Do or Die

An article from Do or Die Issue 9. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 69-81.

May Day

Guerrilla? Gardening?

[ Map of central London, centred on the Houses of Parliament ]"If anti-capitalism can draw fewer than 6,000 to central London on a rain-free bank holiday, and find no better targets than a statue of a dead Tory prime minister and a branch of McDonald's, capitalism ought to be rather pleased with itself."


On May 1st 2000, about 6,000 people met at Parliament Square for an advertised 'guerrilla gardening' anti-capitalist global day of action. A minority of the crowd dug up the grass of Parliament Square and planted seeds and shrubs, while probably the majority moved up Whitehall to Trafalgar Square where they were blocked in by the police. There was a small amount of confrontation with the police, some statues and war memorials were graffitied and a branch of McDonald's and some other shops got smashed up. It was all over the newspapers the next day which made a great deal of the graffiti done to the statues and war memorials. A lot of people got arrested, not much was achieved and it was not generally considered to have been a brilliant success.

Mind the Generation Gap

We find ourselves in the strange situation in which radical politics is almost entirely a matter of generations and in which in order to know someone's political affiliations it is almost enough to know their age. It seems that people's political ideas get fixed before the age of 30 and then they rigidly stick to these for the rest of their life, while new generations with new ideas emerge to regard them as rather stuck in the past. In my town, for example, there are several noticeable generations of political activists. Those in their 70s and 80s, who cut their teeth in the Communist Party and the workers' movement before the war are Stalinists. There aren't many of them because lots of them have died. Then the next political generation are the New Left of the 1960s and 70s, who are now middle aged. They are Trotskyists, as they were then. There are slightly more of them, as fewer of them have died. Next up are the 1980s generation of anarcho-punks and hunt sabs, whose hey-day (or swan-song, depending how you look at it) was probably the anti-poll tax movement of 1990. And then there's us, the 1990s eco-warriors and road protesters.

Every political generation seems to follow more or less the same trajectory - you start off all young and idealistic, very up for it but not very clued-up theoretically. After a few years you stop running around so manically, settle down a bit, read a bunch of books and realise that it's not just the Vietnam War or animal abuse or road-building - it's the whole shebang - capitalism - it's all got to go. Unfortunately the theoretical understanding of the magnitude of what needs to be done seems to exist in inverse proportion to any enthusiasm or energy for actually accomplishing this task. Those that don't give up entirely knuckle under for The Long Haul as from the lofty heights of Theory Attained they suspiciously watch a new generation of naive bright-eyed youngsters make exactly the same mistakes they made 15 years before.[2]

[ Cartoon of massed Internet geeks, with one  cop saying to the other: "Apparently they organise these demonstrations over the internet." ]This is more or less what has happened to the direct action movement over the not-quite 10 years of its existence. A lot of the ill feelings surrounding May Day are explained by our love-hate relationship with our immediate political forebears - the 1980s generation of anarchists. The initial reaction of that generation to the emergence of Earth First! (EF!) and the whole anti-CJA, free party, road protest scene seemed to be pretty dismissive.

However, what goes around comes around and the continuing growth and success of the direct action movement contrasted noticeably with the lack of growth and lack of success of the politics of the older generation. However, because to them we represented everything they had moved away from - pacifism, single-issue politics, counter-cultural lifestylism - they generally continued to dismiss and ignore us until we began to move along the same trajectory that they had done and started talking about capitalism and class struggle.

And our star was still rising as theirs was waning. In 1997, the Class War Federation, one of the main 1980s anarchist formations, disbanded, publishing a final issue of the newspaper.[3] The process of this dissolution and a hunt for new ideas and new ways forward resulted in the Bradford May Day 98 conference. The 1 in 12 Club (a sort of legalised anarcho-punk social centre) in Bradford had for a number of years organised 'Reclaim May Day' activities to counteract the total lack of anything with a radical edge happening around May Day. It was decided by some of the ex-Class War lot, together with some others, to hold a weekend long discussion conference in Bradford to coincide with this. They made a very obvious effort to reach out to and include ecological direct action types in the conference. The whole affair was amazingly chummy and good-natured and pretty much everyone got on like a house on fire. A few months later a few of the Bradford May Day and ex-Class War lot returned the favour by coming to the EF! Summer Gathering in Somerset.

Perhaps inspired by what the 1 in 12 Club had been doing, the idea of 'Reclaiming May Day' had been quietly gaining momentum for a while. On May Day 99, there were events in London, Nottingham, Bradford, Manchester, Birmingham, Hull and Portsmouth. The London event was a Reclaim the Streets organised tube party, in which about 1,000 people occupied and partied on a tube train in support of the tube workers and against privatisation.

Let's do Another One... Just Like the Other One...

Then there was June 18th.

June 18th 1999 was chosen as the date for a global day of action targetting financial districts across the world, pushing explicitly anti-capitalist politics and co-ordinated internationally by a network of anti-capitalist organisations committed to direct action. In this country a lot of people all pulled together to work on it and spent the best part of a year doing so. And the end result was widely seen as a great success - thousands of people, hardly any arrests, the whole City of London disrupted, shut down and smashed up and the word 'anti-capitalism' on the front of every newspaper (for what it's worth).[4]

Ah, but success comes at a price, and not only the continuous succession of arrests since the day. Suddenly, all sorts of people sit up and take notice and want in on the excitement; want to push this movement in what they see as the right direction. The 80s anarchos largely missed out on organising J18 but got very excited about this 'new movement' afterwards, perhaps not appreciating how much work had gone into organising the day. They immediately wanted to do it again - just like that, as if it was that easy, as if we could pull successful riots out of a hat. Meanwhile everyone who had just put the last year of their lives into organising J18 wanted nothing more than to lie low and rest up a while.

