Reclaim the Streets Joins Dock Workers
by Sheila Freeman
This summer Reclaim the Streets surpassed all expectations. After two huge street parties last summer, Reclaim the Streets (RTS) blocked off a six-lane motorway, the M41 in West London.
In an operation that took six months to plan, Reclaim the Streets brought 10,000 people together on July 13 for ten hours of nonstop party/protest. The great car beast was taken by surprise and stopped in its tracks!
Partygoers were asked to meet at 1 p.m. at Liverpool Street station on the opposite side of London. When all was ready, the signal was given and everyone moved onto the Underground [subway], guided by only a handful of people who knew where the venue was to be.
Dressed in party gear and carrying banners and signs, thousands boarded the trains. "Don't get off until you're told" was all they knew. It was an anxious 13 stops on the Central line to Shepherds Bush Station, where everyone piled off and headed for the motorway. But as expected, the police had by now figured out where we were going, and had hurriedly blocked the entrance.
So, cleverly the next train loads of people were told to get off at a previous stop and thus came in behind the police line. (Each train holds 600 to 800.) Surrounded, the police gave in, allowing the main group to flood onto the motorway while others sneaked around the back streets and over walls to come in at the middle.
Simultaneously, two cars and two trucks had slowly come to a stop a quarter of a mile away at the other entrance to the motorway. The car drivers jumped out, deflated their tires and disappeared.
A clutch of people who had been hiding behind the wall leaped over, unloaded and set up four tripods, thus blocking traffic behind them. The trucks moved forward, opened up their sound systems and the party began!
Banners were strung between lamp posts, food, furniture, carpets, more music and huge, mobile carnival figures arrived to complete the sceneóbut not without a struggle. The police succeeded in grabbing one of the party figures and stopping a van full of decorations and other equipment. But eventually they gave up and allowed the party to go ahead. Climbers on the tripods were allowed down, and the music and dancing continued until midnight.
The real sun came out but we had made our own just in case: a beautiful, round, silky disk with long yellow and orange rays floated above the greyness of the motorway. Banners in the wind proclaimed "Reclaim the Streets," "Car-Free Zone," "Support The Tube Drivers," and "Give a Hoot, Take the Bus."
As protesters moved off the site after the party, we discovered that somehow holes had been dug in the road (shock, horror!) and a couple of small trees plantedótransplanted, rather, from near the M11, scene of massive nearby anti-roads protests. The trees served as a symbolic link between the two campaigns as well as a proclamation of living greenery over dead asphalt.
Police Harass RTS Activists
All this would be laughable, as neither of them actually did any digging. But they could be charged with conspiracy, which is much worse and could end in several-year prison sentences!
On the same day, police visited the (tiny) office of Reclaim the Streets and took computers containing among other things, the data base... Luckily all important information had been encrypted. But none of this dampened our spirits!
Street Parties Span the U.K.
Only Brighton was seriously broken up by the police. This lively beach town with a long history of radicalism received harsh treatment from police determined not to allow the party.
Before the party started, all the equipment had been seizedóbanners, tripods, sound systems, etc. While everyone waited for a signal to begin, police carried with arrests.
Passing out leaflets, legal observing, playing drums, even reading poetry aloudóin the land of Shakespeare!ówas an arrestable offence that day. Eventually the leaderless crowd surged into the streets to block a main thoroughfare.
But the police with baying dogs and riot gear became too much for that place. So the "party" moved on undeterred to the waterfront and then, pursued by the police, all around the town.
What had started as an attempt to block one relatively minor street, thanks to the "boys in blue" became a disruption of the whole town. There were seven hours of protest and 80 arrests. No one in Brighton that day could have failed to notice something was happening and become more aware of the issues.
RTS Joins Liverpool Dockers
The dockers, 500 of whom have been on strike for a year now partly because of their refusal to unload toxic wastes, came to Reclaim the Streets and asked to show them how to organize such successful actions.
It's hard to imagine two more disparate groups than the road protestors and the dockers. But we got along great despite a huge gulf between us.
We planned joint events over three days: a march on Saturday, a series of workshops talks and entertainments on Sunday, and then an action on Monday.
The action included blockading the port, climbing on the roof of the office (known as the "rat house" by the dockers), going around to the company offices to confront the managers, and climbing up the gantries to stop work. There were horses, dogs, riot policeóthe full works! And the Liverpool police make the London police look like metermaids.
After the Monday action, about 150 of us walked back to the squatted building where we were staying. As soon as we started out under a wetting autumn sun through the Victorian docks of Liverpool, the police, like vultures, started picking people off at the back of the procession. Scared, and pursued by several vans of police, we felt like war-zone refugees.
We reached the squat with a sigh of relief, boarded the buses and returned to London. We regretted leaving our new friends, but the bonds between us will not easily be broken. We will all be stronger than before.
Stop The Press!
In this case a fine site next to the Thames has stood empty and inaccessible for over seven years. Guinness brewery owns it, and wishes to maximize its profits by building a supermarket and huge parking lot. Yet there are already two of these in the area.
The site was cleaned up, makeshift homes were built and permaculture gardening initiated. But bulldozers have since arrived, and even the mature London plane trees were felled.
Sheila Freeman is a London-based Reclaim the Streets organizer and Auto-Free Times correspondent.