” … it is about that small but vital place where an organizing campaign or movement meets the public sphere.”Paul Kuttner, CulturalOrganizing.org
Reclaim the Streets (RTS) began as creative activist group in London, but its tactics, blending party and protest, soon spread around the world. Merging the direct action of Britain’s anti-road building movement and the carnivalesque nature of the counter-cultural rave scene, RTS became a catalyst for the global anti-capitalist movements of the late ’90s.
RTS saw the streets as the urban equivalent of the commons see THEORY: The commons, in need of reclaiming from the enclosures of the car and commerce and transformed into truly public places to be enjoyed by all. RTS became most known for its street parties, which served not only as a protest vehicle against car culture but also as a prefigurative vision of what city streets could be in a system that prioritized people over profit and ecology over the economy see TACTIC: Prefigurative intervention.
The first street party took place in North London in May 1995. Using rave culture tactics, the location was kept secret until the last moment, and participants were led from a public meeting point through the subway to emerge at the party site before the police had time to gather forces.
The event began with two cars crashing into each other. The drivers jumped out in theatrical road rage and began to destroy each other’s vehicles with hammers. Meanwhile, 500 people emerged from the subway station into the traffic-free street that the crashed cars had blocked, and started the party, dancing, sharing free food and meeting new friends.
From 1995-98, street parties evolved in complexity and scale. Creative techniques ranged from tons of sand dumped in the road to create a sand box, to tripods made from scaffolding erected in the middle of the street with someone sitting on top. These “intelligent” barricades blocked the road from cars and yet opened it for pedestrians.
In the summer of 1996, 8,000 participants took over a motorway while huge carnival figures with hooped skirts moved amongst them. Underneath the skirts, hidden from view, activists drilled into the tarmac with jack hammers and planting saplings into the motorway. This story took on the power of a myth as it circulated on the early threads of the world wide web. It even inspired striking longshoremen from Liverpool to make common cause with RTS, proof that imagination can break down barriers of class and political/ cultural difference.
The RTS meme soon spread across the UK and the Western world. A global street party in seventy cities occurred in May 1998, coinciding with the G8 summit. A year later, a “Carnival Against Capital” on June 18th, coordinated by RTS and the People’s Global Action network, saw simultaneous actions in financial districts across the world, from Nigeria to Uruguay, Seoul to Melbourne, Belarus to Dhaka. Six months after that, a carnivalesque mass street action shut down the WTO in Seattle, an event that proved to be the coming-out party for the anti-globalization movement.
RTS was successful because it did not look or feel like a typical protest. Much political action is predictable and boring; street parties are quite the opposite. All sorts of people got involved because they knew it would be both a transgressive political adventure and a brilliant party. RTS’s political audacity — “let’s hold a mass carnival in the financial district or a rave on a motorway” — ignited hope, and hope is the catalyst for the formation of new movements. Another key reason for its popularity was that it involved a simple, adaptable formula: disseminate an invitation over the still-young Internet, get a sound system and occupy a street. Its creativity came from its diversity — from artists to anarchists, unionists to ecologists, ravers to cyclists — all came together to experiment with new forms of mass action.
With its music, wild costumes, liberated bodies, color and revelry, RTS created rebel carnivals. Unlike regular carnivals and parades, RTS never asked for permission, leaving the event open to the possible and impossible, turning the world on its head in true carnival spirit.
While street parties were often
accompanied by written propaganda explaining the ideas and theories behind them, the thing that had the greatest impact was not the theory that went into the events but the hope that emerged. The hope that unfurled from these events not only catalysed the anti-globalization movement, but many of those involved went on to work in various global justice movement groups such as Genetic Engineering Network, the Wombles, Dissent!, the Rising Tide Network, the Clandestine Insurgent Clown Army, the Climate Camp and the Occupy movement.
Whilst the surprise location of the street parties was not something that could be public knowledge before the event, as the police would have shut them down, the events themselves were very participatory. RTS was an open invitation for people to come to the street party with whatever creative ideas they wanted. Unlike marches with set themes and slogans, street parties were frames for collective spontaneity. Even if you did not bring your own costume, giant prop or free feast, then simply the act of dancing with thousands of others on a road meant that you were an active participant rather than spectator or consumer.