The first I heard of the idea of there being a big global day of action on May 1st 2000 was during the summer after June 18th. There was much discussion about what to do next, and at that year's Earth First! Summer Gathering after the idea had been proposed and enthusiastically responded to by a large number of the people at the large 'Where Now After June 18th?' meeting, a small informal sub-meeting was got together with some people from EF!, London Greenpeace, Reclaim the Streets and the Anarchist Black Cross (ABC). Out of some of these discussions a happy coincidence emerged - it turned out that London ABC people had been considering doing some Bradford 98-style May Day event in London anyway, and unbeknownst to them the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, who were the North American convenors for the international Peoples' Global Action (PGA) network, had proposed May 1st as the date of a global general strike and day of action. This proposal had been taken to the PGA gathering in Bangalore in India where it had been enthusiastically taken up. So it looked like it was all coming together - various different groups of people had been separately thinking the same thing. We didn't need to network an international proposal - someone else had already been doing it for us.

So those looking for something to build on June 18th, those looking to simply repeat J18, those looking to have another anarchist conference like Bradford 98 and various other groups around the world had all independently been thinking along the same lines. However, it didn't look like it was going to be possible to pull off another June 18th; for a start, there wasn't so much time before May 1st and also there clearly wasn't the same level of commitment. People seemed to be interested and to think that it was a good idea, but there's a clear difference between that and everyone being ready to put lots of work into it. An organising group of mainly 80s anarchos got together in London to organise the London May Day thing and produced a quite astronomical number of flyers for the Anarchist Bookfair in October which were also quite astronomically bad. Some of the cod-RTS publicity that was produced by the May Day 2000 group was truly cringe-worthy in its cack-handed efforts to be 'down with the kids'. It was a bit like watching the vicar at the school disco.

There was a meeting at the Bookfair but it all seemed to be a bit of a foregone conclusion as the London organising group had already decided what they were doing. The format of what was going to happen seemed to have been settled fairly early on. In part it was dictated by the calendar - May 1st 2000 was a bank holiday Monday. The obvious thing to do was to have a weekend of events leading up to the big day on the Monday. The flyers said that May Day 2000 would be a four day event, with some stuff happening on the Friday, a two-day conference over the weekend and then a huge enormous action in central London on the Monday.

A lot of people wondered who was going to organise, inside 6 months, this huge enormous action that was going to top June 18th.

Euston, We Have a Problem...

[ Photo of man, smiling, climbing lamppost with Big Ben's clockface in background ]In the meantime Seattle happened. November 30th was the beginning of the Third Ministerial conference of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Seattle in the USA, and a global day of action was called against it. In this country little happened except a demonstration that kicked off a bit outside Euston station in North London and was to an extent overshadowed by the rather more impressive events going on in Seattle.

After J18 there wasn't really the time or anyone with enough energy to organise anything big for November 30th. However, some people in London organised a rally at Euston station, which was really intended to be just that - a rally with speakers on a platform against tube privatisation, tying it in with globalisation. However, it was advertised as 'Reclaim the Railways', with glossy flyers and posters all over the place. The organisers naively thought they could organise an RTS event in central London, advertise it as such, get thousands of people there and those thousands of people would realise it was only a rally and would obediently not have a riot.

Surprise, surprise, half-way through the speeches it all kicked off and people attacked the police, turning over and setting on fire a police van. The attack on the police took them by surprise but it really was not a very good place to have a riot as the forecourt of Euston station is a concrete box which was surrounded on every side by cops. Also, unlike June 18th, nothing had been organised for this one (because it was only supposed to be a rally) and so there were no masks being given out and no attempt was made to disable cameras. A lot of people got their faces caught on camera, a lot of people got nicked and at the end of the day was it really worth it? Also, some were upset by the huge amounts of negative publicity the event got in the media, with the same picture of the burning cop van reproduced on the front page of every newspaper.

[ Photo of police van burning ]

The Euston event was perhaps important in solidifying people's opinions about May Day. It seems there was a bit of a feeling of - "we must be able to organise an action that won't end in a ruck". People felt that RTS was being manoeuvred into a category of 'violent thugs' and that thereafter anything they ever did would be associated with this label. Taken together with the new Terrorism Act, it would then be possible to criminalise the organisation, safely isolate the whole movement from the majority of the population and repress it. If J18 was a bit of a high-water mark then perhaps N30 just confirmed some people's impressions of the way things were going and made their minds up that the same thing should not happen on May Day.[5]

A Moot Point

The real crunch point came at the EF! Winter Moot in January in Oxford. This was really the only opportunity to get together and discuss May Day in anything like a national forum. The main issues that seemed to be raised by the discussion were: the process that led up to the event and the way that the whole thing had come about, the 'national' versus 'local' thing, and a certain element of liberal/pacifist panic (as well as an element of genuine fear) about the (as it turned out entirely correct) possibility that May Day would turn into some sort of street confrontation. The discussion around this point was very awkward because those in favour of a riot did not feel safe speaking their mind in a large, relatively open meeting, whereas those of the opposite persuasion certainly did.

The question of whether there was going to be a huge spectacular London action was essentially left to the May Day 2000 people and Reclaim the Streets to sort out between them. Most EF! groups from around the country decided in favour of organising their own local May Day events (impressive actions happened in Bristol, Manchester, Sheffield, Glasgow and elsewhere), so it was left to RTS, as the London group, to decide if they were into organising another huge action, such as had already been publicised by the May Day 2000 group.

