West Cross Route to the World
On the 20th anniversary of the Reclaim the Streets action shutting down the West Cross Route (formerly the M41) for a day, the author reflects on that pivotal moment in grassroots activism and the police tactics which crushed the street party movement afterwards…
In 1994 I witnessed a young boy run over by a car in my Dublin neighbourhood. The car was going at least 60mph in a residential area marked 30. Half tangled under the rear bumper and half smeared across the tarmac, the child howled for his mother for about a minute until he went silent and the light flickered from his eyes. It was the most terrible thing I have ever seen. Equally shocking was the fatalistic attitude of the others who arrived at the scene; police, ambulance crew, locals: Poor lad… playing too near the traffic. There were four lines in the midsection of the next day’s paper – it’s not really news, it happens all the time in every big city. Surely, I thought, things didn’t have to be this way…
Some weeks later I packed a rucksack and left town determined to change the world. I had been following the flourishing anti-roads movement in the UK with growing interest, and I resolved to join their ranks. In theory we were at the forefront of an eco-revolution, a small number of young idealists set out to demonstrate that an alternative, more sustainable, future was possible. In reality we lived in the forests with mud, mushroom tea and boredom only broken by the occasional media circus. We were on the farthest fringes of society, and considered as a freak side-show, but these were fertile training grounds for tactics and ideologies. In the more than a dozen tree protests I took part in over a period of two years, however, the “glory” of dramatic eviction evaded me, the waiting drove me half-mad, and we seemed to only leave a marginal and mixed impression.
The Reclaim the Streets movement was the opposite of all this. It was proactive – it brought the issue right back into the city, directly into the heart of the public’s consciousness. A grassroots concept born from the Claremont Road protests in East London and the squats of Brixton, its actions grew since its first public space occupations from a few dozen protesters to several hundred. By the time I started to learn of them, I was schooled enough in DIY ethic and Situationist theory that I seized on the concept as something solid I could export back home. It was my intention to bring this level of environmental action back to Ireland, but I needed to know more about the logistical side of things, so I contacted the organizers. I was invited down to London to see how it was done… they hinted that they were planning something big.
On the morning of July 13th 1996 I arrived at the meeting-point outside Liverpool Street Station where there was already a crowd of at least two thousand. A little overwhelmed at first, I climbed up a telephone box and sat on top to absorb the scene. It must have been a quiet Saturday morning all over the rest of Britain, but the mounting anticipation on the plaza was something else. I had the distinct feeling that something momentous was about to happen. Few among the crowd, however, knew what the objective for the day was.
Flyers were passed around to inform attendees what to do – don’t be violent… trust the people with pink wristbands, they know what’s going on. Just after noon, whistles were blown and we followed a cacophony of drums, dancing into the station. The barriers flung open to us, we crammed onto the Central Line heading west, regular commuters bemused by the invasion as we sang silly songs, but all quite nervous. Pagers and cell phones started buzzing and then a cryptic announcement on the tannoy that Shepherd’s Bush station was closed for this service and murmurs that we were rumbled… it wasn’t going to happen. We alighted at White City and filed out of the station to a disheartening scene – both ends of the street outside blocked by police vans and riot police maneuvering into battle lines.
I was then spotted by a pal from a tree protest camp who knew the area. He took me by the arm and whisked me down a back lane shouting for the others to follow. It was a mad dash, chased and grabbed at all the way by police in pursuit. Using a wooden pallet as a prop, we scaled a wall and then, as if stepping through a magic wardrobe, we were standing on the West Cross Route, the M41, one of London’s busiest thoroughfares.
There was still traffic on the road, ground to a halt with confused-looking drivers. At both ends, about a mile apart, scaffold tripods had been erected to stop the flow each way onto the stretch of road, but the cars hadn’t quite emptied out yet. We looked at one another as more of us clambered onto the motorway unsure what to do next. Across from us was a large semi-articulated truck and a couple of men were removing the tarpaulin from the side. For a moment, I thought they had broken down. Suddenly, the tarpaulin fell away to reveal a wall of speakers which at once began pumping out repetitive beats. Flying in the face of the Criminal Justice Act, we were having a rave!
For one glorious, sunny afternoon we were in control of the M41, and over those few hours this event unfolded into an explosion of creative expression. Banners were hung across the lampposts, a dump-truck full of sand brought us a beach, old furniture was carried in and living rooms complete with lampshades and ornamental rugs popped up along the road. We celebrated madly, we were doing something completely new and different.
News images from the day fixated on the huge propped carnival dresses, six meters high, which were wheeled along the road. One of the organizers pulled me beneath the skirts of one and I boggled at what I saw inside. Masked by the sound system, a jackhammer was busily blasting chunks of asphalt out of the road. I was offered a turn and I just couldn’t refuse. It nearly rattled the head off my skinny frame, but it was worth it to say I drilled up part of the fast lane that day. There is still something massively therapeutic about that particular memory. Along the road, at these potholed intervals, tree saplings were planted – a symbolic gesture not lost on the press.
Police estimates are between six to seven thousand of us there on that day. People poured in, including a large number of bewildered locals astonished at having their old community reunited for a brief moment, until the police eventually stopped them and closed their lines. We started to quit the motorway at sundown and made our way back to the Tube. Some police were unfortunately intent on creating problems, however, and scuffles ensued. I was roughly pinned to a wall by two constables and searched. They asked me why I was smiling.
