Brixton has seen many parties, but none quite like the Reclaim the Streets event on Saturday 6th June 1998 when thousands of people brought traffic to a standstill by partying in the main road without the permission of the police, Council or anybody else.
Reclaim the Streets brought together the politics of the road protest movement with the sounds and energy of the free party scene to stage a series of spectacular actions from the mid-1990s onwards, basically involving a crowd of people turning up, blocking the road and occupying it for a party. It started out in May 1995 with a party in Camden High Street and another north London party in Islington's Upper Street in July 1995 (I remember dancing to a sound system mounted in an armoured car there, which I think belonged to Jimmy Cauty of KLF). The idea soon spread around the country and indeed internationally.
In one of the biggest actions, 6,000 people took over part of the M41 Motorway in West London in July 1996 with sofas and sound systems, and this was followed by a party in Trafalgar Square in April 1997. By this time the focus of RTS had widened out from roads to posing bigger questions about the use of social space and linking up with other movements - the Trafalgar Square action came at the end of a march with sacked Liverpool dockers.
The agreed way forward was to try and organise two simultaneous parties in different parts of London, and to attempt to root the parties more in what was going on in the areas concerned. Whether the parties succeeded in linking with that elusive notion of 'local communities' is debateable, but they did involve a broader strata of local activists with knowledge of their patch and connections to the kind of resources needed to make the parties happen.
The planning meetings for the South London party were held in a squatted social club in Kennington (now North Lambeth Housing Office, 91 Kennington Lane SE11 -pictured above). Sometimes there was no electricity and we talked by candlelight. At other times we met up on the roof of the building in the open air. We broke up into groups, each responsible for a particular aspect of the party. I was in a group focused on organising activities for children. One sub group was responsible for selecting the location, something that was supposed to be kept secret from everybody else until the day of the party to keep the authorities guessing. In this way too the Wednesday night planning meetings could be open to all comers without worrying about all the details becoming widely known.
|'calling all Systems; pedestrians, cyclists, Road Ravers and road ragers, workers and shirkers, dreamers and schemeers, unhappy shoppers, happy shoplifters, kids, crusties, punks and prophets, the young at heart. Let's take back our streets'|
The publicity called for people to meet at noon outside the Ritzy cinema in Brixton, and several hundred people were there at the appointed time. Most party goers only knew that the party was to take place somewhere in South London. The expectation was that there would be some chasing around to get to the location – for the M41 Reclaim the Streets party in 1996, people had assembled at Liverpool Street on the other side of town and been directed by tube towards Shepherds Bush.
This time though a game of double bluff was being played. In the road opposite the Town Hall two old cars crashed into each other in a pre-arranged manoeuvre to halt the traffic, a flare was let off and a few people immediately stepped into the road. After a moment’s hesitation, the crowd pushed past the police into the road, with another staged car crash at the other end of the high street blocking traffic in both directions.
|'Roadblock- street party brings Brixton to a standstill' (South London Press report, June 2018)|
As we had our small children with us, we ducked into a Brixton market cafe for a bit figuring that if there was going to be trouble it would be in this period of getting set up. There was no trouble though, and we now know that the police must have known all along that the party was due to take place in Brixton, as one of the key organisers was an undercover cop, Jim Sutton (real name Jim Boyling). In fact he had been part of the group which had selected the location. I remember he asked if I could drive one of the vehicles for the fake collision - I guess you could call that potential entrapment though I declined as my priority on the day was to keep my kids safe.
Within a short time the party was in full swing. The whole stretch of Brixton Road from the Fridge down to beyond the tube station was full of people instead of cars; Coldharbour Lane was also traffic free down as far as the Atlantic Road junction. Climbers had scaled the lamp posts and hung enormous colourful banners across the street – my favourite read ‘Under the Tarmac Flows the River – Dig Up the Effra’, referring to the lost river now flowing beneath Brixton. Others read ‘Cars my Arse’ and ‘Against Tube Privatisation’ (tube workers were due to strike the following week). There was a huge figure of a woman – the poster and flyer for the event had featured an image from the 50s movie ‘Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman’ showing said woman lifting up cars. Another climber got a big cheer for putting a plastic bag over a CCTV camera. A red, green and black RTS flag flew on top of McDonalds.
|dancing on a Brixton bus stop|
A sand pit in the road was the centre of the children’s area. As Past Tense recalls, police officer Jim Sutton/Boyling had pulled the trolley of sandbags to the party from where they had been stored earlier in the week in a local squat. My partner was working as a childminder at the time, so she pulled together lots of arts and crafts materials from the South London Children's Scrap Scheme, a recycling project based in Consort Road SE15 (it closed down later that year, after which it was squatted as the Spike). We had loads of gold shiny card which we made into big conical hats, and some gold fabric which was used for costumes. We hung up children's art work from washing line strung between lamp posts. There was a paddling pool, and children were also playing in the fountains outside the library which were overflowing with bubbles - I remember seeing Jerry Dammers (ex-The Specials) round there.
