CARS CANNOT DANCE: When they move they are violent and brutish, they lack sensitivity and rhythm. CARS CANNOT PLAY: When they diverge from the straight and narrow, they kill. CARS CANNOT SOCIALISE: They privatise, separate, isolate and alienate. 1
Celebration, Florida is the world’s first fully privatised city. Everything, from its footpaths and roads, to its parks and “Town Square,” is privately owned. The streets themselves are literally the property of the Disney Corporation. The concept may seem strange at first, but on further analysis it becomes apparent that the notion of an entirely privatised city is merely the logical extension of a worldview in which ‘everything is up for sale.’ It is this worldview, and the loss of public space and ‘the commons’ to private corporations that it inevitably entails, that the Reclaim the Streets movement is working to undermine. Participants in the movement seek to ‘reclaim’ a form of celebration that is markedly opposed to the one offered by Disney Corporation.
In this node, I will discuss several elements of the Reclaim the Streets movement, including: its form of political practice, or what goes on during the ‘reclaiming’ of a street; the main features and history of the movement, as well as its theoretical underpinnings; its demands for community centred public spaces and wider demand for a radical overhaul of the capitalist system; its typical participants, who come from a wide range of political backgrounds; its emphasis on radically decentralised forms of political organization; its past successes and failures; and its prospects for the future. I will be focusing on the Reclaim the Streets movement in the UK, as this generally accepted as the place in which it began and in which it has been most influential.
What exactly, then, does it mean to ‘reclaim’ a street? Take the following from RTS activist Paul Morozzo:
We are basically about taking back public space from the enclosed private arena. At its simplest it is an attack on cars as a principle agent of enclosure. It’s about reclaiming the streets as public inclusive space from the private exclusive use of the car. But we believe in this as a broader principle, taking back those things which have been enclosed within capitalist circulation and returning them to collective use as commons. 2
What this means in practical terms is that a group of people find a way to somehow halt traffic flow (for example by orchestrating an ‘accident’ between two cars and a mock fight between the drivers), and then begin a free street party, complete with music, food, costumed performers, poets, political banners and flags. A common factor is an emphasis on childlike play and innocence, with one group of activists putting a new spin in the Situationists’ “Beneath the cobblestones…a beach!” by setting up a mock ‘beach’ upon the road itself 3. Others have taken to drilling through the tarmac and planting trees and shrubs. These parties generally continue for as long as the activists are able to stop police from moving in and forcing them to disperse, either by negotiation or simply by having such a large contingent of partiers that police are reluctant to begin a confrontation. Later in this node I will talk about the ways in which these ‘organised coincidences’ are actually organised. For the moment, though, I will provide a brief history of the Reclaim the Streets movement and talk about its main theoretical underpinnings.
Most commentators trace the beginnings of RTS to London in the early to mid-1990s. According to an article on the movement published in ecological activist magazine Do or Die!, its origins lie in the ‘anti-roads’ protest movement that begun to take root in the city in the Autumn of 1991 4. The author claims that a small group of individuals began to mobilise themselves against the British “car culture,” campaigning for “walking, cycling and cheap, or free, public transport, and AGAINST cars, roads and the system that pushes them.”5 This group took part in the painting of do-it-yourself cycle lanes on London’s streets, the “jamming” or “subvertising” of billboards featuring car advertisements (ie vandalism and graffiti intended to subvert the intended meaning of an advertisement) and an action which disrupted the 1993 Earls Court Motor Show. In a few years, the movement grew seriously both in its political power and in the number of people involved.
