Reclaim the Streets & Pink Silver Brigades (Angleterre)

“Reclaim the Streets & Pink Silver Brigades”, Angleterre.

Images extraites de “We are everywhere” éd. Verso, 2003.

Construct post-capitalist machine

Merging the radical ecology of Britain’s power full anti-road building movement and the carnivalesque nature of the counter-cultural rave scene of the early-1990’s, Reclaim the Streets (RTS) became a catalyst for the global anticapitalist movements that came to light during the SEATTLE WTO PROTESTS (November 1999).  Combining  a radical ecological and social critique of society with creative forms of direct action and a dedication to non-heirachical organisation, the groups innovative tactics, inspired a new generation of radical activists in the global North.

[A] The Anti-Roads movements, a prehistory

As part of Britain’s brutal neoliberal restructuring ,  Margaret Thatcher  dismantled public transport and launched a colossal road building programme, claiming that nothing must obstruct “the great car economy”. As new road schemes spread across the country a small group of individuals got together in 1991 and set up RTS which claimed on its flyers that it was  “FOR walking cycling and cheap, or free, public transport, and AGAINST cars, roads and the system that pushes them”. Beginning  with the capitalised “FOR” was a clear declaration from a group that would go on to build forms of politics that prioritised creating  visions of the world that they wanted over protest and confrontation. A politics of FOR rather than against, of Yes’s rather than no’s. A typical action of theirs would be the guerrilla painting of cycle lanes in the middle of the night.

The group temporarily dissolved as its participants became immersed in the anti-roads movement, which first emerged with the protests against the M3 motorway extension at Twyford Down, Hampshire (1992-93).   Protesters disrupted the road building by non-violently blockading the bulldozers with their bodies and setting up camps in the way of the contractors. This experience of mass direct action was then taken to the campaign against the M11 link road in east London (1993-1994) which was due to destroy 350 houses and several ancient woodlands. The campaign became a laboratory of direct action, imaginative tactics were developed to delay the copntractors and increase its financial costs –  including  building tree houses, furnishing them  to claim “squatters rights” ( the legal right in the UK to squat, which can only be overturned by a lengthy high court process)  and digging  tunnels which literally embedded the activists in the earth they were protecting.

A key event that was to heavily influenced the later tactics of RTS was the squatting of an entire street of 35 houses “Claremont Road” due for demolition. Claremont Road became know as a “Festival of Resistance,” the occupied street was traffic free for six months.  A series of imaginative  barricades were created to stop the inevitable eviction by the department of transport, these ranged from carcasses of cars filled with flower beds to a 100 foot scaffolding tower rising from the roofs with a sound system on top of it. The eviction was the most costly and longest in British history, costing over two million pounds and involving 700 riot police and 700 bailiffs.  But this temporary reappropriation and transformation of public space, the meeting of different political cultures, and merging  of art and activism, party and protest were to become hallmarks of RTS.

In 1994 the UK government brought in legislation know as the “criminal justice act”. This made the playing of rave music to more than ten people in a public place illegal and direct action protests, which previously had been covered under civil law, became criminal offences. It abolished the right to silence, increased police stop and search powers and made sharing on a football match tickets an offence. Primarily aimed at destroying the UK’s counter cultures with their DIY (do it yourself) philosophy, the act targeted a wide range of people from the new age travellers to football supporters, fox hunt saboteurs to anti nuclear campaigners.  It catalysed a diverse movement of opposition, which peaked during the Hyde Park riot of October 1994 and out of which sprang many of the new relationships that would form the basis of the re-launched RTS.

[A] RTS re-emerges with the Street Party form

Following the demolition of Claremont Road in December 1994, RTS was reformed. Realising that the struggle against new roads had succeeded (between 1994 and 1996 the roads programme was axed from £24bn to £1.5 bn) the desire was recreate the experience of a liberated car free street but this time as a proactive act rather than one of reaction and protest. The tactic of the Street Party was developed, a subversion of the traditional British events which were historically used to mark establishment celebrations such as royal weddings.

On Sunday 14th May1995 the first Street party took place on Camden High Street, North London. Using tactics learnt from rave culture, the actual location was kept secret until the last moment and participants were led from a public meeting point through the underground to emerge at the street party before the police had time to gather forces. The event began with an exquisite piece of theatre involving two cars crashing into each other at the top of the street, as the drivers jumped out in mock road rage and begun to destroy each other’s cars with hammers, 500 people emerged from the underground station into the traffic free street which the crashed (and now destroyed) cars had blocked.

So began the first street party, free food was handed out, a children’s climbing frame set up in the crossroads and people danced all day. Reclaiming  the street from the privatisation of the car and commerce and transforming it into  public space for people and pleasure, RTS had developed what was to become an  irresistible new form of protest.

