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Guerrilla gardeners plot to reclaim the world

On May Day London will see the latest protest by a group out to inspire opposition to global capitalism

The scene is the Cock Tavern behind Euston station. In a back room, accessible only via the gents, 70 or more people from Reclaim the Streets (RTS) are organising the nitty-gritty of what might, or might not, happen on May Day in central London. On its website and handouts RTS says it is not organising a protest, so much as an "aspirational", "creative" event based around urban gardening and greening the city. Organisers say they want to return waste urban land to something useful and "share a common vision of building communities".

But the police fear that, rather than thousands of people peacefully and symbolically planting seeds and saplings, the event will turn into a Seattle-style pitched battle between the police and a hard core of about 500 anti-capitalists and anarchists. They admit their intelligence about RTS and its plans is scant and that they are unable to make contact with the organisers.

Three police forces - the Met, the City of London and the British Transport police - are working together and have been planning their response since November. All leave has been cancelled and thousands of riot police and officers will be on hand. It is, they say, the biggest planned police response to any political event in the past 30 years.


Although the RTS meeting at the Cock is nominally open to the public, the media is barred. Since June 1999 when RTS's Stop the City carnival in the square mile turned into the worst riots since the poll tax protests, a stream of articles have labelled the group as revolutionaries, extremists, and anarchists.

It is now harder to get RTS organisers to discuss their ideology, politics or motivation than almost any global revolutionary group.

But four men and a woman, who ask not to be identified, agree to meet the Guardian the next day at the Barbican. They say they represent a broad consensus within RTS, but emphasise that they are only talking as individuals.

"RTS is a banner name under which people come together," says one. "It is a network, a coalition. Different people organise different events. It includes anthropologists, situationists, scientists, ecologists and others. There is no leadership, no executive body, no central planning. It is not an institution in itself. There is no membership. People represent very broad concerns. What makes it interesting is the diversity. There's no dogma or ideology, no one way of thinking."

"That's why the the police and the state fear us," says another. "They find it hard to understand how we organise and want to live our lives. Our aim is not to overthrow the state but to undermine it to the point where it is irrelevant. We want to decrease people's dependence on it to the point where they don't need it."

The May Day meeting, they say, aims to be a mixture of democracy and ecology, a positive and symbolic statement built around the notion of "guerrilla-gardening". This began in New York where a group called the Green Guerrillas began to plant gardens among the tenements in Manhattan in the 1980s.

What began as squats by environmental activists and poor residents eventually became full-blown community gardens. The idea of turning wasteland to gardens is now spreading in Bristol and other British cities.

The five say that there was broad consensus among the people who go to the weekly meetings at the Cock that it was time for people to do something, to be pro-active rather than reactive, and that May Day - "a people's festival for centuries" - should not be a protest or a street party.

"The idea came out of the genetics campaign, the crop squats, the experiences of the guerrilla and community gardeners in the US. People are being asked to come with seeds, water, earth and saplings and to decide for themselves what and where to plant. It demands participation. We want to see people getting their hands dirty and gardening," says the woman.

"Hopefully, groups of guerrilla gardeners will go all over London," says another. "The plan is to have a positive action, to create a beautiful working garden in the concrete jungle. For it to happen requires direct involvement on an unprecedented level."

They will not say where it will take place, and it is likely they do not know because, as with most RTS events, a final decision on where to go is left until the last minute.

RTS has its roots in the US environmental direct action group Earth First! and the Twyford Down and M11 road protests, they say. Its first "action" was to block off Camden High Street to traffic and create a massive street party in 1995. Since then there have been parties in more than a a dozen British cities and, increasingly, actions linked to protests around the world against globalisation and capitalism.

"In just a few years I think we have injected a Utopian element into [cities]. The actions allow a glimpse of change. We are catalysts of hope and possibility," says one of the five.

"Our role is to inspire people," says another. "The creativity, craziness and cheek helps. It's not about lobbying parliament - it's about saying 'Let's turn the centre of global capitalism into a party', or 'Let's take over an eight-lane motorway'. We want to show people some positive alternatives."

The five agree that RTS went beyond single issue environmental events years ago. It now seems to be moving towards a broad social ecology political analysis. It represents a fundamental shift away from many environmentalists who see nature and man as separate. Today RTS's thinkers - and there are many - see themselves as part of the rapidly evolving rainbow of global grassroots concern, linking social and ecological justice, human rights, debt, marginalised peoples and anti-racism, that was seen at Seattle.

Uniformly against globalisation, the five say they owe little to the old left and have no links with leftwing parties. Their inspirations, they say, come not from books or ideologies such as Marxism or socialism, but from their "everyday life experiences" of the "insanity" and injustice they see around them.

"People to a large extent are informed by the struggle in their own lives, to put bread on the table, pay the bills," says one.

What they all find exciting is the ping-pong of inspiration, going backwards and forwards. "For instance, we helped inspire Seattle, now we in Britain are being inspired by people in the US. The whole thing has gone global. Before June 18 [the J18 City riots] it was largely theoretical. Now there are global days of protest everywhere," says one of the five.


The group say they are broadly persuaded that the global system is now beyond reform. "There is massive disillusionment with the economic hierarchy and authoritarian structures. It's at an unprecedented level. Capitalism at its core rewards the darker side of human nature - greed, competitiveness and egotism. We want to see the tables turned upside down and to dance on the tables. It is not possible to reform the beast."

They claim that violence on May Day will largely come from the police and will be triggered by their presence in such large numbers. "Effectively you will have thousands of armed people in armour turning up, being opposed by people with seeds and saplings. If there is a huge police presence there will be a riot. If there's only a small one, then all that will probably happen is that we'll disrupt the traffic. A massive police presence will create a different atmosphere that would be conducive to violence."

They believe that the police will be looking for trouble. But they accept that protesters who intend violence from the outset will come along too.

Several of the five admit they will be unable to control the violence. They have been holding workshops on non-violent direct action, hoping, they say, to show that violence is not effective as a catalyst for change.

"I personally do not know one person who will be confronting the police on May Day," says one of the group. "I don't want to work with anyone who seeks violence," says another.

But the fact that RTS neither condones nor condemns violence makes it easy for the police to condemn them as terrorists. "Judging things morally is not necessarily productive," says one. "I don't think condemning helps the issues. It may actually worsen the situation."

29 Apr 2000

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