An article from Do or Die Issue 6. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 1-10.
"We are not going to demand anything. We are not going to ask for anything. We are going to take. We are going to occupy."
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 take 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."
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 developed the direct action skills of those involved. Phone trees were established, lots 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."
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'.
Saturday 13 July 1996 M41 Motorway in West London closed by 8,000 people
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."
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.
"From the moment of birth we are immersed in action and can only fitfully guide it by taking thought." - A.N.Whitehead.
Tactics need to move. If they do not those involved become tired or bored. One way to 'move' is to grow; doing it all bigger and better. Relying on tighter organisation and a more specialised activist. This can have immediate benefits that confer 'success' on the group using them: wider media coverage, more 'subscribers' to your mailouts, a certain notoriety. Another way - dialectically opposed to the former, though also a type of growth - is to diffuse. Enable more and more people to experience organising the tactic or be affected by its presence and possibilities directly.
The Street Party 'tactic' has, to date, been 'growing' in both ways. Three parties in London, each more organised and 'successful' than the last, and the erupting of parties around the country, locally organised and controlled, have shown that, as well as being a serious affair, resistance can be a festival. But what is the point of the street party? What is its future ? What could it be, potentially? These questions should be answered if the street party, conceived as a means to a free and ecological 'end', is not to become a victim of its own success.
A simple, but limiting, answer to the first question is: "to highlight the social and environmental costs of the car system." Which is fine, as far as it goes, but the rationale of the street party, certainly the experience, suggests that a more organic, transformative, even utopian approach may bring other replies and an answer to the last two questions - its future and potential. The concern is that the street party risks becoming a caricature of itself if it becomes too focused on the spectacular and its participant - the mass. The speculation is that, inherent within its praxis - its mix of desire, spontaneity and organisation - lie some of the foundations on which to build a participatory politics for a liberated, ecological society.
The words 'street' and 'road' are often taken to mean the same thing, but they can be defined in opposition to each other, to represent different concepts of space. In everyday usage the distinction is still common. We talk of 'the word on the streets', 'taking to the streets' and 'streetculture'. A street suggests dwellings, people and interaction, in a word: community. A road, in contrast, suggests the tarmac, the horizon, 'progress' and the private enclosure of the motor car. We speak of 'roadworks' and 'roadrage'.
The road is mechanical, linear movement epitomised by the car. The street, at best, is a living place of human movement and social intercourse, of freedom and spontaneity. The car system steals the street from under us and sells it back for the price of petrol. It privileges time over space, corrupting and reducing both to an obsession with speed or, in economic lingo, 'turnover'. It doesn't matter who 'drives' this system for its movements are already pre-determined. As Theodore Adorno notes in Minima Moralia:
"Which driver is not tempted, merely by the power of his engine, to wipe out the vermin of the street, pedestrians, children and cyclists? The movements machines demand of their users already have the violent, hard-hitting jerkiness of Fascist maltreatment."
Or, as an RTS Street Party flyer put it, "Cars can't dance..." 
The modern city is the capitalist 'machine' extended. A factory city serving dominant elites; a transportation hub for import and export, its 'citizens', as wage slaves, are kept in huge dormitories close to their place of labour. Its inhuman scale, impersonality and sacrifice of pleasure to efficiency are the very antithesis of a genuine community.
The privatisation of public space in the form of the car continues the erosion of neighbourhood and community that defines the metropolis. Road schemes, business 'parks', shopping developments - all add to the disintegration of community and the flattening of a locality. Everywhere becomes the same as everywhere else. Community becomes commodity - a shopping village, sedated and under constant surveillance. The desire for community is then fulfilled elsewhere, through spectacle, sold to us in simulated form. A tv soap 'street' or square mimicking the arena that concrete and capitalism are destroying. The real street, in this scenario, is sterile. A place to move through, not to be in. It exists only as an aid to somewhere else - through a shop window, billboard or petrol tank.
To rescue what is left of the public arena, to enlarge and transform that arena from a selling and increasingly sold space to a common, free space - from controlled locality to local control - is fundamental to the vision of reclaiming the streets. The logic of this vision implies, not only ending the rule of the car and recreating community, but also the liberation of the streets from the wider rule of hierarchy and domination. From economic, ethnic and gender oppressions. From the consumerism, surveillance, advertising and profit-making that reduces both people and planet to saleable objects.
That the city space presently given over to traffic and trafficking can be transformed into a festival site, 'beach' or 'forest' is clear. But equally important is the potential for this space to be used for an authentic politics. For the recreation of a public arena where empowered individuals can join together to collectively manage social affairs. Without the communal sphere, defined here as 'the street', there can be no real community. Without this sphere community is easily identified with the nation-state, and politics - the self-management of the community - is reduced to the practice of statecraft.
The street party, in theory, suggests a dissolution of centralised power structures in favour of a network of self-controlled localities. The street party could easily involve a public meeting or community assembly that works in opposition to the state; towards taking direct control of its locality and giving all an equal voice in decision-making. By including and engaging with other struggles, by involving more local associations, clubs, tenants', work and community groups, by helping others organise smaller street parties that bypass official channels, we extend the practice of direct action and make such a politics possible. In practice that is already what is happening, but without an understanding of where we wish the street party to go, it becomes all too easy for 'authority' to co-opt or subvert its form.
The participatory 'party' or 'street' meeting could be a real objective for the future street party. For an event that goes beyond temporarily celebrating its autonomy to laying the ground for permanent social freedom. Discussion areas, decision-making bodies, delegates mandated to attend other parties; in short the formation of a 'body politic', could all happen within the broader arena of the street party. Such participatory communities, in traditional anarchist theory, were called communes. Based on self-government through face-to-face grassroots or street level assemblies they were the final authority for all public policy. Linked together in confederal co-ordination they formed the Commune of communes which, translated, into current terminolgy, gives us the Network of networks or, more appropriately: the Street Party of street parties. That such a 'street party' would tend to undermine centralised state and government structures, constituting a 'dual power' in direct opposition to them, is obvious.
"Revolutionary moments are carnivals in which the individual life celebrates its unification with a regenerated society" wrote Raoul Vaneigem. The street party can be read as a situ-esque reversal of this assertion; as an attempt to make Carnival the revolutionary moment. Placing 'what could be' in the path of 'what is' and celebrating the 'here and now' in the road of the rush for 'there and later', it hopes to re-energize the possibility of radical change. The continuing emergence of street parties in Britain and increasingly in other countries shows that the desire for this change is not limited to economic equality, to ending injustice or ensuring survival. It is an expansive desire; for freedom, for creativity; to truly live. This desire, for the present social order, is revolutionary.
While four out of five westerners live in the city, while two-thirds of the world's population share the common space of its thoroughfares, it is:
"On the streets that power must be dissolved: for the streets, where daily life is endured, suffered and eroded, and where power is confronted and fought, must be turned into the domain where daily life is enjoyed, created and nourished."
To 'street party' is to begin reconstructing the geography of everyday life; to re-appropriate the public sphere; to rediscover the streets and attempt to liberate them. To 'street party' is to rescue communality from the dissection table of capitalism; to oppose the free market with a vision of the free society. This vision, which the street party embodies, is collective imagining in practice. It radically dissolves political, cultural, social and economic divisions in a utopian expression. A utopia defined, not as 'no-place', but as this-place, here and now.
The ultimate street party - the Street Party of street parties - is one where each person in each street in every village, town and city, joins with every other in rejecting capitalism, its exploitation and divisions. Indeed rejecting all hierarchy and domination, embracing instead an ecological vision of mutual aid, freedom, complementarity and interdependence. When the streets are the authentic social sphere for a participatory politics based on self-activity and direct action. When co-operation and solidarity are the social practice of society. When the 'street party' helps make possible, and dissolves into such a future, then, we can begin...
"At first the people stop and overturn the vehicles in their path...here they are avenging themselves on the traffic by decomposing it into its inert original elements. Next they incorporate the wreckage they have created into their rising barricades: they are recombining the isolated inanimate elements into vital new artistic and political forms. For one luminous moment, the multitudes of solitudes that make the modern city come together in a new kind of encounter, to make a people.'The streets belong to the people': they seize control of the city's elemental matter and make it their own."
For more information contact: Reclaim The Streets, PO Box 9656, London N4 4JY, UK. Telephone: 0171 281 4621. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. They have a internet web site at: http://www.hrc.wmin.ac.uk./campaigns/rts.html
1. Reclaim The Streets leaflet.
2. 'Immortality' by Milan Kundera (Faber and Faber: London 1991) - page 271.