We gave out free Portuguese pastries donated by staff at Grace and Favour cafe in East Dulwich (workers at the café in Clapham Common also gave up the contents of their tips jar for the party). More free food was distributed by Food Not Bombs. News came through that in North London a similar party had been successfully established on Tottenham High Road, after an earlier meet up at Euston Station.
The flyer had promised to ‘transform our Streets into a place of human interaction, a dance, a playground, a football match, the sharing of food, an exchange of free thoughts’. And that’s pretty much what happened, with up to 5,000 people partying on until about 9 pm.
The police mainly kept themselves at the edge of the party, with only five arrests, one of a fire eater for allegedly breathing flames too near to the police…
RTS Press release:
'Two streets in London were reclaimed for parties and the people shortly before two o'clock today. By mid-afternoon the crowd near Seven Sisters station had grown to over 5000 people and a similar number partied in Brixton. The parties finished at about 9pm. At the time of writing (10:30 pm) about 300 people remained outside Brixton Town Hall, listening to two groups of drummers in the almost-Mediterranean promenade atmosphere of a warm summer evening. Police continued to appear relaxed, and this time avoided the mistake of sealing off people's exit routes.
In North London, someone set fire to two old cars after the end of the party. RTS would point out that these were our cars, obtained to block the road, and that some of the most "aggressive" acts of which we are aware during the day were the enthusiastic reduction of these same cars to scrap, by a group of five- and six-year-olds.
As the smell of exhaust returned to the streets of Brixton, a participant commented "The whole of Brixton has been here with a real sense of community." Let this be a premonition of a time when the present conditions of our lives will be no more than a memory'.
|RTS South London Street Party stickers|
'Reclaim the streets for children
The streets used to be a place where children could run around, play and hang out with their friends. Today children are taught that the streets are dangerous and that they should keep off them. More and more children are being brought up like battery chickens - living most of their lives indoors, except when they are being driven around in their parent's car between home, school, the supermarket and short bursts of supervised play.
The biggest problem is that the streets are dominated by cars. In the UK, the number of vehicles on the road has increased from 8 million in 1960 to 24 million and rising today. When a fast moving lump of metal hits a child's body there's no contest. In the last 20 years, 200,000 children have been killed or seriously injured by cars, two-thirds of them while walking or cycling. Instead of removing this danger from our children, we remove our children from the danger - by keeping them at home.
Cars are choking children
South London suffers the worst pollution in the UK, and it is having a major impact on children's health. Vehicle pollutants like nitrogen dioxide can trigger asthma attacks and other breathing problems, while others can cause cancer and heart problems. Noise-related stress builds up for the thousands of children living next to busy roads. Driving children everywhere is no protection - pollution levels are often higher inside cars, and of course there is still the risk of a crash.
Faced with this dictatorship of the car, it is not surprising that parents and carers want to keep their children at home. This in turn can create other problems with children's physical, social and emotional development. Many children get less exercise than they need, because they rarely walk or cycle very far. They are also denied the chance to learn to do things for themselves by mixing with other children without being constantly watched over by adults.
Curfews for children
As the streets empty of children, and increasingly of adults too, they become seen as an alien and threatening place. Fears of crime and of strangers become exaggerated out of all proportion. Where children do continue to hang out on the streets they are portrayed as a problem. In some places, police have already enforced curfews for children, giving them the power to drive kids off the streets even if they aren't doing anything illegal. New Labour's Crime and Disorder Bill will extend this power to police across the country.
Reclaim the streets
If we want to break this cycle we've got to start reclaiming the streets. Reclaim the Streets parties are about taking a piece of car-infested tarmac and turning it into a free space where we can dance, play and for once live and breathe easily. They show what life could be like if people had control over our streets and over our lives. Come along to the South London party on June 6th 1998 - bring your kids, your friends, your friends' kids... There will be a children's play space as well as sound systems and live music'.
The second piece of RTS South London 'agitprop' was a folded A4 sheet called 'South London Stress South London Street Party Special'. It included a list of contacts of an eclectic mix of groups active locally including the Crystal Palace Ecovillage (a protest camp against plans to build in Crystal Palace park), Critical Mass and South London Anti Fascist Action. The front page text read:
'Reclaim the Streets
Today Reclaim the Streets are planning to turn part of South London into a free festival zone for the day. Most non-residential streets in South London are dominated by bumper to bumper traffic with nothing much to do except shop. RTS parties are about creating our own space where we can dance, play, eat and drink - all without any money changing hands.
