200 people took over Edinburgh's Grassmarket on 11 August 1997 in Scotland's first Reclaim the Streets action.
Demonstrators blockaded the road with crowd control barriers and a giant tripod. For 2 hours the sounds of music and dancing and the tinkle of tea on china replaced the roar of the traffic.
But then the police moved in. Determined to clear the road for King Car, the blue meanies arrested 18 people. 17 were held overnight, and one locked up for 4 nights. The trials were on the on 1st and 2nd September. Trial result: 5 pleaded guilty and were admonished, others had charges dropped as result of this plea bargain.
This was at least the 27th Reclaim the Streets (RTS) action in Britain since May 1995. The direct action movement is about encouraging people to take control of the streets and create a safe and friendly space for people, in resistance to the deaths and destruction caused by cars and roads. Recently important links have been made between RTS and the Liverpool dockers struggle, with joint actions in Liverpool last September, and in London in April.
RTS Edinburgh started with demonstrators gathering at the advertised meeting place at The Mound, off Princes St.. Prominent was a large international contingent from the Ecotopia camp in West Lothian.
At 10.30am, unnoticed by plod, a dozen strong advance group sealed off part of the Grassmarket, in central Edinburgh's Old Town. Commandeered crowd control barriers and an enormous tripod of scaffolding poles - from the top of which an intrepid demonstrator was suspended in a net - soon stopped the traffic.
The main group, now escorted by alarmed polis, marched the half mile or so from The Mound to the Grassmarket and successfully made it into the liberated area, defying an attempt by mounted police to block their path.
Now the forces of darkness could only look on helplessly as tables and chairs magically appeared and an impromptu street cafe sprouted on the highway. A bewildering array of international folk dances were performed as the carnival continued for nearly 2 hours.
But meantime the police were bringing in reinforcements and issued an ultimatum : leave by 12.30. Demonstrators insisted that our response must be determined collectively. A giant circle was formed on the road and a mass meeting discussed our next step. After an intriguing debate, in which each contribution was translated into around a dozen different languages, we elected to leave at 1.30pm.
The police response was to wade in and start nicking people. Around a dozen people linked arms and lay on the road. Police eventually hurled them into a police van with some violence.
The Fire Brigade were diverted from potential emergencies to bring down the tripod percher. He put up a spirited resistance to the end. It took around 45 - 50 minutes before police violence allowed the resumption of "business as usual".
Several of us went to St Leonards police station to support the prisoners, by delivering books, papers etc.. One was released late that night, but everyone else was locked up for over 24 hours, appearing at Chambers St sherrif court the following afternoon.
Almost all pleaded not guilty to charges such as Breach of the Peace, and were bailed until the trials on 1st September. But disgracefully one French guy was refused bail and taken to Saughton prison. He spent 3 nights in jail before appearing in court on 15 August and being admonished.
This first Reclaim the Streets should inspire more such actions in Edinburgh and Scotland. Future activity will hopefully build on the success and lessons of this action - which was organised at short notice - by involving more local people, groups and communities and by being better prepared in various ways, such as being better able to prevent the police regaining control of the liberated zone.
And let's not forget - as the recent joint RTS - Liverpool Dockers activity illustrates, Reclaim the Streets is not a single issue campaign, but part of the struggle to Reclaim the World for humanity.
As Reclaim the Streets say "The power that attacks those who work, through union legislation and casualisation, is the same power that is attacking the planet with over-production and consumption of resources.....
....This power is capital. As long as economies run on the basis of profit for business, social and ecological exploitation will occur. The question is : can we come together as a movement that will effectively challenge and dissolve this power, before those in control lead society into the social and ecological catastrophe that is currently just beginning?" (Do or Die mag no.6, p.9)
Written by one participant.
Another RTS event was attempted on May 1st 1998. The meeting point was Calton Hill, people seemed happy to leave streets to the cars and have a Hill Party instead of a Street Party. So no RTS action occurred. Everyone one seemed happy including over 100 police on duty. Well, RTS is about empowerment and it certainly left the police feeling they did the right thing in arresting organisers before the event. An organiser felt they had a less stressfull day in the cells rather than if RTS had gone ahead. No charges resulted from 5 arrests 2 hours before RTS start time. If you want to know more about what happen email us.
Streets were occupied on Sat June 17th 2000, see Reshape Urban Space (ej17). or Video
Note further accounts, and photos not on website are available via ACE infoshop in person.
Reshape Urban Space 2
part of the
Foot and Mouth Festival
July 31st 2004
The torch is passed on