The whole May Day event felt slightly misplaced from the outset in some respects. Whereas other recent large events like June 18th have had their roots in the Earth First!/Reclaim the Streets radical ecological direct action network, May Day was initiated and followed through by 80s anarchists from the scene revolving around the ex-Class War lot, Haringey Solidarity Group and the Anarchist Federation (previously the Anarchist Communist Federation [who should win some sort of award for consciously changing their name to make it worse]). And even if we reject the sort of lunatic conspiracy theories promoted by Green Anarchist that the whole of May Day, like Bradford May Day 98 before it, was part of some grand plot, directed from Chumbawamba's secret bunker deep beneath the streets of Leeds, to hijack the direct action movement and turn us all into proxies of the "anarcho-Leftist power complex" or some such, still it was a right old balls-up.[6]

There was a widespread feeling that the organisers of the May Day 2000 conference were somehow forcing the hand of EF!/RTS people into organising a big spectacular action for them. A lot of people resented the idea that they were expected to just produce the goods on demand. The perception was that the 80s anarchos were trying to jump on the bandwagon and force their organisation and their politics on people in much the same way that Trotskyist groups like the SWP do. They wanted to do J18 again but this time with their politics draped all over it. It was like a division of labour - you organise the action thing and we'll sort out the theory - manual and mental labour. They'd organise a conference for two days beforehand to provide the necessary politics for a proper understanding of the public disorder that would then be obligingly provided by EF!/RTS. The May Day 2000 people denied that they were expecting EF!/RTS to organise their action for them; they said that they were organising an action and that if RTS wanted to organise one together with them or alongside theirs then that would be great. But due to a lack of forethought and a lack of understanding of how the radical eco scene functions and the resulting missing discussion and co-ordination between the May Day 2000 crew and the EF!/RTS network it felt like an attempt by the 80s anarchos to repackage their political ideologies with our methods of activity.

Tuesday Night's All Right (for Fighting)

So it was left to RTS to decide if they were up for organising a May Day action...

Unfortunately, at this point the whole thing ran up against the rock of RTS Tuesday night meetings, which are, for anyone who has ever attended one, infamous. The Tuesday night meetings are, on average, so abysmal that lots of long-time experienced RTS activists no longer attend them, or if they do, they miss the actual meeting and only turn up to the pub afterwards. However, the meetings are open to all and RTS having got itself quite a reputation and quite a high profile, they are regularly full of first-timers who have never attended one before and have come along more out of curiosity than anything else. Having no real structure of any kind, the Tuesday night meeting is however the only 'official' decision-making body that RTS has. Therefore when the question of whether RTS should organise a May Day action came up in the meeting, people decided that would be a great idea. The problem being that of the people who decided it would be a great idea, most of them probably didn't really know what it was they were deciding and weren't prepared to put any work into it. The people with the experience necessary to organise a big action like May Day was obviously going to be had not really had any input into this decision. So then the ill-defined and contradictory entity that calls itself 'RTS' found itself in the position of having committed itself to organising an action without any idea of who exactly was going to organise it.

Those who had been suggesting that the May Day 2000 people were expecting RTS to come along and organise their action for them seemed to be proved right as the day got closer and closer and the May Day 2000 'action faction' consistently failed to organise anything, despite having distributed about a billion flyers saying there was going to be a huge action. It seems like they were a bunch of people who were a hell of a lot better at producing leaflets than they were at actually organising anything.

The people who ended up organising the RTS action must have had to operate under very stressful conditions. Quite a long time before the day the police/media hype began in earnest. The day got nearer, the hype grew and the predictions of a bloodbath became ever more extreme. A day or two before the action, Evening Standard ads around London announced: "Army on Standby for London Riot" - I, for one, would not like to be organising an action under those circumstances! In retrospect this ludicrous hype was clearly designed to frighten people away from attending, and very probably contributed to the slightly disappointing turn-out. It also contrasted markedly with the generally low-key policing on the day, largely aimed at containment and avoiding provoking anything worse.

The Action

On the day there weren't as many people as some had hoped. The night before the action, in the squat accommodation that had been opened up, I remember being enthusiastically told there could be 15,000 people. Which perhaps was not so unreasonable - June 18th was on a Friday and got that many and this was a bank holiday Monday when no one had to work. However, May Day hadn't been publicised as much and the message of the "This is not a protest" publicity might well have been lost on quite a lot of people. And for the people that did turn up at the original meeting time of 11.00am nothing happened for at least an hour and a half until the Critical Mass-style cycle ride-cum-march showed up from Hyde Park Corner with all the props and equipment. All that time while thousands of people were hanging around in the Square no one made any kind of announcement and so by the time the 'action' started, many people had simply left out of boredom. Although the eventual turn-out was then in some respects a little disappointing, there were still more than sufficient numbers left for guerrilla gardening.

Judging the event by what the organisers wanted to achieve, it was fairly successful. The crowd was not prevented from taking Parliament Square as some had anticipated might happen. When in Parliament Square people got on and did the gardening according to plan and then in some form got together and used the 'open mic' PA system thing the organisers had got together to make a collective decision and negotiate their way past the lines of cops. When the cops didn't seem to want to let us out we all joined together to push our way out (which was by far the best bit of the whole day in my experience). The banners and decor were, as usual, excellent (all excepting the 'This is a Peaceful Protest' banner). The Maypole was great, the 'Reclaim the Streets' police hazard warning tape was a smart idea, the samba band were again, as usual, great. And the innovation of having shield barrier things carried along the edge of the crowd on the Critical Mass didn't work too badly although they did hide the samba band and the dancers they were supposed to be protecting from police snatch squads. The banners (which were made of heavy-duty tarp with wooden spars and handles bolted on) were a bit awkward to move but did prove to be useful later on for pushing through cop lines in the escape from Parliament Square.

