The Evolution of Reclaim the Streets
The direct action group Reclaim the Streets (RTS) has developed widespread recognition over the last few years. From road blockades to street parties, from strikes on oil corporations to organising alongside striking workers, its actions and ideas are attracting more and more people and international attention. Yet the apparent sudden emergence of this group, its penetration of popular alternative culture and its underlying philosophy have rarely been discussed.
RTS was originally formed in London in Autumn 1991, around the dawn of the anti-roads movement. With the battle for Twyford Down rumbling along in the background, a small group of individuals got together to undertake direct action against the motor car. In their own words they were campaigning:
FOR walking cycling and cheap, or free, public transport, and AGAINST cars, roads and the system that pushes them. (1)
Their work was small-scale but effective and even back then it had elements of the cheeky, surprise tactics which have moulded RTS's more recent activities. There was the trashed car on Park Lane symbolising the arrival of Car-mageddon, DIY cycle lanes painted overnight on London streets, disruption of the 1993 Earls Court Motor Show and subvertising actions on car adverts around the city. However the onset of the No M11 Link Road Campaign presented the group with a specific local focus, and RTS was absorbed temporarily into the No M11 campaign in East London.
This period of the No M11 Campaign was significant for a number of reasons. Whilst Twyford Down was predominantly an ecological campaign - defending a 'natural' area - the urban setting of the resistance to the M11 construction embodied wider social and political issues. Beyond the anti-road and ecological arguments, a whole urban community faced the destruction of its social environment with loss of homes, degradation to its quality of life and community fragmentation.
Beyond these political and social considerations, the M11 campaign developed the direct action skills of those involved. Phone trees were established, large numbers of people were involved in site invasions, crowds of activists had to be manoeuvred cunningly to outwit police. The protesters also gained experience of dealing with associated tasks such as publicity, the media and fund-raising.
Then in late 1994 a political hand-grenade was thrown into the arena of the M11 campaign: the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. Overnight civil protesting became a criminal act, but what the government hadn't counted on was how this piece of legislation would unite and motivate the very groups it was aimed at repressing. The fight of the anti-road activists became synonymous with that of travellers, squatters and hunt saboteurs. In particular, the suddenly politicised rave scene became a communal social focus for many people.
The M11 Link Road campaign culminated in the symbolic and dramatic battle of Claremont Road. Eventually, and with the repetitive beats of The Prodigy in the background, police and security overpowered the barricades, lock-ons and the scaffold tower, but the war was only just beginning. The period of the M11 Campaign had linked together new political and social alliances and in the midst of the campaign's frenzied activities strong friendships had been formed. When Claremont Road was lost, this collective looked for new sources of expression and Reclaim the Streets was reformed in February 1995.
The years that followed saw the momentum of RTS flourish. Street Parties I and II were held in rapid succession in the summer of 1995 and there were various actions against the likes of Shell, the Nigerian Embassy and the 1995 Motor Show. More recently, in July 1996 there was the massive success of the M41 Street Party, where for nine hours 8,000 people took control of the M41 motorway in West London and partied and enjoyed themselves, whilst some dug up the tarmac with jack-hammers and in its place planted trees that had been rescued from the construction path of the M11.
At a base level the focus of RTS has remained anti-car but this has been increasingly symbolic, not specific. RTS aimed initially to move debate beyond the anti-roads struggle, to highlight the social, as well as the ecological, costs of the car system:
The cars that fill the streets have narrowed the pavements.. [If] pedestrians ... want to look at each other, they see cars in the background, if they want to look at the building across the street they see cars in the foreground: there isn't a single angle of view from which cars will not be visible, from the back, in front, on both sides. Their omnipresent noise corrodes every moment of contemplation like acid. (2)
Cars dominate our cities, polluting, congesting and dividing communities. They have isolated people from one another, and our streets have become mere conduits for motor vehicles to hurtle through, oblivious of the neighbourhoods they are disrupting. Cars have created social voids; allowing people to move further and further away from their homes, dispersing and fragmenting daily activities and lives and increasing social anonymity. RTS believe that ridding society of the car would allow us to re-create a safer, more attractive living environment, to return streets to the people that live on them and perhaps to rediscover a sense of 'social solidarity'.
