Reclaim the Streets
by Natalie Moxham
May 14, 1995: An old car drove up High Street Camden, one of the busiest streets in London. It entered the five-way intersection at a slow pace to be hit by another car in similar condition coming the other way. Both drivers, obviously upset, got 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.
But this was only the beginning, as the altercation was only a theatrical move to block the road and signify to hundreds of peopleówho then poured into the street from the subway stationóthat the street was reclaimed and the party could begin.
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?
Anti-motorway actions have been occurring in Britain over the last few years, but have now taken a new form. And the media are lapping it up with headlines such as "Car rage is the new focus of rebellionóand it's challenging the very way we live. Urban and rural guerrilla groups are trying to undermine car culture and defy a government committed more in words than deed to changing it" (from The Guardian). The Sunday Times offered, "Car sickness or just sick of the car? As cities get clogged, radical protests attract unlikely supporters."
The group behind this anti-car hype and the street party is Reclaim the Streets, a "disorganization" that has grown out of the recent anti-roads movement in London and Britainómost notably two direct-action campaigns.
The first was Twyford Down, where activists opposed construction of the M3 motorway link. The Twyford Down site featured unique chalk escarpments called the Dongas. It was Britain's biggest direct-action campaign to date. [Newbury may surpass it. -ed.] The direct-action activists living on the site were known as the Dongas Tribe. A strong connection between these people and the local community developed that solidified unity in the anti-roads movement.
Chris Gillham, who considers himself a concerned and respectable Twyford local, talked about the Dongas: "I went along with them firstly from admiration and then because they taught me hope, and finally because they made me believe that I could... do something to make a difference."
Here Middle England was taking on the road lobby by putting itself in front of bulldozers, supporting and defending itinerants such as the Dongas Tribe. But Middle England also valued Twyford's beautiful landscape for conservation and recreation.
The second campaign put a different dimension on the anti-road movement. The "No M11 Link" campaign occurred in East London's obscure suburbs. It involved constant direct-action resistance for 18 months, culminating in the Claremont Road evictions in December 1994. This was a truly momentous campaign that disoriented the authorities.
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 was not just defending green spaces. People were defending their homes and community, demanding their right to say no road.
The campaign against the M11 kicked off when the Old Chestnut Tree of George Green, 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.
Phil McLeish, the last demonstrator removed by police (from a 90-foot scaffold tower), described Claremont Road: "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 gloriously lost, energy and sentiment reinvigorated Reclaim the Streets (RTS). RTS aims 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 itóand to demonstrate the possibilities of what can be done when you give back the streets to people.
Public opinion of building roads and direct action has changed in the U.K. "Statistics have shown recently that approximately 70 percent of the public are in favor of direct action," Del from RTS said. As RTS puts it in its literature, "Reclaim the Streets advocates 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."
The second Reclaim the Streets party was held on Sunday, July 23, at the Angle intersection in Highbury Islington, London. It was a huge success, with over 2,000 demonstrators participating. Organizers led demonstrators to the party location by subway, while other activists blocked the road with tripods constructed from scaffolding. Two tons of sand were dropped for a children's play area, 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.
"There was nothing the police could do," said Sheila, an RTS activist. "Everybody else showed up and people simply filled up the space provided."
RTS actions not only represent a development in the anti-road movement, but also in other movements brought together in opposition to the Criminal Justice Act (CJA), an attempt to infringe on human rights.
"RTS is pretty well politically networked," one activist commented. "The CJA has politicized people and therefore we have a strong movement; squatters, ravers and hunt-sabotage actions have been politicized against roads. We've all been put in the same boat by the CJA."
Actions such as street parties can end up void of politics, but RTS actually makes something that is usually not politicalóa partyóvery political. They have come about through movements combining over CJA defiance.
"If people came for a party they can't help but get the messageóchange should be fun," Del said. "RTS actions attract a wide spectrum of society, and people come because they want to take action."
The Highbury Islington street party coincided with a week of hot weather and a smog alert. RTS, on post-street-party euphoria, saw a prime opportunity for another action. The group went to Greenwich, 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.
On Friday, August 4, RTS closed it for them. The action blocked 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. There is general pride and admiration of these actions by the community because no one else is doing anything about the problem. Even many of the drivers held up in the traffic jam that day were in favor of the action.
Such protests often arise out of sheer frustration. Once you've tried all the "democratic" avenues and nothing's changed, you just have to take it into your own hands. The Pedestrians Association, traditionally a conservative organization, with somewhat of an elderly membership, gained the assistance of younger anti-road activists and held an action in early 1995. They "bounced" a number of cars off the sidewalk onto the road.
When the police arrived to arrest the "car bouncers," the demonstrators said, "You can't just arrest us; we are only doing your job for you; these cars are illegally parked on the pavement [i.e. sidewalk]."
The police eventually decided the protestors were right, but were a bit confused when they had to defend the actions of the activists to irate car owners.
Another important and empowering form of anti-car, -road, -traffic activity is Critical Mass, aptly described as "a monthly coincidence." It's a bike ride through London's streets on the last Friday of each month during the afternoon peak. The July Critical Mass attracted over 1,000 people.
"There were no speeches or politics being rammed down your throatówe were just doing it," one participant recounted. "The streets were ours; we were stopping cars in their tracks and disobeying road rules, which are made for cars anyway. The Mass is a true disorganization; there are no leaders and nobody knows where it is going. Decisions on the route to be taken are made at each intersection. And thus the police once again can do nothing about it. It's a hell of a lot of fun."
Reclaim the Streets continues a campaign of blocking main arterial routes, highlighting the government's lack of response to air pollution. In the long term, there will be bigger and better street parties aimed at car manufacturers and motor shows, with "subvertising" (the alteration of car images, billboards and advertisements to reflect their true role in society) and other tactics that creatively arise. Given that 1996 is the car industry's self-acclaimed "Year of the Car" (read: excuse for an onslaught year of marketing), it should be interesting.
Natalie Moxham is an anti-road activist from Melbourne, Australia, who recently visited British anti-road campaigns.