This sudden upsurge in the movement can be attributed to two different politcal events, the first of which was the campaign against the development of the M11 Link Road. According to campaigners, the building of the Link Road required the British Government to knock down 350 homes, displace thousands of people and do serious damage to one of London’s ancient woodland areas 6. The road itself had been opposed through conventional means such as protests, petitions and lobbying for over 30 years, but as the demolishing of homes began, activists resorted to a new form of protest. As RTS activist John Jordan says:
…it was time to develop new creative politcal methods, using direct action, performance art, sculpture and installation and armed with faxes, modems, computers and video cameras. A new breed of ‘artist activist’ emerged whose motto could well have been creativity, courage and cheek. 7
The second politcal event that gave a boost to the RTS movement was the British Government’s passing of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act in 1994. The Act was designed to give police the legislative power they needed to crack down upon activities such as squatting, illegal camping and other forms of trespass. But it was sections 63-66 of the act, which effectively gave police the power to put a stop to raves, which were defined as gatherings of 100 or more people at which music that is “wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”8 and likely to cause “distress” to the local community is played, that had the largest political repurcussions in relation to Reclaim the Streets. As the author of the Do or Die! article referred to earlier says, the passing of the act was the equivalent of throwing a “politcal hand-grenade”9 into the anti-Link Road campaign.
This hand-grenade could be said to have exploded in London during 1995, on Camden High Street in May, and on Upper Street in July, with the occurrence of the first ever Reclaim the Streets parties/direct actions. Jordan relates what took place during the Upper Street event, and it is worth quoting him at length:
Imagine: it’s a hot summer’s day, four lanes of traffic move sluggishly through the grey stinking city haze, and an airhorn piereces the drone of cars. Suddenly several groups of people appear, running out from side streets carrying 20-foot-long scaffolding poles. In a perfectly choreographed acrobatic drill, the scaffolding poles are erected bang in the middle of the road in the form of tripods and people climb to the top, balancing gracefully 20 feet above the tarmac. The road is now blocked to traffic but open to pedestrians. Then that spine-tingling peak experience occurs. Drifting across this extraodrinary scene is Louis Armstrong’s voice singing ‘What a Wonderful World’ – this wondrous sound is coming from an armoured personnel carrier which is now standing in the car-free street. Within minutes thousands of people have filled the road. 10
This was the volatile result of the cooperation of two movements that had seemed at first to be widely different: socialists, anarchists, environmentalists and radical greens from the No M11 campaign and the wider ‘anti-roads’ protest movement, dancing to music alongside hundreds of ravers and electronic music enthusiasts (whose politcal eyes had been opened by the passing of the Criminal Justice Act) for an entire day. It is this mix between politics and pleasure, between protest and partying, that seems to form the essence of the Reclaim the Streets movement.
Hakim Bey’s notion of the Temporary Autonomous Zone seems especially relevant to the act of ‘reclaiming’ a street. Bey’s idea grew out of his strong disillusionment in capitalist society, but also out of an equally strong disillusionment with what had taken place in supposedly ‘liberated’ communist countries. For Bey, the intentions of the communist revolutionary project are inevitably subverted when the revolution is deemed to have ‘finished.’ To quote directly from him, “as soon as ‘the Revolution’ triumphs and the State returns, the dream and the ideal are already betrayed.”11 This is why he puts forward the notion of a Temporary Autonomous Zone, or an area in which utopia can be lived for a short period:
The TAZ is like an uprising which does not engage directly with the State, a guerrilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the State can crush it. 12
The relations between Bey’s notion of the Temporary Autonomous Zone and the ideas behind the Reclaim the Streets movement are immediately apparent. Take for instance the following from Jordan, in which he describes the results of an action:
“The ‘road’ had been turned into a ‘street’, a street like none other, a street which provided a rare glimpse of utopia, a kind of temporary microcosm of a truly liberated, ecological culture.” 13
So, a reclaimed street effectively becomes a Temporary Autonomous Zone, lasting until authorities move in and turn the street back into a road.
But the RTS movement demands more than just the opportunity to hold occasional spontaneous parties in inconvenient areas. Like all real Temporary Autonomous Zones, a reclaimed street is a piece of revolutionary propaganda that simultaneously protests the ruling culture whilst presenting a possible alternative to it. The very notion of a spontaneous street party challenges many of the ruling presumptions of capitalist society, the most obvious of which is the seemingly ‘natural’ divisions between work and play, and between production and leisure time. Indeed, the ‘pointlessness’ of a temporary street party that creates nothing concrete and may not end up causing permanent social change also challenges the ideology of a rational, ‘economic man’ who always endeavours to bring about maximum gains with a minimum input of labour and capital.
