Today in London festive history, 1995: Reclaim the Streets party takes over Angel, Islington

After its first big shindig in Camden High Street had hit the news with a bang in May 1995,
the second London Reclaim the Streets party was held on Sunday, July 23, at the Angel intersection in Islington, North London.

It was much bigger than Camden, with over 2,000-3000 demonstrators participating. Crowds met a mile or so away near Kings Cross, and were then led to the party location, while other activists blocked the road with tripods constructed from scaffolding, placed in the middle of the road: tripods that could be dismantled only if the person who is at the top of them comes down. Two tons of sand were piled in the road to make a children’s play area, (reversing the famous slogan of May 1968, ‘underneath the paving stones, the beach’. On this occasion, the beach spreads out on top of the asphalt)… banners went up to stop more traffic, stalls were erected and a huge tank rolled in with a sound system pumping. The party had begun before the police arrived. The Highbury Islington street party coincided with a week of hot weather and a smog alert. In only two month since Camden, the number of people who took part in the first RTS event increased tenfold.

The following account of the Angel street party was published soon after, written, we think, by the late post-situ writer/provocateur Michel Prigent – published, at least, by his BM Chronos imprint, as an issue of an occasional bulletin on urban space, roads and traffic, The Sprint. We have re-published the account in its entirety, cause we like it…

LIBERATING THE ANGEL

A nostalgic whiff of the future

By 1.30 in the afternoon ‘Street Party #2’ was in full swing.
Already the air smelt better and you could breathe comfortably. Less choking and irritating dirt and dust was blowing around.
Children could walk and run around safely without their parents having to scream warnings or worry about drivers who have long grown insensitive to the vulnerability of pedestrians. The elderly were no longer harassed to cross the road as quickly as possible.
The sound of conversation, dance music, people enjoying themselves and even birdsong displaced the mighty roar of London’s traffic. It was no longer necessary to shout in order to be heard. Gone were the sickening, dull vibrations of passing vehicles. The buildings of Islington became visible once again and urban vistas of more than one kind opened up.
This was the transformation which took place within minutes of us closing Islington High Street and Upper Street to traffic.

The liberation of Islington High Street had never happened before, not even in 1945 when people were officially informed they were free from another kind of tyranny, and took to the streets in London and elsewhere to celebrate the fact. The events of Street Party #2 were an animated critique of modern Britain’s domination by the spectacular commodity economy which seemed to have lain dormant for too long. The reward for being so bold was greater than any great day out.

The greatest One O’Clock Club in the land comes to town

The party started with an assembly of hundreds of people in a disused building behind Kings Cross railway station. All-night dancers, anti-motorway action groups, civil rights groups, cyclists, environmentalists, mothers concerned about pollution-induced asthma in children, punks, ramblers, ravers, squatters, those with disabilities concerned about poor access, travellers, senior citizens’ groups, walkers and many many more extraordinary ordinary people were there.

Being an open affair it was perhaps inevitable that a few individuals turned up for nefarious reasons. One was a member of the security forces dressed in ‘civvies’, unconvincingly clutching a book entitled “British Theatre”.
From the outset many were unaware which streets were going to be barricaded against motor traffic and some police mistakenly prepared themselves to go to Piccadilly Circus. Instead, we went down to the Underground at Kings Cross and assembled on the Southbound platform of the Northern Line where in 1989 people were burnt to death, partly because of the UK Government’s intransigence
in the face of crumbling public transport and unsolved traffic problems on the surface.
Unfortunately this was too much to expect of the Northern Line, but for a change the delays were not caused not caused by the ‘clapped out’ technology of the Misery Line but by members of the Metropolitan Police deliberately obstructing the train doors [An offence under the byelaws of London Underground Ltd.] After 15 minutes we finally moved off.
When the first overheated tube train chugged into the Angel Station, packed with sweaty bodies, it was “Everybody Out!”. We surged onto the new wide platform, and up Europe’s longest escalators to the booking hall on the surface.

The staff at the Angel station set two of the three escalators to travel up and suspended the down escalator so that it could be used by passengers walking up or down. This helped to speed our journey to the surface where we surged onto the road and blocked the junctions of Pentonville Road and Liverpool Road with Islington High Street and Upper Street.
The 2000 to 4000 [2] who actually made it to the Angel did so because they were angered and appalled by the massive deterioration of life in our urban and rural environments due to the corporate and Government-stimulated growth of “…the great car economy…”, plus the new legislation drafted to eradicate legitimate protests, particularly the Criminal Justice Act.

Demo at my Angel

A tank painted pink and covered in anti-car banners drove up and parked in front of the station, blocking the traffic. Banners were strung between lamp posts, a mobile disco and radio station took up its position, a sandy beach was constructed and bands assembled.
Scaffolding tripods occupied by ‘warriors’ soon went up at junctions. Roads were roped off.
“Trapped’ drivers were given snacks and then waved on out of the area.
The five-hour reclamation of Islington High Street had begun and a repressed ‘will to live’ was gratified and flourished. The tarmac became a bandstand, circus, dance floor, forum, kitchen, playground and rest area.

In the hot sunshine and cool breeze a new world took shape. People were relaxing in hammocks and on three-piece suites tastefully and informally arranged on carpets spread over the tarmac. They were cooking gourmet food, making sand castles, dancing in the road, juggling across the street and stilt-walking.
Gifts were exchanged.
An impromptu band consisting of 17 percussionists swelled in time to include saxophonists and guitarists.
At the junction of Liverpool Road and Islington High Street the mobile disco and radio station played to dancers as they reclaimed ‘the black stuff’ as a space for life. The disco unit itself was reclamation in action too, consisting of a matt black, converted ex-military armoured car with speakers mounted on the front.
And it worked! Some of the music was a bit mindless but overall it was varied and danceable – appropriate for anything from a heavy metal, head-banging rave to a sedate tea dance organised to commemorate 50 years since ‘the end of hostilities’ in 1945.
One burst of creativity which attracted a lot of attention from by-standers and onlookers was the construction of Islington Beach which evoked graffito created by the Movement of Occupations in France, 1968: “Sous les pavés, la plage”.
Sand was dumped along the northbound carriageway of Islington High Street just at the point where the bus stops add an extra lane’s width to the road. With great charm toddlers and babies, their carers and parents soon got stuck in with buckets and spades. Water was supplied by hose pipe from nearby buildings. There was no wind-surfing at the beach that day but a lot of mind-surfing.

Some party-goers painted in the road markings for a cycle lane along the High Street which were promised by the ‘progressive’ local authority several years before. In the meantime the same authority allowed many hundreds of thousands of pounds of public funds to be spent on up-grading a few hundred metres of motorway junk on the Archway Road, just north of the Angel, and at the very point where the pedestrian subways were left to rot to such an extent that most pedestrians chose not to use them at all.
One cycling party-goer displayed his prototype for a solar-powered machine designed to carry goods which can revert to pedal power when necessary. In fact the weather was great for harnessing solar energy but use of wind energy was confined to kite-flying in the middle of the road and propagandist leftists on the sidelines.
The groups of homeless people who usually hang around the Angel station all day long joined in. It was probably the only party they had been to all year, and one of the few times when they were not made unwelcome or verbally abused.
Generally the reactions to Street Party #2 were very appreciative.

In “The Islington Gazette” it was reported that “Most local workers supported the demonstrators’ aim to free city roads from traffic.” A barmaid at a local pub who joined in the action was reported as saying: “It was really peaceful and everyone was having a good time.”
A local cafe worker remarked to the author: “Yeah, it was very good. Everybody liked it.” A bus driver trapped right in the middle of the celebrations with his empty bus said: “Isn’t this fucking great? It’s really great. I can’t wait to tell the others. I’m alright, I’ve got my sandwiches, I can sit here all day.” According to “The Independent” “…one bus driver, trapped in a queue of about 20 empty buses, said he was in favour of the demonstration…” “It’s anti-car not anti-bus, so I can’t complain.
And they’ve been giving out free drinks, too.” [3]

On the organisational side of things the marshalls made good use of portable phones. There were some good slogans on banners, placards and lollipops: “Smog Off”, “Let London Breathe”, “Support the Railworkers”. First Aid facilities were not needed. Hardly any debris or rubbish was left behind afterwards because party-goers cleared it up.
The Leftists were there. It speaks volumes that the Socialist Workers Party commandeered liberated road space with stony-faced young party members selling a political newspaper rather than joining in. It seemed like they had missed the whole point. By setting up their bookstall in the road, CND’s contribution seemed only slightly better.

