North London Street Party! 6th June 1998
a report from Reclaim The Streets
'Welcome to Tottenham!' were the ironic first words of the local police commander to his superior sent from outside the borough to take charge of a Saturday's proceedings, Reclaim the Streets-style. 'Steer clear of north east London this afternoon, because Reclaim the Streets have taken it,' announced Greater London Radio during its traffic update...
But rewind for a while to a Euston station noon, where a big crowd was already gathering itself into a lovely vibe: folks millarounding, drinking and drumming, cycles massing, and even the sun out to wish us well (completely unexpectedly, as threatened thunder showers didn't materialise all day. Earlier predictions that we bring 'RTS weather' to all our parties were absolutely spot on.) Flyers went round headed 'Freedom is there for the taking - so let's take it!', asking everyone to 'Follow Your Flag' as well as a plea for a peaceful day. Tiny coloured sticky dots were handed out to a few, echoing the colours of the flags but not much more in fact than a diversionary tactic. The flags were majestic and beauteous, of red, yellow, green and blue with the fine old RTS jagged diagonal stripe sewn on at one end of many, thus making it flutter most fetchingly.
The police - and not many of them at that - remained standoffish, though cameras were of course everpresent. Their attitude even before we reached Tottenham was very laissez faire, and one of many examples right through the day of the their letting us through their fingers. Whether that was because of apathy, inadequacy, lack of funds, fear of conflict or tacit support of our aims (!), it's still hard to say, although I suspect a combination of all but the last suggestion. (Police vans had been spotted on Camden High Street at 11.30am interestingly, so maybe that was their favoured location.)
'D'you reckon it's possible to run out of adrenalin?' I asked a flag-wielder as the psyche-up drums went silent and the waiting became wearing at about 12.40. Then suddenly the now-distributed flags began to move as with a whoop and a holler we headed for the station at a frighteningly snail-like pace. A few of us drifted down to the Victoria line platform northbound, no police in sight for many minutes, but then the flow of people dried up, causing creeping panic as we let one northbound train go, with 5 minutes left before the next one. Emissaries chased up the stopped escalators for info, the flow started again as the train pulled in and bemused party people were literally shoved down the platform to make room for all those sure to follow. The train sat there for 5 minutes as we sweated, joked and waited for the doors to close us in. A long-suffering woman with her daughter took a deep breath and waited; I imagine she thought us a football or Fleadh (a big local festival) crowd and thought no more about it.
At this point, unknown to the first (and only?) trainload of funsters, Euston tube was closed, leaving the majority of the crowd to drift down to King's Cross with it seems no idea of the location. There a spontaneous party happened, with the help of a speaker stuck out the window of a sympathetic residents' flat. It was around this time that the police shut down Euston Road (one of London's busiest and vilest clogged arteries) in both directions for some time. Finding King's Cross also closed, this hard-working crew walked from there all the way to Seven Sisters (which must be four miles at least) in a spontaneous pedestrianised critical mass which passed off peacefully except for a few threats from irate motorists and some reputedly overzealous retaliation. This good old-fashioned march finally hooked up with the Tottenham posse at about 3pm, having accidentally but brilliantly multiplied many times the effect of the party itself. In retrospect, it's clear now that stewards with some idea of the location should have stayed at Euston instead of charging down the Tube - one for future party planners to take note of.
Meanwhile, back in central London at oneish, the two-wheeled version of Critical Mass headed off in the direction of Seven Sisters' Road, at least 500 bikes providing the third pincer in what turned out to be a fiendishly clever piece of planning. This planing combined with the instinctive genius of the crowd to provide a perfect triple whammy, and that's even before taking into account the triumphant proceedings that went down in Brixton at the same time.
Back in the Victoria Line sardine can we moved off, at each station the partygoers having to be restrained from tumbling off the train. 'Don't get off at the next stop' the word went round...'not this one.' A little disbelief filtered through the carriages as Highbury & Islington came and went...Finsbury Park..? Then the next stop was the one, the longest ride between station of any I've endured. The crowd seemed strangely relaxed as we pulled in, as if they already knew that taking the street would be about as trouble-free as crossing the road. A police escort of about 3 arrived with us into the Seven Sisters' (Tottenham) daylight, where the crowd proceeded to stand on...the pavement, not taking the road since promised blockades were yet to materialise. Phone calls were made, we walked slowly to the lights, the lights turned red, some urged for us to take the road, but other wisdom was wiser and we waited, still with said skeletal police presence. The lights went green, then red again, and at last two cars pulled up at the lights, folks jumped out and that was our cue. We swarmed onto the road, no raging motors to negotiate off the site, system 1 already on. Orange smoke from a maritime flare marked the other end of our space, which a few of us chased up to secure. The systems' curtain sides were pulled across to reveal the rig in all its glory, also distracting and deflecting the mass of funsters from the less attractive job of taking the end of the road, so voices were raised and cajoling was heard. A tripod team chased past me covered in sweat, victims of many sorts of chaos partly triggered by inactive mobile phones. System 1 kicked in, by which time 2 others had made it into the space with their vans.
