RTS: M41, Shepherds Bush, July ’96
Repair the Streets – The Taking of the M41
Billed as a “Festival Of Resistance” and “the only ‘party’ worth having”, London Reclaim The Streets third street party lived up to its promises. At its height upwards of eight thousand people occupied the M41 near Shepherds Bush transforming the country’s smallest motorway into the ‘biggest, freest, most spectacular street party yet!’
Thousands of partygoers had gathered at Broadgate near Liverpool Street only minutes past the 12 noon meeting time on Saturday 13th July. Leaflets were distributed asking people to “follow those with pink armbands” and to “expect the unexpected”. At 12.30pm word spread that it was time to go and a three hundred strong Critical Mass set off, while the main group, aided by undercover organisers, moved underground to the westbound Central Line. Fourteen stops and six packed tube trains later the crowd emerged at Shepherds Bush, where the police, until this point content with surveillance, blocked off the entrance to the M41 roundabout. Some people, unsure if this was the actual site, began partying here.
At the opposite end of the motorway the blockade crew, aware that people had arrived, decided to go for it. Outmanoeuvring police spotters they made it onto the road. Two cars were theatrically crashed to block the road and three tripods were erected across the southbound carriageway. At the foot of the convoy two sound system vehicles drove on, chased by dozens of police on foot. In what was possibly the scariest moment of the day, the vehicles were surrounded on an empty motorway. The drivers were pulled out and arrested by smug police officers, certain that they had stopped the party.
But the police had under-estimated the creativity of the crowd. Hearing that the road had been taken people began finding alternative ways onto it. Like a river breaking through a dam, the trickle grew into a flood. One large group walked far around the police line, coming up from behind and simply running past it onto the street! Others found ways through back streets and climbed onto the road further up.
At the blockade, those not already arrested had clambered onto the sound system trucks and witnessed the amazing sight of thousands of people running up the motorway towards them. Police faces dropped quickly and as the crowd neared they began backing off. The arm-twisted, quick-cuffed arrestees, on a nod from a sergeant were swiftly de-arrested (de-arrest of the year perhaps?) and the vehicles were soon swarmed with partygoers. The sides of the lorries were opened and the sound systems kicked off. The people roared. The party was on!
Dig For Victory!
Climbers hung enormous banners the breadth of the motorway. A huge sun, colourful murals; while others proclaimed ‘Destroy Power!’ ‘Support the Tubeworker’s and ‘The society that abolishes adventure, makes its own abolition the only adventure’
A struggle ensued when police tried to stop other decorations and equipment being brought in from a nearby estate. One van containing the p.a. rig for live bands was impounded, but once again, faced with an active crowd, the authority of the police dissolved. They retreated and in came carpets, armchairs – a complete living room! A tonne of sand was laid on the tarmac and stalls set up on the hard shoulder. Three thirty foot ‘pantomime dames’ glided through the party throwing confetti.
Food stalls gave away free stew and sandwiches; graffiti artists added colour to the tarmac; poets ranted from the railings; acoustic bands played and strolling players performed. The tripod sitters, isolated by a police line from the party, negotiated their inclusion and joined the mass of people. The police retreated to the ends of the road settling for re-directing traffic and arguing amongst themselves.
Beneath the giant skirt of one panto dame de-constructionists set to work. Using a pneumatic drill in time to the techno music, the tarmac of the road was repetitively attacked, until large craters littered the fast lane (Enthusiasts were later seen comparing ‘chunks’ of motorway!). The lunar landscape was then ‘naturalised’ by the planting of sapling trees rescued from the path of the M11 link road.
As the sun set on an extraordinary day fires were lit on the road, litter was collected and the banners removed. The sound systems announced another free party elsewhere in London, then at 11pm the music went off, and the trucks drove off to the cheers of a grateful crowd.
For nearly ten hours the M41 vibrated, not to the repetitive roar of the car system, but to a human uprising; the living sound of a festival, and as one activist put it to a disgruntled copper, ‘Think yourself lucky, we could have gone anywhere: Buckingham Palace, Downing Street, thousands of people climbing up Parliament.’
And, as another said, ‘Today we are only practising. Tomorrow’ anything is possible!’.
Contact London Reclaim the Streets: 0171 281 4621.
On the morning of Friday 2nd August, the Reclaim the Streets office and one persons private home were raided by police, who seized computers as well as various personal effects. One person was charged with conspiracy to cause criminal damage to the M41. All charges later dropped – due to lack of evidence!