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archive: Urban75 waxes lyrical and reflects on its 'street protestin' years'...
One of the biggest ironies that struck me when I first visited Claremont Rd, 1994's precursor to Newbury, was the fact that here was everything that the Government claimed today's society was missing.
A community working together, looking out for each other and caring for each other. And yes, even that old chestnut about 'you could leave your front door open' was true. A community bound together not by greed and self interest, but by a unified belief that it was wrong to keep destroying homes and sacrificing the environment to the Great God of Tarmac.
The next time I visited Claremont Road was at night, just after I'd seen my football team lose again at nearby Leyton Orient. Coming straight from the aggression of the match (well, I am a Cardiff City supporter) the first thing that struck me was the quiet and almost surreal nature of the street, with floodlights picking out details of the overhead walkways and netting. Mad and cheerful sculptures made out of found objects sprung from walls and stumbled into the street. A ramshackle old café at the end of the street served up generous portions of veggie food, while some tuneless crusty troubadour struggled to wrench a tune from his battered guitar. The café was warm, full and inviting, save for a few hideously drunk French punks, desperately trying to turn the clock back to 1976. I consumed a huge plate of veggie food washed down with some cider offered from some wide-eyed mohican with Clash lyrics on his jacket. It didn't feel like London and I instantly felt at home there. I went back as often as I could - often dragging along quickly converted cynical friends - but I always seemed too busy with something else to get more involved.
I didn't make it to the big evictions at the end and I can still remember the overwhelming feelings of guilt, shame and anger as I watched the last protester being grappled off his lofty perch from the comfort of my room. I'm not ashamed to admit that a few tears rolled down my face as I saw the bulldozers flatten what was left of Claremont Road, E11
Two years on and I'm reliving the same emotions as the last trees are wrenched out of the ancient land at Newbury. But this time it's more real, less isolated, more crucial. Clever tactics, cunning manoeuvres and cheeky actions have kept the media interest running high and slowed 'progress' to a crawl. If they want this motorway, they're going to have to fight for it - and explain exactly why it's needed to an increasingly dubious public.
Learning their lessons from the past, the protesters have kept the campaign non-violent and at times, extremely funny. They've learnt that in the face of a hostile media good organisation and humour count for a lot. The sight of a two-person pantomime horse galloping through a security cordon is something not easily forgotten, nor is the sound of Star Wars dialogue ( "use the force, Luke!") being broadcast through a megaphone by a lone protester at the top of a tree. In fact, some of the bias of the mainstream seems to be slowly shifting towards the protesters.
Who can forget that hilarious charade when the Sheriff attempted to hold a triumphant press conference to declare that the route was now cleared of trees and 'undesirable sorts'? As the protesters slowly encroached the press scrum, the BBC's footage of the Sheriff 'being driven out of town', as he was bundled into a Land Rover and driven off at high speed was priceless.
The old practice of interviewing the scruffiest, most pierced and most pissed crusty on an action has been replaced by an almost total reverse of policy - now the camera crews are seemingly scrambling to find the straightest, most 'normal' folk around. Anyone who remembers Brightlingsea will remember how effective such footage was to the animal rights movement.
Fuelled by a growing feeling that direct action works, single issue protest groups have continued to multiply and catch the public's imagination, and it's this that makes me begin to feel proud of my country again. Not the Queen or the State or the Government mind you, but the people. After the cataclysmic years of Thatcherism there seems to be a new British sub-culture rising up - not the shiny New Labour/New Blair/New Bullshit nonsense, but something that resonates deep into the national psyche.
The CJA helped, in a bizarre way, to unite this new subculture as ravers, road protesters, hunt sabs, animal rights activists, squatters and even football fans found themselves being targeted by a deeply cynical Government desperate to be seen to be 'doing something'. Disillusioned with party politics, people are prepared to fight for their individual and collective freedom, and this makes it an exciting time to be around.
I don't care if some people want to dress it up in 'Mother Earth' nonsense, or prattle on about leylines and herbal tea, what does matter is that people are prepared to fight for something that is important. If the 80's were all about 'individual success' then perhaps this decade may well be the one remembered for people looking further than their wage packet.
Which is why I feel strangely optimistic for the future. The road building programme has been slashed, Shell didn't get away with dumping filthy oil-rigs, environmental issues have begrudgingly been put on the national agenda, and people are getting off their arses, getting themselves heard and getting involved. Maybe the 90's won't look so bad after all.....
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