Those first hours were a couple of the happiest I can remember - wall to wall smiles impossible to wipe off so many faces. Passionate hugs for everyone who helped make it happen, walking up and down the street dazed, thrilled and inspired at the sight of the kids's sandpit and homemade spaceship setting up, homemade pissoirs installed over handy drains, carpets and deckchairs laid down, free food stall getting in place, makeshift barricades built where there were no tripods or dead cars (of our own I hasten to add). And of course the banners, a lovely slow-burning way to see the space evolve and emerge from its pupa during the first hours: 'Liberate Space' (with Canary Wharf - London's high-rise monument to corporate power over community power - strangled by vines!), 'Reclaimed Street' (with I think a butterfly), 'Carnival of the Dispossessed' (a beauty which nearly became, after a fourth 's' was added, 'Carnival of the Dyslexic'.) Also a big shout to the beautifully hieroglyphed kids' space canopy. The paint on the tube workers' banner had flaked off so sadly didn't make it, though happily a tube worker (from the Rail and Maritime Transport workers' union) did make it with a load of leaflets for upcoming strike action against tube privatisation and downward-spiralling working conditions. (Happily, and coincidentally, there was a pro-tube workers' banner and RMT presence in Brixton as well.) Sadly invites to Kurdish groups and the striking Hillingdon women bore no fruit, and the political relevance of the day (beyond the act of reclamation itself) was that RMT link and a small brave banner citing injustice, poverty etc. The temporary building site walls provided a canvas for anyone with a spraycan to express themselves, which was democratic but ultimately garbled. Getting local hip hop-style graffiti artists in might have been a nice idea to mix with the straight agitprop we left behind us.
We'd made a nice leaflet explaining what we were up to to locals and inviting them in, which was a good idea though not distributed widely enough, and not always enough to assuage a few irate women who wanted access for their cars and Tesco open (shut down by the police ridiculously, as they did to the pub on site.) I spoke to a few shopkeepers, especially a middle-aged West Indian who ran a Rastafarian shop on the street itself, a nice bloke who sympathised with our aims but said 'Why do you come here and shut down small black businesses - where's that going to get you? If you want to attack multinational corporations, why don't you have your party on all the petrol forecourts?' (Another woman said later 'Go and do it to Tony Blair, not here where we live!') Valid, useful points perhaps, though those locations would most likely be straight up riots. Anyway, I popped into another legal advice type shop on site which was locked up ominously (as if they were freaked out or disgusted,) but when I persuaded the man inside to open the door he seemed absolutely fine. An Asian man in the next door clothes and bags shop was very positive too, as were many passers-by on the pavement who seemed a bit bemused by my statement/invitation that now the whole street had magically become the pavement.
Certainly we should go back and chat to the people on that street and in that area, especially since both London party locations are heartlands of the city's black community, (and since many people in Tottenham believe the police would have stormed in if the party had been predominantly black.)
But what of the party? A couple of woman stiltwalkers helped give it a lovely surreal edge, pacing through the dancers and fascinating the kids. Since we failed to get a PA sorted in time, we lost the bands set to play. The acoustic fiddle type folks who were 'booked' (no contract, no cash you understand, in fact just a phone commitment) to come didn't make it, lost perhaps to the less frenzied delights of Cambridge's Strawberry Fayre happening on the same day. So that left just the 4 systems, random very cool drummers led by a very bewitching gent in fetching Rapunzel wig and a couple of didj's. System 1 took centre stage (being first on and the biggest rig) and banged its techno thing for at least three hours, then the next time my regular wanderings took me past again, the crowd were getting down very nicely to a bit of a Latin set. Luckily the (cycle) system 2 gave us some rare and urgently required mixitup, including an especially nice spinning of Mr. Murvin's dancefloor classic 'Police and Thieves'. System 3 were less interesting, playing a solid wall of techno, lapped up by the punters but disappointing to those of us longing for the spice of life, (variety, that is.) System 4 gave us an interesting set, sending out drum'n'bass and even some ragga-style toasting over the backing towards the end, which I hope was live as it would have meant we made a small but significant link with the mainly black population of Tottenham. The crowd were certainly loving it at that late moment.