After Eight thuggies

For the street party-goers who stayed till late things ended badly,
or as the “Islington Gazette” correctly put it, “…summer fun turned to horror”.

It is fair to say that ‘soft’ policing started right from the beginning, with a presence of about 80 police standing on the other side of the barricades. It ‘hardened’ up around 16.30 hrs to 17.00 hrs with new shifts. Then the Territorial Support Group (TSG or riot police) moved in between 20.00 hrs and 20.15 hrs when only about 150 party-goers were left.
All this time there were about 15 legal observers from the Legal Defence & Monitoring Group (LDMG) present who wore orange day-glo bibs for easy identification. They were stayed throughout the Party and helped out over-night with those arrested, and on into the Monday. They also issued small leaflets to people involved in the action entitled: “Legal Information for this demonstration”. As a
result of their commitment they need funds and support.
Later on Sunday evening an observer from Liberty (NCCL) told a Jazz FM Radio interviewer that the attacks by the riot police were unnecessary and excessive. He witnessed the beatings and described them as: “trying to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.”
The police certainly used authoritarian and brutal tactics to finish of a fun day out and an environmental action designed to protest against the damage created by motor traffic. The tactics contrasted starkly with the humour and intentions of people at the Street Party.

The LDMG wrote an eye-witness account [4] of events as they unfolded after 20.00 hrs. It is included here.

“At 8pm a number of uniformed police officers backed up by up to ten riot vans started moving the demonstrators down Upper Street towards the Angel tube station. At this stage the demonstrators numbers had reduced to about 150. The officers were spread across the road. Demonstrators were moving down towards the tube station. The mood of the demonstrators (and the police) was still friendly.
At approximately 8.15pm, for reasons only known to the police, a number of officers from the Territorial Support Group (TSG or riot police) in full riot gear started assisting the uniformed police.
They were supported by at least 10 other vehicles, police in helicopters and video crews positioned on buildings. The mood of the demonstrators was still peaceful. At least 18 police vans full of TSG had been spotted some 50 minutes earlier in a back street near Upper Street. It must be asked why so many officers in full riot gear were on standby so early when the mood of the day had been so peaceful.
The deployment of the police in riot gear made the atmosphere a great deal more aggressive. A small bottle (ONLY ONE) was lobbed towards these riot police. It was NOT aimed at the uniformed police who were some way in front of the riot police at this stage. Within seconds of this happening the TSG drew batons, pushed past the uniformed officers and started assaulting demonstrators with shields & batons. Over approximately the next 90 minutes the TSG violently pushed and beat demonstrators towards, and past, Angel tube station and down Pentonville Rd. At this stage there were some 200 officers in full riot gear backed up by at least 100 further officers in uniform. There were under 100 demonstrators. The riot police pushed demonstrators down Pentonville Rd. They were asked on numerous occasions by Legal Observers from the Legal Defence & Monitoring Group (LDMG) where they were directing people to and to “calm down”. Needless to say their answers were less than helpful. Eventually (at approximately 9pm) demonstrators, whose numbers were less than 50, were moved into Northdown Street where all exits were blocked by police and riot vans. Many people trying to leave this area were searched. The reason the police gave, when pressed, was that there had been a public order incident, missiles had been thrown and offensive weapons had been seen – so they were checking if people had missiles or offensive weapons.
From the moment the riot police took over from the uniformed police indiscriminately and very heavy handedly arresting protestors. In total they arrested 17 people. At least one demonstrator needed hospital attention (head split open by a police truncheon) and two more were knocked unconscious by the police.

Every time a legal observer tried to get details of an arrested person we were threatened with arrest, were physically moved from the scene of the arrest or were assaulted.

Although the actions of the riot police were totally out of control throughout the whole episode we feel a number of incidents deserve special attention:
• One particular officer, in full riot gear, was seen on at least three occasions using his clenched fist to punch demonstrators in the head and face – one of whom was knocked unconscious;
• An articulated lorry was moving through the crowd and the police were violently pushing people past it causing a number of them to lose balance. It was only luck that somebody did not fall under the wheels of this vehicle, Police were asked to stop pushing for a while by legal observers who were told to move or be
nícked”;
• When one demonstrator was knocked unconscious legal observers and other protesters tried to see if he was alright, but were viciously pushed and beaten by the police. Although being told by a person with some medical knowledge that this person should not be moved the police continually tried to move him.

As soon as arrests were made the LDMG tried, with difficulty, to get solicitors to all of those arrested, and to find out information about them. We staffed our office throughout the night and next day receiving numerous calls asking the whereabouts of missing protestors. By 5am we had details of all 17 people arrested.

Charing Cross police station would only release 1 (who accepted a caution) of the 10 arrestees. The rest were held over night and appeared in Bow Street Magistrates Court the following day, which we monitored. Two of those held were refused bail and are presently on remand, at Brixton Prison until 31st July. We feel, the decision to hold them overnight at a police station and in prison was Vindictive and excessive. Three of those arrested were for possession of drugs and all three pleaded guilty.
We have set up a defence campaign for the 13 still facing charges.
Another indication of the state’s attempt to brutalise and criminalise us is the severity of the charges. Most are being Charged with section 2, 3 or 4 of the Public Order Act 1986. Our aim is now to:

X get the two out of prison;
X prove all 13 innocent;
X look into actions against the officer who punched demonstrators;
X and to assist people to sue the police for assault and false
arrest.”

EPILOGUE:

The two demonstrators who were in court on July 31st, after a week in prison, pleaded guilty to lesser charges than the original ‘affray’ charges, and received £100 fines. LDMG provided them with money while they were in prison, but when LDMG solicitors attempted to see them, the police refused allow this unless they specifically asked for them. Presumably unaware of the LDMG solicitors, they both used ‘duty solicitors’. LDMG advises anyone arrested on a demonstration to ask to see their solicitors, who have a record of seeing justice done.”

Lessons

Perhaps the main lesson for all those party-goers who earlier on in the day said that the Police seemed well-disposed to the party is that the sympathies of our polite, yet highly suspicious, police on ‘the beat’, or on ‘point duty’, can hardly be distinguished from those of the uniformed brute in riot gear who wields the latest in baton technology. How can things be otherwise when hard and soft police work hand-in-glove to defend the commodity?
Secondly, the flyers and most of the placards and banners could have done more to link up the separate issues represented by all the different groups who attended the celebrations. We will be ‘picked off’ one-by-one in future if we do not. Closest to the target were: “Pollution is the halitosis of the State” and “Support the Railworkers”, although even these were a bit traditional.
Unfortunately no leaflets giving a sound analytical critique of the whole mess with our countryside, the economy, public health, our towns and transport infrastructure were circulated.

It is a fine thing to proclaim a street “Car Free” or a High Street “Pollution Free”, but there is an urgent need to reclaim life as a whole from the clutches of an ideology which is anti-life. A radical social change is needed which abolishes the spectacular
commodity economy as a whole. The fallout from one spectacular commodity cannot be dealt with effectively on its own; in isolation
Although an anti-car stance is understandable it does not confront a salient fact of the modern capitalist system: its inability to foster the appropriate and wise use of any technology for the benefit of people.
Perhaps the biggest lesson for party-goers is that defenders of this modern phase of capitalism no longer pretend otherwise about their intention to force us all to accept the domination of the spectacular commodity system, regardless of its catalogue of
damage: social alienation, industrial accidents, the thinning of the ozone layer, the production of


‘Greenhouse gases, the lead poisoning which still continues, the incidence of asthma which is increasing, massive cleaning bills, road accidents, soil erosion, profligate use of oil and resources, the destruction of urban and rural communities and environments, atomisation, photochemical smog and noise, vibration damage to buildings and human activity. The modern capitalist system seems hell bent on messing up the planet and taking us with it.