But cars are just one piece of the jigsaw and RTS is also about raising the wider questions behind the transport issue - about the political and economic forces which drive 'car culture'. Governments claim that "roads are good for the economy". More goods travelling on longer journeys, more petrol being burnt, more customers at out-of-town supermarkets - it is all about increasing "consumption", because that is an indicator of "economic growth". The greedy, short-term exploitation of dwindling resources regardless of the immediate or long-term costs. Therefore RTS's attack on cars cannot be detached from a wider attack on capitalism itself.
Our streets are as full of capitalism as of cars and the pollution of capitalism is much more insidious. (3)
More importantly, RTS is about encouraging more people to take part in direct action. Everyone knows the destruction which roads and cars are causing, yet the politicians still take no notice. Hardly surprising - they only care about staying in power and maintaining their 'authority' over the majority of people. Direct action is about destroying that power and authority, and people taking responsibility for themselves. Direct action is not just a tactic; it is an end in itself. It is about enabling people to unite as individuals with a common aim, to change things directly by their own actions.
Street Parties I, II and III were an ingenious manifestation of RTS's views. They embodied the above messages in an inspired formula: cunning direct action, crowd empowerment, fun, humour and raving. They have evolved into festivals open to all who feel exasperated by conventional society.
To some extent it is possible to trace the tactics behind the Street Parties in RTS's history. The mobilisation, assembly and movement of large crowds draws on skills from road protests. The use of sound systems draws on dominant popular culture whereas the initial inspiration for Street Parties certainly reflects the parties of the Claremont Road days. However, RTS have retrospectively also realised that their roots lie deeper in history. The great revolutionary moments have all been enormous popular festivals - the storming of the Bastille, the Paris commune and the uprisings in 1968 to name a few. A carnival celebrates temporary liberation from the established order; it marks the suspension of all hierarchy, rank, privileges, norms and prohibitions. Crowds of people on the street seized by a sudden awareness of their power and unification through a celebration of their own ideas and creations. It follows then that carnivals and revolutions are not spectacles seen by other people, but the very opposite in that they involve the active participation of the crowd itself. Their very idea embraces all people, and the Street Party as an event has successfully harnessed this emotion.
The power which such activities embody inevitably challenges the state's authority, and hence the police and security services' attention has increasingly been drawn to RTS. The organisation of any form of direct action by the group is closely scrutinised. RTS has been made very aware of this problem. Vehicles carrying equipment have been broken into, followed and impounded en route to Street Parties, RTS's office has been raided, telephones have been bugged and activists from RTS have been followed, harassed and threatened with heavy conspiracy charges. On top of this a secret RTS action in December 1996 (an attempt to seize a BP tanker on the M25) was foiled by the unexpected presence of two hundred police at the activists' meeting point. How such information is obtained by the police is uncertain and can easily lead to paranoia in the group; fear of infiltration, anxiety and suspicion which can themselves be debilitating.
Yet RTS has not been deterred, they hold open meetings every week, they continue to expand and involve new people, and are also frequently approached by other direct action groups. Alliances have sprouted with other groups - the striking Liverpool Dockers and Tube Workers to name two - as recognition has grown of common ground between these struggles. Throughout the UK and Europe new local RTS groups have formed and late this summer there are likely to be Street Parties worldwide. These new groups have not been created by London RTS, they are fully autonomous. London RTS has merely acted as a catalyst; stimulating individuals to replicate ideas if they are suitable for others to use as well.
In many ways the evolution of RTS has been a logical progression which reflects its roots and experiences. Equally the forms of expression which RTS have adopted are merely modern interpretations of age-old protests: direct action is not a new invention. Like their historic revolutionary counterparts, they are a group fighting for a better society at a time when many people feel alienated from, and concerned about, the current system. Their success lies in their ingenuity for empowering people, their foresight to forge common ground between issues and their ability to inspire.
Published in Do Or Die #6, Summer 1997
(1) Reclaim The Streets leaflet.
(2) Immortality, Milan Kundera (Faber and Faber: London 1991) - page 271.