It is at this point that the relations between the aims of Reclaim the Streets and the demands of the Situationist International become more apparent. The SI was a French collective of artists and activists, strongly active during the 60’s and the May 68 uprisings, who attempted to use aesthetic mediums such as theatre and painting to challenge ruling ideologies. The most prominent situationist was Guy Dubord, who, in his famous work, The Society of the Spectacle, argues that capitalism has not only shattered the possibility of authentic community, but that it is now attempting to sell people a simulation of that community in the form of products and brand names that seem to promise social acceptance and approval. Debord calls this simulation the ‘spectacle,’ claiming that it effectively makes people believe they are living in an authentic world when they are actually doing anything but. Take for instance the example raised earlier of the fully privatised city of Celebration, Florida, which can be seen as an example of ‘the spectacle’ par excellence.
The parallels between these ideas and the ones that provide the driving force behind Reclaim the Streets are immediately evident, in that the reclaimed street is designed to provide a contrast to the society of the spectacle. The reclaimed street shows that real community is actually possible, that people can interact and communicate in an unmediated and non-capitalist environment. Conversely, it also shows that such a community certainly does not exist within capitalist society, despite the fact that corporations like Disney try to sell it to us every day. A tangible community that emerges spontaneously in the middle of the street implicitly challenges those corporations that try to make money out of abstractions about community.
Importantly, by demanding that ‘the people’ take control of a particular local space for a temporary period of time, those involved in Reclaim the Streets are also effectively demanding that the same change take place on a far wider scale. To quote from the London RTS website:
The struggle for carfree space must not be separated from the struggle against global capitalism for in truth the former is encapsulated in the latter. The streets are as full of capitalism as of cars and the pollution of capitalism is far more insidious.14
Actors in the RTS movement come from a very wide range of political backgrounds. As Naomi Klein says, the movement was born as a result of “cultural collisions among deejays, anticorporate activists, political and New Age artists and radical ecologists.”15 But as London participant Fergus Murray says, himself a University graduate, there seems to be a “slight skew” within the movement towards the educated middle classes 16. In this sense, the typical actors in Reclaim the Streets could be said to fit the post-materialist political category demarcated by Robert Inglehart in his book, The Silent Revolution. For Inglehart, those living in post-industrial societies are more likely than those in pre-industrial or industrial societies to be attracted to political ideologies based upon abstract ethical or moral principles. Thanks to technological advances, many people live in a world of post-scarcity economics, and thus are not involved in political struggle merely to promote their own self-interest in securing a larger piece of the economic ‘pie.’ According to Inglehart, this results in a political situation in which there is far greater concern for issues such as quality of life/life style and a decrease in focus upon class conflict. Post-materialist individuals are also more likely to place an “increasing emphasis on needs for belonging, esteem and self-realisation.” 17 All of these factors are present within the Reclaim the Streets movement, and I think we can firmly place it within Ingelehart’s ‘post-materialist phenomenon.’
