight to them (you gotta raise the stakes). Having ignored three years of protest and the voices of all who lived there we decided a big fuck off party might change the perspective slightly.

The full moon on August 8th 1998 saw sound systems, over 500 people and as much stimulation as a person can shove up their nose hit the top ridge adjacent to the site.

The sun rose to a fantastic vibe, new friends, and a spotlessly clean aftermath heralded what was to be a noise-filled early Autumn. There was a ‘village fair’ which it must be said we lunched out, punk nights, more sound systems interwoven with regular candlelit vigils.

We knew as we entered into September the game had taken a new twist. The legal challenge by the liberal Crystal Palace Campaign was faltering- and badly. No surprise there (see Never Trust the Middle Classes box). The pagan festival of Samhain approached and the merry big band from Palace started to look inwards with thoughts of evictions.

Defenses that looked all Summer like they would remain fantasies took shape as we poured tonne after tonne of concrete on to madly unstable land.

The earth we walked for nearly a year was as it turned out perfect ground for our engineers of sketchy construction. As holes appeared and got deeper (digging spurred on by rumours of existing tunnel networks), from the surface rose Faulty Towers of scaffolding.

With more spikes than a punx picnic, more wired than any amphetamin assassin, the original damaged leaning tower of piss ‘eds increasingly dominated the landscape. Come eviction it was over forty foot high and well over 400 cans of Strongbow Super old. Memories of it still fresh bring smiles to faces.

With winter fast approaching, the debris on site both animate and inanimate was piling up. For some it was time to move off site and recuperate, for those living on site the need to party was never far away.

What do you do when the local redneck pub just up the road gets boarded up? Get sound systems and your mates and rock it that’s what. A posse quickly reclaimed it (obviously feeling very at home there), and caused the Council yet more headaches.

During those dark, dark nights around Winter Solstice actions were planned and carried out against the partnerships who wanted to develop the top ridge. Hitting multinationals is easy – they are everywhere, but faceless property developers like London and Regional Properties are more tricky. Owned by a Dutch company and based in an off-shore Guernsey bank account, these bastard wide boys were almost unreachable, suffice to say we knew where the directors lived.

Eviction Paranoia & Eviction Reality

With Yule came the first major eviction paranoia.The fear was based around unfinished defenses, oh, and the small matter of Bromley being granted an order to evict, at their leisure, with pleasure. We got our minds on the job in hand. Amazing dedication to the cause saw towers appear in all directions and as we entered the final year of the millennium rumours and counter-rumours did the rounds. Again!!

It seemed, paranoia aside, that it was possible and plausible that the Forces of Darkness would strike quickly after the New Year. With this in mind local residents dug deep for the umpteenth time to supply the crew with brew, and vegans with… whatever those funny people eat and drink.

It came to pass that definitely, for certain, 100% they were coming in on the 4th of January. Warnings were issued countrywide and a posse of around 70 people climbed up trees, went down tunnels or locked on and a vigil of around 40 locals anxiously waited from 6am to welcome the state.

Meanwhile at the Epsom site (see article’s end) around 300 police with double that number of security laid siege to the Silver Birches. They met fierce resistance from the sole occupier who moaned about being woken up. Game Over Epsom. Sigh of relief for Palace.

Gypsies paid us 20 per load so that they could dump tires on our site – which we used for defenses. Business flourished as did the barricades – shame about the wildlife. More Swampification by the corporate media, intent on highlighting tedious trivialities. When will we learn?

Storm clouds gathered over the hilltop as the daylight hours grew longer. Many nights and days were spent in various states of mind watching the natural light shows. We had it all there, from temperatures above 100f to downpours, lightning and double rainbows. Ain’t nature wonderful?

After Imbok (yet another pagan date for your diary), the eviction wind up got into gear with the barricading and trial runs happening at the 121 Squat centre just down the road in Brixton (see p. 132). Judging by appearances in February, many on site were starting to wish the eviction on themselves and who can blame them?

At the full moon on the third of March the state moved in to restore their order and repossess this most toxic of squats. People and defenses were readyish for the battle to commence. All through the night before people rushed about sorting out where the last minute drinks were being had. With dawn, there was the arrival of various substances and again lots of media. Whose fuckin’ eviction is this anyway!?

Up in the Faulty Tower our vantage point wasn’t great. Bloody trees were obscuring all the action but it was good enough to see over 350 cops storm in quickly, most in riot gear. Within ten minutes or so a lot of ground support was gone, people failing to get into lock-on positions in the chaos.

The massive operation brought all traffic to a grinding halt. Pensioners and school kids were unwittingly caught up in a military manoeuvre. A half hour into the eviction and the scale of it all was vividly apparent. Fearing a take over of the TV mast masses of pigs had gathered around it getting microwaved to fuck. I mean as if we would…

Fencing contractors ordered by Bromley to break the law duly obliged, fencing off a right of way, flouting the instructions of two High Court judges. Come nightfall that first day, one could only imagine what everyone else was feeling. Underground, up trees, locked on in holes or on your own up a 25 foot tower that had no shelter, no bedding and no food. Dedication to duty does not sum up feelings of admiration for the women and men, girls and boys, who time and time again put their arses on the line. Altruistic beautiful people every single one of ’em.

Evictions are to be enjoyed (if possible) and frankly we were having a giggle constantly baiting baby-faced coppers who couldn’t resist stroking saplings. By day two of the eviction twice as many security had either been arrested for shoplifting, stealing videos or for fighting as had been arrested on our side.

Most of the trees were cut down before nightfall and as we curled up that night, our thoughts were on our brothers and sitters in much more perilous positions than us. Up on the Faulty Tower we went to sleep knowing they were coming to get us – and soon. One of our lot, freezing cold and starving and without brew for two days was still refusing to get off what was a hugely significant strategic tower on top of a bunker. Babylon was duly unimpressed.

Things were getting very surreal. Police were giving us Mexican waves at sunrise. On day three they asked us to sing Happy Birthday to one of their mates.”Is that before you smash our skulls in and spray CS gas in our eyes – or after?” We didn’t bother.

After deliberating for some time they took out the tower quite swiftly. About five hours elapsed before it was finally cleared. This turned into a blessing for it enabled us up there to be re-united with the posse on the terraces just in time for us to witness a pissed chief druid/biker who thinks he’s King Arthur wobble then fall backwards tumbling down the bank. Monarchy – HA!

Typical post-eviction celebrations ensued, fully in the knowledge that three of our mates were still underground. Drinks were drunk for them, repeatedly! Unless having worked and lived underground it is difficult to comprehend the changes in your awareness. Days turned to weeks. On the eighth our Lancashire comrade emerged from his bunker after a butane bottle leaked underground.

Words aplenty have been spoken about the two naughty kids staying underground in their ten by six ft bunker for 19 days. By staying down they massively increased the cost of the eviction. They refused to speak either to the media, police or tunnel teams (see box to the right). This admirable show of no compromise, either with the state or spectacle should be found at evictions more often. Many of us could do a lot worse than following their good example.

The last bunker dwellers were taken off site nearly three weeks after the eviction had started, making Crystal Palace the longest eviction in British history. However, the fight wasn’t over, for a few faced prison on unrelated charges, one of whom after spending 19 days underground was banged up for a month using a 25 year old anti-union law. It just shows the extent of Babylon’s annoyance. I’m sure the 2 million eviction bill must have upset them a bit. Still, they bleeding started it.

So the complex Bromley have about the complex they want has not vanished. As we go to press Babylon is tied up in red tape of its own making. Many of us went back to our homes outside South London while other Palaceites have remained, living as a community squatting in Streatham. Whether still in the area or not we all valued the time and experiences our great Mother produced there. As did loads of residents who changed and adapted to the new climate (of resistance).

The zeitgeist seems to force more and more into taking action, and with each week new people join the hoards.

A Surreal Day In Epsom

It was the first working day of 1999. The headquarters of Shell had been occupied and the London Underground offices had been invaded in solidarity with tube strikers. At the same time around 70 of us had responded to an eviction scare at the Crystal Palace action camp.

Although the eviction alert turned out to be false alarm, we soon found out that whilst we had been waiting for the bailiffs to arrive the eviction at the Epsom anti-road/car park camp elsewhere in South London had begun. Energy and enthusiasm at the Crystal Palace camp was low and many people were reluctant to leave the site. However one vehicle left immediately hoping that security at Epsom would still be minimal and that they’d be able to get on site. Later, I jumped into a car with a few others. During the journey we received a call from the first van who warned us of the scale of the police presence and that the only person to have been at the camp when the eviction began had already been arrested and taken to court. We decided to continue but to go straight to the court to support the person who had been arrested. Arriving at one of the police road blocks stopping all ‘suspicious’ looking vehicles going into the town, we quickly became aware of the size of the police operation. After a brief delay we drove to the court building. It was from this point on that the day became increasingly bizzare.

The camp at Epsom was small with very few people living there and serious resistance to the eviction was unlikely. Despite this being obvious to the local police, whose headquarters were located directly opposite the camp, the scale of the security measures taken was phenomenal. Several hundred police and security surrounded the site whilst bailiffs and climbers cleared the trees and structures that had been built by those resisting the development. Their operation, however, stretched much further than the boundaries of the camp.

Shortly after being refused entry to the court building by five cops, an unmarked white van drew up, the side door opened and several members of the Metropolitan Police FIT team jumped out. They approached us immediately, addressing the person I was with by her first name. Slightly shocked our natural response was to get up and leg it. As we turned the first corner I noticed a person not in police uniform speak into their coat. He also began to chase us along with the two cops from FIT. They were all fairly unfit, so we managed to lose them quite easily. After hiding for a while behind a public toilet we ventured back out onto the High Street. There were cops on almost every street corner. We began walking back to the Court where, along with the person who’d been arrested, we bumped in to a few other’s who had been involved in the campaign.

Keen to find somewhere to get tea and chill out we left the court together. A van full of police in black boiler suits followed us slowly as a group of police photographers took pictures whilst some members of FIT attempted to strike up conversations. Keen not to lead a police convoy to the house of the friendly person who had offered us a room to relax we split up. A couple of people went back to the car we had arrived in, only to be followed by a police van, whilst others of us went into tourist shops to avoid the photographers. Undeterred FIT continued their harassment. Each of us was being tailed by two or three cops, one of whom had either a stills or video camera. Trying to minimise the number of pictures they could get of us we tried to use paper bags from a gift shop as make-shift masks.

It was clear that the cops following us were under instructions not to let us go anywhere without keeping us under observation. Perhaps the local police were expecting either a much larger response to the eviction alert, or for the few people who turned up at the site to attempt to re-occupy the camp or damage the machinery being used to clear the trees. Unfortunately there was no possibility of our being able to achieve either of these things. We called the person driving the car we had arrived in, arranged a meeting point and travelled back to Crystal Palace – followed, of course, by a van full of cops and several members of the FIT team. A truly bizzare day!

Power to the People’s Towers!

Right: During the eviction the Faulty Tower stood firm for two days. Building towers can be a very effective defence tactic in fighting developments. Left: In 1975 as part of the vast resistance to the building of the Toyko Airport at Narita, Japanese peasants built two 62 metre high towers. Standing at the end of the first runway the towers prevented the take off or landing of any planes. Tens of thousands defended the towers, masked up, wearing helmets and wielding pikes. ‘Surrounded by fields, gleaming emerald that day in the rain, the tower exuded strength. It’s steel girders, meshing and intermeshing like the joined arms of it’s defenders. As if the secret forces of the earth had come together to replenish the struggle of those pledged to defend it, against those who would spread the pall of death’-from Libero No.3 (Japanese Anarchist mag) 1976

Two Statements From The Bunker

1) For years politicians have been selling our future to multinational companies. Ordinary people are constantly excluded from decisions about their own environment. The only way for us to resist this is by direct action. Every day we remain, we cost them money, which makes the scheme less viable.

As anarchists we hope that by resisting this development, we will not only protect this historic site, but will move one step closer to a future in which neither politicians, nor business, but people themselves control every aspect of their own lives.

2) Contrary to some opinions, our action was not a media stunt but direct action. Our aim was to protect the site and hinder those who seek to profit from it’s destruction.

As anarchists we understand direct action to be the only way people are empowered, and real change achieved.There is no spectacle that the capitalist media could create that would do justice to the reality of the campaign, or the community that has grown from it. The collective action of this community is more important than any personality or individual efforts.As capitalist media cannot be expected to fairly represent any action that undermines the capitalist system, we will not be saying any more.