Conclusion

Street Party #2 embraced all kinds of people, including the marginalised and most proletarianised. This is something that the dominant culture of modern Britain is incapable of.
The action was straightforward and even verged on the simplistic. But judging from the different people who took part it could never be called a single issue-based action.
Those who came along had a biting critique, enormous energy, guts, imagination and spontaneity. This is just what it takes to make the transition to an economic and social system which serves important humans needs and does not jeopardise public health, social life, the culture of human settlements, and our natural environment.

References

“the Guardian”, 24 July 1995 p 5 by Alex Macnaughton.
“the Independent”, 24 July 1995 p 2 by Tony Buckingham.
* the Times”, 24 July 1995, p 2.
“A-8 London Street Atlas”
“Green Line Magazine”, No 127, September 1995 pp 13 – 15.
“Islington Gazette and Stoke Newington Observer”, 27 July 1995, p 23
Completed January 1996
Editor: c/o BM Chronos, London WCIN 6XX

Endnotes

2. “The Times” 24th July 1995 p. 2 printed an article entitled “Anti-car protest ends in riot” which included five lines on the peaceful party in Islington High Street and twenty lines on the riot. This article gave an estimate of 2000 people. The LDMG gave the same figure. The author and a friend estimated 4000, perhaps more.

3. “Independent” 24 July 1995, pp 1-2. The article, “Riot police mop up anti-car protesters”, put emphasis on the riot too,

4. “Green Line Magazine”, September 1995, pp 13-15. This is a bi-weekly environmental publication. In the interests of accuracy the article is included just as it appeared in issue No 127, complete with ‘typos’.

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A few days after the Angel party, RTS saw a prime opportunity for another action, visiting Greenwich, SE London, where parents and children with asthma were going to the High Court to force the Greenwich Council to close its main through road at times of high pollution. (At this time if I recall right, central Greenwich was calculated to be suffering the worst traffic pollution in London, possibly the UK). On Friday, August 4, RTS closed Greenwich down, blocking the major arterial in morning peak-hour traffic for two hours with scaffolding tripods. Pedestrians joined in and the local coffee shop delivered free coffee, tea and biscuits to the demonstrators. Even many of the drivers held up in the traffic jam that day came out in favour of the action.

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Postscript:

What follows is the text of a Leaflet written for distribution at a 1996 Reclaim the Streets occupation of the M41 motorway, looking at the limitations of such occupations in the broader context of the capitalist restructuring occurring at the time.

Returning to Upper Street a week or two after July ’95 “Reclaim the Streets” was unsettling and strange. Heavy traffic now roared through the area where a children’s sandpit previously was and where a settee and carpet had been too.

Reclaim the Streets is a hundred times better than the average boring demo, trudging along between rows of cops to a “rally” where we’re talked at by no-hope politicians and union bureaucrats. By seizing territory and using it for our own purposes, our own party, it’s already a victory (whereas every union/Leftist campaign is already a defeat).

Still, Reclaim the Streets has its limitations, most obviously in time and space. The actions are usually strictly timed; the minority who held on after the official end last time were abandoned to our fate; a police riot. And it was bizarre the way in Islington last year diners carried on their meals outside Upper Street restaurants only a hundred metres from the blocked off street and police lines.

The use of space in the street party was highly imaginitive. The kids sandpit and grown-up’s settee in the middle of the road were a good bit of fun, demonstrating the opposition between rising traffic and human relaxation and play. The action was also one in the eye for the ‘radical’ left-wing Labour council of Islington, who try to make themselves real representatives of the local ‘citizens’. Still their attempts to do this don’t always go to plan.

At the anti-Poll tax demo at Islington town hall in early 1990 the council showed their direct democratic principles and closeness to their electors by miking up the council chamber and relaying the sound to a PA outside so anti-Poll tax demonstrators could hear the process of democracy. This backfired quite a bit though as what we could hear was the Mayor saying things like “Can the demonstrators in the public gallery stop throwing missiles into the council chamber”! Fuck their democracy and their pseudo-radicalism! We weren’t letting them screw the Poll tax on us! We were penned into a small area just outside the town hall, surrounded by cops. The first violence I saw was when a few youngsters (10 to 12 years) started throwing bottles at the cops. When the cops dived in to arrest them we couldn’t do much to save them, just throw a journalist in the cops way to try and slow them down. The main trouble started when the demo was breaking up. I didn’t see exactly what happened, but a mini-riot started and we were chased all the way from the town hall down to the Angel: to the exact spot where Reclaim the Streets was last year and where the cops started chasing us from, when that finished!

There is more to the conflict between state and protesters over roads than just a growing environmental consciousness. The expansion of the road network has been a key element in capitalist political strategy for over two decades.

The defeat of fascism, and victory for totalitarian democracy in the West, and Stalinism in the East, marked a new phase in capitalism. Both east and west did their best to integrate the proletariat (people without social power or social wealth) through high employment and a high social wage (unemployment benefit, free healthcare and education etc.). This strategy was always a bit creaky in the east with its weak capital, but in the west combined with consumerism it helped bring relative social peace through to the late 60s.

But even in the rich west, not every section of the proletariat could be bought off, even temporarily. The first break with the post-war deal came from sectors normally ignored by, and incomprehensible to, the workerist left. First of all came the struggles by blacks, including many of the poorest and oppressed amongst all proletarians. Then developed a new wave of women’s struggles. Certainly both of these had their contradictions; they took time to find their feet and also the racial or gender basis, rather than specifically proletarian, made them especially wide open to co-optation. But even so these were important struggles, the first thrashings of a waking giant. As the sixties progressed, struggles spread amongst students in many countries. After several days of rioting around the Sorbonne in Paris in ’68, these “marginal” struggles kicked off a weeks-long general strike and occupation movement with strong revolutionary overtones. This strike sent reverberations around the world, with related struggles echoing in Mexico, Italy, Poland, Britain, Portugal, Spain and many other places over the next few years.

These struggles shook capital to its foundation but never became an authentically internationalist revolutionary movement. Capitalism’s knee-jerk response was to move investment from areas of successful proletarian struggle to more placid zones (or more fascistic ones). This original “flight of capital” was quickly developed into a coherent strategy. Industries or industrial areas with strong traditions of struggle were deliberately run down. Mass unemployment was used to slash wages, including the social wage. This was blamed on “the recession” as if this was some natural disaster. Capitalist production was dispersed and internationalised so as to make any revival of proletarian class power more difficult.

This dispersal of production naturally leads to greater need for communication, transport and co-ordination between the different elements of production. This strategic attack has had a major effect on the composition of the proletariat. In the UK for example, since 1981 job cuts in mining and utilities have amounted to 442,000; in mineral and metal products 435,000; in transport 352,000; in construction 307,000. All cuts in traditional areas of class power. The biggest growth areas have been information technology with 916,000 more jobs; as well as social work with 450,000; hotel and restaurants 334,000; and education 247,000. The biggest cuts have been in traditional industry, the biggest growth in IT, connecting together the new dispersed production system. This reorganisation has been carried out with the deliberate aim of atomising our struggles. So instead of using efficient rail transport, the new model has relied instead on road transport with massive state investment in road programs. The use of road transport against class struggle became crystal clear at the News International dispute in Wapping in 1986. The typographers’ jobs were replaced by computer technology and the rest of the printers sacked and replaced by scabs. Up till then, the Sun and Times had been distributed using British Rail. But Rupert Murdoch knew he couldn’t rely on BR’s workers to distribute scab papers. Part of his winning strategy was to use his own fleet of lorries instead of rail transport. Part of our struggle against Murdoch was the blocking of roads around Wapping to try and prevent the papers getting out.