Police presence throughout was fluffy, even down to a request from a friendly underling PC asking for a system to play the Levellers, another asking that we go on till 7am, another saying 'Don't go until we've had a few hours of overtime,' ie. after 4pm. However, their watch and wait tactics - not forming aggressive, oppressive lines at either end etc - perhaps lulled us into a false sense of security, allowing many of them to take up residence on either side of our space. And naturally their surveillance bullshit was working overtime.
And so perhaps to the end. When it came to planning our getaway, a few wanted to hold out as long as all was well, the rest thought 8.30 music shutoff and 9pm move off en masse around the systems to Tottenham Hale the best solution. This was reported to the police head honcho, who heard the plan with his gathered cronies then insisted immediately that he had absolutely no interest in the systems - they could go - but he wouldn't allow 4000 people to march up into Tottenham or Edmonton. He wanted the systems to head south instead and for people to disperse slowly.
The crowdbeast is by now shot through with euphoric insanic unhingedness, unaware that the music is about to shut down. Which it does, simultaneously at 8.35. Then the word comes quickly that the other systems are set up to go along with the change of plan at 9pm, the time now being 8.45. Another quick chat with the police leads them to promise to remove their line and let the vans out. As the vans turn and begin to move together a few try to move happy sluggish stoned people on sofas and deckchairs from the exit route and someone else surreptitiously removes the padlocked banner crossing the High Road just as the convoy arrives. Gradually the vans inch out of our space, surrounded by huge numbers of us, the police remaining true to their word and staying out of the way, vigilantly. Some scary moments ensue as the crowd parts reluctantly to let the vans through, sending them roaring into the north London night each with a big cheer.
Then back to the still busy (with people, not cars thankfully) road, where heart cockles were warmed to see quite a few noble souls with bin bags (100 bought there and still not enough) picking up junk. My recycling hopes were ridiculously unrealistic, as others had predicted. Three partygoers escorted a local man out of the space in his smart new motor, which was untouched even though it had been on site all day. He'd he'd hung on and had a good day it seemed, oblivious to any potential threat to his wheels, even though our two blockade cars had been attacked and torn to pieces by a load of kids and adults, one even turned on its side at one point to let all its liquors leak onto the pavement and into the water supply. Luckily it was righted again pretty quickly, and even then a kid of about 8 dropped a piece of smoking bog paper onto the patch of petrol; someone chased him into a nearby garden, holding his shoulders and haranguing him mercilessly until his older sister came over and demanded that he be released. Never part of the masterplan, it was nevertheless somehow inevitable that the cars would be torched, and so they were, luckily later at about 10pm. Two huge clouds of acrid black smoke billowed into the just-dark sky, which was our cue to scarper to the pub to avoid what looked like the inevitable confrontation between people hanging around and riot vans moving in. Actually things stayed fairly quiet as far as I know, a PC's prediction at 8.40 that it was going to blow 'because three people told me so' proving to be little more than scaremongering.
The following Monday the Guardian ran a positive piece only perhaps marred (or enhanced, depending on your view) by a gorgeous full colour shot of a stoned bloke dancing between two flaming motors. A local man's quote at the end of the piece was inspiring as well as cautionary for any future attempts to politicise the street party: "It's great. When we came out of the Tube and saw all these people we were completely entranced. I'm not quite sure what they are saying but whatever it is I think it is fantastic."
This street party was five thousand stories, all enmeshing and intertwining over the course of eight hours on a patch of carless concrete in the heart of Tottenham. It's the story of the crop-topped woman lost inside her techno heaven; or of the naked, thrilled two year old covered in green paint being dragged around the party on top of a 10 foot strip of banner material; or the poor sod who's tripod collapsed under him and disappeared in an ambulance (but was released from hospital the next day); or the old smartly-dressed Jamaican man who said, on reflection, in a slow, considered voice, that young people were fundamentally good, not like the way they were shown to be...No single record of the day can hope to fit all those completely individual worldviews into one sack and present it as what really happened. This piece is consciously light on analysis and self-criticism - let that emerge a little more gradually and consensually. It seems safe to say that this gathering of homo sapiens was as unwieldy, flawed and beautiful as any other, but the fact remains that it came together to resist the 'dark forces', it banished corporate culture, it partied...and it made the sun shine.
12.06.98 report from firstname.lastname@example.org
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