Never Trust the Middle Classes

“The treehouses are built, the tunnels dug and the small community is already on eviction alert. A world away, in the rarefied atmosphere of QC Anthony Scrivener’s Gray’s Inn chambers, barrister and Bromley resident Philip Kolvin [far right!] is leading his campaign of ‘professional resistance’ against the council.” (from the Trade magazine Estates Gazette, 20th February 1999.)

Kolvin’s Campaign (nicknamed Babylon’s Protest) purposefully set itself apart from the site, groups and locals involved in direct action, while simultaneously reaping the financial reward of the televised resistance. Mistakenly thinking they were giving money to the site many donated to the ‘campaign’ which instead went on countless fruitless legal manouevres. Money flooded in to the campaign coffers (30,000+) while those on site often went without food or basic action supplies – relying often on what they could skip and steal.

The last two eco-warriors left the tunnels on March 25th.

However, the time and cost of evicting the camp, fighting legal challenges etc, held development off for several years, to the point where in 2001, Bromley Council announced the collapse of the plan.

There’s lots of archived campaign material and history relating to the multiplex plans here

The future of the top of the Park remained a subject of local debate… Here’s a series of updated articles briefly detailing some of the negotiations and plans that have emerged since…

Various plans have come and gone since 2001. In 2003, plan for a modern building in glass was submitted to the Bromley council; ironically proposed by Philip Kolvin, campaigner against the multiplex, who was accused of being an opportunist and self-promoter…

In 2007, a £67 million master plan was drawn up by the London Development Agency which included the building of a new sports centre, the creation of a tree canopy to mimic the outline of the palace, the restoration of the Paxton Axis walkway through the park, but it also included a controversial proposal for housing on two parts of the park. It won government backing in 2010, and the plans were upheld by the High Court in 2012 after a challenge by the Crystal Palace Community Association.

The owners of Crystal Palace F.C. announced plans to relocate the club back to their original home (now the site of the National Sports Centre) from their current Selhurst Park home; this also never happened.

In 2013, a plan to build a replica of the destroyed Crystal Palace was proposed by a Chinese developer. Bromley Council however cancelled the exclusivity agreement with the developer in 2015.

More recently, the running of the park is to be taken over this year from Bromley by the Crystal Palace Park Trust, an independent community trust. As the history of the community’s relations has shown, ‘public’ ownership of space, as with other ‘assets’ has a long and chequered history. ‘Public’ bodies nominally under ‘our’ control do not always manage space, housing, health, (etc) in anything like the interests of ‘the public’. And what is the public? A catch-all term that obscures the vast variety of competing and struggling interests that we are enmeshed in…

We will have to see how ‘community’ control of the Park pans out… as ‘community’, like ‘public’, is a term that can cover a multitude of sins. ‘Community’ management can reflect a narrow caste imposing their vision of a space, or can genuinely encompass how splintering ideas and alternative needs intersect.

Open space is often a zone of contestation. Open spaces all over England have been the focus of dispute and struggle for a thousand years. Apart from everyday uses – in medieval times collecting firewood, grazing animals; later drying clothes, recreation, sports, just walking or hanging out – apart from providing space for everyone, often they were gathering places for the outcast and for rebellious or radical mobs, or places for illicit sex. The poor, the outcast, the sexually promiscuous or unlawful, the homeless, have faced numberless attempts to exclude them by better off residents or City authorities, including campaigns to end rowdy and troublesome fairs, build on ‘wastelands’, enclose ‘unproductive’ commons and marginalise the already precarious, to fence off squares, arrest and drive out beggars, prostitutes (or women simply labelled as such), gays (in centuries when gay sex was illegal and punishable by death), the homeless, etc. The authorities saw open spaces as centres of disorder, immorality; by the 19th century po-faced social reformers had come to see open and unorganised space as immoral in itself, leading to the landscaping of ‘wasteland’, the creation of properly laid out parks – a process which was thought to have a civilising effect on the people who used it.

These conflicts have not gone away – from the restrictive bylaws of the parks to modern control orders, parts of the ‘community’ and the ‘public’ clash constantly over how space is used, respectability and unruly… Echoing also the largely middle class legal campaign against the Crystal Place multiplex and the uneasy alliance with the activist hippy riot of the eco-camp; anti-enclosure struggles historically also often had their legalistic and riotous sides (as at nearby One Tree Hill…) Which in reality both generally contributed to spaces being saved, but was not always the end of the dispute over what the space should BE.

Also – we kind of LIKE the top of Crystal Palace Park wilder and unmanaged; landscaping that had gone to seed, weeds growing over the terraces… Wilderness, re-wilding of Victorian strait-lacedness… The camp too was like another new world being half-built and struggling to emerge (though it had its problemos)… No to multiplexes in parks, yes, but also no to every park being planned and mowed…

Martin Spence, in talking about the enclosure of Penge Common, has thrown up a question about ‘commons’ – if we posit a new commons, shared collective inheritance for us all (echoing the vision of shared traditional use of the land on the old ‘commons’) – what should that consist of? Can our shared use of open space be expanded into a ‘commons’? Commons traditionally were also venues for struggle BETWEEN users, between parishes as well as between classes.

We need a new commons… based not in the past but in the future. The main thing to take from the numberless struggles to preserve open space is that people won because they considered the places they were defending to be theirs, to belong to them, even when that stood in opposition to the legal ‘reality’… Although sometimes relying on those traditions and common rights as the basis for legal argument didn’t work, often when it formed the backbone for direct action and a collective campaigning approach, this sense of the commons being ‘ours’ could overcome all the power of law, profit and parliament. This is a lesson worth taking when we think about how we view open space: although we can take many inspirations from our history, reliance on the past can not be a defence, we need to be re-forging a sense that the resources of the world are for all of us, for people’s enjoyment, not for the profit of a few.

We need to be redefining what is ours, collectively, in opposition and defiance of the laws and fences built to exclude us; and not just when it comes to green or urban space, but for the whole world. In the midst of 21st century London, a whirlwind of global profit, backed by a government with a determined ruling class agenda, is uprooting communities, altering the landscape, destroying or severely hamstringing any right to social housing, welfare, health, education, for increasing numbers of us.

 

Today in London educational history, 1999: Occupation at Goldsmiths against tuition fees

Part of Goldsmiths College, New Cross, was occupied 26th February – March 5th 1999. 300 students took over college admin building, after eight students were expelled because they couldn’t pay £1000 a year tuition fees that had been imposed on them. A court granted the college an eviction order, but the occupying students refused to leave till the eight reinstated. A few weeks previously, students had held a demonstration, blocking New Cross Road outside, over same issue.

The occupiers wanted the letters of expulsion to be replaced by advice on funding for the fees from the university authorities.

The students also called for a commitment from the college that “no student should be excluded due to an inability to pay fees” and that the student union should be informed 10 days before a letter of expulsion is sent to a student.

The protest drew the solidarity of many folk outside the College, including Comedian Rob Newman, who performed a free show within the occupied building at Goldsmiths, attended by 500 students, and bands Silver Sun and Jolt, who played gigs there in support.

The occupation ended on March 5th, after a meeting of students on the Friday evening, following the High Court order. Student leaders claimed the occupation as a victory, saying that the threat of expulsion for non-paying students had been lifted, and that the university authorities promised better communication with the students’ union in future.

The Goldsmiths’ protest was part of a wave of occupations at universities including Oxford, Sussex and University College London.

Looking for ways to promote further protests in the autumn, a national conference of students involved in protests against the fees was held and a “think-tank” – the Education Funding Society – was set up to develop arguments against the principle of charging fees. Goldsmiths students also published a ‘Rough Guide to Occupations’.

Many of the 1999 student protestors come from the generation of young people who were first-time voters in the New Labour landslide election victory of 1997, but who now questioned the government’s commitment to well-funded education system.

“I voted Labour to get out the Tories, but they haven’t made enough use of their majority. They had the entire country behind them, but they didn’t push up spending in education as much as they could,” said the union’s finance officer, Denis Fernando.

The students argue not only that the current levying of fees will deter the less-advantaged from entering higher education, but there is a long-term move towards a two-tier university system.

They claimed that in future fees would rise, particularly in the most successful universities, so that access to the most sought-after places would depend as much on money as ability; and that the downgrading of the principle of free tuition would see a move towards greater involvement of private finance in higher education, with a business-sponsored private university sector emerging.

The 1999 anti-fees protests proved to be foresighted, as tuition fess were raised across the board and increased massively. The 1999 occupations foreshadowed the much larger student agitation of 2010-111, which saw hundreds of occupations and massive demos which led to fighting with the police, the takeover of the Tory HQ at Millbank, a run-in with prince Charles…

A few days after the Goldsmiths occupation ended, another college occupation started, at Camberwell College of Art (a couple of miles away), in protest at lack of tutors, equipment, space, grants and hours of access, college management used various methods to harass them, including bogus fire alarms, threats to prosecute, turning off heating & hot water. 8 students involved were later taken to court by the College authorities.

Goldsmiths was also occupied several times in 2009-2010 during the mass student agitation against tuition fees… in 2013 and 2015

and more recently, in 2019 there was the Goldsmiths Anti Racist occupation

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An entry in the 2015 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the 2015 London Rebel History Calendar online

 

 

Today in London’s anarchist history, 1993: Leah Feldman, veteran of the Russian Revolution, cremated

A Rebel Spirit (obituary of Leah Feldman)

Albert Meltzer

Leah (Leila) Feldman, who was cremated at East London in the presence of some fifty comrades from DAM, ABC, Black Flag and the feminist movement, on January 7th 1993, was a history lesson in herself. She merits more than an obituary.

She was born (she always said) in Warsaw around 1899. Her British passport says she was born in Odessa, but in view of her problems through life, she must have had many occasions to “change” birthdays, names, birthplaces and nationalities. The problems faced by a woman just in travelling independently in the old days were immense, apart from her anarchist activities. While she was still a schoolgirl she become interested in anarchism (her mother used to hide her shoes so that she could not attend meetings, then illegal). Finally she ran away to her sister in London to earn her own living at the sewing machine.

Working in the sweatshops of the East End, she become active in the Yiddish-speaking anarchist movement that flourished at the time and vanished. She was possibly the last survivor of that Jewish workers’ movement. When the Russian Revolution was thought to have come about and the army was in rebellion the overwhelming majority of Russian Jewish male anarchists, who had resisted conscription up to then, joined up to return to Russia. The women Anarchists had a more difficult problem – many with husbands or companions who were able to go back, arranged to follow later but that was the last they heard of their menfolk, overtaken by the triumph of Bolshevism. This Jewish (in the sense they used, neither racial nor religious but language) anarchist movement, gradually dwindled away over the years. A few remaining males survived until the early fifties, and the women, often married into English dockers’ families, ended with Leah so far as this country is concerned.

Leah, however, independently made her own way back, a tremendous task. Viewing Russia from the train, a comrade jestingly remarked she was like Madame Butterfly watching for her lover (we played “One Fine Day” at her funeral, and also Paul Robeson singing the equally appropriate “Joe Hill”). Unfortunately it was no fine day and Leah, as a working woman, was one of the first to see what would be the effects of Bolshevism, something one [none] of the intellectuals who visited could see.

She attended Kropotkin’s funeral, the last permitted anarchist demonstration before the long dark night (they stole the flowers from Lenin’s tribute in the House of the People, but all those paroled from prison for the day returned to jail).

Leah left Moscow to join Makhno’s army in the Ukraine (perhaps that was when she decided she was born in Odessa), which fought into the last against Tsarism, Bolshevism, the Social Democratic oppression and foreign intervention. She was one of a number of Jewish Anarchists who were living testimony to the lie started by the Soviet historian Yaroslavsky and accepted by academics universally (including many encyclopaedists copying each other) about Makhno’s pogroms. Though she did not actually fight, as a few women (who could ride horseback) did, she joined the train that followed the army and prepared clothes and food for the orphans and strays they picked up everywhere. For the rest of her life she was to follow the pattern of behind-the-lines support for revolutionary action.

When the army was defeated, Leah took advantage of one ‘privilege’ offered to women – she changed nationality by a formal marriage to a German anarchist, and left the country. They did not meet again. She made her way to Paris and then back to London. She still wanted to travel and was involved with the Anarchist movement in many countries. She was however tied by her German “marriage” once she had left Russia, but was later free to contract another formal marriage to a British ex-serviceman, named Downes. In a deprecating obituary in ‘Freedom’, which takes into account only her selling of ‘Freedom’ during and a few years after the war, it is said he was her lover. This is rubbish. He was a derelict, like many wounded old soldiers after 1918, found for her by Charles Lahr and paid £10 for his services, lent by the Workers’ Friend group and repaid by Leah over a period. (Typically, Charlie joked that to find a real husband would cost a lot more). They never met again until Leah found by official communication her ‘husband” was in a geriatric hospital and she used to visit with presents of tobacco. When she was abroad, Polly Witcop (sister of Milly Rocker and Rose Witcop) undertook the visits for her.

