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Reclaim the Streets
The first Reclaim the Streets party was on Camden High Street in May 1995. The speed at which the movement mushroomed was remarkable but created big problems.
We went to our first Reclaim the Streets party in Leicester the month before. You went to a meeting place, set off walking for a bit, and on some inner ring road were met by a truck carrying a sound-system. Before the police could react, the sides of the truck came down and people were drinking and dancing. Often an area of road was quickly demarcated by people up tripods.
For the next 3 summers we averaged 1 in 4 or so. Bath, Birmingham, Bristol, Oxford, Sheffield, Nottingham, Manchester, Leicester again, London a few more times. Increasingly unlikely places like Hull and Wolverhampton. It was a bit like going to the football: we jumped on the National Express and went somewhere different every Saturday.
There were always 2 Reclaim the Streets: London and everybody else. It's one of the things the media couldn't grasp. At events in the provinces the purity of the original parties remained. All it took was a few friends to decide a venue, someone knew someone with a sound system, fly-post it and put it through Schnews on the web (or always handed out in pre-web days), hide some tat nearby the night before in readiness, perhaps someone was willing to go up a tripod, and see what happened.
The provincial parties kept a single issue transport focus. You could see that in the signs and banners that people brought along. You met people who were angry about speeding traffic on their roads, who wanted their children to be able to play out in the back street, cyclists wanting to be considered in planning decisions, people worried about asthma and pollution, people fed up with 4WDs blocking the pavement. There were plenty of families and children.
London RTS were different. We weren't involved, but clearly the planners were capable of strategic decisions and had a sense of where they were going. As early as 1996 on the M41, a huge banner expressed solidarity with striking tube workers. Later that summer they aligned themselves with striking dockers at an event in Liverpool.
The Never Mind the Ballots event a couple of weeks before the 1997 election was overtly about more than roads and traffic, beginning with a March for Social Justice with the striking Liverpool dockers and other groups. This event, like several others that summer, ended in police charges and bottles flying around. Some of the events were attracting people who knew there was a good chance of a mini riot towards the end.
Likewise the taking on of a wider social agenda. It was an entirely reasonable decision: after all, where could things go after the M41? A lot of momentum had built up by that stage and it was wise to use it. But the ideology got trickier from there in. It's easy to see there are too many cars driving too fast. The evidence is there every time you open your front door. But striking dockers? You have to understand the issues a bit to feel strongly about that one. The waters had been muddied; some might say the original ideals had been compromised, even if the London events could be breathtakingly big, great fun and probably kept inspiring people to organise the smaller ones.
The 1998 Reclaim the Summit: Send in the Clowns event in Birmingham, to coincide with the G8 in that city, was huge, a London event outside the capital. We were living in Birmingham at the time, and the menacing clown posters and superb information leaflets came from outside.
In fact at this point, even we begin to wonder how it was all being organised. Who was paying? How did it all manage to go so international so suddenly? There were 24 parties in 16 countries that day to mark Clinton and the rest in Birmingham. The US-centric view of the world bangs on endlessly about Seattle, but mass-protest at political summits restarted that weekend in Birmingham. A few weeks later there were 2 simultaneous and good-natured London parties north and south of the river, a success described by a London long-termer as "against all odds" in view of the strains in the movement as pressure was applied from within for a big change of direction.
"Because having a life without a car is better than having a car without having a life". Bristol flyer
"In it [the street], we begin to see how our home is connected to that home, this house to that house, this street to that street, this city to all those other cities, my experience to yours". flyer for Reclaim the Summit
"We are not leaving until every car is a flowerpot" Brighton flyer
The turning point was really the Carnival against Capitalism the following year. A London organiser told us how the massive success from 1996 onwards had attracted new people to the meetings, bringing a hostile class-based agenda to bear on those who had nurtured the movement. Apparently there was a general exodus of women from the meetings around that time. By organising the event in the City of London and encouraging the disruption of business, the outcome greater or lesser was surely anticipated. There were rivers of broken glass coming down the escalators at the Futures Exchange and plenty of other demolition, a comprehensive smashing of a MacDonald's, the food making equipment and cash tills all out in the street, and damaged banks and car-dealerships. We became aware that the families that had marked the parties in the early years seemed to have been replaced by masked Spanish men, throwing bottles badly from the back of the crowd. A gift to the media trying to simplify events. A gift to the police who were probably itching for the sort of legislation we find ourselves with today. All in all, if the Carnival was your thing, then fine, but it had nothing to do with Reclaim the Streets as many knew it. The City was severely disrupted, the establishment felt threatened, and suddenly Reclaim the Streets were on the front pages for the first time.
The Telegraph had pages of coverage, thrashing around in the dark to come up with "Protest hatched on the Internet" and a leader containing the "The bicycles of Reclaim the Streets and Critical Mass which are used to obstruct ordinary traffic are [capitalism's] products". And if that was the Telegraph, we can only imagine the concoctions of the Sun and Mail. But the same Telegraph leader showed the depth of fear generated: "Yesterday's attack on the City and those who work there also threatened the structure of a civil society".
Up to that point, the police and state had on the whole been surprisingly tolerant of the street parties. In any other country you simply wouldn't have got away with it. But after this event, the police not surprisingly got tough and maybe were ordered to. Probably the Home Office would be saying this mustn't happen again.
Numbers seemed down a bit at the following year's big RTS London event, Guerilla Gardening. The leaflets explaining the optimism behind the event were the best yet, and some great building of stuff like compost toilets happened in Parliament Square. But police tactics had changed dramatically; the crowd was just penned into an increasingly small space for hours on end while police filmed everybody and grabbed the odd person. Nobody is allowed out of the pen and it becomes increasingly uncomfortable and above all boring. The media, hyped up in advance after the riots the year before, were once again given a gift: statues of war heroes along Whitehall and the Cenotaph were graffitied.
The provincial parties had died out now. The police had new powers that meant they had got hold of most of the big sound rigs. Numbers were down again at the 2001 big London event, Mayday Monopoly. A booklet, detailing the role of each square on the Monopoly board in the capitalist system, was stunning, but our memory of the day was being penned in Oxford Circus for 7 hours with the crowd at the main afternoon event. Subsequent events have reflected widely felt concerns about issues like arms dealing, but have been smaller still, reflecting the success of police spoiling tactics.
Our deep gratitude to everyone who has helped make the parties happen, especially the ones who took big risks up tripods or driving sound systems.