Global Street Party, 16 May 1998 - report
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For weeks prior, gorgeous multi-color posters had flooded the Bay Area, particularly in Berkeley near Telegraph Avenue. Telegraph Avenue has a tremendous history of civil unrest, rioting, and yes--events of an RTS nature. From the birth of People's Park in 1969 (where police shot protestors and killed one) to the "Reclaim the Earth--Compost in the Streets" action on Independence Day 1995 (officially a celebration of war), the "Ave", as locals call it, has seen tremendous excitement. People's Park is still one spot of land that was reclaimed, although it continues to be harassed and encroached upon by the ever-more police who fill our streets to stand with the deluge of automobiles.
Although local independent news has lauded Reclaim the Streets in the UK since the original event occurred there, enthusiasts looking to this first RTS event in the USA were wondering nervously whether anyone else knew or cared enough to take the streets for real. Because the event had been widely publicised including blurbs in local papers and a web site (http://xinet.com/bike/reclaimthestreets), enthusiasts also worried that whatever group did emerge to party in the streets, might be met with the customary excess of force that we've come to expect for any free speech or free culture event: tens of riot police decked out in "hats and bats".
Our fears were greatly relieved by the crowd's numbers. Worries composted into fascinated anticipation as the crowd at the Berkeley BART (our subway, from which the Berkeley Critical Mass departs each month on the second Friday) swelled and swelled and flags with bicycles, tremendous banners ("Take back our Lives/Reclaim the Streets") and all manner of colorful costumes were to be seen. The mood was most upbeat and intoxicating. In short order the crowd of perhaps 300-500 took to the streets. The local police followed behind in surprisingly small numbers. This reassured the crowd that the festivities would not turn to violence. Cheering became so spontaneous and so charged with pure joy that the bubbling, elongated mass resembled an ecstatic caterpillar evincing squeels of pleasure from every crochet, cremaster, proleg, membrane and silk gland with each peristaltic, nuzzling push towards that day when like a butterfly, our street party would break forth.
After several blocks the crowd suddenly split into two groups: the bikes, inlines and skateboards (the "rollers" or "rolling class") continuing straight; and the foot marchers ("pounders") turning left towards the Ave. The rollers sped up and joyously experienced a Critical Mass as big as and even more excitedly than in recent months here. The pounders trounced directly up the big one-way street into the campus area where the University students, who had just finished with final exams, are concentrated. The rollers made their looping, whooping tour, flouting the traffic manuals and having a jolly ride on all parts of the street, some passing flyers to motorists (also known as "cloggers"--see our main web page for text of the flyer), reaching the main one-way drag of Telegraph just as the pounders were arriving. The rollers injected a fresh-air and motor-free channel up the Ave, while the pounders pushed couches and chairs and carried carpets with them. The energetic atmosphere was exquisite and empowering. The cheers lasted for many minutes and fire in the form of sparklers helped break the everyday and entrance the crowd with the dazzling possibilities of Reclaiming the Streets.
After ten minutes at Durant and Telegraph, just as many were wondering if this were the climax, people began to move again, together, performing a loop above the Ave. Motorists stopped along the way eyed flyers with true interest as marchers asked that they turn off their engines and join up. More police vehicles had agglomerated behind the crowd but on Haste street alongside the People's Park, just before re-entering the Ave, they ran into the small problem of overturned dumpsters barring the street--which the crowd flowed through as water through rocks. It was here, at Haste and Telegraph, that the couches finally came to rest, and the hand-painted twister games were splayed out upon the asphalt, and the chalk and the spray-paint emerged, and boxes of juices and other food was distributed to the street revelers by Food Not Bombs. "Who's Streets? OUR STREETS!" went the chant. Again there was uncontainable cheering for many minutes, ebbing only as the crowd began to discover that there was more than enough fun to be had on our new public space. A DJ was present, with a legitimate permit to be a mobile sound system. Walking from one quadrant of the intersection to another was like walking through the tents at a carnival, there were so many unique scenes.
While dancing filled one street, down another an automobile (donated to the party) was being symbolically smashed to bits, individual frustrations at the domination of society and the planet by the motorcar being expressed with bricks, sledgehammers, knives to the tires, skateboards to the headlights, boots to the doors, and eventually the car was overturned and slid on its back, spinningly and grittily in fractal arcs to find its next site of further demise. For more than an hour the car was trashed, spray painted, pounded and generally demolished, moved and overturned again and again as the demolition crew couldn't get enough of it. One man desperately beseeched from person to person, "Jackhammers! Picks! We need to tear up the street!" An intrepid young woman climbed into the overturned cab to fix the horn on, sparking a ring of devout singers who with mouths as O's did mimic the horn, faces purpling with the glee-from-the-gut strain of it all.