Leah visited both Poland and mandated Palestine once she was a British citizen, working her way to both places. In Palestine she organised a federation of Anarchists, mostly old friends from the old country. One surprise was her old friend Paula Green, who had been pressurised into marriage in Russia, so had decided on an atheistic Socialist-Zionist with whom she was in love. Forced into exile he had obviously chosen (Ottoman) Palestine. Paula knew he was into active Socialist politics but thought it as impossible he would ever be in government as he thought her ideas impossible. Green changed his name to Ben Gurion, and after 1945 become Prime Minster. His wife did not leave him but did not take part in any public activities, and the whisper in Socialist-Zionist circles was that she was mad and could not be taken on an official platform. (‘Because he becomes the baker do you have to be the baker’s wife?” Leah asked her back in 1935, ten years before Paula faced the final humiliation as Premier’s wife though a still believing if passive anarchist, getting the reply, with a shrug, “So what do I get but the smell of the bakery?”).

Eventually Leah decided there was nothing she could do in Palestine and returned to London at the end of 1935 when I met her for the first time. She helped raise finance for the German sailors who organised a resistance group in the thirties, and took a tremendous part in activities for the Spanish movement when the civil war broke out. I used to go to her flat in Lordship Park (Stoke Newington) and hump great parcels of food and clothing which she had collected from her fellow fur machinists. She could never understand why I could “only raise pennies among my friends when she raised pounds” and never appreciated I was still at school, which for some obscure reason I was somewhat abashed at mentioning in then mostly ageing anarchist circles.

She took part in the selling of “Freedom” after the war and still thought of it as Kropotkin’s paper until her death, but a lot of people made that mistake. She could never understand in later years why they persistently ignored her except when she gave them money, and never visited her when she was ill, but the truth was they resented her criticism that Kropotkin intended it for the Anarchist movement not for a few cronies of one man who had seized control. When “Black Flag” come along she supported it equally always saying to me, “How is it that the people in this group are so different from the Freedom Group?” – I always answered “Because they’re Anarchists” but I fear she didn’t want to hear that.

Leah was associated with Spanish women anarchists in a joint working collective of different Anarchist women in Holborn (London) with Marie Goldberg, Suceso Portales and others, ever since 1939. How, with the confusion of tongues, broken English, Yiddish, Polish, bits of French, Spanish and Catalan, Indian-English of one and broad Scots of another, plus the total lack of verbal communication of two Cypriot women, one Greek and the other Turkish, they could ever have understood each other was a mystery to many, but they made up for it in volume, and maybe that’s how new languages are born. (The postman once said to me on the stairs, ‘I can never work out what nationality those ladies are – they told me they come from somewhere in Anarchy but Christ knows where that is.”) Leah had to give up work when her eyesight went after an operation (she was blind in one eye thereafter and increasingly so in the other),

She wanted to give aid to the Spanish Resistance in spite of all, and during the turbulent sixties, with the International First of May Movement, helped in taking care of the armoury, even taking it with her luggage into Spain. She was known affectionately by Catalans, always prone to giving nicknames, as “la yaya (granny) Makhnowista”.

In her seventies she revisited Warsaw in a vain attempt to find her relatives. A Polish journalist took her round as she refused to believe everything and everybody in the ghetto had vanished. “Maybe the neighbours know something,” she said and they had to show her visual proof that the neighbourhood had been flattened, the Polish inhabitants dispersed and scarcely one of the Jewish residents remaining anywhere in Poland other than those who had come in after the war. Presumably this episode appeared on local TV or radio as the journalist took enormous trouble in convincing her of the reality.

Her last years were sad. Not only were all her family and early friends dead, there was nobody left to whom she could even talk in her own language. She still supported anarchist meetings and went on holiday independently but in the last years of her life accompanied by Margaret, Jessica, Peter, Terry from Black Flag. One of us used to take her to the annual Anarchist Book Fair whenever her health permitted – she always sat at the Freedom Press stall in the hope of meeting some of the people she knew in Freedom who only appeared on the scene that day of the year, if at all, stubbornly refusing to admit it was now quite a different ball game.

As she got increasingly deaf and almost totally blind, she had to surrender some of her cherished independence and allow people to do things for her. She became paranoiac, argumentative and even aggressive in her nineties, after a series of horrendous street accidents, feeling her best friends were trying to kill her by driving cars or motorbikes straight at her, The fact that these dedicated young people still persevered week after week looking after her, being fond of her, and remembering all she had done in the past, says a lot for them especially, in addition to those already named, the feminists Ann and Cathy, and DAM people like Ken and Helen.

George Cores said that “most of the work that was done (in building the Anarchist movement) was due to the activities of working men and women, most of whom did not appear as orators or writers in printed papers”. Cathy and Margaret, and our late comrade Leo Rosser, obtained in a series of interviews, and a video, notes of her life which have been transcribed but are voluminous though chronologically jumbled. We hope that these can be edited into a coherent volume, which will be well worth publishing, far more so than the oft-repeated hagiographies of the ‘secular saints’ of the movement in the past. [Not sure is this ever got done? -Past Tense ed.]

Nicked from KSL: Bulletin of the Kate Sharpley Library No. 4, 1993.

There’s a short interview from 1985 with Leah here (conducted by Black Flag’s Leo Rosser, another we’ve lost…)

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An entry in the 2020 London Rebel History Calendar – buy a paper copy here

Check out the 2020 London Rebel History Calendar online

 

The Silvertown Tunnel can be prevented – like the East London River Crossing back in the 1990s

Climate Change – the most pressing issue of our times; Global crisis that demands global solutions. Declarations of a climate emergency by councils or governments are all very well – but the profits of big business depend on continuing destruction of the natural world and exploitation of its resources, as well as mass exploitation of people. A global solution can only be based on LOCAL action, local change, from the grassroots.

In East London, locals are opposing the planned building of a new Thames river crossing which will increase pollution, congestion and emissions. Transport for London proposes to build the Silvertown Tunnel road tunnel under the Thames, from the Greenwich Peninsula to the Royal Docks, under the river, just to the east of the A102/Blackwall Tunnel.

TfL say East London needs a new river crossing to relieve the over-congested Blackwall Tunnel. But building new roads only attracts new traffic, resulting in higher emissions and more pollution. The building of the second Blackwall Tunnel in the late 1960s saw traffic double within a year – its new approach roads were jammed within a decade. The M25 keeps filling up each time it’s widened. The Silvertown Tunnel would be no different.

It’s true that the Blackwall tunnels are regularly rammed and even shut due to congestion, with queues of vehicles backed up as far as the Sun in the Sands roundabout in the morning… And halfway up to Leyton in the evening… But adding more lanes only opens up for more traffic…

Air quality around the A102 and its approach roads on both sides of the Thames already breaks legal limits, putting locals’ health at risk, especially children. The effects of poor air contributes to the deaths of hundreds of local people; children who grow up near polluted roads have their lungs damaged for life. The solution to transport problems is better public transport, not more roads and more cars.

At best, the Silvertown Tunnel will be an expensive waste of money. At worst, it’ll blight the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

But it doesn’t have to be this way: local people have prevented such disastrous roads being built before. The A102 itself is a legacy from the failed London Ringway proposal, a plan to encircle London with urban motorways – fought off in the 1970s by angry residents. [Interestingly for those as remember the 1996 Reclaim the Streets party on the motorway – the M41 in Shepherds Bush, squatted for this event, is the only other part of the Ringway apart from the A102 that ever actually got built…]

And just downriver from where the Silvertown Tunnel is proposed today, the East London River Crossing was defeated in the 1990s.

Originally scheduled in the 1980s, the River Crossing faced opposition from the start. It faced the longest Public Inquiry ever held into a road scheme; an inquiry 194 days; the transcripts of the proceedings contained 9.5 million words!

Planned to run across the river from Beckton through Greenwich and Eltham, to link the A2 and A13, plans for the new road would have meant bulldozing through some beautiful southeast London woodlands, including the 8000 year-old Oxleas wood, and Shepherdleas wood, Woodlands Farm, and demolishing several hundred homes in Plumstead. Government policy at the time involved a massive new roadbuilding program – developers and some local authorities strongly supported the scheme.

In the words of one of the organisers against the scheme,the odds against stopping it were getting bigger all the time. To achieve victory, a concerted strategy was needed to make Oxleas Wood a big issue locally and give it wider significance – a strategy to make it a symbol of the environmental damage that the road programme was causing and a rallying point for the environment movement. If that could be done, then, given Oxleas Wood’s proximity to Westminster, it might force the Government to back down rather than risk confrontation with a united community and environment movement, in its own “back yard”.

As ancient woodland Oxleas Woods had survived in all its beauty and peace for over 8000 years and now, in the space of a year or so, it was to be decimated in the name of progress. 900 year-old trees and a vast array of rare flora and fauna were to be destroyed to provide drivers with a faster route between the City of London, East and South East London.

Many hundreds of years previously the 77 hectare site had been gifted to the citizens of London as a leisure area “to enjoy for perpetuity”. Oxleas was one of the capital city’s last remaining sizeable green spaces and in some respects acted as the lungs of London. It has been described as “the last remaining part of the pre-historic great forest of London”. People from all walks of life benefited from Oxleas – playing children, nature lovers, hikers and dog-walking adults, from the poorest communities in London in enormous social housing estates in Kidbrooke to the middle classes of Eltham and Shooters Hill.

‘Like all the best campaigns we fought on every level. There were letter-writing stalls at the popular Greenwich market, politicians were systematically lobbied and a well-presented public transport alternative was drawn-up. We organised an “Adopt-a- Tree” scheme; the aim here was to get every tree in Oxleas Wood adopted. As well as bringing in funds and publicity, it would give supporters a real stake in the campaign. And if the worst came to the worst we could invite tree adopters to turn up to defend their tree.

In order to make Oxleas a “line in the sand” for the environment movement, we got some of the large environmental non-government organisations (for example the Wildlife Trusts and World Wide Fund for Nature) to take part in an Oxleas Strategy Group. This helped lock them into a campaign that was ultimately run by local people, but which made the best use of the resources of the national campaigns.

A couple of legal lines of last resort helped propel the campaign into the national news. The Government had failed to carry out an Environmental Impact Assessment for the scheme, as required by European Community law. The heroic European Commissioner for the Environment, Carlo Ripa di Meana, took up this complaint causing Prime Minister Major to hit the roof and interrupt a Commonwealth conference to condemn the EC’s action. The complaint was never seen through by the EC, but the publicity was invaluable, as was that which resulted from a High Court case where the “Oxleas 9” (nine local people) put their assets on the line to take the Department of Transport to court over their failure to provide adequate land in exchange for the damage to Oxleas woods. The case was lost, but Oxleas had caught the public imagination and the pressure on the government was intensifying.

Meanwhile, campaigners were preparing for the worst. A “Beat the Bulldozer” pledge was launched, with the aim of getting 10,000 people to pledge to be there if the bulldozers went in. With the TV pictures of direct action at Twyford Down fresh in their minds, as well as the vivid pictures we had painted of what would happen if they violated Oxleas Wood, the Government backed down.”

In the end, the pressure of the campaign paid off. In July 1993, the government withdrew the plans. The River Crossing was abandoned, unbuilt.’

The East London River Crossing was a turning point: part of, and helping to inspire, a growing movement against the government’s road building program. Community campaigns, protest camps, occupations and sabotage resisted roadbuilding at Twyford Down, against the M11, at Newbury, among many others. Mass resistance led to the whole roads program being cancelled by the New Labour government in 1997. Acting together – WE CAN WIN.

Check out the Stop Silvertown Tunnel Coalition on twitter: @SilvertownTn

More info on Silvertown Tunnel campaign: https://silvertowntunnel.co.uk/

Pagans and magick folk played a significant part in the fight against the East London River Crossing in the 1990s – check out this account

What was really great to see was the local Extinction Rebellion action against the proposed Silvertown tunnel this year. There have been many criticism of XR (our post on Reclaim the Streets, XR and more here has some thoughts) – but this was practical and pressing action, addressing the burning issues on the ground and in daily life… A good step forward.