Road building is a conscious strategy of capital against proletarian struggle. Reclaim the Streets sits in a long line of struggles including Wapping, The Poll tax, even May ’68.

Capital’s strategy has undeniably been fairly effective. Workers struggles in Britain reached an historical low a couple of years back. Most workers’ struggles remain trade union style disputes in the ever diminishing state sector. The newer sectors of the workforce have yet to make any major collective struggle. For the workerist left, this is a truly depressing time. But the increasingly politicised struggles outside the workplace; the interlinked struggles of the anti-roads, anti-Job Seeker’s Allowance, anti-Criminal Justice Act etc., are much more than so called single issue campaigns. These struggles are consciously linked and determinedly expansive. Their effectiveness is certainly limited, compared to the potential of a wave of wildcat strikes or riots, but who can say that these struggles won’t play the same role as the struggles of the blacks’, women’s and students’ movements in the 60s; first skirmishes of a new revolutionary movement.

This is a version of a leaflet that was written in Summer 1996, for the ‘Reclaim the Streets’ party on/occupation of, the M41 motorway in West London, UK. For various reasons, it the leaflet was not produced at that time. This slightly revised version is made available here as the comments on restructuring and recomposition have a continuing relevance. Taken from the Antagonism website.

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The story continues: some later RTS street parties:

M41 motorway party, 1996 

Brixton, 1998

J18, 1999

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) 

 

 

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 M41 motorways in Shepherds Bush, this 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…

Today in London traffic history, 1995: Reclaim the Streets block Camden High Street to party against car culture

“A street part is in full swing. 1000s of people have reclaimed a major road and declared it a ‘street now open’. Music laughter and song have replaced the roar of engines. Road rage becomes road rave, as tarmac grey is smothered by the living colour of a festival…
Single issue? Just against the car? For all of the mainstream media’s attempt to define it as such, for those involved it expresses much more… A festival of resistance!’ (Reclaim The Streets leaflet 1998)

The current Extinction Rebellion protests around the planetary climate change crisis have galvanised huge numbers, as well as sparking vital discussions about tactics, participation and decision-making.

How it reminds some of us of our own youth… specifically the previous great wave of eco-action from the 1990s. Of course the ‘historical’ anti-roads movements, Reclaim the Streets etc are not separate from today’s movement – there are continuous threads through Earth First!, Climate Camp, Rising Tide and so on that have carried on through the intervening years. But in many ways Reclaim the Streets represented the last high profile mass environmental movement before XR. Some examination of RTS, its development, actions and significance, could be interesting when compared to XR, and discussion of its successes and failures could contribute to today’s debate and decisions…

This is as much a personal account as a history, and may well miss out much others would have covered. I’ve nicked/quoted other people’s work where it made sense… If it’s a bit rambly its because I have rushed to write it, but maybe we’ll update and tidy it and hope to include it in a longer piece about J18 and other things…

From the start it should be said that it is written from the perspective of someone who did have some involvement (for a while only) in Reclaim the Streets but (partly for reasons of time, work, family and other pressures) is not significantly involved in Extinction Rebellion, though I have been on some of their actions. Critiques of them here may well be influenced by lack of full knowledge; just as critiques of RTS may be coloured by way too much hindsight…

NB: This post has been slightly edited after some discussions and critiques from from ex-RTS folk who read the first published version… But its very much a personal take.

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It was 25 years ago today…

On 14 May 1995, two old cars deliberately crashed into each other, in the five-way intersection  in Camden High Street, the heart of one of north London’s busiest trendy shopping areas. Both drivers, in a seeming paroxysm of road rage, jumped out and started to abuse each other. This was much to the annoyance and disbelief of onlooking drivers, now in a traffic jam because of the altercation. The two drivers got so irate they proceeded to smash up each other’s cars with sledge hammers. The street was blocked: usually rammed with cars, the high street was suddenly-traffic free. A crowd poured into the street, sound systems powered by electricity generated by the constant pedalling of bicycles began to pound out dance music, and the road becomes a party venue. There were about 300 people present (though some onlookers joined in)…

“Every car entering the intersection was gridlocked. Shoppers and market goers joined the party, which lasted five hours. The smashed cars became the focus for all to vent car-anger on; they were attacked throughout the party. The police merely directed traffic. What else could they do?”

The cars were second-hand bangers bought to be trashed and used as barricades; the brainchild of Reclaim the Streets. The Camden street party launched RTS’s classic period of huge street parties, taking over larger and higher profile spaces, and inspiring similar groups which sprang up all around the world.

As someone wrote at the time:

“Thus arises the modus operandi of occupying urban zones with spontaneous and illegal celebrations that appropriate the public space for a number of hours. Food is given away, toys are brought along for children and banners are arranged which proclaim the changes that have been brought about in the space: ‘BREATHE’, ‘CAR FREE’, ‘RECLAIM THE STREETS!’ Camden Town, an area of London largely dedicated to the commercialization of ‘alternative’ culture, is turned into a place of free leisure. This piece of the urban landscape temporarily changes its function in a carnivalesque inversion of social order. The absence of authority, the system where everything is free: the street becomes a place to play, eat, drink and dance – without money and without permission. If the car has become a symbol and celebration is a medium, this ‘form’ is more utopian than the conventional rally because it refers to other possible forms of organization. The interruption of motorized traffic represents an act of collective civil disobedience against the city’s traffic norms. On top of the aim of anti-road movement to prevent the construction of new motorways, RTS proposes a temporary blockade of those that already exist, trying to sketch out the vision of a city without cars.”

Origins

Reclaim the Streets (RTS) had originally been founded in 1991, and as a small collective carried out small-scale ecologist actions: painting cycle lanes on the roads during the night and picketing an automobile industry fair. It declared itself: ‘FOR walking, cycling and cheap, or free, public transport, and AGAINST cars, roads and the system that pushes them.’ On a spring day in 1992 the group brang traffic in part of London to a halt with a small illegal party in the street. The police evicted them, but warned: ‘Protest is gonna get bigger: the car culture is growing constantly! This is just the first stage.’ A few months after this event, the group disbanded.

RTS was then reborn, three years later, in the heat of a large anti-roads movement which had been evolving and increasing in profile and activity across the UK in the early 1990s; but RTS also absorbed huge wodges of ideas and spirit from the diverse movement that came together to oppose the 1994 Criminal Justice Bill; behind that, lay a mass of rave culture, squatting, traveller scenes, party crews, sound systems and various eco-protest groups.

Two huge protests in particular had raised the profile of the anti-roads movement  – the Twyford Down camp and direct action against the construction of the M3 motorway link, the “No M11 Link” campaign occurred in North East London’s suburbs of Leytonstone and Wanstead. Twyford focussed on protecting rural beauty spots and saw alliances between travellers and self-styled ‘tribes’ like the Dongas. The M11 in contrast was urban, in defence both pf thousands of trees being torn down for the M11 link road, as well as the loss of hundreds of homes. Resistance to the M11 involved constant direct-action resistance for 18 months, culminating in the eviction in December 1994 of the squatted street at Claremont Road.

ALARM U.K. (Alliance Against Road Building) recounted in its newsletter, “The government was taken aback that a protest against the M11, a motorway being built in an unfashionable part of East London, resulted in the longest campaign of direct action against a road in British history. Pictures were flashed around the world of masses of people old and young, conventional and alternative, taking on bulldozers in an awe-inspiring defense of homes, urban spaces and communities.”

Here a working-class community, in alliance with an influx of activists, many young but already seasoned in the anti-roads/anti-CJB scenes, not defending green spaces, homes and community.