At the same time some participants rushed to demolish television sets in the center of the intersection, as others took parts of the furniture and constructed a bonfire. As foam padding was hurled into the mix and a toxic cloud bourgeoned, it was clear that some present were not aware of the environmentalistic purpose of the demo. Some tried to stop them but it took over an hour to finally put the fire out and sweep up the glass. Through it all, a tree apparently found in the trash (a common sight in Berkeley) was brought to the intersection and erected beside a trashy advert's newsrack, which a bicycle was subsequently leaned against, constructing the center of the living room. Surrounded by couches sprawled with a spiral of street loungers and encased in the smoky swirl, the image was perfection.
By this point the fire was ebbing and being tamed and through the rising cloud one could barely make out a line of black-suited, helmeted, club-wielding riot police cordoning off the intersection towards the campus, nearly indestinguishable through the haze from the black-suited graduates who filled our ranks, The police presumably blocked Telegraph towards campus to keep the na´ve students of the University (California's highest-level university and the USA's public school of highest rank) out of the mix. The mission of the University as expressly stated, is to generate the top-level managers of the corporations. Alongside the fights of Telegraph Avenue here have been the legendary Free Speech movement which partially succeeded in reforming this sham of a school. Now that affirmative action has been trounced by racist legislation, and their own private police force terrorizes with impunity, the University has nothing to do with education and exploration and everything to do with white power and control. It's no wonder then that police first restricted access towards the University--not to mention that the majority of the shops that encourage police to abuse the homeless were then behind them. But partyers did not damage stores, although slogans were spraypainted on the sides of one apartment building: "P(a)narchy Now!", "Reclaim Common Space", "Revolution", and banners hung off its fire escapes.
Although ten to fifteen riot police had scrambled to form a wall, the partyers largely ignored them. It was clear to all where the line was drawn between the free space and the dead space, and we were in the free space and celebrated it at every moment. The crowd had swelled to perhaps seven-hundred or more. A theatrical fire show erupted on the dark street downhill from the dancing and burning, with the crowd there expanding into an enormous circle of fascinated eyes, climbing cars, trees and newsracks to better see. Fire sticks swirled and flew through the air, and billowing flame clouds exploded to the awe and cheers of all.
It must be said that through the night, of course there were some unfortunate transgressions. Bottles were thrown at police on several occasions. "The streets are ours! We don't need to throw bottles at police!" came one angry shout. The throwing of bottles changes the celebration into a confrontation and recognizes the police--heretofore helpless--while goading them to action. The bottle throwing stopped. The bonfire of toxic plastic and foam and of some of the couches that were for our celebration of public space set many aback. The tragedy here was not so much that some, predictably, used the space as an opportunity to destroy without regard for the work and thought that went into the event, but that none of the many who objected stepped forward to stop the burning.
Both the destructive initiative and the passive response to it--even amongst those who challenge the system and take the streets--illustrates how our society has allowed the rape and destruction of our mother earth to transpire. We must realize that our issues in essence are identical, even as our experiences and approaches differ. The issue reminds one of the controversies amongst cyclists about Critical Mass, with many not attending because of "too much confrontation". The everyday destruction of the system we live in far exceeds an angry shout from an oppressed cyclist. To turn one's back on the coming together of people in the streets for change is to ensure that no change occurs, and that only those who are rowdy are left--to face the police, rather than to come to consensus with their peers. It is a cop-out, literally, of the privileged, to turn away--a reneging of responsibility born of the severe division of experience along the lines of class, race and gender in this generally compartmentalized, commodicized society. Blaming those who act up for one's own failure to participate is a thousand-fold more destructive. But considering the opportunity to destroy at that time--theoretically, all surrounding buildings could have been gutted, looted, and burned had the crowd allowed--this gathering was a truly benevolent force and illustrates that Anarchist principles of freedom, common space and collective self-care are legitimate.
Also unfortunate was the damage done to one apartment building by a group of kids who broke windows and tagged walls. This directly lead to a squad of riot police running throughout the building. Some apartment dwellers lamented that this would reflect badly upon the street protest even as they dealt with their fears and frustrations of the violation of their home. Neither issue apparently mattered to the youths, which is not surprising because in the USA the level of political consciousness of many of the most disenfranchised is forcibly kept down, driving a vicious cycle of urban decline.