So was it a fuck-up or not? And why were so many people annoyed about it? Is it just that we've got higher expectations than we used to have or what? If we can't get to smash up a stock exchange every time then we all go home in a sulk? Given that the action achieved pretty much everything the organisers wanted it to achieve and it was still fairly dismal, the problem must therefore be with their plan in the first place. The fact that it succeeded reveals its inadequacies more than if it had failed.

[ Photo: Smashed up McDonalds restaurant covered in graffiti ]

The Motivations of the Organisers

The main motivation behind the May Day action seems to have been a desire to try and break out of the typical dynamic of street parties and the pitfall of being forced to keep producing even bigger and more spectacular spectaculars - trapped by the hype and expectations you yourself have created. As the Bash Street Kids have said, "One successful action doesn't necessarily lead to another. It can even make things harder for next time, by combining a yardstick to live up to with a method that's already been used."[7] This pithy little sentence could serve as a neat summation of the almost the entire history of RTS. Having invented the street party and come up with a winning formula, RTS very quickly became victims of their own success. They became trapped into repeating this formula indefinitely, and any attempts to break from this merely ended up in not-quite-so-good street parties. After the third London street party on the M41 motorway, lots of people involved in RTS said they'd never do another. But being unable to come up with anything to match the street party formula, they ended up doing another... and another... The March for Social Justice/Never Mind the Ballots! event in April 1997 effectively ended up being a street party in Trafalgar Square, then there was the global street party in Birmingham on May 16th 1998, followed swiftly by the local London street parties later in the summer, which were intended to be de-centralised and everywhere, but ended up being just one in North London and one in South London happening simultaneously. This already existing problem was clearly in evidence a number of years ago and was only exacerbated by the larger success and higher stakes of June 18th.

It seems that having recognised the impossibility of organising another June 18th given the constraints they were under and prompted by the experience of Euston on November 30th, the organisers decided to try and escape the long shadow of J18 hanging over them by consciously organising something very different that would neither be compared unfavourably to its illustrious forebear, or attract those who since J18 seemed to turn up expecting every RTS event to be a riot.

The organisation of May Day was also motivated by a wish not to replicate the spectator/participant dynamic from previous street parties and to break down the distinction between the 'leaders' and the 'led'. One of the many criticisms that have been raised of street parties over the last few years is the way in which their organisation relies on a secretive group planning the whole thing for the masses who turn up on the day as simple consumers of the party laid on for their benefit by others. Also on the day itself there is often a division between 'spectators' and 'participants' within the crowd, e.g. some of the party people will be content to dance while others are physically defending the space they are dancing in from police attacks. So the organisers quite boldly relied on the people attending to participate and contribute to the event by bringing things themselves and all mucking in. Again this was perhaps a case of making a virtue out of necessity - not having the ability to organise everything the organisers were forced to rely to a greater extent on the people attending.

So how to bring all these concerns together? How to follow up June 18th on a bank holiday Monday with an action in which everyone will be forced to participate? How, as a secretive clique, to organise an action in which people will not just turn up as consumers of a party that the secretive clique has organised? How to organise a big action in central London that won't involve any violence?

Guerrilla? Gardening?

And lo! The answer was arrived at - guerrilla gardening! That's 'green' (and therefore 'fluffy') and no one will be able to stand around and watch, they'll all have to muck in. The idea being that eco stuff is more positive and fluffy and wouldn't kick off - the action would just be a creative, peaceful event to do with growing things, creating not destroying etc. - that somehow the positive influence of all those shrubs in the vicinity would stop people lobbing things at the cops.

The whole idea of guerrilla gardening was flawed from the outset - it sounds great on paper, but as soon as you actually give any thought to how it might work it becomes obvious that it probably won't. The idea of guerrilla gardening, as far as I understand it, was derived from two different sources. Firstly, guerrilla gardening proper as practised by lots of people to brighten up the areas they live in... surreptitiously going about planting seeds wherever you go - in road verges, traffic islands, cracks in the pavement etc. Giving wild nature a helping hand to re-colonise some of the uniform grey space of urban Britain. Guerrilla gardening when done like this can be awe-inspiring, practical ecological restoration and subversive activity done in a really simple and fun way. Secondly, there is guerrilla gardening as in urban land squats, most famously in New York where squatted urban gardens have been providing food and a green oasis in the city around them for over 20 years.[8]

These two things are both examples of practical ecological direct action, and both in their own way very good things. The mistake was to think that this idea could be taken and applied to a one-day protest in central London. The essential point about the first sort of guerrilla gardening is that it is done by individuals or small groups in a very low-key way; it might not work exactly the same if 5,000 people all descended on the same area and tried to do it all at once. And the essential point about the New York-style urban squatted gardens is that they are permanent and they are maintained and looked after; it might not work exactly the same if 5,000 drunk people tried to do it in an afternoon.