The forms of organization adopted by the Reclaim the Streets movement are similar to those utilised by many other of today’s global social movements, such as the anti-war and anti-corporate movements. The primary tool is of course the Internet, and Reclaim the Streets groups have many different websites around the world. Electronic bulletin boards and independent news sites such as Indymedia are also utilised. More ‘traditional’ tools of organization are used as well, such as flyers and leaflets, posters. But an overarching theme of radical decentralisation and anti-authoritarianism is implicit in all of these techniques and in all RTS events. Take this statement from RTS London:
In relation to past and expected future press reports concerning trials of RTS "leaders", Reclaim the Streets London would like to emphasise that it is a non-hierarchical, leaderless, openly organised, public group. No individual "plans" or "masterminds" its actions and events. RTS activities are the result of voluntary, unpaid, co-operative efforts from numerous self-directed people attempting to work equally together. 18
It is this form of organization (if ‘organisation’ is a word one can actually use to describe such an approach) that has been the key to both the past successes of the RTS movement as well as its past failures. The successful actions are such precisely because of the fact that they are so radically ‘disorganised’ – it seems that the spontaneity and vibrancy that are the hallmarks of an RTS action would be totally undermined if everything was ‘planned in advance.’ But this disorganisation has also resulted in many failed actions, where the party does not go ahead simply because a critical mass of participants is not reached. Take for instance the following report from a Darwin RTS event (or non-event) that took place in May 1998, posted on the Reclaim the Streets website:
Sorry for the screw-up but as only about ten of us turned up, we decided, after a walk around town, with placard and a drummer, to bugger off to the beach for the rest of the afternoon…. Despite 2,000 leaflets and 50 posters being distributed we were lunched out by a couple of musical bods who promised they'd turn up but they didn't…. Also there was a major concert happening that presumably took most of our party-goers from us. 19
But getting enough people together for the event to ‘take off’ is not the only prerequisite for the success of an RTS party: any group which aims at changing the consciousness of the political mainstream must rely also upon the ways in which its goals and actions are communicated in the media. And, perhaps not surprisingly, the media has been quick to either downplay the real intentions of the activists by dismissing them ‘anti-car protestors’ or to do them the equal and opposite disservice of labeling them ‘anarchist’ or ‘anti-capitalist’ without expanding upon their political views. As Murray says, “the media's thoroughly negative and unexamined portrayal of the movement has obviously diluted the messages somewhat.”20
The prospects for the ultimate success of a movement that effectively demands the impossible are always going to be narrow. But it is difficult to gauge the political effects the consciousness change brought about by a successful RTS action can have. Perhaps, though, the fact that the movement has been treated with such disdain by the mainstream media and by police shows its subversive potential. I’ll leave the last words to art theoretician Richard Schechner:
To allow people to assemble in the streets is always to flirt with the possibility of improvisation – and the unexpected might happen.... Official culture wants its festivals to be entertaining and ordered. When entertainment is really free, when it gets out of hand, when there is no fixed calendrical conclusion to the celebration, then the authorities get nervous. Such festivals reverberate through the population in unforeseen ways. 21
1 London RTS flyer
2 Quoted in Duncombe, 2002, pp352
3 Jordan, 2002
4 Do or Die!, 1997
6 Jordan, pp 349
8 Criminal Justice Act, section 63
9 Do or Die!, 1997
10 Jordan, pp350
11 Bey, 1990
13 Jordan, 2002, pp 350
14 London RTS website
15 Klein, 2001, pp 346
16 Murray, in email interview with M. Abbott
17 Inglehart, pp 4
18 London RTS website
19 Reclaim the Streets website
20 Murray, interview
21 Schechner, pp84
Anonymous article. Reclaim the Streets!, in Do or Die!, issue 6, 1997. Accessed from http://www.eco-action.org/dod/no6/rts.htm
Her Majesty’s Stationary Office. Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, 1994. Accessed from http://www.hmso.gov.uk/acts/acts1994/Ukpga_19940033_en_1.htm
Bey, Hakim. The Temporary Autonomous Zone, 1990. Accessed from http://www.hermetic.com/bey/taz3.html#labelTAZ
Dubord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Detroit: Black and Red, 1977.
Inglehart, Ronald. The Silent Revolution: changing values and political styles among Western publics Princeton, Nj: Princeton University Press, 1977.
Jordan, John. The Art of Necessity: The Subversive Imagination of Anti-Road Protest and Reclaim the Streets, in “Cultural Resistance Reader”, ed. S. Duncombe. Verso: London, 2002.
Klein, Naomi. No Logo. London, Flamingo: 2001
Murray, Fergus. Email interview, carried out by M. Abbott, 12/05/03.
Reclaim the Streets London website, accessed from http://rts.gn.apc.org/
Reclaim the Streets website, accessed from http://www.reclaimthestreets.net
Schechner, Richard. The Future of Ritual: Writings on Culture and Performance, 1993, Routeledge: London.