The campaign against the M11 kicked off when the Old Chestnut Tree of George Green, Wanstead, to the community’s surprise, was to be removed. The residents, angered by being misled by the government, found themselves pushing down fences built to keep them from defending the tree. During the next year, houses were squatted and work constantly disrupted. But it became obvious in the summer of 1994 that Claremont Road, a strip of houses in the path of the motorway, was to be the main focus of the campaign. A community formed around these houses that included local residents, squatters and activists from around the country. The campaign strategy was to “dig in” and make it as difficult as possible for the authorities to remove protesters. It took four days in November, 1994, to evict everyone.

The street was painted and filled with psychedelic sculptures, and barricades. Above them the nets, tree houses, aerial walkways and towers went up; inside the houses bunkers and lock-ons and tunnels were hidden in tons of rubble.

After Claremont Road was lost, much of its energy and cheeky spirit went into Reclaim the Streets (RTS), which had already existed, but was revived to step up the campaigning from specific roads to opposition to roads in general and “car culture’. RTS aimed to move the debate beyond anti-road protest, to highlight the social and environmental costs of the car and the political and economic forces behind it and to demonstrate the possibilities of what can be done when people re-occupy their streets and turn them to alternative uses.

RTS’ advocated  “direct action, but not just as a tactic. [We advocate] a society in which people take responsibility for their own actions, and don’t just leave it to the politicians.” This wasn’t just about pressuring an existing establishment into action – it was about everyone taking action in our own collective interests.

Reclaim the Streets’ events were organised very much along the lines of how raves had been planned and attracted participants over the past 6 or 7 years: people were invited to gather at an underground station and, once there, a small group lead them to the final destination, which had been kept secret. The RTS parties explicitly politicised the rave, although the oppositional culture of raves had been bothering the authorities for a while. Parties were based around sound systems, rhythms of techno and acid house, although the older free festival scene that had evolved from the 1970s also had something of an influence. But the RTS parties also wanted to “create situations that are fitting for a better world”.

How street parties were seen by RTS was later summed up thus
“A street part is in full swing. 1000s of people have reclaimed a major road and declared it a ‘street now open’. Music laughter and song have replaced the roar of engines. Road rage becomes road rave, as tarmac grey is smothered by the living colour of a festival…
Single issue? Just against the car? For all of the mainstream media’s attempt to define it as such, for those involved it expresses much more.
The Street party, itself reclaimed from the inanities of royal jubilees and state ‘celebrations’, is just one recent initiative in a vibrant history of struggle, both to defend and to take back collective space. From the Peasants’ Revolt to the resistance to the enclosures, from the land occupations of the Diggers to the post-war squatters, on to the recent free festivals, peace camps, land squats and anti-roads movement. Everywhere, extra-ordinary people have continually asserted not only the need to liberate the commons but the ability to think and organise for themselves.
For the city, the streets are the commons, but in the hands of industry and power brokers the streets have become mere conduits for commerce and consumption – the economic hero of which is, of course, the car. A symbol and a symptom of the social and ecological nightmare that state and capitalism create, the car which promises individual freedom ends up guaranteeing noise, destruction and pollution for all. For Reclaim the Streets, the car is a focus – the insanity of its system clearly visible – that leads to questioning both the myth of ‘the market’ and its corporate and institutional enforcers.
With a metal river on one side and endless windows of consumerism on the other, the streets’ true purpose: social interaction, becomes an uneconomic diversion. In its place the corporate-controlled one way media of newspapers, radio and television become ‘the community’. Their interpretation out reality. In this sense the streets are the alternative and subversive form of the mass media. Where authentic communication, immediate and reciprocal, takes place.
To ‘reclaim the streets’ is to act in defence of and for common ground. To tear down the fence of enclosure that profit-making demands. And the Street Party – far from being juts anti-car – is an explosion of our suppressed potential, a celebration of our diversity and a chorus of voices in solidarity.

A festival of resistance!’ {RTS leaflet 1998.}

Upper Street

After Camden had hit the news with a bang, the second Reclaim the Streets party was held on Sunday, July 23, at the Angel intersection in Islington, North London. It was a huge success, with over 2,000-3000 demonstrators participating. Crowds met a mile or so away, and were then led to the party location, while other activists blocked the road with tripods constructed from scaffolding, placed in the middle of the road: tripods that could be dismantled only if the person who is at the top of them comes down. Two tons of sand were piled in the road to make a children’s play area, (reversing the famous slogan of May 1968, ‘underneath the paving stones, the beach’. On this occasion, the beach spreads out on top of the asphalt)… banners went up to stop more traffic, stalls were erected and a huge tank rolled in with a sound system pumping. The party had begun before the police arrived. The Highbury Islington street party coincided with a week of hot weather and a smog alert. In only two months, the number of people who took part in the first street event increased tenfold.

John Jordan, one of the co-founders of RTS, talked of how the street celebration seeks to prefigure an ‘imagined world… a vision in which the streets of the city could be a system that prioritised people above profit and ecology above the economy’the ‘perfect propaganda for the possible’. (In Upper Street Louis Armstrong’s song What a Wonderful World sounded out through the loudspeakers.)

The experience of being during the party is different from life away from it: ordinary norms disappear and people express themselves by dancing, playing music or making artistic interventions on any available surface. The economic system of the celebration is abundance and generosity. It is about thinking of the emergence of a world where things are free and where there is a celebrating community, a world of shared goods and freed space. Earth First magazine Do or Die suggested that ‘inherent within its praxis – its mix of desire, spontaneity and organisation – lie some of the foundations on which to build a participatory politics for a liberated, ecological society.’

A week later, RTS saw a prime opportunity for another action, visiting Greenwich, SE London, where parents and children with asthma are going to the High Court to force the Greenwich Council to close its main through road at times of high pollution. (At this time if I recall right, central Greenwich was calculated to be suffering the worst traffic pollution in London, possibly the UK). On Friday, August 4, RTS closed Greenwich down, blocking the major arterial in morning peak-hour traffic for two hours with scaffolding tripods. Pedestrians joined in and the local coffee shop delivered free coffee, tea and biscuits to the demonstrators. Even many of the drivers held up in the traffic jam that day came out in favour of the action.

The M41

The following year RTS returned with a bang. 1996 was proclaimed (by the car industry) “Year of the Car”. RTS made 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 – 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… 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. Some 7,000 turned up… At the height of the festivities, beneath the tall panto dame figures 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… to plant seedlings from the gardens smashed by the bulldozers at Claremont Road.


Liverpool Dockers 96-97

After dockers in Liverpool were locked out after refusing to work for a lower rate than they were prepared to accept, a long-running dispute evolved, involving 500 dockers. This became a major cause celebre in Liverpool and across the UK, with mass solidarity, international support…
Reclaim the Streets in London were approached by London supporters of the dockers, and launched a 3-day protest/party/occupation in September 1996 to mark the first anniversary of the dispute. Hundreds of activists attended and joined dockers on the picket line, and occupied a dock office block, as well s cutting the fence around Seaforth Dock and invading the facility…

heres’ an RTS leaflet on the dockers’s struggle

And an interview with Chris Knight, who linked up the two groups

As one ex-RTS activist put it: “Linking the ecological direst action movement to workers in struggle was simply a necessary step towards transition, as it still is…”  

April 12th 1997

Following the Liverpool actions, RTS and the Dockers collaborated on a demo/action/party in April 1997 to coincide with the run-up to the general election – variously known at the March for Social Justice, Reclaim the Future, the ‘Festival of Resistance’ and Never Mind The Ballots…

On 12th April 1997, some 20,000 people took part in the March for Social Justice, called by the 500 sacked Liverpool Dockers and their families, jointly with the Hillingdon Hospital and Magnet strikers. The gathering at Trafalgar Square was big but most of the Dockers, other strikers and their families left soon after the rally (mainly because of their long journeys home). The numbers were beginning to drop when a van containing the sound system managed to enter the square – the music and the huge street party then began. The dancing went on for hours,  but by late afternoon, the cordon had successfully reduced the numbers in the square and riot police – some on horseback – stormed in to clear the area battering us out of the Square and over the bridges, with lots of extreme prejudice.