We had all seen the publicity, but no one could really imagine how it was going to work. Either they were planning to take a concrete, paved space and dig it up to plant stuff (shades of the M41?) which would be dead cool if we could do it but would up the ante quite a lot and so was probably not very likely (and even if we had done this it would still have been abandoned the next day and trashed), or they were going to go for a very non-confrontational option and march us all off to a piece of wasteground or something and have us garden there (a bit like The Land is Ours 'Pure Genius' occupation of disused land at Gargoyle Wharf in Wandsworth in 1996) which I thought much more likely, and would certainly hold much more potential for holding on to and maintaining the site if anyone could be bothered.

Instead what we got was something in the middle - digging up and gardening something at least vaguely confrontational that was also diggable. Not such a bad choice under the circumstances, but it does seem that we had been the victims of circumstance all along. We were sabotaged by the date in a way - a lot of the problems with the action were unavoidable once RTS had committed itself to organising something big on May Day. People felt backed into a corner and forced to do an action on a bank holiday Monday. Few businesses are working on bank holidays and so the possible targets of the action were automatically limited - the protest was bound to be almost entirely symbolic from that point forward. (Despite the propaganda claiming "This is not a Protest", that is exactly what it was - a symbolic protest, not dissimilar to Friends of the Earth putting sandbags around the Climate Conference in the Hague or Jubilee 2000 forming rings around things.) Then it was felt there was little choice but to go with guerrilla gardening because there was nothing else do to on a bank holiday Monday. Given this choice of action, Parliament Square was not such a bad location. But the whole concept of doing a one day guerrilla gardening action in central London should never have been chosen in the first place.

On May Day there was absolutely nothing for the vast majority of the crowd to do. The organisers had not considered the contradiction between publicising an action and trying to get as many people as possible to attend and then trying to transform the ground they were all standing on into a garden. Guerrilla gardening is not appropriate as a mass activity. There were too many people in Parliament Square to make any sort of gardening a realistic possibility. When people got the signal that we weren't going to be led off anywhere else and that this was the location for the action, they started trying to dig up and 'garden' the turf that people were standing on. As more and more of the turf was removed and 'gardened', there simply wasn't anywhere for people to go but out of Parliament Square. People ended up trampling all over the flowerbeds of tulips that surrounded the grass in the square. Also there were only so many people that could actually be involved in the gardening. Even if every single person there had had a trowel they couldn't have physically all gardened at once. There wasn't even room for them all to stand on the ground we were supposed to be gardening. So the idea of everyone being participants fell at the first hurdle. Most of the people were necessarily going to be spectators. And of course what efforts at gardening were made mostly got trampled by people forced back into the square by the police. It didn't help that the police had waterlogged all the turf of Parliament Square the night before the action. Presumably they were thinking it would stop people sitting down there or something. It made it easier to dig up the grass but coupled with thousands of feet stomping all over the place, the 'garden' was quickly turned into something vaguely reminiscent of what's left over at the end of the Glastonbury festival.

It didn't do much for our claims to be beautifying the grey landscape of urban Britain that we turned an admittedly rather sterile and antiseptic lawn into a squalid quagmire. We made it look shit, to be honest. It was kind of embarrassing to be there. Especially when you consider that on a bank holiday Monday thousands of working class people would have been out working on their allotments and would have come home, switched on the telly and seen our efforts at gardening. It was all pretty much summed up by the people I saw ripping up the tulips (minus their roots) out of their flowerbeds around the grass in the square and 'transplanting' them to the cracks between the paving stones, where they went brown and died.

[ Photo: Tulips planted in place of paving slabs ]

That was especially dumb, but not out of character with the action as a whole. Even if, by some freak chance 5,000 pissed people had managed to turn Parliament Square into a beautiful forest garden of fruit bushes and apple trees inside 6 hours, it would still all have disappeared into Westminster City refuse sacks by 9 o'clock the next morning. Call me a tree-hugging eco-centrist if you will, but to ask people to sacrifice living things for an action seems to be a particularly un-ecological thing to do. What's the point of planting an illegal garden if you aren't prepared to stay and defend it and you aren't going to be around to eat the fruit?

In a way we ended up in a situation which was the worst of both worlds - neither fish nor fowl - a squatted garden which we didn't defend and occupy, 'guerrilla' gardening which was in no sense 'guerrilla' - totally bloody obvious actually.

Peace in Our Time

The choice of action seems to have been sizeably determined by a desire for it not to kick off. The meeting point for the action was changed from Bond Street to Parliament Square specifically to ensure people didn't start trying to smash up West End shops and got the idea that this really was just a gardening action. Likewise the only tools supplied for this gardening were plastic trowels, because the organisers thought that anything else might be able to be used as a weapon or would be construed as such by the cops and seized.

It seems there was a feeling within RTS, but also elsewhere, that people were a bit scared by the forces they had unleashed. They felt trapped into this cycle of everything they ever organised turning into a mini-riot and were looking for a mass action in central London that wouldn't kick off. A search which I would suggest is doomed to failure and only made things worse. It would be preferable to expect and to prepare for some degree of confrontation by, for example, producing masks. The organisers did no preparation of this sort on May Day, perhaps because the whole thing was organised by too few people in not enough time on about a tenth of the budget of June 18th, but perhaps also because it was not supposed to kick off.

Over the brief history of the direct action movement there has been a definite increase in both the militancy (in terms of the tactics we are prepared to use) and the radicalism (in terms of our ideas) of the movement. It has been suggested that at the moment that we are more radical but less militant than we used to be, and perhaps this is so. Certainly there has been a general shift away from single issue, liberal and reformist positions to more radical and revolutionary politics. May Day 2000 was an expression of this process and the point to which it has brought us. It is part of the whole general trajectory that youth counter-culture oriented political movements seem to follow.

