Reclaim the Streets

Reclaim the Streets (RTS) is a collective with a shared ideal of community ownership of public spaces. Participants characterize the collective as a resistance movement opposed to the dominance of corporate forces in globalization, and to the car as the dominant mode of transport. Reclaim the Streets often stage non-violent direct action street reclaiming events such as the ‘invasion’ of a major road, highway or freeway to stage a party.

While this may obstruct the regular users of these spaces such as car drivers and public bus riders, the philosophy of RTS is that it is vehicle traffic, not pedestrians, who are causing the obstruction, and that by occupying the road they are in fact opening up public space. The events are usually spectacular and colorful  with sand pits for children to play in, free food and music, however they have been known to degenerate into riots and violence. A Temporary Autonomous Zone sometimes results. The style of the parties in many places has been influenced by the rave scene in the UK, with sound systems playing dance music.

The earliest written source for the phenomenon ‘reclaim the streets’ can be found in American philosopher Marshall Berman’s (1981) ‘All That is Solid Melts Into Air.’ In a chapter entitled ‘Modernity in the Streets’ Berman writes: ‘At the ragged edge of Baudelaire’s imagination we glimpsed another potential modernism: revolutionary protest that transforms a multitude of urban solitudes into a people, and reclaims the city streets for human life. . . Thesis, a thesis asserted by urban people starting in 1789, all through the nineteenth century, and in the great revolutionary uprisings at the end of World War One: the streets belong to the people. Antithesis, and here is Le Corbusier’s great contribution: no streets, no People.’ Streets have many times been occupied with the intent of using them for other things than traffic. For example, a group of environmentalists occupied the streets of central Stockholm in autumn 1969. And in 1990-91 the same group arranged a tradition of 20 minutes ‘culture crashes’ in busy street crossings. Like other occupations against car traffic before 1991, these events were not called Reclaim The Streets.

Reclaim The Streets was originally formed by ‘Earth First!’ in London, in Autumn 1991 and was born out of anti-road protest camps at places such as Claremont Road and Twyford Down. The idea of street reclaiming soon spread throughout the United Kingdom. The first actions can be seen as specifically anti-car and pro-alternative transport, but over the years the members of the core group changed its focus, realizing that it was better to go to the root of the problem as they saw it, namely the capitalist system. ‘Our streets are as full of capitalism as of cars and the pollution of capitalism is much more insidious.’ Nevertheless, the actions always followed the principle of non-violent direct action.

The idea of a Reclaim The Streets action was quickly taken up as a form of protest around the world. These ‘street parties’ have been held in cities all over Europe, Australia, North America, and Africa. Initial instances confounded authorities and drivers alike, but over the years the protests have become institutionalized in many places, occurring much like other forms of legal protest in that the event is arranged with authorities beforehand, but not in all places like for example in Finland, where the first Street Party outside the UK was arranged in 1997.

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