Space and time in South London
So much South London space is covered in tarmac, covered in cars. It’s no surprise that we suffer from the worst pollution in the UK. The building of new roads has slowed down, with the plan to destroy Oxleas Wood in south-east London abandoned because of the threat of mass resistance. Now is the time to start taking back some of the space already lost to roads.
But roads aren’t the only problem. Green space is also being enclosed to build supermarkets or, like at Crystal Place, corporate leisure centres. Meanwhile urban space is increasingly controlled, with our every move watched by CCTV cameras.
Out time too is being taken away from us more and more, as people are made to work longer hours and the unemployed are forced to take low paid jobs by New Labour’s New Deal.
Reclaim the World
A party in the road is not going to change all this on its own, but it does give us a glimpse of a different way of life. By linking up with other communities of resistance across the world we can begin to reclaim more of our space and time from a system that sucks life out of human beings and the planet for the financial benefit of a tiny minority.
Since the first RTS party in Camden in 1995 the idea has spread throughout the country and internationally. A few weeks ago (May 19th) simultaneous street parties were held across the world. In Birmingham where world leaders met up for the G8 summit, 10,000 people took over the city centre for an RTS party and protest. Roads were blocked everywhere from Toronto (Canada) to Tel Aviv (Israel), Stockholm (Sweden) to Sydney (Australia). Our time is now'.
The leaflet also included a South London radical history map, with episodes featured included the 1897 protests against the enclosure of One Tree Hill, anti-fascist protests in Bermondsey (1937), Lewisham (1977), Wellling (1993), the Peasants Revolt and the death in 1896 of Bridget Driscoll at Crystal Palace - believed to be the first pedestrian in the world to be killed by a car.
The week before the party there was an RTS benefit gig at the 121 Centre with Headjam, Headache and Painful.
At the time I was part of the Association of Autonomous Astronauts and at the gig I set up my interactive space music experiment 'Sonic Soup' described below. At the street party I also put up a cardboard rocket labelled 'reclaim space':
'Reclaim the Streets, Reclaim the Stars
Autonomous Astronauts were strongly represented at the South London Reclaim the Streets party on June 6th. Following simultaneous staged car crashes at both ends of Brixton high street hundreds of people poured into the road for a day long free party with sound systems, a sand pit and much more. Disconaut AAA attached a rocket to a lamp post bearing the slogans "Reclaim Space" and "we don't need cars 'cos we've learnt to fly', the latter a line from Stevie Wonder's space utopian song 'Saturn'. One person was arrested for breathing fire too close to the police lines, illustrating the problems autonomous astronauts may face handling rocket fuels in public.
The week before the street party there was a benefit gig for it at the 121 Centre in Brixton at which Disconaut AAA set up 'Sonic Soup'. This involves a Wasp analog synth and a fostex 4-track, with each of the four tracks including a haphazardly assembled sequence of beats, loops and mutated samples from diverse sources. The 4 tracks were assembled independently so that any juxtaposition of sounds from two or more tracks is more or less accidental. The aim of Sonci Soup is to explore some of the range of possibilities offered by music in space, randomly combining sound sources from different parts of the universe, slowed down, speeded up and twisted around by variable gravity fields. In anticipation of the free collective practice made possible in autonomous communities in space, passing voyagers are encouraged to push buttons and turn switches to help mix the ingredients in the soup.
On this occasion the crowd at this mainly punk gig were mostly reluctant to join in, even when the equipment was put on the floor in the middle of them (this contrasted with the more open-minded revellers at the "I didn't do nuthin" party in the same venue last year). Nevertheless some of the less technophobic did step boldly forward, and there were the usual interesting sound clashes. These included Judy Garland singing "Fly me to the moon" over an Alex Empire backing track, a Todd Terry remix of a Yuri Gagarin speech (fading into Hawkwind chanting "space is deep it is so endless") and William Burroughs talking about "future travellers who are ready to leave the whole human context behind" over Deadly Buddha vs Sun Ra "Strange Celestial Road".
Parts of Sonic Soup were also used recently in a AAA radio programme put together by Inner City AAA on London Musicians' Collective temporary radio station' (from Everybody is a Star! no. 3, Summer 1998, newsletter of Disconaut AAA).
Past Tense post - as well as an earlier version of my text above, this includes more reflections on the role of Jim Sutton
Brixton Buzz post - lots more photos, including this one of the sandpit:
Reclaim the Streets original report from 1998
More memories and photos at Urban75
[post published on 20th anniversary of the party]