Reclaim the Streets

It is all but forgotten now but we have already seen a very radical and proactive, world-wide anti-car movement, and it began in the UK.  For the best part of a decade, starting in the mid-nineties, Reclaim the Streets staged a series of imaginative and fun on-street protests that caused temporary chaos and drew huge publicity.


In 1996 RTS turned a motorway into a huge street party.

In 1996 a party stopped all traffic on the M41 motorway

The phenomenon went worldwide, popping up in cities across Europe, the US,  and in Australia. In 1998, for example, a ‘Global Street Party’ was held and events were held simultaneously in cities from Ankara to Zurich, via Tucson, Arizona.

‘Subvertising’ was another playful tactic of RTS.

I vaguely remember the publicity at the time, and I’m sure it sowed some seeds in my mind. I know very little about it and if I can find the time, I’d love to research RTS more. In the meantime here are some edited highlights from one branch of their stated agenda:

“The privatisation of public space in the form of the car continues the erosion of neighbourhood and community that defines the metropolis. Road schemes, business “parks”, shopping developments – all add to the disintegration of community and the flattening of a locality.

Everywhere becomes the same as everywhere else. Community becomes commodity – a shopping village, sedated and under constant surveillance. The desire for community is then fulfilled elsewhere, through spectacle, sold to us in simulated form. A tv soap “street” or “square” mimicking the arena that concrete and capitalism are destroying. The real street, in this scenario, is sterile. A place to move through not to be in. It exists only as an aid to somewhere else – through a shop window, billboard or petrol tank.

The street, at best, is a living place of human movement and social intercourse, of freedom and spontaneity. The car system steals the street from under us and sells it back for the price of petrol. It privileges time over space, corrupting and reducing both to an obsession with speed or, in economic lingo, “turnover”. It doesn’t matter who “drives” this system for its movements are already pre-determined.

Ultimately it is in the streets that power must be dissolved: for the streets where daily life is endured, suffered and eroded, and where power is confronted and fought, must be turned into the domain where daily life is enjoyed, created and nourished.

The street is an extremely important symbol because your whole enculturation experience is geared around keeping you out of the street… The idea is to keep everyone indoors. So, when you come to challenge the powers that be, inevitably you find yourself on the curbstone of indifference, wondering “should I play it safe and stay on the sidewalks, or should I go into the street?” And it is the ones who are taking the most risks that will ultimately effect the change in society.”


What happened to RTS?

There’s a long thread trying to answer that question here:

Amongst other things, out-growing its organisational capacity, changes in police tactics, some silly and some nasty incidents are all blamed. Perhaps the general change in mood following 9/11 also had an influence. In short there is no clear answer, but there does seem to be a generally warm memory of Reclaim the Streets and an appetite to create a modern equivalent – see Reclaim the Future , for example.

And ‘Occupy’ clearly shares many of the values and some of the tactics of RTS, so maybe we will see explicitly anti-car on-street protests as part of that movement.

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  1. Joe Dunckley says:

    My guess is that, like all good ideas and protest movements, it was increasingly hijacked by people wanting to use it for something else — protesting about other issues, trying to tie it to their boring unpopular ideologies, or just wanting cover for a fight — and that put the majority off. You get it with Critical Mass, Occupy, and all sorts of protests.

  2. Downfader says:

    Greenpeace and co have also had a stab at car dominance in the early 80s. It seems that we go through these cycles every 10-15 years and as Joe says they tend to get hijacked. For campaigns to work they need simplicity and perseverance. 

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