With influences ranging from social ecologist Murray Bookchin  as well as SITUATIONIST theory, RTS wanted to infuse protest with pleasure, to create events which were both politically effective in terms of civil disobedience, but equally effective in creating adventures that were both convivial and deeply attractive to participants. The other key principle was that of prefigurative politics. The Street party was not simply a protest against cars but the creation of a vision of what city streets could be like in a system which prioritised people over profit and ecology over the economy.

The next street party took place on the 23rd of July 1995, Upper Street in Islington saw 3000 people dancing, this time to a large sound system hidden inside an armoured personnel carrier.  Several tonnes of sand were dumped in the middle of the street, creating a sand pit for children to play in and ‘Tripods’ blocked the traffic.  Made from three pieces of scaffolding joined at the top and erected in the middle of the street with someone sitting on top of it, these ‘intelligent’ barricades block the street from cars and yet open it for pedestrians. The police are unable to move them without risking serious injury to the climbers.

The autumn and winter of 1995 saw street parties spread across the UK, with local groups organising  autonomously in numerous towns including Birmingham, Brighton, Manchester, Leeds, Bristol and Leicester . Despite organising street parties, none of the groups called themselves RTS,  the London group name had simply became a verb, a form of action.

Recognising the value of audacity to inspire social movements, London RTS decided to up the ante in the summer of 1996 and to have a street party on a motorway. On a hot July afternoon, on the M41 near Sheperds Bush, west London, an enormous street party erupted. Over 8000 people swarmed through police lines to reclaim the baking tarmac. Giant banners that combined political messages, party decoration and swings for children stretched across the 6 lanes. Huge carnival figures, 25 foot high women with hooped skirts, were pushed up and down the road. Underneath the skirts, hidden from view, activists were drilling into the tarmac with jack hammers and planting saplings (saved from the route of the M11) into the motorway. This act of sublime imagination, symbolically turning the motorway into a forest, summed up the mounting audacity and imagination of  RTS.

The M41 also saw the distribution of RTS’s first propaganda, a beautiful pink and black poster that folded down into numerous different panels. A key passage pointed towards the groups future anticapitalist position: “We are about taking back public space from the enclosed private arena. At its simplest this is an attack on cars as a principal agent of enclosure. It’s about reclaiming the streets as public inclusive space from the private exclusive use of the car. But we believe in this as a broader principle, taking back those things which have been enclosed within capitalist circulation and returning them to collective use as a commons.”

[A] The network widens and clarifies its anticapitalist spirit

The story of the trees being planted in the tarmac, reached the ears of the Liverpool Dockers, whose dismissal for refusing to cross a picket line, led to a global solidarity movement and a two and a half year strike. Inspired, they suggested working together and in Autumn 1996, an event entitled Reclaim the Future, took place in Liverpool. Despite sever police repression, members of RTS together with the Liverpool Dockers were able to occupy the docks, cranes and company HQ triggering a 24 hour strike by tug boat captains. No vessels entered or left the Docks.

The bringing together of working class struggle, anarchism, radical ecology and rave culture had enormous potential. A “March for Social Justice” was co organised, in London on the 12th of April 1997, with ten thousand people from a spectrum of traditional political leftist movements partying with the new generation of direct activists.  This combination clearly proved threatening to the state. RTS’s propaganda, 25,000 copies of a spoof London Evening Standard newspaper, entitled Evading Standards, was seized by the police, and organisers pre-emptively arrested. 1000 police were mobilised and the day ended in confrontations in Trafalgar square.

The summer of 1997 saw the evolution of the Street party into a global phenomenon, with Australia and Finland taking the lead. Meanwhile someone from RTS participated in the 2nd Encuentro ( Spain, July-August)  a ZAPATISMO instigated gathering  bringing together 3,000 activists from 50 countries to weave a global network of resistance against neoliberlalism.  From the encuentro came the idea of developing a concrete campaign against the World Trade Organisation, which was to become the PEOPLE’S GLOBAL ACTION (PGA) network. RTS would play a key part in PGA as European convenors.

The RTS activist returned from the Encuentro inspired and convinced the London group that it’s anticapitalist tendancies should become more explicit, and that it could become a key player in the rising global movements, especially given the increasing use of the internet as an activist tool.  A global Street Party, part of a PGA GLOBAL DAY OF ACTION against Capitalism, was called for May 1998 coinciding with the meeting of the G8 in Birmingham and the WTO’s second ministerial meeting in Geneva. Under the banner  “Our Resistance is as Transnational as Capital” a call was sent out and parties and actions took place in 70 cities in the first globally coordinated actions against these multilateral institutions by grassroots groups demanding their abolition rather than their reform.