[ Photo: Parliament square with pond and trees ]

To a certain extent there was a feeling of a release from pacifist repression. When some vague form of pacifism had been the orthodoxy, people had to bottle up a lot of their feelings in order to conform, and you did get the feeling that as this pacifist orthodoxy evaporated, people were freed to 'come out' and express what they'd felt all along. This resulted in a certain exuberance and perhaps in people going a little bit too far in the opposite direction. After this process where the politics of the direct action movement have been becoming more radical it seems that there is a partial backlash and an attempt to re-assert 'fluffy', pacifist ideology (for example the new group Reclaim the Satyagraha!). There is this negative element to the attempt to plan a non-violent 'positive' event for May Day, but it's also more complex than that - this pendulum swing has taken place within individuals and many people are left in a contradictory state, trying to decide what are the most appropriate and useful forms of action at the present moment. Hopefully moving from one extreme to the other we will eventually find our correct point of equilibrium.

Girls and Boys Come out to Play

Girls and boys come out to play -
Reclaim the Streets is here today!
Bring your spraycan
and bring your brew
And come and trash the Cenotaph
in the name of all the working-
class victims of capitalist war,
then issue a pathetic press release
refusing to accept any
responsibility or condemn anyone
no matter how crap they are.

Taken from Just You Wait Till Wednesday... a Collection of Anti-Anti-Capitalist Nursery Rhymes. Which you will probably have great difficulty obtaining anywhere.

As part of this process of moving away from pacifist ideology, middle class activists stopped policing their demos at the same time as they started producing propaganda going on about insurrection and revolution and upping the scale and attraction of these demos to young(er) people. Then with May Day the working/underclass youths and cider punks who had physically defended the spaces at previous events were no longer wanted by the RTS leaders. With the idea of policing the protest - through Seattle-esque 'guidelines' - having been thoroughly rejected at the EF! Winter Moot, it seems that it was decided to create a 'terrain of conflict' which would be conducive to a peaceful gardening action and unconducive to any violence. The flip side of choosing terrain for these reasons is that if anybody does fight with the cops they are automatically in a position of weakness thanks to a decision made by the organisers. Thus a mass of people were led into a conflict situation in probably the one space in Britain best planned for controlling public disorder, with few targets and no weapons or masks. RTS were acting as leaders. We might not like having leaders but if people do take on that role then they should seriously take on the responsibilities of that role. Leaders should either avoid taking people into conflicts they will lose or arm the people. At J18, RTS armed the people by taking them to a strategically good terrain and providing masks etc. On May Day RTS did not arm the people but used the terrain and the lack of props, masks and weapons to disarm the people. People - thanks in part to alcohol and to past RTS hype and revolutionary propaganda - still kicked off. At least twenty of them went to jail for it and the leaders made little or no effort to support these prisoners partly of their making.

The worries about a confrontation/riot at the event are complicated and should not be dismissed purely as bourgeois/pacifist rubbish (although a strong element of this was present) and at the same time we must be careful not to fall prey to the ideology of riotism. The concerns seem to be made up of a number of factors. These included: worry about arrests/follow-up repercussions for the movement, media portrayal and the perceived wider alienation/marginalisation of 'us' from 'the public' (especially just as the new Terrorism Bill was being rushed through parliament), the strategic usefulness of street fighting in our wider revolutionary agenda as well as people's personal unwillingness to be beaten up and/or arrested.

Outside of my opinion as to these concerns, if they had any real weight then there should not have been a mass action in central London. It seemed obvious to all bar the organisers that it would almost inevitably end in some sort of riot or serious disorder. To think otherwise was naive. To think that a confrontation was likely and then to look for a way of defusing it is working for the cops.

Unfortunately, when people did engage in damage to property and fighting with the police, they were disowned by the organisers of the action...

Crowd Control

Although Reclaim the Streets thankfully avoided condemning the violence of the May Day protests and falling into the most obvious trap of the state/media ideological machine, they did disown not only those who were involved in the violence but also all of those who were outside Parliament Square.[9] It can't have gone down too well with all of those trapped in Trafalgar Square by the police having their heads cracked to be told that they were "not part of the guerrilla gardening action". Presumably the aim of the people who made that statement was to point out to a media obsessed with violence that the guerrilla gardening action had taken place successfully as planned and to take a discreet 'no comment' on everything else that had taken place. However, it had the effect of making it sound like everyone who did not stay in Parliament Square was some sort of wrecker or hijacker who had simply turned up to cause trouble.

This particularly rankled because the organisers who held a press conference to disown everyone outside Parliament Square had produced a leaflet on the day entitled 'Essential information to enhance your Guerrilla Gardening experience' which told people to: "follow the red flags when it's time to flow through the streets". The fatal combination of this leaflet with the fact that the action was a static action in which the meeting point was the location for the action, and that - duh! - it was May Day when there might perhaps be a few other red flags knocking around, lead probably the majority of those who had turned up for the action to follow some red flags and the samba band up Whitehall and into Trafalgar Square. It was very easy for the cops to seal off all the exits to Trafalgar Square and trap everyone inside it and so most of the people who came for the RTS guerrilla gardening action spent almost the whole day cordoned in Trafalgar Square being attacked and intimidated by huge numbers of riot police.[10]

One notable figure who did get himself on telly and all over the newspapers sharing his valuable opinions with us was Mark Lynas of Corporate Watch: "What happened on Monday will put the whole direct action movement back a long time, and put off peaceful people who would otherwise be involved. It is a tragedy that ordinary people will come away with the feeling that the May Day protest was being disrespectful to those who died in the world wars. That is not the case at all."[11 ]Fair comment, in one respect. But why is anyone any more interested in his opinion than in anyone else's? Because he can be quoted as Mark Lynas from Corporate Watch, which gives him some spurious authority - the media have found someone they can present as a 'leader' or representative, which then gives them the legitimation to talk about 'splits in the movement'.