The Silvertown Tunnel has now been approved for go ahead… But this does not mean the struggle is over! The story of the East London River Crossing and the Saving of Oxleas Wood shows the show ain’t over if we get our act together…

Some reflections on local anti-fascist struggles in South London in 1991

Some reflections on local anti-fascist struggles in South London in 1991…

In July 1991 the far right British National Party stood Steve Tyler as a candidate for a council by-election in Brunswick Ward. Much of this ward consisted of the large and run down Elmington Council estate, in Camberwell. The BNP campaign was vigorously opposed by an alliance of local anti-fascists, left groups, Anti-Fascist Action, supported by local residents including a number of squatters; however, the BNP did manage to march in force around the estate.

At the time the Elmington was in a somewhat dilapidated state; Southwark was (and still is) one of the poorest boroughs in London. The estate had large numbers of empty flats, and a large population of squatters, as did many of Southwark’s estates (it was thought to be the most heavily squatted borough then, at a time when London’s squatting population was variously estimated at 20-30,000). Much of the estate was in disrepair. The Estate housing officer, Rachel Webb, was a well-known leftwing activist, who was also a Labour councillor in neighbouring Lambeth at the time [She was, if I recall right, one of the remaining councillors from ‘Red” Ted Knight’s administration of the early 1980s, the majority of who had been disbarred and banned from standing to be councillors again, over the Rate Capping battle against the Thatcher government… a group alleged to be an entrist faction of trotskyites originating in the Socialist Organiser group].

The BNP campaign was partly aimed at attacking Rachel Webb, as a known leftwing activist, and also Southwark’s Labour council, and at targeting squatters living on the estate. A BNP election leaflet ran: “ [Rachel Webb] is more interested in evicting white residents for being ‘rascist’ than in evicting the drunken and drugged up squatters that infest our estates.”

A candidate for council elections needed ten sponsors from the council electoral ward in question. Anti-fascists later obtained the list of Tyler’s sponsors; not all lived on the estate. But there was a group of white residents with BNP sympathies and more, who lived on the Elmington. This group was linked to racist attacks on the estate: dogs had been set on local black kids; black families had their windows bricked; passers by had been hassled by a group of 20 white kids in combat gear.

“Squatter scum off our estate” graffiti was painted up around the estate at the time.

It’s possible that Charlie Sargent, later supremo of BNP splinter hooligan firm Combat 18, lived on the Elmington at the time – he was officially living there a couple of years later. Tyler, himself was a long-standing BNP activist and perennial candidate, who stood in general elections in nearby Bermondsey several times in the 1990s.

At the time BNP were doing regular paper sales in East Street in Walworth, and the ‘Blue’ market in Bermondsey, and saw this area of South London as having potential for recruitment; disillusioned working class residents living in poverty were seen as a good recruitment pool; ‘lefty’ Labour councils were easy meat, and migrants, especially black people, loudly blamed for the myriad social problems.

The BNP campaign was opposed by a number of groups, including the South London branch of Anti-Fascist Action [which your author was then active in]. We took the position you have to oppose any fascist presence as it was clearly shown to directly or indirectly lead to racial attacks increasing (as in Welling and Thamesmead at the time) – even if electorally they were not really likely to win, or even come close. We did a lot of leafleting of the ward, and talking to local people. Crucially, some of the South London AFA group lived on the estate or in the wider area, though the majority lived across South London (many in nearby Brixton).

Leafletting and talking to residents received a mixed, though largely positive, response. If some people hated squatters and others were racist, many were also ex-squatters or hated Nazis. On one memorable occasion someone put an anti-fascist leaflet through a door and a large west indian man came running out of the flat with a hammer, then did a double take and looked closer at leaflet in his hand and went ”oh, ANTI fascist action…” !

BNP leafletters weren’t as open as us, preferred to do publicity at 2 o’clock in the morning. They also didn’t attack our rally or public meeting, a favourite tactic of theirs elsewhere in those times.

The anti-fascists held one rally on the estate. Anti-Fascist Action also organised a public meeting in the Walmer Castle Pub on Peckham Road (now defunct), which turned into a disastrous squabble between lefty factions, all turning up to spout their own political line on fascism, slag each other iff, slag us off, and generally offer nothing practical. Any non-aligned locals turning up were generally bemused by the maze of initials, groupuscules and counter-claims, and the bitter shouty row that the meeting descended into.

Some other left groups, plus some Southwark councillors (eg Ian Driver) were involved in the opposition to the BNP; other groups, like the Socialist Workers Party, informed us that small fascist groups were a distraction from the real issues facing the working class, and that Anti-Fascist Action were fighting an irrelevant enemy, the real danger in terms of racism being the state structures, police, etc. This was a line the SWP had been taking pretty much since the party hierarchy closed down the Anti-Nazi League in the early 1980s; while it is true that institutional racism is more powerful and pervasive than small fascist parties, the threat that black people, migrants and other groups faced from racist attacks is very real, and demands resistance. Not long after this the SWP would totally reverse their position, and set about reforming of the Anti Nazi League, which, while making a lot of noise and seeking and gaining widespread publicity, was generally about as much of a threat to the Nazis as a slightly deceased rabbit.

The coalition of anti-fascists organised one local march against the BNP; the BNP in fact themselves staged a march, of about 70 skins and assorted swivel-eyes (mostly imported from outside the area) round the estate, on July 20th, a few days before election day. This demo became a bit of a sore point later. It was not publicised in advance – unsurprisingly, as the BNP were afraid that opposition could be rallied and the march could be blocked, attacked or possibly even banned by the cops. Anti Fascist Action had had word that the march was going to take place, but most of the South London AFA group on the ground were not informed very much in advance until it was realistically too late to organise much opposition. We could do very little to oppose them marching (although their transit did get its windows bricked on the day). The day of the march consisted mostly of running around chasing shadows and rumours, not an untypical day out where anti-fascist activity was concerned… Anti-fascists went into the nearby Orange Tree pub on Havil Road, which was a bit of a mistake, as the reception was not too friendly, seemingly because there were some black people in the anti-fascist group. Ho hum.

A Picket was held outside Southwark Town Hall during the election count on July 25th. Police heavily protected the nazis at the count, and Steve Tyler barely put in an appearance, so we didn’t get near them, but the day did end in a fight – farcically, this barney was between two of the anti-fascist picketers, as some were local squatters, while another was one Steve Willis, the housing officer from Peckham’s Friary Estate, whose favourite hobby at the time was going round kicking in squatters’ doors and evicting them illegally.

Meanwhile the BNP’s Tyler got 132 votes, which was quite a high vote for a lunatic fringe candidate in a council by-election. This turnout, on top of their largely unopposed march and foray into an area not generally thought of as BNP material, reflected something of a minor coup for the fash.

Shortly afterwards, some dodgy white residents on the Elmington estate, who were strongly suspected of being among those who backed the BNP, burgled a couple of squatters who were heavily involved in the AFA activity: the squatters decided the wisest course to move on…

After all this estate housing officer Rachel Webb did try to evict some of the people who’d signed the BNP list; which was something that divided the anti-fascists, an Official state-backed anti-fascism seemed to us to be playing into the hands of the BNP’s ‘oppressed white people’ narrative’. It seemed to us that local dissatisfaction with the Labour Council’s neglect of the estate had partly helped open the door to the BNP; some of us felt anti-fascism was not enough really, it had to be linked to opposing the council’s running down of the area.

The BNP presence was not however massively sustained and built on, as they never stood for election again.

What we should have done?

There was some talk afterwards about setting up an anti-fascist group local to the area, one that specifically also would take on the problems that were making some people susceptible to supporting the BNP, including crap housing, poverty etc, but one that would also challenge racist and scapegoat solutions aimed at dividing people on the basis of colour, or splitting tenants from squatters. Our thought was that the deprivation and disrepair that the Elmington was experiencing were in part causing some to fall into the Nazis arms, and especially to blame squatters, and in some cases black residents, for the poverty and misery of life there…

Allying with Labour and especially Labour councillors, in the struggle against the BNP during the election, we thought, may have been something of a mistake, given the Labour council’s image as being at least partly to blame for the state of the housing… We became identified with the people residents directly dealt with, complained to, and in the end blamed. Not a good tactic.

However, these discussions came to nothing, as discussions often do, partly because the individuals active in our group, who lived on the estate, mostly squatting, were burgled shortly after, by neighbours who we think had links to the BNP, and didn’t feel safe staying there any longer, partly because there were other political struggles going on (eg the anti-poll tax movement was kind of winding down but non-payers and rioters were still being targetted and sent to prison…)… also other anti-fascist things were kicking off, with a surge in racist attacks and resistance in South East London, notably Thamesmead, but also in Bermondsey (see below). Most if us became active in this also.

In retrospect, our analysis may have been partly correct, in that a voice that linked support opposition to organised racists with opposition to the council could have been useful; however, us being largely transient outsiders, it would very likely have not got off the ground – it also underestimates the simple racism of the core of the BNP support, and – to be brutally frank – the distrust of squatters by some long-time residents, who saw us at best as fly-by-nights who would piss of elsewhere soon, and at worst as anti-social junkies. Both of these judgments were not in any way wholly true or wholly false – squatters, like tenants, were mixed bag and some were twats who gave not a fuck for their neighbours, just as some tried to put down roots, or were even local themselves.

There was an abortive attempt to put our tentative plan into effect on a wider scale, which we were involved in, later that year, as a group called Southwark Community Action was founded, to try and gather something of the anti-poll tax spirit as well as address racism and other issues… But it opened itself up to too many diverse views too quickly, became a talking shop, and foundered in irrelevance within months.

Problems within AFA

Some of us also had problems with some Anti Fascist Action practices, with how it was organised. All of us, I think, had no problem with the AFA core programme – that you had to oppose fascism physically on the streets, as well as ideologically in working class communities. That seemed to us to make sense. The problem was that in practice anti-fascism kind of became all consuming ; to be involved in AFA couldn’t be part time; to the exclusion of other struggles. At that point you could easily go to four office AFA Meetings a fortnight – all London AFA meetings, South London AFA meetings, AFA stewards group meetings, South London and southeast London AFA liaison meetings regarding the particular fascist problem in Bermondsey at that time…

There was quite a lot of pressure, I would say to be part of all those things, and people who were also involved in a variety of other struggles and saw anti fascism as only a part of their activities, did tend to be shut out of decision making, or be considered lightweights.

AFA was obviously dominated by a culture, a kind of left hooligan culture if you like, which was useful when you’re actually trying to fight fascists physically…! In practice though it also meant AFA was overwhelmingly a club for men, largely white. Not to say there weren’t women involved, or black people, and AFA did make a point of working with some black groups against fascism. But voices of women and any black members were often isolated within AFA.

AFA’s structure was increasingly authoritarian and centralised. from the beginnings of AFA in 1985 It had shrunk down from being an alliance of a wider range of political strands, with some groups and individuals who had been involved early on, falling away or being kicked out. By the early 90s it was dominated in practice mainly by members of three groups, which is red action, the anarcho-sydicalist Direct Action movement, and  Trotskyist group workers power. Many of those who turned out for AFA mobilisations or did anti-fascist work along AFA lines were not aligned with these organisations however; and a number of non-aligned AFA activists came to feel too much power was held by them – the groups had political delegates to the AFA London Organising Committee for instance, beside delegates from devolved local groups – the LOC basically made or passed down decisions for local groups to implement. A Stewards Committee was also set up, which had final word on aspects of AFA work, notably security and physical confrontations, again giving power to the 3 dominant groups.

Red Action in particular opposed attempts to overturn the power imbalances and tight control by a small group. Independent AFA activists who complained about the domination of the 3 groups were effectively told to join one or another of them, shouted down and smeared.

These were political, organisational problems, Which played out in the communication problems that we found with regards to the Elmington experience – not hearing about information on the ground, information being kept tight to some people’s chests. Obviously, some of that information came from confidential sources; possibly even infiltrators in fascist ranks. So closedmouthness sometimes make some kind of sense. But some of the some of the way information was disseminated to people , on a hierarchical basis, did leave some of us feeling out of the loop, and when we were in our area feeling like info had been kept from us it left us confused and pissed off.

Another factor at work was that in London, AFA had a concentration on the East End, Brick Lane and certain parts of Bethnal Green in particular, which they saw as the frontline of anti-fascism. And I think they considered Camberwell to be not a crucial battleground, or somewhere where the fash weren’t as much of a threat. I don’t know if that played into some leading AFA people’s calculations as to how much effort to put into the struggle on the Elmington. Some of us not in the centre of AFA felt that a decision had been taken not to spend too much in terms of time and resources on the Elmington campaign. For us, while anti-fascism was something we had been involved in already, this was close to home and represented an invasion of sorts… and linked in to other activities we were also involved in – squatting, housing struggles against local councils…

Although it did not play out at all in the brief Elmington tussle, there were many problems between Red Action and anarchists, non-aligned anti-fascists, in London and elsewhere. For those involved in AFA on a daily level, there was lots of friction. Red Action did tend to swagger around try to intimidate people who were supposed to be comrades; their view was effectively that they did all the work – untrue – and that anyone who opposed the centralised and authoritarian structures and suggested a more democratic or decentralised structure was out to wreck AFA, were liberals and splitters etc. Although in AFA their closest allies were anarchists (mainly DAM members) the Reds were also constantly denigrating anarchism, particularly in their paper…

These issues caused tensions and splits in North London AFA a couple of years later, with most of the non Red Action members leaving AFA completely to form an independent group.

Despite the AFA programme of opposition to fascism being both physical and ideological, the physical activity was almost inevitably given higher priority. Anyone who talked about doing more ideological work, more campaigning work, was likely to be accused by Red Action of basically just wanting to be in the SWP. And despite there being no justification for those smears, and when and it was supposed to be the programme of the organisation, that the ideological opposition was supposed to be another – vital – arm of defeating fascism, especially within the white working class communities, which are susceptible to fascist influence, the physical approach was generally in effect dominant. The critics from within were in almost all cases NOT arguing for abandoning the physical confrontation plank – instead that force alone in the streets was not enough.

Ironically Red Action later came to the same conclusion themselves, later on setting up the independent working class Association. They had come to the same conclusion we had in Camberwell – that to oppose fascism not physically and ideologically you had to be there addressing the economic and social issues that fascists tried to exploit and helping to turn that discontent into collective action instead of racism and division. The IWCA made a more effective job of this than we Camberwell anti-fascists ever did, though there were lots of problems with their process too.

The IWCA had its own success in some areas on London and beyond for a while, though it fell victim to RA’s basically Leninist tendencies admitting all sorts of Stalinist losers; the IWCA also had some similar problems to AFA with RA bullying, leading to at least one London branch leaving to form an independent group.

Part of the problem arose from AFA’s origins and founding basis – the idea that the white working class, in some areas susceptible to fascist influence due to disillusionment with social conditions, alienation from Labour & the left, could be won away from fash ideas by showing that the fash were bearable on the street and not as hard as they claimed. This was meant to go in hand with an ideological thrust – arguing the anti-working class nature of fascism in those communities. All well and good, but it laid itself open in reality to downplaying the extent of racism that permeates many working class people’s thinking, and to an emphasis on being harder than the nazis. In AFA’s earlier days (1985-89) there had even been a kind of anti-fascist patriotism of sorts, attempting to portray the fash as essentially anti-British, trying to lay a wreath at the cenotaph for Remembrance Day (a fave event for National Front organising)… AFA was always much wider than this, and arguments were always going on around this.

My parachute didn’t open

The other problem AFA had was the sense of ‘parachuting’ – that they cane in as a mob from outside and sorted the fash out then left. Although only half true, there was enough truth in this to make it worth discussing. Security dictated a certain approach; but realistically this kind of intervention is no substitute for community organisation on the ground. Sometimes you can’t wait for that to develop organically, true. The flipside was that when you’d left the area there was often retribution, and this was usually targeting of black people, racial violence, the usual schtick. This was another hotly debated tactical question among anti-fascists, and within AFA there was a consciousness of the problem.

The Elmington election was in some ways an opening salvo in what was to prove a few years of wider anti fascist struggle, as the BNP  rose while the old National Front declined, and proved itself more adept at both physical violence and electioneering. Two years after the Elmington the BNP won its first elected councillor, in the Isle of Dogs – a feat the NF had never achieved even in the 1970s. Racist attacks were beginning to spike, especially in Southeast London, notably around Welling, Thamesmead and Eltham. The presence of the BNP’s bookshop/HQ in Welling was seen as at the very least cashing in on the wide racist atmosphere in parts of this area, and quite possibly whipping it up. A long drawn out struggle against fascist presence, racism and the bookshop’s existence ensued.

Bermondsey Blues

Another event in the summer of 1991 that South London AFA we’re involved in reinforced a sense that parachute anti-racism was not in any way the answer – in fact could be actively counter-productive.

Both the National Front and BNP we’re heavily active in Bermondsey at this time. The Front had been active there for several years. Both sold their newspapers in the local market at the ‘Blue’ in Southwark Park Road.

As in Thamesmead & Welling, the fascists swam in a sea of wider racism and encouraged it by their activity; racist attacks were on the increase, especially around the Silwood estate…To some extent Southwark Council’s longstanding ‘sons and daughters’ policy, originally designed to house council tenants near other members of their families, had helped increase racial division in the borough, as white council tenants had been housed in Bermondsey and black people further south, generally in Peckham or Camberwell. A sense of ghettoisation had developed; not entirely helped by a real insularity and clannishness many Bermondsey locals tended to evolve anyway. Like on the Isle of Dogs, the hereditary dock work, added to a feeling of long-rootedness and spiced with a (usually genuine) grievance against official neglect of the area, helped forge a certain inward looking  culture, with a suspicion of outsiders which was not always racist but tended to fall that way often enough.

In recent years a gradual move towards housing more black people in Bermondsey had been met with hostility and a growing racist backlash from some white residents.

There were people on the ground attempting to counter this from the grassroots.

AFA (the South London and SE London branches) did make some attempts to liaise with people locally. But the situation was becoming seriously aggravated.

In the meanwhile a largely opportunistic march was called for Saturday 24th August 1991, by the ‘National Black Caucus’ was organised in protest at the racist attacks. This group had few links on the ground, and made little attempt to do any local liaison or co-ordinate with those who had a first-hand grasp of the lie of the land and had been trying to organise solid anti-racist work.

The march from the start was announced as a march on ‘racist Bermondsey’; from outside, with little consultation of what people living there were doing, and in practice was staged as a march into and out of an area, disconnected, with no thought of what effect it might have… It played nicely into the hands of the organised racists in Bermondsey, who were able to go round and play on the idea of outsiders coming in to tell them how racist they were… [we accept that part of the problem was that many were racist]…

As an organisation AFA we’re suspicious of the politics of the match organisers; we were suspicious of the tactic of marching in like a hostile force generally; but given that we were involved in fighting fascism and racism in South London we decided to attend.

This was a mistake…

The march was a disaster. The organisers has promised 150 professional stewards to ensure the safety of demonstrators – this didn’t materialise. Given the level of racist abuse in Bermondsey this was totally irresponsible, and in fact relied either on police protection (a laugh, considering both the racist sympathies of many cops then – and now – and the blustery anti-police rhetoric of the organisers). The fascists had leafletted the area and struck a note popular with locals , that do-gooding leftie poshos we’re coming to tell them how to live. Local anti-racists we knew said they were avoiding the demo – partly from disgust at the bad planning of the Black Caucus and partly as they had to live there… As a result the demo walked down Rotherhithe New Road through the Silwood Estate, which was festooned with union jacks and George crosses, 100s of locals residents mobilised against us by racists. Some folk decided to burn a Union Jack on the March at this point, not something we have out against as a rule, but definitely a red rag to the huge crowd hanging off every balcony. Then we turned left into Southwark Park, where, thanks to a myopic miscalculation by the organisers, we got faced with an additional fun complication – 300-500 or so Millwall fans, as Millwall were playing at home that day, and also having a large dodgy hooligan firm and friends who had a decidedly racist element… Again the fash had only to spread the word, where the march organisers had not enough local nouse to think to check the fixture list… (which AFA at least with its left hooligan base would have done first of all!) The Park was also a terrible point to end the demo, a trap basically.

We shat ourselves. Really. The numbers against us were large and hard and the majority on the march were not seasoned street-fighters. It looked very much like we were going to get a kicking. I remember a few of us searching under the trees for hefty fallen branches to use as weapons… An SWP member and a local black woman walking in the park were viciously attacked.

Anyway, it didn’t come to a mass beating. The police escorted us out of the park and the area. A humiliating retreat, in some ways worse than a battering. We marched back to Peckham to the jeers of the odd fash on the sidelines, with a long running battle behind us as nazis and friends tried to get at us and chucked bottles… When we got back to the Peckham park we had marched off from, and a mini rally, the organisers were trumpeting ‘We marched on racist Bermondsey’ like it was a victory, rather than ending in a huge encouragement of racist politics.

The BNP were in their element. They held their own rally in Southwark Park, with Steve Tyler (the BNP candidate in Camberwell) haranguing the crowd: “All blacks are muggers, all blacks have got AIDS, we want them out of our country, we want white power…” The crowds went off to smash up some shops and attack black drivers.

We heard that the level of racist attacks around the area that night and in subsequent days went up sharply – no shit, sherlock. The march had actually encouraged that: parachuting in and then running out, leaving the people living there to face the consequences.

AFA folk seemed to be among the few thinking this was a defeat and a disaster, a PR victory for the Nazis in Bermondsey, we regretted feeling like we had to go on the march. In the pub afterwards we had our heads in our hands – given AFA’s policy of beating fascists off the streets, but also winning working class white people away from fascism and racism, we knew this was a major reverse, on both counts.

We knew it and the fash knew it. A few weeks later we were blockading a large BNP papersale/mobilisation in Brick Lane and a chant of ours – ‘Cable St, Cable Street!’ was met with a riposte of ‘Bermondsey, Bermondsey’. They rightly saw that day as a feather in their cap… It galvanised them to pour a lot of effort into the Bermondsey area. Silwood Estate already had a high rate of racist attacks; this spiralled upwards in the early-mid 1990s following the march; the stood a candidate here in May 1994 local elections. The fash still see this area as having potential, there were NF marches once a year or so into the 2000s.

The sense of confidence that this undeniable propaganda coup gave the nazis was only really reversed at the Battle of Waterloo in September 1992, where anti-fascists gave boneheads gathering for a Blood & Honour gig a total pasting…

Since 1991 the Elmington estate, and Bermondsey too, have changed beyond what we then would have said was possible. Development, the destruction of many social housing blocks and their replacement by private housing has changed the Elmington immensely; the rebuilding of dockland derelict industrial sites as gentrified swathes of blandness, have transformed both areas… Gentrification is a more direct threat to many people on the ground in London than fascist boots.

The breaking up of older more established working class communities in areas like Bermondsey has reduced the cohesiveness of the white racist narrative in some ways – so hurray for gentrification?! Er… no. But while some white Bermondseyites whinged ‘foreigners are getting all the council houses’ they failed to notice that the middle class and corporate land grabbers had nicked the houses.

There’s no telling how many of the more affluent ‘incomers’ occupying some of the riverside nicenesses along Bermondsey’s riverfront are attracted to the new shiny alt-right currents, as in contrast to the skinheaded street fights of old much racist and rightwing agitation now goes on online.

Every day I learn lesson… less?

As we write, racism and support for far right groups are rising again. So are there any lessons to be drawn from the glimpses of fascism and anti-fascist response we have briefly detailed here?

It’s not easy to translate lessons across time and space. The UK’s organised fascism has changed and evolved; organising resistance has changed correspondingly over the decades. the rise of a more ‘respectable’ far right and alt-right presence and the populist harnessing of racism into Brexit etc poses questions about tactics and strategy. Still, we think there are some ideas and thoughts that come out of our struggle on the Elmington, South London more widely, and of the experience of seeing AFA and other anti-fascist movements in action, in the early 90s, which may be useful in considering how to oppose the current rise of the far right. These are thoughts, incoherent if anything, not intended to be a lecture or a program, but a stumbling towards something.

Firstly anti-fascism works best when it takes the form of an organic, community-based resistance; when it emerges from communities, rather than being a separate ‘movement’. Both AFA (at its least effective) and the National Black Caucus march on Bermondsey laid themselves open to being seen as outsiders, imposing themselves on a situation from outside. (NB: AFA at its best was much more useful and successful than this).

Successful anti-fascism is at its best when it is based in a wide, diverse spread of people – look at all the wildly different contingents, local, national, from the left, counter-culture and feminist movements and beyond, who turned up to oppose the National Front march through Lewisham in 1977. But at its best, resistance to fascism comes most effectively from communities targeted themselves by fascism – Jewish communities of the East End of London in the 1930s, Asian communities who built the Asian Youth Movement and many other self-defence groups in the 1970s, from Bradford to Birmingham and many other parts of the country, to defend their communities against racist attacks. It’s not to say that people can’t stand in solidarity with one another – but these initiatives created militant anti racism, which to some extent stands in contrast to other strands of anti-fascism, coming from left scenes, sometimes isolated and self-defining as a separate movement. AFA emerged from committed activists and no-one doubts the organisation’s record. But even AFA tended to think of itself as ‘THE militant anti-fascism’ in a way that often blinkered people to other ways of organising. Other anti-racist groups who coalesced around opposition to fascism, meanwhile, laid themselves open to the charge of bottling the fight and diverting attention and support from grassroots self-organisation: at times, you would have to say, this was deliberate, or at least an inevitable result of their hierarchical and centralised ways of thinking, of considering people not involved in their brand of politicking as not capable of collective action on their own behalf.