IN November 1997 RTS squatted an empty petrol station in Islington

By 1998 RTS had evolved into something not just about cars and roads, but about taking back everything:

“We are basically about taking back public space from the enclosed private arena. At its simplest it is an attack on cars as a principle agent of enclosure. It’s about reclaiming the streets as pubic inclusive space from the private exclusive use of the car. But we believe in this as a broader principle, taking back those things which have been enclosed within capitalist circulation and returning them to collective use as a commons.” (RTS leaflet 1998)

In May 1998 RTS held a party in Birmingham, then hosting a G8 summit. Here’s a report

And some Video footage

Think global, act local

After Birmingham, 1998, RTS decided to put on simultaneous ‘local’ street parties in different areas of London; after much of the usual debate, this came down to two, one in the north. One down south, on June 6th – to coincide with hundreds of RTS parties going on around the world… The North London party met at Kings Cross and then went on a long march to Tottenham, where the party took place. In South London, we settled on Brixton, where a majority of south London RTS folk lived anyway. Unlike at other actions, there was no plan B and instead of meeting in one place and moving to another, we double-bluffed the cops, amassing in front of the Ritzy cinema and taking over the street in front of us when our four old bangers of cars smashed into each other. This remains one of my favourite RTS parties, because it took over the street I actually lived in, in my manor; a great feeling.
See Neil Transpontine’s account of the Brixton party

A report on the June 1998 North London party

here’s some film of this North London street party

There were some problems with these parties:  notably differences between Brixton and the North London party – the former was rooted in people who lived here, the North London less so – not even opening discussions with local activist groups in that area. Also it seemed less happy in its conclusions somehow, some people involved with it got upset by accusations of anti-social behaviour from some locals and had to go back, hand out an apology leaflet and tidy up…

London RTS had several discussion over the summer of 1998 about where to go next. There were two main strands of thought. 1, that the ever larger RTS group in the capital could break up somewhat into more local groups but employ similar ideas, tactics, spirit in local actions around more local and daily targets. There was a suggestion that not only had the police begin to get the measure of large parties but that it was old news, becoming less effective, and making a ‘spectacle’ of itself, in the situationist sense – rather than addressing where capital and eco-change could really be fought over – in people’s daily lives where they lived, worked, played. Others countered this with the idea that large parties/actions had been successful so far and what was needed was a harder bigger target, linked much more to international capitalism and finance, rather than concentrating on car use, general eco-protest…
It was the second group that won the argument, in the short term at least, which was to usher in June 18th, probably the highest profile of all the RTS events; it also launched in many ways the UK arm of the ‘anti-capitalist movement’, a distinct development from both the RTS/90s eco-scene and the anarchists who had enthusiastically embraced it (not all did by any means).

J18 1999

A product of the 98 discussions, the J18 day of action in June 1999 came out of the growing merger of anarchists and RTS ideas, but also linked more and more to ‘anti-capitalism’ and the antiglobal summit movement. Plans for a spectacular day of action in the City of London had been under discussion since mid-98, and more and more 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 soon on this blog]

On June 18, 1999, thousands of demonstrators converged at the Liverpool Street train station. Organisers distributed masks in four different colours and the participants broke up into four different marches in order to divide and confuse police; a spontaneous fifth march emerged, as well as a Critical Mass composed of hundreds of bicyclists. 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 river 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, and nearly succeeded in destroying the London Stock Exchange itself. In response, police attacked the general public with tear gas and horse charges and ran over one demonstrator with a riot van,
breaking her leg.

There’s some reflections of June 18th, published after the event.

The events of June 18, 1999 set the stage for the historic demonstrations against the summit of the World Trade Organization in Seattle later that year.

(RTS and others put an event, ‘N30’ to coincide with Seattle)

After J18, RTS did partially fragment; many older/founder activists splintered off into other activities, other burned out for a bit. But larger numbers went into other eco-related direct action groups like UK Earth First!, into a growing network carrying out anti-genetically modified crop actions… In London, some parts of RTS remained involved in large spectacular anti-capitalist events, most notably the annual Mayday protests which ran from 2000 on, and were best attended in the early 2000s. Other faces got involved in RTS itself in London…

Links to reports on early 2000s Mayday actions in London

From RTS, Maydays, the anti-capitalist scene evolved other projects – social centres eg the London Action Resource Centre & others around the UK… the WOMBLES, Dissent  and the Disobedience network against the Iraq war

Mad hippies… middle class wankers…

When RTS burst onto the scene there it led to a mix of opinion on the older ‘class struggle’ anarchist scenes (the milieu past tense emerged from and was then immersed in) and the left… Many had had some involvement in the anti-CJA campaigns, many had been squatters, ravers since the late 90s, and embraced the mad frolics with a will… Others were very po-faced and dismissed it all as hippy nonsense. Not serious and working class enough. Within much of the CJA, anti-roads scenes, there had been an extremely diverse mix of views, politically ranging from class struggle anarchism, through pacifist, Green Party, to hippy ‘lifestylism’ (and on the fringe, frankly to some dodgy conspiracy theory types).  Lots of the class struggle anarcho wing had spent years in their youths ‘growing out’ of pacifism, learning that the police were prepared to kick in heads and trusting neither in the state or in politicians of any stripe. We’d seen and felt the truncheons and experienced the left in power, as well as getting tired of what we saw as drongo drop out laziness and anti-social selfishness which infected many squats and projects, and the kind or moralising politics that had pervaded pacifism, CND etc. The naivety of some of the 90s scenes (some of it down to youth but not all by any means) was frustrating, and there were some among us who said it was all middle class hippy wankers. It wasn’t, though there were a number of middle class hippy wankers, and a lot of ‘what are you doing to save the Earth’ moralising which gets right up yer nostrils. But some of us were really up ourselves in many ways, convinced of our politically advanced ideas, dismissive… RTS though had such energy that it pulled us in, especially as many of the ‘community-activist’ projects we had built in the wake of anti-poll tax movement were in reality struggling to survive. The M41 and RTS alliance with the dockers convinced many suspicious minds that there was some real potential here (arrogant as that sounds now). There was also a sense of a kind of (funny) desperation to be where the action was… As well as a gradual disintegration of anarcho-snobbery into a respect and appreciation. (Of course lots of anarchos had also been involved early on too) But in the end, an influx of anarchists and other types into RTS synthesised something new – for a while. This helped spark new directions – for instance discussions and memories about the story of Stop the City from some of those who had taken part helped create J18 in 1999.

Others remained critical, including some on what you could call the post-situ or left communist scenes, which had a close relation in practice to anarchists while always holding up lots of issues. Some of this was acid and niggly, other points were interesting and useful. An interesting critique of RTS and anti-summit movement/anti-capitalism: You Make Plans we make History

RTS’s critics from the post-situ or ‘ultraleft’ scenes did have some interesting points about activism, and what they saw as the difference between ‘protest’ and ‘struggle’. The latter comes out of people’s needs, own experience and desires, they reckoned; the former they saw as something disconnected, artificially set up and directed at something outside of ourselves. If struggle was suggested as effective in addressing social & economic conditions that hold us down directly, protest is shown almost as diversion, complaint, remote from ourselves, addressing ‘issues’ and demanding someone else do something about them. Now there’s a kernel of truth here – this tension does exist, and there are a growing number of professional and academic activists institutionalising campaigning, creating niches and leadership roles for themselves. ‘Activism’ as a construct IS a separation of sorts, splitting off those who protest about issues from those who don’t, creating a spectacular conception of yourself as a fighter, whether or not it’s about what you yourself need or desire… there was a tendency to see yourself as a hero if the planet. There was also a dynamic of organisers and attendees, to some extent, a kind of vanguard that us older more anarchic types thought too elitist, leadershippy. Some of it was necessary – if 7000 people know all the details of the secret party location it’s gonna get blown – but also, when RTS became a big weekly meeting with interminable wrangling and debating, breaking into small groups and reporting back,  a certain amount of behind the scenes ‘get it done’ undemocratic sorting does become vital… else nowt happens. However; there was a tyranny of the capable, and a kind of showing up to the party by others who wanted to consume RTS – sometimes. RTS did fight against that, and had some conceptions of his to get around it, which didn’t entirely get realised… None of these problems are anything like unique to that group: but there were a lot of arguments around it, at the time (I do remember a lot of us who turn up being bemused in Liverpool in September 1996 by how we were expected to turn up somewhere without knowing what was going to happen, a bit like soldiers being given sealed orders… sparking a long and rancourous debate the night before the big action. In retrospect some of what we said was a bit naïve, but the point that it felt not self-organised…)