One group of youths, when told that this was a protest of globalization, of the destruction of the environment and of the systematic stripping of workers' and human rights worldwide--did make it very clear that they didn't care about such issues as the future, a sustainable society, or equal rights in general, but were much more interested in expressing, music-video/television-commercial style, the all-important location of their neighborhood. Even as Indonsesia is in flames, suffering martial law and massacre, one gentleman (wearing a Nike symbol with a slash through it) when asked how he felt about Nike, began describing issues relevant to the sports world, and their sponsorship of athletes. He was quite unaware of the issue of Nike's forced labor overseas--slavery and genocide--and the extent to which poor communities have been hyped into paying hundreds for shoes that cost pennies as a mandatory status symbol, a consumer cult, but agreed "I really disappreciate that."
This sobering reality shows where the educational component of RTS needs to go, to allow those most oppressed to realize the roots of their oppression and overcome the corporatist/consumerist propaganda that enslaves us. Sadly, the only known arrests of the evening were four youths of color suspected of throwing bottles at police. Thus continues the cycle of separation between races in the USA, with the prison as educator and the police as parent.
But there can be no mistaking it, and all present at the street party must have felt it: a feeling of liberation and freedom, and of open friendship between all.
While the dancing went on for hours, eventually, a mellow mood descended upon the street where the motorcar had been smashed, and chalk artists filled the long block, meticulously etching tremendous mandala-like and Celtic symbols best viewed from the skies. Couples climbed atop the now very much improved automobile for a romantic moment holding hands and enjoying the last warm glow of the long-set sun. "It's so romantic." A tire rolls past on its giddy, bobbling journey.
As the evening drew to a close, the police slowly encroached on the free space, seizing the couches, overrunning and uprooting a circle of women singing at their feet, towing the car, bringing in street sweepers. The City Manager and City Attorney were on hand as was local City Councilperson Kriss Worthington (once a homeless youth himself) who wielded a broom. The City Manager threw a newsrack onto the truck, eliciting laughter from those familiar with the city's attempt to ban all newsracks and quash the independent press (part of the sterilization of Berkeley that fascist big business owners champion). The crowd thinned and the playground was dumpstered. Now large police walls boxed in the main party at two ends. Police created and escalated confrontations by pushing and shoving the peaceful crowd, but there were no known arrests or serious injuries as of this writing. One window was smashed, either by a police baton or a bottle thrown, after the police began shoving peaceful people. Berkeley/Bay Area RTS has already contacted Shakespeare's Books, which suffered the broken window and perhaps some stolen books, to reassure them that a benefit will be held to help pay for the damages. Perhaps the police could hold a bake sale?
The lack of destruction compared to actual riots on Telegraph was salient, and all this after more than three hours of uninhibited street play on a Saturday night! Some officers were hostile and filled with rage but one Lieutenant (L3, going for L7) walked alongside the crowd cracking jokes and smiling gayly, clearly relieved that there had been no riot and perhaps a bit tickled with the entire affair. But the realities of the true destruction, the slow-motion riot of the normal street, clogged with cars and pollution, harassed by police, and marked by poverty and eating from dumpsters, were not forgotten. "They're going to crack down on all the kids on the Ave for the next week to get revenge," said one young woman. "I'm going to hide."
Finally the street was cleared, almost four hours after the celebration had hit the tarmac. The beautiful art was run over again and again with the street sweepers, surgically removing all traces, leaving only the circle-A's in the traffic control arrows which had been spraypainted, black on white. One clean-cut looking chap who had been taverning with friends ("delightfully empty tonight, quite nice") was angry that he was not allowed to cross the street, and called out ironically, "Sure, go over the art ten times, but never clean the other streets of Berkeley"). Small crowds continued to converse, then cheered when the tens of police finally marched away. Although the battalions were gone, still there could be seen one or more police vehicles each minute passing through the intersection. But the feeling had not ebbed. The streets were ours.
The San Francisco Bay Area's first Reclaim the Streets action took place just across the bay in Berkeley and it was a great success. By my estimate, about four hundred people met at the downtown BART (subway) station. We began the march as a single group and, as we moved along split into two groups, one on bikes and one on foot.
The cops were confused but very helpful. They blocked roads for us and generally stayed on the sidelines. When we got to the site (after a masterful bait and switch manuver) We proceeded to party for several hours. There was a DJ, fire eaters, free food, a little beer, a lot of pot. Aside from the testosterone brigade who seemed to enjoy smashing TVs and setting a noxious bonfire, the atmosphere was celebratory and fun.
The cops moved in only to put out the fire, then moved back to the sidelines. Very cool. They even went up into an apartment building and stopped people from tossing water balloons on our heads! The cops in San Francisco need to take a lesson from these guys. San Francisco is next!