At its most problematic, AFA did have an element of separation, of going into an area to ‘do the business’ and then coming out again. It’s not it’s not to say that AFA’s efforts in themselves didn’t have many positive aspects, inspiring others, denting fashion efforts and preventing events from taking place: AFA did have impact.

Secondly, anti-fascism has to be linked and intrinsically linked to at the very least a sense that fascism is based in the material oppressions of daily life; the material social and economic conditions that allow fascism to flourish. Beyond that even, anti-fascism, I would say, has to have a specifically anti-capitalist ethos. Deprivation, alienation, despair, the feelings of total abandonment that attracts some working class people to fascism, the listening to loud voices offering what seems like a solution, people to blame like foreigners, Trade Unions, migrants, refugees, women, etc, have tobe understood and argued against. The real issues that make people susceptible to fascist influence have to be addressed.

It’s not enough to challenge fascism in isolation; it has to be an explicitly grassroots socially conscious anti fascism. The kind of liberal, ‘fascism is bad, defend democracy, vote anyone but BNP’ toss commentators from the Guardian to the Daily Mail come out with masks the reality – fascism and democracy are forms that capitalism takes, cloaks worn over the expropriating skeleton. Capital will happily wear the democratic form when it can, but will turn to the fascist costume, as needed; depending on how necessary it sees authoritarian social organisation to be. Usually, historically, in response, usually, in response to an upsurge of working class struggles and pressure for social change from below. The main reason why fascism flourishes and becomes powerful and ‘captures’ state power has, in the past, been because it achieves backing by the capitalist class, or certain elements of the capitalist class, who see it as a bulwark against the threat of revolution.

In order to resist fascism, you have to that you have to be aware of that. Patriotic liberal anti-fascism will always denounce militant class based anti-fascism, the violence necessary to keep fascism from growing, because at heart it recognises a dynamic it won’t even admit to itself – that anti-capitalist anti-fascism is also the enemy of patriotism and liberalism.

If liberals want to fight fascism let them do it in the ranks of the bourgeoisie, where fascism originates and has many of its leaders, where the profit of fascism is reaped.

Points three and four are connected, and on the face of it, not exactly contradictory, but two connected poles  which an effective and truly anti-racist movement has to both steer between and draw on…

The third factor to bear in mind is that anti-fascism and anti-racism and any movements it emerges from has to be aware of, have a consciousness of, this country’s history, the history of the British Empire, of the history of colonialism and genocide, why this country became so wealthy, the exploitation of developing countries, the plundering of resources across the world, institutionalised racism… the complex reasons why communities migrated here. Anti-fascism has to have that as a central part of its perception. It’s no good saying white working class communities are where we need to address fascism, but trying to pretend that racism doesn’t exist, or without honestly examining and critiquing the reasons why white working class people identify with an imperial past, develop or transmit racism and xenophobia, feel that they are racially or nationally superior to other people from across the planet… All those ideas and social relations have to be tackled. Material conditions alone don’t lead people into sympathy and support for fascism – racism, white supremacism, nostalgia for lost white pasts (whether they existed or not) – all that does exist in many communities, has been fostered for decades – in the interests of preventing clear thinking working class internationalism. Lexity British jobs for British Workers bollocks is just lefty-Trade Union slang for racism.

Anti-fascism is both anti capitalist and internationalist. And to be internationalist, you have to have a conception of why migration happens. Why people have come here. What are people coming from, running from, running towards, from other parts of the world?

Point four goes hand in hand with point three, its bi-polar other half: you have to also have an open mind, and approach people, work with people on many levels. It’s that the addressing the material conditions, in that sense means often working with people that you wouldn’t necessarily agree with everything politically. Crucial to countering the attraction of fascism is being part of those struggles, on an organic level, on a day to day level, against the grinding reality of poverty and despair. And vital to that is not simply denouncing people immediately for holding some ideas you might consider reactionary and breaking off with them, but being able to address them, debating and discussing, where you do share some common interests or ideas with them.

Reactionary ideas, prejudices, bigotry exist: racism, misogyny, homophobia and all the other shit. But to overcome that cannot only be a matter of bashing people. Organised fascism has to be fought – yes, and sometimes physically. Decisions have to be made about who you consider on your side and who is on the other. And who do you ‘No Platform’ and who do you debate… But alongside that necessity, there also has to be the ability to enter into discussions with people whose ideas you on some level disagree with. Folding your arms and going, I’m not having anything to do with them because you’re this and you’re that blah, blah, blah, phobic – in the end, you can end up walling yourself off from a lot of people, potential allies. This kind of happens too much, in many ways, not only where anti-fascism is concerned – the ability to build a sense of solidarity with people who don’t think exactly like yourself is limited, and it can lead people into retreating into a kind of woke gated communities. I wouldn’t underestimate the importance of recognising the power structures that exist in the world, and addressing them. But shutting yourself off from those discussions and debates, to set yourself apart working with people who you agree with on many things but disagree with on some levels is, I think, generally counterproductive. And in the context of rising racist and right wing movements could be dividing our forces in the face of dangerous enemies.

Finally, and bearing the previous point in mind, I think anti-fascism does to be specifically anti hierarchical, organised at a grassroots level, decentralised. There has to be a healthy suspicion of leftist political organisations; you have to dissect the practice of groups like Red Action, to critique the way that the SWP uses political fronts like the Anti-Nazi League or Stand Up to Racism in order to funnel people and resources into their own orbit; uses people’s struggles and for its for their own interests.
Anti-fascism has to be free from the from the manipulations of the left, and also the assumptions of the left that from some politically advanced position they know better and can waltz in and save the day… In the fight against the BNP on the Elmington the multiplying swarm of left factions all offering a slightly different position and arguing that in place of putting aside differences was confusing, depressing – and is repeated in almost every arena constantly. There has to be a recognition that wafer thin theoretical point-scoring cannot come at the expense of actually getting anything achieved.

Some of these points may seem slightly contradictory, and its true they are thoughts that clash and sit together awkwardly, maybe. Some times and places and actions demand a different balance of tactics, influences and approaches. Maybe we in AFA, acting on the Elmington, and the organisers of the disastrous march to Bermondsey, were doing the only thing we could have done at that time; its certainly taken me nearly 30 years to set the thoughts above in any kind of order and make time to write it down (although it represents the sum of many conversations between various people). Sometimes its only years later you realise what the right thing to do is. But you have to keep thinking, as well as acting.

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In a Postscript to the thoughts on anti-fascism today: There are factions of ‘antifa’ willing to identify as fascists, or at least rightists deserving physical opposition, anyone who does not sign up to specific positions on other issues. This has emerged notably in the current ‘debate’ on transphobia and the fierce argument between gender-critical feminists (labelled ‘TERFs by some) and an element of the trans rights movement and some allies. No platforming – physically preventing known fascists from speaking, debating, as well as gathering or meeting, a central plank of anti-fascism, is being extended to women who attempt to meet to discuss how the push to recognise ‘self-identification’ as the only necessary or acceptable definition of whether someone is the ‘gender’ they say they are. ‘TERFS’ are derided as nazis, bigots for whom the same treatment is needed. This process involves mainly targeting of feminists, often women who have been in the social movements we have built for many years, and has included blockading meetings, threats both online and in person, ostracism, exclusion. Anyone who suggests that there may be a discussion to be had as to how women’s rights and trans rights intersect and may in some cases collide, gets attacked – but its women who get the runt of the abuse. Some anti-fascist groups, taking a lead from the USA, where this process is several years further along, are openly lumping ‘terfs’ – ie feminists who disagree with some aspects of some transgender ideas – in with fascists. I think this is a mistake.

Many of us draw lines, if only in our heads – these people are on my side, these people are on the other side. The line changes over time for many of us. And depending on where you come from and where you place your politics, your sense of self, that line is going to be drawn in a different place. But if you want to come together to form social movements, either to oppose processes taking place or to fight for a positive change, those lines have to be re-thought. If I’m honest there are elements of the ideas of some gender critical feminists and of pro-trans rights activists that I fully agree with and some in both camps I find repulsive and nasty… but overwhelmingly I would view these movements as BOTH being part of a wider culture I would support. Where rights and interests meet and clash and mix within what I see as social movements with wider common goals is, I suggest, a point for discussion and debate, questioning and dialectic – not ostracism and no platforming.

In some ways this is a symptom of a wider syndrome, paralysingly epidemic at the moment – a closing down, a bunkering, into ideological fiefdoms, from which we can all take potshots at each other for not being in our corner on everything. Meanwhile the environment goes to shit, the exploiting classes gleefully suck more of our blood and rightwing movements are on the rise. People drawing lines in the sand might want to consider where the line between ‘them’ and ‘us’ really lies.

 

 

 

 

Today in London anarchist history, 1999: the 121 Centre evicted, Brixton

It was twenty years ago today…

… the legendary 121 Centre was evicted in Brixton…

Squat centre, bookshop, black radical space, anarchist space… Over 26 years of its life, the three-storey Edwardian building on the corner of Railton Road and Chaucer Road went through many incarnations…

After so many years the rollercoaster came to an end on 12th August 1999, when 121 was evicted by Lambeth Council, with the aid of 150 cops, some armed, after a six-month stand-off and 24-hour occupation.

One day we will write the full story of 121… there’s just so much else to do… For now, here’s a short and very incomplete history, written off the cuff last night, with some cut and paste from other things we have published… which we fully admit it inadequate and definitely biased. We worked there, see, played there, learned and got off our heads, discussed heavy shit, mates died there, other mates who shared all that with us are also gone now too. With all its many faults and downsides (how long have you got?), it is a part of us and we’re a part of it.

The first squatters to take over part of 121 Railton Road were Olive Morris and Liz Obi.

Olive Morris, who had been a member of the UK Black Panthers as a teenager. Like many of the Panther generation, Olive arrived in the UK from the West Indies as a child, and went trough school and teenage years in Brixton experiencing the xenophobia and inequality that characterised the migrant experience. From it she emerged a fierce and uncompromising fighter against the powers that be.

“Olive and I went to the same school. Even then she had that streak in her – in school, they would have called it rebelliousness or disruptiveness, but it was really a fearlessness about challenging injustice at whatever level… She would take anybody on…”

In 1969, aged 17, Olive went to the aid of a black man the police were harassing, was nicked herself and strip-searched at the police station. She never looked back from then on, becoming a Black Panther, and gaining a reputation locally for her willingness to get stuck in and help people in battles with the authorities; whether over housing, social security, police, or the courts…

“I saw her once confronting a policeman – it might have been when she was evicted. She went for him like a whirlwind and cussed him to heaven. And this policeman looked really taken aback, he didn’t know how to deal with someone who had no fear of him. He was meant to represent the big arm of the law. But because she was angry and she knew he was in the wrong, she didn’t hesitate.”

Olive was an early squatter, and helped to develop the black squatting scene in Brixton.

Liz Obi relates: “We were introduced to squatting by some white women who were squatting a shop with a flat above it at the top end of Railton Road and who had opened it up as a Women’s Centre. We had visited the Centre on a couple of occasions and learnt from them about squatting and the law and we decided we would look for somewhere to squat ourselves. 121 was the derelict Sunlight laundry on Railton Road consisting of a shop downstairs and a flat upstairs – we managed to get into the building one night and we had a look around and the following week some squatters from the squatters group came along and showed us ho to change the locks, turn on the water and the electricity supply, and we moved in.

We faced three illegal eviction attempts where our stuff was thrown out onto the street by the landlord and the police but we always managed to get back in and we stayed there for about a year before a possession order was granted to the landlord and we had to move out.”

Olive breaking into the back of 121 makes the cover of the Squatters handbook…

The Women’s Centre at 207 Railton Road was a focus for a whole array of radical causes at this time. They helped well over 300 people to squat in the mid-70s.