Buoyed by the global day of action, a call for an  “International day of protest, action and carnival aimed at the heart of the global economy: the financial centres and banking districts” was sent out by RTS and the PGA networks. Coinciding with the G8 meetings in Koln, Germany on Friday June 18th, 1999, the event became known as J18. From Nigeria to Uruguay, Seoul to Melbourne, Belarus to Dhaka simultaneous actions took place. London RTS organized a Carnival against Capital bringing 10,000 people into London’s square mile . 8,000 carnival masks were distributed, which double up as propaganda and tools for choreographing  large  crowd movements using coloured flags. To the surprise of the authorities the crowd split into four different groups and made its separate ways to the London International Futures Exchange (LIFFE). Whilst live bands played and people danced to samba,  hackers were trying to enter the LIFFE computers and traders fought off attempts to physically occupy the building.

Live reports from around the globe were uploaded to the internet using a system that was later to become the global INDYMEDIA network. In a report following the London action, which caused two million pounds damage to its financial centre, the police admitted that their communication system failed to cope with what they said was one of the most highly organized actions they had ever experienced. The front page of the Financial Times declared City of London Beseiged by Anticapitalist s and the police set up a website of CCTV images identifying 138 “offenders”. Meanwhile activists from RTS traveled to Seattle to help train members of the Direct Action Network who were encouraged by the audacity of J18 and were busy organizing for the WTO blockades.

[A] The final months of RTS

With the November 1999 Seattle actions blasting the movements into the global spotlight, RTS found it had lost its momentum. An action to coincide with the Seattle protests failed to mobilize numbers. Heavy police intimidation and increasingly hysterical British media coverage  created strains within the group.

Organising London’s MAY DAY as part of the third Global day of Action Against Capitalism  the following year RTS tried to redirect itself and called for a mass guerilla gardening action with a leaflet claiming “This is not a protest”. The aim was to turn parliament square into an urban vegetable allotment. On the eve of the event the Evening Standard front page claimed “Army on Standby for Mayday Riot” and the police planned their largest mobilization in thirty years. Three thousand people turned up to garden and despite 14,500 police, a McDonalds was left suspiciously unguarded.

Inevitably the media reported its broken windows rather than the thousands of planted vegetables and flowers.

RTS disbanded but many participants went on to be key participants in the global anticapitalist summit convergences and organisers of numerous groups including  the Genetic Engeneering Network, the Wombles, Dissent!, the Rising Tide Network, the Clandestine Insurgent Clown Army, and the Climate Camp.

During May Day 2000 a stunning subversion of Winston Churchill’s statue took place.  A strip of green turf placed on his bald head transformed him into a mohican coiffed punk. An iconic image that was perhaps an appropriate epitaph to a movement whose cheek and creativity helped sow the seeds for a new form of global grassroots politics which celebrated autonomy and direct action, and never wanted to take power but to break it into little pieces for all to share.

John Jordan (Reclaim the Streets)

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Further Reading:

Hamm, Marion. Reclaim the Streets:Global Protest, Local Space. Available at http://www.republicart.net/disc/hybridresistance/hamm01_en.htm) (downloaded September 21,2007).

Mckay, George (ed.). DIY Culture: Party and Protest in Nineties Britain. London  & New York: Verso, 1998.

Klein, Naomi. No Logo:Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. New York: Picador,

2000.

Notes From Nowhere (ed.) We Are Everywhere: The Irresistible Rise of Global Anticapitalism. London & New York: Verso, 2003

“Reclaim the Streets & Pink Silver Brigades”, Angleterre.

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Brian Elliot présente en quelques mots Reclaim the Streets dans : « Constructing Community : Configurations of the Social in Contemporary Philosophy and Urbanism », Lexington Books, 2010. Et en particulier, dans le chapitre : “Dialectical utopianism”, dans son volet « Reclaim the streets as urban dissent ».

« Au final, le mouvement soutient explicitement la pratique d’une action directe non violente, à nouveau en accord avec l’IS privilégiant des interventions urbaines concrètes plutôt que l’élaboration d’une théorie sociale ou politique. Tout comme avec la militance situationniste, il est question de dépasser l’apathie et le consentement des masses à travers une action collective plutôt que de tenter de reformuler les termes du débat entre la société civile et le pouvoir bureaucratique. » p.147.

Y est aussi établie une résonnance entre le mouvement Reclaim the streets et certaines observations et pratiques de l’Internationale Situationniste ; observations que formule Guy Debord dans « La Société du Spectacle » entre autres quant à la privatisation de l’espace public. « La rue réelle, dans ce scénario, est stérile. Un endroit où se déplacer, et non pas être. Elle n’existe que dans l’utilité de se rendre ailleurs – à travers une vitrine, (…) ou un réservoir de voiture ».

Des extraits du livre

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Contact

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Annabelle Dupret : annabelledupret[at]hotmail.com
Ivana Momčilović : migrativeart[at]gmail.com
Judith Pollet : polletjudith[at]gmail.com
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