Reclaim the streets

Reclaim the Streets was an anti-car direct action movement which used street parties as political protest. The aim was to seize roads, and in this way to prevent cars from being able to access them. The street parties halted the normal flow of things so spectacularly, that passers by would be made to stop and question the reasons for the disruption. The first actions took place in London in 1995, closing Camden High Street on 14 May and Upper Street in Islington on 23 July. A year later, the largest street party of several thousand protesters closed an elevated section of the M41 motorway in Shepherds Bush on 13 July 1996.

The Criminal Justice Act strengthened links that already existed between ravers and protesters by criminalising them with the same definitions of 'nuisance' and 'trespass'. Finding themselves criminalised, ravers became politicised, and 'raving' became a defiant act.

Reclaim the Streets called itself a disorganisation; a loose collection of environmentalists, anarchists and anti-captialists with no formal structure, leaders or spokespeople and no distinct political agenda.

A similar position is claimed by Critical Mass which is often defined as an 'organised coincidence'. A Critical Mass is a disruptive direct action which takes place only when enough cyclists turn up at a known place and time (in London typically on the last Friday of the month under Waterloo Bridge) to ride together creating as they do a mass large enough to exclude cars from a piece of road.

Critical Mass is a global phenomenon which communicates via an informal network of local websites. There are no permanent organisers or members. Routes are decided spontaneously by the cyclists at the front of the mass or by anyone that decides to distribute a route to other cyclists at the start of the ride. When a Critical Mass causes disruption, it demonstrates by reversing the usual situation, the dominance of car traffic over cyclists.

In 2006 a cyclist challenged Police attempts to restrict Critical Mass rides in London. The police claimed that the organisers were required to give 6 days advance notice of the ride and its route. The cyclist argued that prior notice was not possible because routes were customary, not set in advance, and had no formal organiser. The court found in the cyclist's favour on 27 June 2006.

In the late 1990s global capitalism, rather than the car, became the primary focus of Reclaim the Streets protests. This was problematic; global capitalism was an impossibly massive and untouchable target and, whilst Reclaim the Streets staged increasingly large demonstrations, they proposed no solutions. This situation generated unfocused energy which sometimes turned into rage. In June 1999 the 10000 strong Carnival Against Capitalism protests erupted into violence in London's Financial District.

Maybe was a spoof on the Metro, London's free newspaper, produced by Reclaim the Streets for their millennium protest on 1 May 2000; their first major protest after the violence of 1999 in which, after a peaceful march through London to Parliament Square, some Guerrilla Gardening was planned.

Guerrilla Gardening (Resistance is Fertile) is a form of non-violent direct action in which abandoned and neglected land is claimed by activists who turn it into vegetable plots or flower gardens.

Reclaim the Streets claimed that by planting in Parliament Square they meant to celebrate the growth of self-reliance and anti-capitalism. However well planned and publicised Guerrilla Gardening (usually a discreet community-focused activity) was, it failed to harness the unfocused energy of the large group of protesters and some, again, became violent.

Parliament Square has since been tangled in controversy over rights to protest. In 2005 the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act was introduced. The Act ruled that anyone planning to demonstrate within a kilometre of the square has to seek permission in advance from the Metropolitan Police. Trafalgar Square, a traditional protest site, is exempt but the restricted area includes Parliament itself, Whitehall (a street where many government ministries are based), Downing Street (where the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer have their official homes), New Scotland Yard (the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police) and the Home Office (the government department responsible for law and order in England and Wales). The law effectively restricts the ability to bring protest to the headquarters of power. The law was designed to control large protest camps in Parliament Square, such as Brian Haw's one-man, five-year long occupation in protest against the war in Iraq.