“At that time a squatters’ movement was developing and one of our sisters who is dead now, a woman called Olive Morris, was involved in that and in setting up the study group. This was important, that we saw ourselves as an organic part of local community based political struggle. She was also involved in trying to set up Sabarr which was the Black book shop, because that was a time when we, as Black people, were particularly vocal, both in Britain and in the US, in expressing the need for the learning and writing of our own history, literature being central, particularly resistance literature.
This also related to the whole question about imperialism politics, where literature was seen as a part of the resistance struggle; you know, the decolonisation of the mind and all that. Olive in fact got the Sabarr bookshop, the original one we had at the end of Railton Road, by going out as a part of the collective and claiming the building. In fact, when the council was going to evict them she went up onto the roof and said “I won’t come down until you let us have the building”. So what I’m saying is that the history of the group started as a study group, out of two locally based Black organisations, but saw itself very much as part of a community based organisation, campaigning on a number of issues.” (Gail Lewis, in interview, included in Talking Personal, Talking Political, originally published in radical feminist magazine Trouble & Strife, no 19, 1990. With a text on the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent, it’s now available as a Past Tense pamphlet, Black Women Organising).

Olive Morris died in 1979, aged only 26, from non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Check out a website dedicated to her memory

Railton Road then was a hub of life, known as ‘the frontline’ – home to the street culture that had migrated with the West Indian communities that had gradually come to represent the area’s majority population, and a squatting culture – or rather two. White and black squatting were not separate but had distinct qualities, mingling but quite different at their outer fringes, and sometimes hostile or frosty. The area was often filled with (mostly) young lack folk, out in all weathers… But many of the buildings, left empty after a Lambeth program of compulsory purchasing for a redevelopment that had never happened, were squatted, providing homes for thousands of people, black and white, local and from far afield, usually poor and/or working class, but not always. Other buildings became ‘blues’ clubs, shebeens in effect, self-organised clubs based around heavy reggae, toasting, cannabis… Others again became activist spaces, hosting feminism, lesbian and gay groups and communities, anarchists, leftist or every hue… From the late 60s to this century, this mixed ocean of cultures defined Brixton – along with police and authority’s response to it.

Because the cops hated the frontline, hated the West Indians – especially the young ones who didn’t look down and tug their forelock – and to a lesser extent, they also hated the radicals and white squatters, subversives all, uppity women, queers… Police activity on Railton Road and in wider Brixton tended to take the form of an occupying army, and not without reason: that’s how the cop brass saw it, how the plod on the ground also saw it, and how the locals saw it. Raids, repression and racism were endemic in the police, many of who were members of the rightwing National Front, especially the paramilitary Special patrol Group. Their invasion tactics and willingness to steam in would spark the Brixton riots in April 1981 and then a couple of re-runs that July, again in 1985… 1995… It helped the evolution of the British Black Panther Party and other black power groups, and a general sense of us and dem – cops against community. This has never entirely gone away, as the same dynamics keep cropping up. In the week we write this new Stop and Search powers are being drawn up – carbon copies of the ‘SUS’ laws that led to the 1981 uprising. There have periods of more softly softly approaches, but there’s a basic hostility and racism, that keeps bursting the PR bubbles.

Liz and Olive squatted 121 in 1973. Initially the leadership of the Black Panther Party in London was divided on the subject of squatting: “it caused a bit if a stir within the central core, with Darcus, Farrukh and Mala supporting us and seeing squatting as a political act while some of the other leadership saw it as a hippy type thing. However not long afterwards the movement itself would squat a property on Railton Road and open the Unity Bookshop…” (However, this ended badly with the building burned out in what was most likely a fascist arson attack)

After the Panthers fragmented and evolved into other projects, Olive was later involved in setting up the first black bookshop at 121 Railton Road, Sabarr Books, and then became a founder of Brixton Black Women’s Group (based at 65 Railton Road, though it later moved to 121 in the late 1970s, and then a mile or so away to Stockwell Green).

Sabaar Books, a black bookshop run by a black radical collective, occupied the building for several years, then, in late 1980, moved to new premises down on nearby Coldharbour Lane, more central to Brixton (a move controversial to some other black radicals in itself, who denounced them for taking state funding and letting themselves be bought off.

So the building was empty again, but not for long.

Local anarchists had been using Sabaar, the Black radical bookshop that occupied the space from 1977, as a postal address to get their mail. When Sabaar moved out, quick off the mark the place was squatted for an anarchist centre.

Many of the crew that squatted the building had been involved in local squatting and political activity before the birth of 121, notably the occupation of Kilner house, in Pegasus Place (off Kennington Oval), in October 1980, where 50 squatters occupied empty flats in a mass action. As the Greater London Council planned to do up the flats & sell them off, the squatters had a lot of local support on the estate – soon there were 200 people living there. The squatters were kicked out in a mass eviction, on 9th January 1981.

During the April 1981 riot, the Anarchist Bookshop escaped trashing by rioters – as happened to most of the other businesses in the area – only to have its window staved in by the cops when they re-took the frontline. (The fact that there was a poster in 121’s window celebrating the riot in St Pauls, Bristol, the year before, is credited with its remaining intact).

Daft as ever, press, cops and council combined to accuse anarchist of fomenting the riots and being secretly behind the trouble. Given the tensions between blacks and whites, the actual size of Brixton’s anarchist community, and most anarchists’ basic attitude to secretly controlling social movements – this was laughable. But in the hysterical atmosphere after April ’81, white authority couldn’t believe black people could get together and organise an uprising. Hilarious and racist. Anarchists had been involved in the riots, like many other white radicals, but as participants side by side with their black neighbours.

As well as local tensions, other eyes were on Brixton. In June, the anarchists at 121 received a hilarious visit. 3 black-raincoated gentlemen claiming to be from the Municipality of Rotterdam came in for a “tete-a-tete”, sincerely desiring first hand information with the aim of preventing similar uprisings in Rotterdam!! It was explained to them that anarchists don’t collaborate with governments, local caring ones or otherwise. They bought 1 Libertarian Workers Group Bulletin and one said he’d come back later as a ‘human being’ as he’s ‘very interested.’”” (From the 121 Daybook, June 9th,1981).

Anarchists around 121, together with local gays, lesbians, feminists and mostly white squatters, formed People Against Police Oppression in the wake of the April 81 riot, as white defendants from the riots had been excluded from support by the larger Brixton Defence Campaign. PAPO was the most ad hoc of all the groups, as it existed only for as long as did the heavy police presence. It consisted mainly of friends and acquaintances who were excluded from the BDC and averse to the additional plethora of left-party-based defence groups. They sought to represent no one but themselves and felt no pressure to ‘represent’ anyone else, being a small group. They sought to direct the struggle against the police but, being so small, could do little more than organise a picket of the police station which succeeded in drawing 150 people. But divisions around class and colour caused huge dissension in the wake of the uprising, which are detailed to some extent in ‘We Want to Riot, Not to Work’, and anarchist account of April 81.

Successive waves of police and council evictions and clearance programs would begin the development of central Brixton, to dismantle the culture that created the riots and the physical spaces that helped rioters defend and move around their manor. 121 survived this, while many other squats did get cleared and bulldozed, including many blues clubs. Locals squats where anarchist lived including the 121 collective, were targeted – for instance the squatted terrace of Effra Parade, just around the corner. There was a clever policy of divide and rule; street by street, the frontline was gradually reduced, buildings demolished or re-taken. Although often evicted squats would be left empty by the council, from a mix of lack of money, incompetence and uninhabitability, and then re-squatted, the program was in the long term successful – for a number of reasons which it would take too long to detail here (another time, because they are very instructive).

Over the next 18 years the erosion of the autonomous cultures that 121 had formed a part of, left the centre more and more out on its own, halfway out along the road to Herne Hill, with the movements that create it changing, settling down, into housing co-ops, ageing, moving out…

But the place was pretty much always a hive of subversive activity. To list the groups that used 121 as a meeting space or office would take up a book. Just some of the most significant being

  • Black Flag, the long-running anarchist paper – for several years in the mid 1980s the paper was bi-weekly, printed elsewhere but folded upstairs at 121. Years later you could find piles of one page from issues from a decade earlier;
  • the Anarchist Black Cross (linked to Black Flag for much of its existence), a support group for anarchist/other class struggle prisoners;
  • the Kate Sharpley Library, an archive of international anarchist material (which was moved out in 1984, as the building was threatened with eviction and by fascist attack: KSL moved over the road to St George Mansions and later out of London, then to the US),
  • South London branches of the anarcho-syndicalist Direct Action Movement (which later evolved into the Solidarity Federation);
  • the London end of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp;
  • South Wales Miners Support Group, during the 1984-’85 Miners’ Strike;
  • Brixton Squatters Aid – which gave practical advice to would-be squatters, kept a regularly updated list of empty properties (we also kept a list of council-owned property in the borough, nicked during an occupation of a housing office… and BSA’s newspaper Crowbar, initially a freesheet duplicated onwaste paper, which became a rowdy class war type magazine that loved to wind up the police, council, lefties and pretty much everyone except the collective (having inherited this from another 121-linked project, the provocative South London Stress mag, which started as an underground bulletin among council workers…
  • anarcha-Feminist paper Feminaxe

Later in its life, 121 hosted Community Resistance Against the Poll Tax, an anarchist based anti-poll tax group; ‘young women’s magazine’, the uproarious Shocking Pink (in its third collective by then), and radical women’s mag Bad Attitude; the Fare Dodgers Liberation Front; anarcho freesheets Autognome and Contraflow; Lesbian and Gay free sheet Pink Brick, the list goes on.

And hundreds more groups met there, debated, sold their propaganda in the bookshop, held benefits there, cooked communally… Thousands of people turned up there from all around the world looking for somewhere to live – South Americans on the run from rightwing death squads, Spaniards and Italians avoiding military service, eastern Europeans with firsthand experience of ‘state socialism’… Africans, Caribbeans, too… Though without any intention it was always mainly a place for whitey, odd and often fractious relationships arising (dudes and fucked up people often targeted the place hoping for an easy robbing of someone who they knew wouldn’t go to the cops).

And fascists also tried to burn the 121 down, at least twice…

As well as this the cheap evening meals, late night club in the basement, later the seminal Dead By Dawn rave nights and endless punk gigs… The first Queeruption was held here…

The anarchist bookshop on the ground floor was famously unpredictable in its opening hours, often falling prey to such varied excuses for its closed doors as sudden arrests for shoplifting, workers being off rioting here or abroad, and in especially hard winters, the place being too cold to sit in (of course there were also the odd folk supposed to be doing the shift who just went to sleep on the bench by the front window without opening the shutters!). The doorway became a graffiti board of complaint (I came from Sweden and you were closedetc), calls to revolt and general abuse.

Collective Meetings were sometimes held in the Hamilton Arms up Railton Road, in winter, when the gas ran out and the money was low.

In the mid-1980s the 121 was at its most active, part of a growing network of anarchists in London involved in squatting, the anti-capitalist Stop the City actions, solidarity with the striking miners, and numerous other movements and campaigns… This activity had not gone unnoticed by the boys in blue (another target of the 121ers, strongly involved in resistance to the violent policing of brixton, especially the frontline on Railton Road, which generally carried out in a viciously racist style, with a side-helping of anti-squatter violence… Special Branch carried out regular surveillance of the centre’s post throughout the 80s (a pretty boring job I would say…) – our postman told us the Branch were holding our mail, opening it at the depot, then forwarding it on to us. Hope you got Dullness Money Sgt…

In August 1984 this police attention climaxed in a raid on 121 and four local squats where some of the collective lived: “TUESDAY 14th August 1984: 7.00am. The political police were out in force, smashing down the doors of 4 squatted houses and the local anarchist bookshop at 121 Railton Rd Brixton … The police, over 50 of them, used Firearms Warrants (which need very high‑up approval) and covered our homes front and back as the heavies rushed in. BUT THEY FOUND NOTHING. The nearest they came to a firearm was an anti‑rape spraycan. The woman who owned it was arrested and later released without any charge, likewise no charge for ‘stealing tools’ (she is a carpenter and has her own tools). One person was arrested for having two small marijuana plants. Another just because ‘his name rang a bell’, he was later found to have skipped bail on a small charge. The cops stole his address books after arresting him. They did not even look for firearms, not a floorboard was lifted. The cops were more interested in finding out identities and anything political they could.

At the bookshop they spent three hours going through everything, at times we were not able to get inside as the bomb squad went through with sniffer dogs. Anything ‘bugs’, drugs or “firearms” could have been planted by them as we were not able to follow their search. “Have you found the Nuclear weapons yet?” asked one shop worker as the cops stomped in the basement and up to the roof

Even Ted Knight, Lambeth Council Leader and an old enemy of 121, had to admit “There has never been any suggestion that those people who run the bookshop have been involved in terrorism in any way … It is outrageous that their personal lives should have been interfered with in this way.”