Even worse, all these mad rumours started flying around about how May Day was infiltrated by fascists. This is dangerous talk, and with no evidence to back it up, what it amounts to is people blabbing on about how there were fascists there just because someone had seen some people with football shirts and tattoos. Meaning someone saw some working class people who weren't obviously in our little counter-culture. This slight whiff of class bias in the air sits ill when you consider the class divisions that already exist within the movement - the people who organise things like May Day are in the majority from middle-class backgrounds and the people who get nicked and sent down for them are in the majority from working class backgrounds. You get the feeling that some people felt a bit like all these nasty rough kids had come and spoilt our nice hippy party.

Did you see this man on May Day? No, neither did I. The Ecologist's view of the typical May Day demonstrator was, to say the least, somewhat of an exaggeration, considering what actually happened. [13]

Some people were also proposing that May Day was infiltrated by agents provocateurs, an idea that usually says more about the person proposing it than about anything that might actually have happened. Whenever confrontation occurs that some people do not approve of, you hear the cries of 'provocateurs!'. Which, again, is dangerous talk - tempting us to start a witch hunt for anyone who engaged in any violence and then 'out' them as agents of the state. That is a very good way to start destroying your movement.[12]

The truth is that May Day was badly organised and ill thought out. Which is not necessary entirely the fault of the organisers, but is the truth nevertheless. On May Day there was nothing for most people to do. Even if all the people there had wanted to join in with the rather futile gardening stunt offered to them it wouldn't have been possible for them all to do so. The crowd which turned out on May Day was almost certainly of a similar composition to that which turned out on June 18th; the difference is in one instance they were let loose to smash up the City of London, and in the other there was nothing except war memorials.

An important lesson to learn from this is that you have to be prepared for big actions in London to kick off. If you are not able or willing to prepare for this then don't do the action. After November 30th, and the contrast between what happened in London and what happened in Seattle, some people have been arguing for the sort of 'action guidelines' that they had in Seattle - i.e. the organisers decide beforehand that there will be no 'violence' (however defined) on the action. Thankfully no one has actually done this, as it wouldn't stop any 'violence' happening, but would simply distance the organisers from those attending the action. If people want to break down the division between the organisers and the punters, which was one of the intentions behind the guerrilla gardening event, then the organisers have to relinquish control over the event once it is underway and can't get annoyed when people participate in a way that is not of their choosing. However, they can affect and take responsibility for the situation and the scenario in which the action takes place by choosing the most appropriate location and pre-planning and providing things the crowd might need.

Movin' On Up

I don't want to belittle the time, emotional and physical energy and hard work that the organisers of the guerrilla gardening action put into the event under very difficult circumstances with not enough people helping in too short a time. Many of the problems with the action could quite probably have been solved simply by more people helping. Lots of the things wrong with the action were not the fault of the organisers, so the point is not to blame individuals but rather to ask ourselves as a movement - if the organisers did make mistakes, then how come we let them make mistakes, why didn't anyone correct them, or help them, or stop them? How did we get ourselves into a situation where it was possible for this to happen? And answering that question is much more difficult than simply finding someone to blame.

The political ideas behind the May Day action were good ideas, and fitted naturally into the sort of politics that RTS has been promoting for years: "We believe in... taking back those things which have been enclosed within capitalist circulation and returning them to collective use as a commons".[14] The problem wasn't that the action had no focus, as some were claiming - it had as much focus as many other things we do that are proclaimed successes. The problem was the gap between what sounded really good on paper and realising that in practice. The general political point behind this concept of guerrilla gardening had been thought through quite well, as could be seen in the RTS flyers advertising the action and in the spoof Maybe newspaper produced for May Day. However the whole thing was insufficiently worked out in terms of the practicalities and how it would actually take place. Perhaps the action shouldn't have been taken on if there weren't enough people to carry it out. But as has been explained, by some process that no one really understood, circumstances conspired such that a small group of people ended up having the responsibility for the whole thing dumped on them and ended up doing it without really thinking it through properly.

If the movement that May Day 2000 was a part of expands and becomes more successful, if this 'new anti-capitalist movement' that everyone is getting so excited about develops and grows, then the lessons to be learnt from the experience of May Day will become more valuable. Nothing inspires like success (and getting on the telly) and if we achieve this success then all the problems that have been identified with regard to May Day will recur on an increasing scale. We will get increasing attention from the police and the state. We will have to deal with the left in all its various guises. People will want to get involved and will turn up to our events who we don't like. Problems of communication, misunderstandings and clashes of different ways of working will become clear. We will have to work with people who share different backgrounds and want different things. Also the vitriol of the media and perhaps also of some of those who we might consider to be on our side will have to be dealt with.

We must learn how to cope with all of this. May Day was an example of one way of responding to and dealing with all the attention our movement was getting both positive and negative after June 18th and after Seattle. It turned out not to be a very good way of dealing with this. May Day was supposed to overcome some of the problems with these days of action and big London mass actions. It very largely didn't overcome any of them, and the attempt to do so only exacerbated the problems it was supposed to be solving. Recent events like N30 and May Day, in their attempts to not be street parties have simply ended up being bad street parties with no music. (At May Day I overheard several people saying: "when's the soundsystem turning up?" Had they not read the publicity? This was an event at which they were to be expected to WORK, digging and planting and so forth.) The attempt to not get pigeonholed as violent lunatics simply ended up in getting us pigeonholed as useless violent lunatic losers, which is quite the worst thing - to be trivialised and made to look like idiots. At least on J18 we looked like winners.