3. Reclaim The Streets Agit-Prop (Distributed at the M41 Street Party on Saturday 13th July 1996)
4. What is Reclaim the Streets? leaflet.
5. To take a facile example, imagine singing: "We're on the 'street' to nowhere" - not quite right is it? On the other hand, how about: "Our house, in the middle of our 'road'." Trivial maybe, but indicative of the difference.
6. And to 'reclaim the streets' is to enact the transformation of the former to the latter. In this context the anti-roads movement is also a pro-streets movement. The struggle against the destruction of 'nature' is also a struggle for the human-scale, the face-to-face, for a society in harmony with its natural surrounding
7. Leaflet for Street Party 2: Rage against the Machine - Saturday 23th July 1995
8. 'The Revolution of Everyday Life' by Raoul Vaneigem. (1967)
9. 'Post-Scarcity Anarchism' by Murray Bookchin. (1971)
10. 'All That Is Solid Melts into Air' by Marshal Berman. (1982) - quoted in 'A Shout in the Street' by Peter Jukes (1990)
"Art for all or none at all." - graffiti on The National Gallery, Saturday 12th April 1997.
The Chairman of the Bored leads a delegation to Downing St. His deputy on the wall is about to ransack the foreign office.
On Saturday 12th April 1997, there was a 'March For Social Justice' called by the Liverpool Dockers, the Hillingdon Hospital Workers and the Magnet Strikers. This event, three weeks before the General Election on 1st May, was called to signify the need for radical social change. The organising group of the march extended the invitation to attend to all people, including, in their own words "the trade unionists, the unemployed, pensioners, people with disabilities,the homeless, refugees and asylum seekers, environmentalists and the young."
Reclaim The Streets were already planning to do a massive action surrounding the issues of the election and 'democracy', and because of this, and the close connections that had developed over the past nine months between the sacked Liverpool Dockers and RTS, it was decided that RTS should organise and add their own dimension to the day's events. From this initial idea the original plan grew into a 'Two Day Festival of Resistance', with a number of different events planned for the whole weekend.
RTS publicity confirmed the goal of social change that all participants in the march were agreed on, but qualified it by stating: "Whilst sharing this aim RTS believe that such a change will be brought about, not through the mediation of professional politicians, but by individual and collective participation in social affairs. In short - by direct action." Another leaflet produced by RTS urged people to take to the streets; to forget voting and working for change inside the system but instead it to take "direct action in the streets, in the fields and in the workplace, to halt the destruction and create a direct democracy in a free and ecological society."
As the leaflet went on to say, working for change within the system, or voting for the lesser evil, was pointless and disempowering. Voting is a weapon of government to delude people into thinking that they have a say in how the country is run, to reinforce their passive role and encourage them to leave the 'politics' to the specialists. The alternative message that RTS were pushing was one of empowerment - for people to participate in direct action, not only in the political arena, but in all aspects of their lives. It was an attempt to dissuade people from the belief that we can change things by working within the system, when it is the system itself that we must destroy if we are to have any meaningful and lasting change.
This clearly anti-election and pro-direct action event at first seems far removed from RTS's original message, but in reality the practical methods that RTS use, and the theory behind them, lead naturally into confronting and questioning the totality of the current political system. The election merely provided the opportunity to make explicit the links between ecological destruction, social issues and the political system. RTS were saying that all 'choices' in the election were false ones, and that you could vote for an alternative government, but never an alternative to government, and that the spectacle of the election was manufactured by the state and mass media in order to give us the illusion of choice. That whoever wins the basic function of all government remains the same - the maintenance and continuation of power and authority, with the end result of continued exploitation of both people and the natural world. Reclaim the Streets a single issue group? Well, if the overthrow of all hierarchy, domination and exploitation is single issue, then yes, single issue! As the RTS mailout had said three weeks before: "And you thought we were all about cars!"
In linking up with the Dockers, Reclaim The Streets has taken what for some is a surprising and yet predictable route. Surprising in that there is no obvious link between 'anti-car activists' and 'sacked dockers', and yet predictable in that there is an obvious affinitybetween them and the radical ecology movement.
Both the Dockers and radical ecologists argue for some form of social change, although so far in this country for wholly different reasons and, perhaps even with vastly different goals. RTS is suggesting that it is time we recognised the common social forces against which we are fighting in order to combine our strengths, and come up with a consensual approach to achieving significant social change.
We're saying that the power that attacks those who work, through union legislation and casualisation, is the same power that is attacking the planet with over-production and consumption of resources; the power that produces cars by 4 million a year is the same power that decides to attack workers through the disempowerment of the unions, reducing work to slavery.
That this power is capital. As long as economies run on the basis of profit for business, social and ecological exploitation will occur. The question is: can we come together as a movement that will effectively challenge and dissolve this power, before those in control lead society into the social and ecological catastrophe that is currently just beginning?
That the question 'Why Reclaim The Streets and the Dockers?' is even asked shows that there is a common perception that ecology does not include social issues. The belief that the environment is nothing to do with how society runs, that it is something remote and 'out there', somewhere to drive to for the day, something that just happens to be suffering because of the way we live. That we work in repetitive, meaningless jobs and that this is organised for the sake of profit is taken for granted, and remains somehow unconnected. This separation and presentation of the ecological crisis as unconnected to other forms of exploitation only serves the interests of business and state, and needs to be overcome if society is to survive. Indeed it is precisely the industrialisation process itself that has separated us from ourselves, each other and the earth.
At some point in history we placed ourselves outside nature and inside cities so that the brutal forces we were about to unleash didn't attack ourselves. Under the guise of civilisation, a small class of business men organised such an intense economic scramble which, far from advancing humanity, has attacked both the planet and its population. In 200 years we have almost depleted the world's resources, organised the most vicious and sophisticated methods of war, and created a level of social inequality unprecedented throughout history.
So how did we get from the car to the dockers? First of all we haven't left car culture. Street parties will always oppose any tyranny on our streets. The form of opposition is, however, much more than simply 'against' car culture. Street parties cut straight to the alternative in the form of collective empowerment. As soon as the street is taken, the rule of the state is dissolved and a temporary autonomous zone is created. An active crowd celebrates its own strength and enacts its own unmediated diversity; and we all experience, albeit briefly, moments of collective control. Whilst cars dominate our streets, street parties will always be anti-car, but the tradition of empowered crowds taking control in the streets has a long and interesting history. RTS enters that tradition by inspiring people to take the initiative and maintain its momentum. We've seen crowds of 500 take a street for several hours, 8,000 take a motorway for 12 hours and so far all we've done is practice.
As a new form of direct action, the street party can only gain in popularity as we are now seeing. After the 'Never Mind the Ballots'/ Social Justice event, where 20,000 marched with the dockers for a rally plus a street party outside the National Gallery, the future of the street party is looking healthy - despite the state hamming it up for the cameras. As an old form of direct action picketing has looked like a failed method of struggle for the last few years. After a year of daily pickets at the gates of the Port of Liverpool, the dockers were entering their second winter with little hope of success in their fight for reinstatement. Having been cold-shouldered by their union the TGWU, (fearing sequestration of union assets under trade union legislation), the dockers sought support outside the union movement.
When RTS took action in support of the striking Tubeworkers in August 1996, the dockers had little left to lose in asking for our support. We gladly accepted the opportunity to extend links to workers in struggle, and the result was not just an empowering action that involved activists from all over the country, but a fascinating shape-shift in the direct action movement. The occupation of the gantries and office roof meant that the picket refused to disperse until all activists came down without arrest. 150 pickets managed to storm the port and get a docker on the roof, and throughout the day we all stood up for each other and the right to determine how we live. Far from sinking into oblivion, the dockers showed they were prepared to take the opportunity to innovate and take action inside their workplace, and (although only briefly), take over the means of production. As one docker said, "it was like a blood transfusion."
The process was symbiotic. The dockers revitalised their struggle and made good friends in the course of collective action, and we enhanced our movement by extending perceived boundaries for direct action. Suddenly, direct action was not just a fringe sport for extremists, but turns out to have been around for a long time, a central form of human activity.
On days of mass action, international support for the dockers has now reached 140 ports worldwide, and that's every port in Japan and Australia and most in the US. In uniting with the Liverpool Dockers we have laid some interesting foundations for the future growth of a movement for radical and lasting social and ecological change. How it now grows is, and always has been, up to all of us to decide.
For more details (and to send donations to) contact: Merseyside Port Shop Stewards, C/O TGWU, Transport House, Islington, Liverpool, L3 8EQ. Telephone: 0151 207 3388.