Surprisingly, no guns or bombs were found at 121, despite the unrestrained joy of the cop who, lifting the carpet on the ground floor, found a trap door. Aha, this must be the place where the weapons are stored… Down they go with a sniffer dog… Shit, no guns down here either…

It has been suggested that the cops’ “reliable informant” in this case was a South African squatter who claimed to be hyper-active, opening squats for people and “sorting out” muggers, but when he got nicked, 121 and addresses of other local anarchos got raided immediately after… “There was an attempt to run him down in Effra Parade and the driver departed London quickly…”” The suspicious character, gunning for the driver, later attacked a 121-er on the stairs of St George’s Residences, over the road from 121…

The 121 myth goes that the uncovering of the basement by the police during the raid was an ironic gift to the squatters, as the basement was rapidly explored and put into use as the dancefloor of the 121 Club, dark, dingy and dangerously low ceilinged as it was, and only accessible via a steep and lethal wooden stair… nevertheless thousands partied there, from the Club, to Dead By Dawn speedcore nights, through punk gigs, to Queeruption and much more ( the memory of the Anarcho-dales male strip crew will never leave those who were there..!)

The raid had little impact otherwise. 121 would continue for another 15 years, to be evicted almost exactly 15 years later in August 1999…

We know the police took an overt interest in 121. What we don’t yet know is – were any of the undercover police of the Special Demonstration Squad more heavily involved in spying on us? Several certainly visited the place now and then – John Dines, Jim Boyling, Andy Coles all dropped in, as did some names people are suspicious of but have not yet been confirmed as definite police spies. We’re still wondering if any other old mates were narks in disguise… Watch this space…

There had been some desultory attempts to evict 121 in the early 1980s. The left-Labour clique controlling Lambeth Council may have hated the tory Thatcher government and entered into a battle over ratecapping – but they also hated anarchists, who kept on not doing what they were told by the central committee. Squatting had been tacitly tolerated at times in the 1970s, when the squatters were sometimes linked to young new Left Labour types, and some careful PR had helped squatters get licences, form housing co-ops… By the early 1980s this attitude had hardened, money was tight and council waiting lists were long, and the Brixton counter-culture had little interest in making deals in most cases. The riots added an impetus – squatting, both black and white, had provided the ‘footsoldiers’ of the uprising, and was clearly an obstacle to any kind of regeneration – at least as the council saw it. Even Ted Knight’s Socialist Organiser diktatoriat was basically interested in doing up the area and attracting money to the place (money they, their mates and those with an ear managed to often snaffle or divert – corruption was rife).

121 was an obvious target for eviction – they were literally advertising that the squatters network was run from there, they were sticking two fingers up to the Council (often in the pages of Crowbar) and laughing at the Leninier than thou pretensions of the leading councillors. But two court appearances foundered, partly due to good legal footwork from the 121 side, head-scratching fuckuppery from the council, and sheer apathy – at one point the council lawyer accepted an ‘undertaking’ that Crowbar would ‘leave the building’ (it changed its postal address but carried on as before) and the case was adjourned. However, in the 1981-85 period, the squatters claimed they had a verbal licence, or asked to pay rent (with a certain amount of crossed fingers…!), just to try to prolong the life of the place. Noone really thought it would last as long as it did. But these tentative negotiations over a possible licence or tenancy would do for us in the end…

In later years 121 had been often quite isolated from much of its surroundings, more so as the squatting scene that produced it declined into the 90s…

Since the 80s 121’s position had become in many ways more and more anomalous. When Brixton had been full of squatters, overflowing with alternative projects, 121 had been an important cog in this scene. By 1998 it was out on a limb; not that there weren’t still squatters in the area, but the strength of the eighties had been dissipated. The building had passed through several collectives, different groups with different agendas had introduced contrasting atmospheres. Although lots went on in the space, it was left behind from the social changes around it, and had little continuous involvement in community or social struggles since the Poll Tax, apart from resistance of anarcho-squatters around the 121 to their own evictions… some of us saw it declining, becoming an inward-looking social club for anarcho-punks. Not a bad thing in itself (if you like that sort of place), but irrelevant to the lives of most of the people living around it. It’s also worth pointing out that the streets around the old Frontline were increasingly dominated by the middle class that was taking over the area. You could sit there and watch people passing by, glancing at the shop, not even knowing what it was. The building was also in physical decline, the back wall was falling down, many repairs were too expensive to even contemplate. At times the physical decay and social isolation seemed like parallel metaphors for each other.

“The cafe nights could be great or dodgy depending who was in the kitchen. I remember one night when some crusty was serving. His hands were black! I think I gave it a swerve that night!”

The café had begun as a cheap communal meal, but evolved into a money-raising venture, cash for the bills, benefit meals for good causes… Hilariously, over the years, anarchist inflation took regular price of meals down from £3 in 1981 to 50p/pay whatever you want by 1999… We understand economics, see?

Its also true that in the early days the more class struggle/migrant oriented collective cooked meat regularly, though later it went veggie and then exclusively vegan. The food was variable, at best – some times excellent (is there truth in the rumour that Franco, later supremo of pizza chain Franco Manca, spun pizza in 121 in the early days?); other meals were inedible mush. For a long time veg was liberated from New Covent Garden market (in Nine Elms), from the skips for unsellable food – mostly it was fine, just a bit over ripe. Some people had little quality control however.

One incident relating to the skipping of veg at New Covent Garden – the security guards were always out to catch you, since taking food that has been thrown away still counts as stealing, breaking the capitalist ethos… Occasionally you’d get chased off; once or twice they’d call the police and you’d get nicked. one time out whole skipping crew was nicked on a Friday morning and held all day. In the spirit of the show must go on, some of us went down Brixton market, begged borrowed and skipped enough food for a passable meal, and put the cafe on anyway that evening. When the arrestees were let out, late in the afternoon – without charges – they were welcomed back not only with food and drink but a song written in their honour, a pisstake of an Irish rebel song about their brave attempt to liberate mouldy veg. A lovely evening in the end and tears of laughter. There were many such nights.

As well as days and nights where noone came. Or nights dealing with the nutters who were always attracted to free spaces, hard to deal with, damaged, or abusive.

All the debates and arguments – not just political differences but rows about the building’s upkeep. One problem with social or squatted centres is that you open them to be organising hubs for your actions, your movements, but alot of the time you end up working hard just to keep the space together, physically, pay for stuff, do building work. We learned how to plaster, do wiring, glazing, plumbing, rebuilt the kitchen, re-slated the roof; we could do little about the structural issues that were slowly causing the back wall to move away from the building… One image that stays with me is Irish Mike up to his knees in water in the basement, pumping out water that had flooded in from a burst pipe next door, two days before the ten-year party.

There was death and tragedy too. Mick Riddle died after falling down the stairs into the basement in February 1991, during a party to celebrate ten years of 121 as an anarchist space. The stairs were rickety and dangerous, but the coroner ruled that he had in fact collapsed due to alcohol poisoning and been in the wrong place. He died on the pavement as we waited for an ambulance.
Black Flag’s Leo Rosser killed himself… Veteran anarchist Albert Meltzer died… Irish Billy, who used to live upstairs at 121 for a while – whatever happened to him…? Others moved away, succumbed to drugs, cancer, suicide.

The building’s energy dipped and rose, and the atmosphere changed tack several times. Always volunteer-run, with a high turnover, unpaid, with people turning up then moving on… Periods of stability and strategic approach would give way to occasional chaotic change. From a serious class struggle collective in the early days, through more agit-prop arty folk, to anarcho-punk… Sometimes these influences co-existed uneasily, sometimes one group would dominate. This process accelerated as Brixton changed socially.

The centre hosted regular film showings, from the political to the purely entertaining (including a pirate showing of Terminator 2 before it was out in the UK); a food co-op where members could by cheap wholefoods, a Reiki massage parlour for a while (?!?). We helped to put on national events like Stop the City, international events, from Queeruption to the 1994 International Infoshops Meeting, through to the Anarchy on the UK ‘Ten Days that Shook the World’ festival in 1994. This last brought a whole new scene of local squatters to the area, who took 121 in a punkier direction again. Anarcho-punk gigs began to dominate that building, spilling out into what was by now almost quiet residential area, which didn’t endear us to the neighbours. For some of us who had built up 121 to try to move out to other communities and become a base for local class struggle again, this led to arguments and tensions. Now it seems daft, as 121 was never going to evolve back into something it had been fifteen years earlier – the area just wasn’t like that any more. Those of us who were involved in what we saw as local community activity sometimes got pissed off with 121 and stormed out to do things elsewhere… Other squatted spaces like Cooltan arose and formed a much more broader link to local scenes, but that is a story for a another time…

1997-99 saw the revival of the long-abandoned attempt to evict the 121. The Council may have felt when it failed to turn up in Court in ’85 that moves on 121 were still too risky, with it being on Railton Road; or maybe they just forgot to set their alarms that day. It was the legal position then that twelve years occupation of a squat in continuity, unevicted, meant that the owners lost their title and you got it – or that was the basic case – in reality this ‘adverse occupation’ law was much more complex, and nuanced, and not as clearcut as we thought.

For years we had not really believed they would ever bother, or had forgotten they owned the building (not unheard of in other cases), or had lost their own papers… Frustratingly some of our legal papers were lost due to stupidity (you know who you are! But it’s all water under the bridge now…)

In January 1999, after some 18 months of legal to and fro, 121 went to court; we claimed 12 years adverse occupation. We lost. In 1983-5 the 121ers had claimed they had a licence from the Council – the right thing to do at the time, to stave off immediate threat – but it turned out to be a no-no if you go for adverse occupation to show any recognition of the owner’s right to the place. The Council had restarted proceedings just 2 weeks before the 12 years after our last communication with them in which we recognised their title to the building, just by asking for a deal. But hey ho. What could we do? Squats don’t last forever.

Funnily enough, the threat to evict 121 galvanised the energy around the place, and we made a spirited last stand, barricading the building, entering into a 24-7 occupation, and producing rainforest-fulls of lively propaganda, including a weekly newssheet size revival of the old South London Stress. When bailiffs were rumouredly on their way in early February, 100 people blocked the street and launched a mini-street party (some of us being involved in Reclaim the Streets paying off); till the cops turned up, and persuaded us they’d called them off. We promptly dismantled the barricades – but went on the offensive, invaded the Town Hall and were dragged out of Council Leader ‘Slippery’ Jim Dickson’s office. We held a couple of small street parties, with bands, sound systems, campfires…

We made some productive links with several other campaigns against council cuts, notably disabled users of the Centre for Independent Living, who had occupied the centre when the Council announced planes to close it. The Centre provided support for disabled people living independently; Lambeth Social services Committee decided to cut the service, (an alleged consultation meeting was rigged, then moved to a room without wheelchair access!) and so on February 1st 99 the users took over the space. They were supported by activists from the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network; the occupation continued for several weeks… There were also campaigns against plans to close 5 libraries, and campaigners against the closing of several primary schools, playcentres, special schools…. The long-running Tenants Corner Advice Centre in Oval Mansions (Kennington Oval) was evicted (along with the rest of the building, squatted or licensed; after many years and several court cases everyone was forced out. The block lay empty for several years, it has now been renovated.)

In contrast with many weary and cold days spent in 121 in recent years things were actually fun. We were out causing trouble almost daily again… invading the Firkin pub (bugged by he chain with the connivance of the local police), holding a street Drink-In in defiance of the anti-Drinking bylaw, harassing the council, and the Queen too when she turned up for some daft school ceremony.

A 121 street party in Chaucer Road down the side of the building, 1999

A lot of energy got spent, maybe too much too soon. In the end the Council waited 6 months, till many of those involved were exhausted, and then at 6.30 in the morning on the 12th of August, 150 cops, some armed, with a helicopter fluttering overhead, broke in and evicted the few people staying there at that time… The end of 121. Bit of a damp squib. So many people had been forced to leave Brixton, our response was subdued. Maybe we just accepted the inevitable.

Some of the ex-121 crowd were later involved in squatting a disused Button factory in Hardess Street in Loughborough Junction, mainly for punk gigs… though some actions were also organised there around June 18th I think.

Much more could e written… and will be. Send us your memories! And your gripes… But remember that an end-of-terrace ex-laundry can turn into something amazing for a while…

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Dedicated to

Olive Morris,
Leo Rosser,
Gerald ‘Fiddler’ Farthing,
Jill Allott,
Nikki Campbell,
Asti Albrecht,
Maggie Marmot,
Mick Riddle
Albert Meltzer
Katy Watson. true Brixtonites and 121ers all

no longer with us, and we miss them all.