So if we are to carry on and push forward the struggle we need to develop ways to deal with these problems. The thing to do to respond to the danger of marginalisation and repression is not to start trying to control and police the crowds on actions, but to both broaden your base of support and to build a strong movement capable of sustaining each other and carrying on despite repression. We need to have some sort of sustainable structure - an intergenerational counter-culture that can maintain itself over the years without dying a death when everyone hits 30 and forcing us to reinvent the wheel every 15 years. This will involve working with those not from our political generation and our little scene, which will be an awkward process, a learning curve, but a necessary one.


[ Photo: Bloke running with naked arse ]1) New Statesman, May 8 2000, p.5

2) For attempts to explain why it is that radical politics takes this form in terms of the post war social democratic class compromise see Dole Autonomy versus the re-imposition of work: analysis of the current tendency to workfare in the UK by Aufheben (Self-published pamphlet, 1998), p.8 and Aufheben No. 8 (1999), p.1. See also the postscript 'Anarcho-punk, the ALF and the miners' strike - a cautionary tale from the 1980s' in Beasts of Burden: Capitalism-Animals-Communism (Antagonism Press, 1999)

3) Of course, needless to say, not everyone agreed to call it a day, and fairly swiftly after issue 73 - supposedly the last ever Class War - came out, issue 74 appeared.

4) See Do or Die No. 8, pp.1-34

5) For example, the discussion document Problems and Solutions... Mayday and beyond... distributed at the Earth First! Winter Moot in January 2000, which attempted to warn people against letting May Day turn into another version of Euston saying, "for both the drunks and the police it must be fairly obvious that May 1st is now round 3".

6) See Please note as a general indication of the level of factual accuracy in this piece that contrary to the claim that Do or Die was "covertly bunged thousands of pounds by Chumba in an attempt to buy the direct action movement", Do or Die has never received any money from Chumbawamba (more's the pity!).

7) 'A Mayday Over May Day' by the Bash Street Kids in Reflections on May Day, p.4

8) See RTS' free spoof Maybe newspaper, pp.10, 11, 15.

Also check out:

and see Avant Gardening: Ecological Struggle in the City & the World, Edited by Peter Lamborn Wilson & Bill Weinberg (Autonomedia, ISBN 1570270929)

9) "Events that occurred outside Parliament Square were not part of the Guerrilla Gardening event" (RTS press statement, May 2nd 2000)

10) See the discussion document/rant Guerrilla Gruesomeness produced within RTS by one very unhappy participant: "Please don't shuffle this off again as 'just one of those things' and 'not our fault'. It was the fault of that fucking leaflet and whoever produced it. It was the fault of whoever conceived (or misconceived) a plan for a static action, but gave out misinformation so that people not in the know were encouraged to leave the action, unwittingly abandon the guerrilla gardening project, and move into danger and arrest around Trafalgar Square and the major political disaster at the Cenotaph, while they (unknown to those of us mugs who believed and acted on 'Essential information') sat tight in Parliament Square having a nice time with their mates, and eventually got away relatively unscathed by arrest or injury."

11) The Times, May 3 2000, p.4

12) For example there was a leaflet produced entitled Mayday McDonald's police entrapment?, which raised the possibility of provocateurs and that leaving the McDonalds on Whitehall unguarded was a strategy of entrapment, as was leaving a cop van unguarded at the Euston N30 event. Contact Matthew Kalman c/o BM Open Eye, London WC1N 3XX, UK.

13) The Ecologist, Vol. 30, No. 4, June 2000, p.3

14) RTS agitprop. See:


May Day 2001?

Check for information about another possible event in 2001. Or write to: PO Box 2474, London N8 0HW, UK.

Reflections on May Day

A4-size pamphlet of thoughts and opinions on May Day. Basically a re-run of the Reflections on J18 pamphlet, except with worse politics. However, it has a couple of worthwhile things in it and is worth getting for that reason. Paper copy available for £1.50 from: PO Box 2474, London N8 0HW, UK.

Excerpts on-line at:

Mayday! Mayday!: Visions, Collisions and Reality

Very good 36 page A5 pamphlet produced by some people from the locations group responsible for the RTS guerrilla gardening action, explaining the process and the ideas that led to the action, what went right and what went wrong. Try getting a copy by asking very nicely and sending some money to Reclaim the Streets (see address in contacts section).


Newspaper produced for May Day by RTS spoofing London commuter freebie Metro. Covering the ideas behind guerrilla gardening, RTS, the ecological city and May Day. As above, try writing to Reclaim the Streets, asking nicely and sending some money.

Legal Defence and Witnesses

The arrest and injury toll on May Day was heavy. More than a dozen people were hospitalised and there were around 95 arrests, some for serious charges. There have been more people arrested and sent down since then, and it is quite possible there are more to come. All these people deserve our full and unconditional support. See the prisoner section for details of May Day prisoners. Please contact the Legal Defence and Monitoring Group on 020 8245 2930 if you witnessed events, such as police violence, at J18, N30 or May Day whose reporting might help those arrested. Or write to: LDMG, c/o BM Haven, London, WC1N 3XX, UK.

Do or Die DTP/web team: