Coming Soon to a Street Near You

The Reclaim The Streets movement erupts in a global--and sometimes violent--street party

| Tue Jun. 2, 1998 2:00 AM EDT

"I think it's good to have periodic examples of bicyclists and pedestrians taking over the streets. Hopefully in the near future we will be permanently taking over the streets for cyclists and pedestrians."
—City of Berkeley Councilmember Kriss Worthington

"There was a little bit of unfortunate fire. The fire wasn't planned."
—Reclaim The Streets Berkeley organizer "P.B."

In the grand tradition of royal-watching, the Teletubbies, Mr. Bean, and the Spice Girls, the latest English trend to hit American shores has left many on this side of the Atlantic scratching their heads and wondering what the hell happened.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

The Reclaim The Streets (RTS) movement, which began in England in 1991 as a reaction to road-building, erupted into a Global Street Party on Saturday, May 16, as revelers shut down roads in Berkeley, Calif., Berlin, Birmingham, Brisbane, Geneva, Lyon, Prague, Stockholm, Sydney, Tel Aviv, Toronto, Turku, Utrecht, Valencia, and York in order to raise awareness of "an inhuman consumer society which is smashing community, constricting human spontaneity and freedom and destroying the Earth's life support system"—and to party like it's 1999.

In an attempt to fight—or at least raise hell about—the growing influence of large corporations on society in general, RTS temporarily "reclaims" streets from that symbol of industrial evil, the automobile, and turns the pavement into a playground. RTS activists have been reclaiming streets from cars throughout the U.K. and much of Europe for several years now. In order to publicize and protest the G8 summit, an economic conference where leaders of the eight most industrialized nations in the world discuss trade issues, RTS went global on May 16—and came to the United States for the first time.

Our Man in Berkeley
According to "P.B."—one of a half-dozen Berkeley area RTS organizers—the Berkeley group distributed approximately 2,000 flyers during May Day and Earth Day activities, posted signs and banners around the community, posted notices on the Internet, and spread word through the cycling community in the weeks leading up to the May 16 rally.

"We based it on the British movement," said P.B. "We wanted to do some sort of spring action around this time period, and decided to coordinate it with the Reclaim The Streets movement that has been going on in England for a few years now.

"We hope the movement will catch on here. If England needs an anti-roads movement, the U.S. needs one far more."

However, RTS is as much a party as a movement. Despite a wealth of flyers handed out by RTS organizers during the event, most of those attending the Berkeley rally didn't seem to know what G8 was, or even what, exactly, they were protesting. As the evening wore on, education was clearly second in importance to general hellraising.

The rally began innocently enough. At 7 p.m., at a pre-arranged meeting place, some 300 cyclists, environmental activists, Generation X hippies, and Berkeley punks milled about awaiting direction. At 7:25, P.B. grabbed a loudspeaker and began shouting instructions to the assemblage of 300-plus to "follow the black banners," and with that, the crowd set off down Shattuck Avenue to a cacophony of whistles, drums, and bells.

The mass of people split into two groups, cyclists heading off in one direction and pedestrians in another. Along the way, the group on foot stopped at a Berkeley dorm to gather mattresses, carpet, couches, and other "props." Once these were gathered up, the two groups met again and proceeded to the intersection of Telegraph Avenue and Haste Street, where the party began in earnest.

RTSers overturned dumpsters and pushed a junker car, brought especially for the occasion, sideways into the street to form barricades. Those carrying the carpets, mattresses, couches, and televisions arranged them in the intersection to create an outdoor living room. A van parked on Haste Street opened its doors to reveal a sound system, and strains of Pink Floyd, followed by '70s funk, began to fill the air. Food Not Bombs set up a kitchen area and began distributing free food.

The televisions were the first target. Someone had brought several antiquated sets, emblazoned with the ubiquitous slogan "Kill Your Television," which were immediately attacked by several RTSers wielding skateboards and Doc Martens as weapons.

Once the TVs were thoroughly tossed, kicked, and beaten into submission, one RTS organizer slyly informed the crowd, "If you want to fuck up the car, it was brought here for that purpose."

With that, several protesters rushed to the car and began smashing out windows and jumping up and down on its body. In a matter of minutes the protesters had rolled the car over so that it lay belly up in silent surrender—that is, until the horn started and refused to stop.

"From Tragedy to Farce"
Meanwhile, some of the participants started a fire from the pile of mattresses and carpet in the intersection. Free weekly newspapers and waste from garbage bins augmented the pyre. Several banners hanging from adjacent street signs were also torched. A few in the crowd began to throw bottles at the Berkeley police who looked on clad in riot gear.

By now, the air was thick with feathers, toxic smoke from the mattresses, and the odor of marijuana. The rally was escalating into a small riot, with several RTS organizers scrambling to put out the fires, yelling "Whose streets? Our streets! We don't need to throw bottles at cops!"

The uproar quickly played itself out, and within an hour, the protest had taken on the look and feel of a Grateful Dead concert parking lot—complete with a drum circle, fire jugglers, dancing girls, and vendors hawking falafels and yin-yang tchotchkes. When the police forced the sound van to move along, drummers kept the beat alive.

"I think this is the kind of vibe we wanted to have," said P.B. as things settled down. "There was a little bit of unfortunate fire. The fire wasn't planned."

Another organizer, "Birdman" from pirate station Free Radio Berkeley, summarized the goings-on, stating "We just want to have fun and disturb business as usual. No justice, no peace. We want to create a community out of a soul-crushing system where it's all about money."

The Birdman's remarks say it all—the RTS protest in Berkeley was little more than tired slogans and a general revolt against a vaguely defined "system." Although things managed to get ugly for a few minutes, the event as a whole seemed to be just a good excuse to get stoned in the streets and disrupt traffic patterns without going to jail for doing so.

Yet it was also one of the biggest protest events in Berkeley in several years, and P.B. promises the May 16th rally is just a beginning. RTS would seem to have the potential to blossom into something greater—if it doesn't self-destruct first.

In the aftermath of the rally, three juveniles were arrested for resisting and disobeying the lawful orders of a police officer, the Berkeley police department had to shell out $6,236.35 in overtime and various other expenses, and a bookstore sustained $500 worth of damage from a broken window and subsequent looting. The real damage, however, may have been to public opinion.

Berkeley city councilmember Kriss Worthington went from being very supportive of the event in its preliminary stages to condemning the actions of some of the protesters. Reports in the local newspapers tended to be negative, and shop owners along Telegraph, mostly local merchants, wondered why their area was singled out rather than a neighborhood infested with large, corporate shops.

"I've always believed in action for change," said Stanley Spenger, manager of Shakespeare and Co., the bookstore damaged in the rally. "Without a lot of these actions, social change might not take place. But I wonder if we aren't going from first act tragedy to second act farce."

Across the Pond
Despite the smashed window and overturned vehicle, the California version of RTS is a kinder, gentler variation on its older and more rebellious British archetype. While we Yanks may be content with barricading some streets and raising a little hell, the Brits stop short of nothing but sheer mayhem.

In England and elsewhere in Europe, Reclaim The Streets is a full-fledged protest movement, characterized by massive demonstrations involving thousands of participants clogging major thoroughfares. Once the streets have been blockaded—frequently accomplished by smashing cars together—the real fun begins.

Some RTSers parade about atop giant stilts, dressed as women with huge hoop skirts—but these skirts are functional as well as ornamental. Hidden from the view of police, cohorts concealed beneath the draping of the dresses go to work with jackhammers or pneumatic drills, tearing out chunks of the road; the RTSers then proceed to plant trees in the holes. After one particularly rowdy RTS in 1996 along the M41 motorway in London, repair bills for the damaged street were more than $16,000.

In addition, many participants paint guerrilla bicycle lanes on roadways, lie about in the streets blocking traffic, throw cream pies at policemen, and "carwalk" over trapped vehicles, all to the driving beat of rave music. Many end up dragged off to jail by the local constabulary—which tends to disrupt the celebration.

Last month's Global Street Party upheld this rowdy tradition. In Birmingham, site of the G8 summit, the street party became a violent confrontation with police, resulting in 35 arrests, injuries to two protesters and one police officer, and the sealing off of the city center.

In Prague, some 2,500 protesters turned out for a Czech Global Street Party that developed into a full-scale riot, as protesters assailed riot police with rocks and bottles, then proceeded to sack two McDonalds restaurants and a Kentucky Fried Chicken before police, armed with billy clubs and tear gas, clashed with the rioters.

Eradicating the Public Realm
Political movement or mere anarchy loosed upon the roads, Reclaim The Streets makes a valid point—even if it is clouded in the fumes of burning trash. In recent times the pedestrian and the public space both have fallen prey to the primacy of the automobile.

It's a point increasingly made by observers outside the traditional circles of cyclists and environmentalists, including Jane Holtz Kay, architecture critic for The Nation and author of Asphalt Nation.

"The car, as a means of transportation, has eradicated the public realm," Kay said. "If you look at the old railroad stations, they were public spaces with beautiful architechture shared by all people and enhanced the public realm. Today, children can't go anywhere without cars because we don't build sidewalks. Likewise, the elderly can't get anywhere unless they can drive. Those in between spend their time shopping and dropping. Instead of spending social time together, people are putting the pedal to the metal. The automobile has gone from being our servant to encasing us."

In addition to their effects on communities, cars aren't exactly good for the environment. Motor vehicle emissions account for some 77 percent of carbon monoxide in our nation's air, more than 35.6 percent of the volatile organic compounds, and 45 percent of the nitrogen oxides. These pollutants can lead to many respiratory and heart problems, including asthma, which has reached epidemic proportions in recent decades, particularly in children.

RTS is a weird movement. With their do-it-yourself rallies, complete lack of hierarchy, and inclination for the ridiculous, it seems impossible even to define their demands, let alone satisfy them. Their end goal seems to be giving notice to the governments of the world that lots of people are getting fed up with the intrusiveness of transnational corporations and car culture. It's too soon to guess whether RTS will accomplish anything concrete or merely degenerate into an excuse for a few hours of limited anarchy, but the movement is growing, and promises to be an interesting phenomenon to track. RTS has spread like wildfire throughout Europe and has the potential to do the same here in the United States. The events of May 16 in Berkeley could be a mere starting point. If RTS attains the popularity of other grassroots movements—such as Critical Mass—we could be seeing trees planted in major intersections all across the country.

By midnight, May 17, the streets of Berkeley were cleared. All but a few of the RTS protesters had moved on, and cars had once again claimed Telegraph Avenue for their own. Viewing the scene, a passing pedestrian exclaimed, "Damn, what the hell happened here?" Good question.

Photograph by Mat Honan