Our takeover of the M41 was a pivotal moment, but its full implications were only to become apparent over time. I met hundreds eco-activists from all over the world in the years after who told me the action was what sparked their imaginations. Only long after did I read JG Ballard’s dystopian novel Concrete Island and realize the significance that the hell on which his protagonist was trapped was on that very same junction with the Westway. I had left the M41 that day with a renewed belief that things could change, utopia was still a possibility.
I would freely assert that Reclaim the Streets was the last great idea to spring from the well of London. It caught everyone’s attention and went global after July 13th 1996. Over the following six years I took part in over 30 RTS events from Berlin to Seattle. The actions grew in size, eventually attracting crowds of up to 100,000, from Sydney to Helsinki. I played a small part in exporting it – consulting, promoting, organizing – but I didn’t have to do much, the idea was king.
Our early “global street parties” were happy affairs. The events were a novelty, and drew families and elderly folk as well as young ravers. Those who lived near the actions often remarked how hearing thousands of cheering and partying people was so much more calming and relieving than the usual roar of motors. The media, initially, were curious and playful with the idea, and saw it as no threat. The movement ignited public discussion about how liveable our cities should be, and some city councils on the continent responded by creating “car-free” Sundays. The point was coming across.
There was a fringe element among us which started cause trouble, however, and they soon took all the attention. Bottles and rocks were thrown, cars were burned, and the crowd encouraged to push back when the police pushed. I was not part of this group. Damage to private property was against the rules in my books. Re-purposing of public property, on the other hand, was something else entirely, our right and the crux of our argument.
My involvement in RTS brought me under police scrutiny. I was detained more times than I can count, in six countries, often before even reaching the event. In one case, I was arrested before reaching the country, by Dutch police holding a photo of me with a Metropolitan police mark. The arresting officers were sometimes embarrassed or even apologetic – they couldn’t explain why they were waiting for me or how they knew where I was going or even what they thought I was going to do. They weren’t always so nice, I’ve been on the receiving end of police kicks and batons numerous times, once so badly I couldn’t walk for three days. I’ve never been charged with a crime.
Reclaim the Streets gradually veered from its original purpose to focus more on anti-globalisation, and subsequently anti-war, protests. I didn’t quite follow the change in direction. By 2000 it started targeting EU summits, which I just couldn’t understand at all. At an action committee meeting in Germany in 2001 I argued against this move until I was blue in the face, but was overruled. I abruptly stopped my organizational involvement after that incident – it had become all so convoluted and political. The following year, the woman who had challenged me for my “hippy” (ie. non-violent) stance at that meeting was exposed as a German federal agent.
We had always suspected that we were infiltrated by police, but it didn’t bother us, we were doing something that was in our eyes morally correct and our right as citizens. As more whistleblowers from the British police force have stepped forward in recent years, I have realized the extent of infiltration, and the level at which we were led astray. While we had been suspicious of the “quiet ones,” it turned out that it was the hardcore element among us, the bottle-throwers and arsonists that discredited us, who were the agents operating with impunity. In most cases it seems these agents were even unaware of each other, but jockeying to provide incriminating evidence to justify their roles.
We were treated on the level of a terrorist organization for simply stopping traffic. The initial concept had been quite simple – take back public space, address the hegemony of car culture, and have a nice party in the process – but it became anti-everything, lost focus, and fell apart. The police involved themselves to subvert, not simply surveil. Was our original idea that dangerous to merit all this interference and expenditure?
Police infiltration ultimately won the day. Those of us close to the core of the concept were preaching non-violent action, but we were discouraged and sidelined. We didn’t have the organizational structure to tackle this conspiracy against us – our weakness was that we were a “disorganization,” there were no leaders. By 2002 RTS had lost its impetus and event planning had come to a halt. Heavy-handed police tactics at some street parties, particularly in Dublin (which was broken up with baton charges in 2002) and Genoa (where one participant was shot dead that same year), scared most people away.
I feel both a thrill and sadness when I think back on that beautiful day on the M41 twenty years ago. I was part of something big, a new idea, but when I look around at my city today, I see that it achieved little or nothing. Reclaim the Streets was a noble idea that could have changed the way we live, but was crushed under the heel of police covert actions. I am still proudly not the owner of a car, and strive to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. I believe my life is easier (and, paradoxically, more mobile) for it, but I don’t harp on about it too much – I try to set a good example. Our living space is hemmed in by rivers of noisy, polluting metal boxes, drowning our senses… I shouldn’t need to make the argument, it’s already there. A WHO report released in 2013 estimated over 330,000 pedestrians and cyclists killed each year globally (out of a total of over 1.2 million road deaths annually). The millions more suffering and dying from asthma I also consider collateral damage to a car culture gone out of control. And yet our cities have barely improved in creating more pedestrianized areas and cyclists are treated with contempt to the point of legalized manslaughter. Every day children are sacrificed for the convenience of the car and we do nothing about it…
Long Live Reclaim the Streets!
Note: Photos are used without permission as sources are unknown/unverified and presumed public domain. Contact me if otherwise.