But it’s more complex than all that, and I’m not completely convinced of the absolute difference between ‘protest’ and ‘struggle’. The possibilities of breaking down separation are myriad…

Another common objection to RTS, and the wider eco-movements, was to do with their class composition. This was in fact linked to the previous point about protest – ‘struggle’ was what the working class did, and it was implied (though not strictly said) that ‘protest’ was a middle class construct… Again this discussion is in fact very interesting and I cannot do it justice here (hopefully we’ll return to it). The implication is that RTS’s ways of organising was intimately derived from the class background of those who created and ran it. Well yes, as with almost everything, and yes, this did produce contradictions and shortcomings, but analysing them at all is not simple or as one dimensional as all that…
Alot of people involved in RTS through its various incarnations were middle class, yes – though as one ex-RTSer pointed out “At least 3 of us were dissident ruling class, and we thought we put our resources to good use”. Not all though by any means: “Some of us were actual proles, or really, refugee proles from nasty racist working class Lancashire or Belfast”…and it did evolve and change. Alot. Unlike a fair number on the class struggle anarchist scene most people in RTS didn’t pretend to be “eh up mate” types, more working class than they were…

More importantly though, RTS’s conception of capitalism was not fundamentally based on a class analysis, or, I would hazard, any kind of deep analysis at all. This did leave itself open sometimes to a certain wishy-washyness as to what the group actually saw capital AS. Analysis wasn’t the strong point of RTS, and the wider scene it arose from/helped create, which had a multi-farious mishmash of definitions of capitalism, a lot of which was contradictory and sketchy. This led not only to a lot of endless arguments in meetings, especially in the periods where large numbers were coming along to the weekly meeting, but also to a reluctance or inability to agree on what, in fact, unified us. The lack of analysis was not in itself fatal to RTS’s existence; but the lack of a conception of class and how capital is based on class interests carried over into some of the scenes RTS influenced and evolved into.

An ex-RTSer wrote in response to the first version of this post, that ‘Your portrayal of RTS as middle class is both wrong and irrelevant… the class composition of RTS members is irrelevant given that our actions were clearly directed towards transition grounded in replicable autonomy and solidarity.’

But Class is there. it exists, it underpins everything about capitalism and how it was born and sustains itself. It may not now look like 1880s class or 1930s class or even 1970s class, but class divisions are fundamental and can’t be ignored, and you can’t take on a world social and economic system without understand what it is based on. Class is not the ONLY dynamic that is crucial to understand – but to ignore it has consequences. Yes we want to abolish class divisions – in the day to day now as well as ideally in some utopic future – but they just can’t be wished out of existence, least of all in the movements we create in opposition… Both RTS and Extinction Rebellion, in my view, have suffered from this lack of understanding… and it impacts on their actions as much as their ideas.

Class – and money – did carry some weight in how decision-making was made in London RTS and the scenes that it evolved into. Because the parties and actions cost money (partly because gear kept getting seized by cops), cash was also needed, and the presence of people from moneyed backgrounds meant that it was available – in a way that was slightly disconcerting for some of us who were not used to money just appearing for stuff (more accustomed of raising cash through benefits, painfully…) But the power dynamics of having people with money central to the actions and funding them does lead to unequal power relations in those active groups. ot the only cause of power imbalance – but it was there.

Luckily there were/are a legion of serious thinkers on hand to tell RTS where it all fell down! …Joke. (Partly.) In fact the eventual partial merger of parts of RTS with class struggly anarchists, autonomists and other ‘proper’ political tendencies created more analysis, but not that much more, and did water down the fun bits…
It was pointed out that ‘middle class people mostly organised the parties but mostly working class people got arrested.’ (when the police attacked them usually, near the end). True (see below), though not particularly intentionally, more in naivety and lack of forethought, or for lack of how to adequately deal with police attack and how to end the events.
People within RTS milieu did rise to become career professionals, trading on their activism to achieve entry into cultural fashionability; there was some criticism of this from some of who were very suspicious of such things as filming demos (due to being burned by police taking control of footage after events like the anti-poll tax riot and others, and journalists/film crews happily collaborating with this). This did lead to uneasy times in RTS as people didn’t all get it.

Some have said that RTS was actually ineffective, in that it did not achieve its stated aims. Apart from taking over a few streets for a few days it didn’t break ‘car culture’… The effect of RTS wax compared unfavourably to the 2000 fuel protests – as was pointed out, that movement had an infinitely huger effect, paralysing road traffic, if only for a short while. It also had lots of contradictions, class alliances and political dubiousnesses, but did produce a crisis and cleared the streets of cars… Again, though, it didn’t last, and things returned to normal (though I haven’t seen any discussions on longer term developments among those that carried the blockades out…)

… and more recently, there’s the French Yellow Vests – a sustained movement much more combative, taking on the state in a way RTS never managed and dwarfing XR’s impact … (Again, the politics are very mixed, but when are they not?)

No RTS did not fundamentally alter capitalism, car use, help turn the world green… Some struggles on very limited territory can win outright, others achieve partial victories; others seem to fail of splutter out. Few know what effect they have in the end, as influences mutate, ideas mingle and merge, individuals and groups wend their ways and diverge… RTS had many limits.

RTS left a long legacy in the UK and wider activist scenes, with the group in London carrying on for several years, taking part in the mayday organising, as well as lots of those who passed through it setting off into many other campaigns, projects, etc, the anti-Afghan/Iraq war movements, Occupy, social centres and anti-G8 etc summit protests… you name it.

I don’t know if anyone has really discussed it anywhere, but it would be interesting to talk about the development of RTS into the anti-capitalist movement and wider points about these movements, and of protest movements generally. While J18 was fun and high profile, and thousands of activists turning up to surround and attempt to disrupt summits of the G8 and other meetings of the rich and famous felt for many and looked very confrontational and challenging – it represents a specific interpretation of how capital is organised and where it exists, is controlled, can be challenged etc. Concentrating on central points, the obvious target of world leaders and economic movers. But capital is a world system  – that pervades down to the very marrow of every aspect of our lives; to some extent challenging it is not about the world leaders, but in the everyday. RTS in its origins recognised this and at its best was moving towards the idea of taking over our lives from within where we live them. To me J18 and the anti-summit movements diverted away from that; this was at the heart of our discussions in Summer 1998, and without wanting to say ‘we went the wrong way’, I do think now (and said then) that this may have been broadly a narrowing of RTS’ vision. To radically alter the world you have to organically build from the edges where you are, till the centres collapse because you have already taken over everything. J18 itself kind of did work this way, though the anti-capitalist movement obsession with summits seemed to me to want to build everyday rebellion outward from the middle by attacking what they saw as the centres of power. Does capital even have a centre?
There’s a partial critique of the anti-capitalist movement’s focus on attacking summits in Where is the Festival: Notes on summits and counter-summits

Extinction and evolution

Extinction Rebellion have in some ways reproduced elements of RTS’ approach, but differ in other ways. The main similarities are obvious – taking over streets and public space, the initial concentration on climate change, the emphasis on people taking action. However, there are major points of departure, some positive, some worth examining critically.

RTS took space as a one-off, usually, where XR at least in the last actions in April 2019 tried to keep up the pressure by remaining in the streets of central London for as long as they feasibly could. This is more resonant of the Occupy movements of post-2008 radical protest, and has both its strengths and its weakness implicit in it, in that it does seem to pile on more sustained involvement by extending the action, but also begins inevitably to become separated out from those not involved, an end in itself. This is a problem with almost everything you can do where protest is concerned, and is difficult to avoid. RTS did celebrate the very fact of taking over space ourselves as very much the point, the action being the destination, as well as the road, a moment of liberation by the very nature of occupying space. XR actions, like Occupy, achieve this by default, as taking over space in defiance of the usual day to day creates its own dynamic. What comes out of such actions on the future may be radically different from what they set out to do, more subversive and challenging even. Both RTS and XR actions at their best, like all moments of struggle, produce consequences primarily in the people involved in them, whether or not the ‘campaign’ itself wins what it fights for. The difference – so far – is that RTS was/became conscious of this. Whether XR will remains to be seen.

Their Morals and Ours

XR’s call for people was primarily to occupy the streets in order to get themselves arrested to put pressure on government to act, although this has now come under fierce discussion. RTS neither saw putting pressure on politicians to act on our behalf or mass arrests as the aim. Although there were often arrests at RTS parties, often in the earlier days near the end of the event as the organisers made an attempt to wrap events up (this was a point that was initially criticised by those of us experienced in legal defence work from poll tax days and the Legal Defence & Monitoring Group, that RTS at first took little account of this side of the day. This did evolve positively over the group’s lifetime). Arrests in themselves though as an aim is a debatable tactic, which has been used for many years, most notably in the peace movement – a kind of shaming and publicity-seeking tactic, where the sheer numbers arrested and speeches in court etc become the point of the action. (eg early Committee of 100 actions)

Clearly people carefully considering things with experience of arrest, police, and courts have made something of this approach – the Ploughshares anti-missile saboteurs who break into bases, do millions of quid’s worth of damage to planes and weaponry then give themselves up, for instance. Personally I would say its better for people to remain out of prisons and be able to carry on their activities, and concealing your identity and escaping to fight another day is better than handing yourself in – but their choice, However, Extinction Rebellion are leaning on people to get themselves arrested, and concentrating lots of their propaganda on young folk, kids, teens, some of whom are not yet ready for what arrest and conviction can mean. The kind of moral pressure to ‘get nicked for the planet’, does depend on XR’s insistence that the police are basically OK and will be nice, and can be won over to the side of the ‘people’ by being nice to them. It does reflect the wilful ignorance of the social role of the police and their function in relation to protest – to control and if necessary repress, with violence when required. Dancing to a sound system in Marble Arch by some officers does not negate the institutional violence of the boys and girls in blue, as many of us have learned painfully from an early age.

RTS may in its beginnings have been naïve about legal defence and arrests – XR are being much more irresponsible. In many ways some of the main organisers have inherited the worst aspects of the wider green/eco movements – moral blackmail, class blindness to the realities of the social order, a concentration on one issue without managing to observe how it is vitally and necessarily linked to the whole social and economic structure, and naivety towards the enforcers and controllers of those structures. They have now thankfully withdrawn their terrible advice to people being arrested as to how to survive prison, after a massive outcry from those who have experienced pokey that it was dangerously downplaying the pressure of going down and encouraging illusions in the friendliness of screws. But liberal illusions in the police, prison, the authorities and the social system remain.

Morals, individual blame are no basis for any movement. There’s too much of this in pro-environmental politics, and a hierarchy of greenier-than-thou-ness and finger-pointing at people for not doing enough. When this emphasis on the responsibility of the individual goes along with calls for the state to take action, it’s just bizarre. The closeness of ‘it’s your fault’ to ‘let’s all take it on ourselves to change it’ involves leaving moralising behind to move towards something else – a sense of common interests. Now not all people in social movements have the same interests, when it comes down to class, background, race, and any number of levels of power relations. Lots of people are saying that XR are all middle class white privileged folk and the movement’s attitude to colour, migration etc has been shoddy at best. Some anarchists and others also said very much the same about RTS in the early days, and like many protest movements (those that don’t initially come from BME origins) it remained pretty white, though class was much more nuanced. Another interesting point a woman involved in RTS from the start made at a discussion recently was how in the early days RTS London had a near equal make-female balance, but noted his this changed over the years as actions became more confrontational and overtly ‘anti-capitalist’, becoming more boysy and macho…

Neither morality or hyper-activist ego rankings or dominance by the white moderately well-to-do is anything like unique to either XR or RTS, though. Anarchist scenes, the left, for instance, remain ultimately run on visible or invisible hierarchies and overwhelmingly white. It was funny in hindsight that so many anarchists dissing RTS for not being class struggly enough were being slightly truth-economical about how proley their background was. Either way, there was also a snideness about how working class is seen, and how struggle is hard and serious. In the midst of parties you could also hear people complaining that some people were just partying and not either fighting the police on the edges or seriously talking politics. I know, I was sometimes one of them. The arrogance of youth.

All of these issues within XR are of course being furiously debated and is evolving, and only a daft haporth would expect the movement to be either homogenous in its ideas or to stick to some of these shibboleths: XR and the people involved will change and adapt in response to reality and experience.

Illusions in the bourgeois state’s potential to reverse climate change without the dismantling of capitalism as a world-exploiting system are, of course, nothing new, and XR are far from unique in that. But it remains true, that the wider ecological movement is divided by those who think you can have some nice democratic non-ecocidal market economy, and those who recognise the reality: reversal of the climate cataclysm can only mean overthrowing the classes that profit from it and organising our lives worldwide for the needs of all – people and planet – not for the profit of a smaller and smaller minority and the consumer comfort of a slightly larger group. It’s the exploitation of the earth, its resources, its animals and if the vast majority of US that is destroying the climate, and that has to be fundamentally altered. Green capitalism and green politicians are just pot plants on the deck of the titanic.

XR’s potential is obvious but whether it will fizzle out, outgrow the liberal illusions of some its leading voices, is yet to be seen – and fought for from within, I guess. Some people will learn re the police, as people tend to do when faced with the blunt end of a truncheon: this discussion is already being had. (Some won’t learn, class background, white privilege and the blindness of ideology being what they are.) Although it’s also hard to know where such movements GO when they don’t quickly achieve their aim, many involved go off and take their spirit and experience into a myriad of other activities – as the thousands who passed through RTS groups and parties did.

One point relevant to both RTS and XR – in common with activists the world over – is the separation of the high points of parties, actions, occupations, from a daily life that is other, or rather the actions are the other. Some of us within RTS at one point argued for a dissolving of the group as such, but trying to employ the tactics, sense of fun and occupation, to our daily lives, to break down how ‘activism’ and ‘activists’ become separate from ‘our daily lives’, work, raising kids, etc, and from ‘ordinary people’ (ie non-activists). This in itself was naïve, like a lot of activists who develop a critique of activism, we really meant moving on to another kind of activism, an artificial change, if well-intentioned. Looking back (as someone who used to be a full-time activist but now isn’t an activist, really) this was groping towards what I still think is a useful path – breaking down walls between different parts of your own self and between people involve in politics and those who aren’t, in order to radically alter the whole separation and alienation of people from their own desires and needs. It’s questionable I suppose whether that can be done in isolation or as an ideological shift. And perhaps you can’t ‘abolish activism to create communism’ in that way anyway, or not as a small group. It’s the kind of shift that might happen in the context of massive upheavals and struggles. Ironically, climate-chaos inspired social breakdown might provide an opportunity for that, though to make an ideology of that possibility as some eco-activists do is repulsive and anti-human.

There’s a partial archive of links and pix on RTS parties (not by any means complete)

Watch Reclaim the Streets the movie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-2snn3XDbLg