Magpie 39- another fluffy one (Reclaim the Streets)

Phelps, A. (1997) Another fluffy one. Magpie 39, pp.4-5

by Anthony Phelps

I spent the afternoon of Saturday the 19th of October dressed as a judge. Before you send for the men in white coats, it was my part in the play “The Car Trial” which we, ‘The Green Street Theatre Company’, were to perform at the fourth “Reclaim The Streets” (RTS4) in Manchester. 

For those who don’t know what an RTS is, it’s a collection of people who take over a usually car-full street and then hold a party. Why? To illustrate an alternative to the lunacy of ever increasing car usage for non-essential journeys, leading to more and more road building. 

For RST4, about 300 people met in Albert Square, together with everything needed. The other “essential” for a good RTS are the police who, like an iceberg, keep most of their resources hidden, still trying to retain the pretence of being in charge. They even deployed six police horses. 

The excitement was intense, with only a very few of the ‘organisers’ knowing the target street – this being more closely guarded than a run-of-the-mill government secret! 

After an interview by the Salford University Documentary Unit about the “trial” to come, we set off at about 2 pm, following the camouflaged lorry containing the sound equipment, arriving at Oxford Road, which had already been “taken”, up to the Odeon Cinema, by an advance unit from Portland Street. There was a manned tripod with the lorry at one end and a van outside the cinema which had the band’s sound equipment. We pushed the car (“defendant” in the trial) from beside the cinema. Some very brave (foolhardy?) climbers were up the high street lamps tying huge banners across the road, on one of which was the motto of the day: “Turf Out The Traffic”. Soon the road was full of people sitting on carpets, eating excellent food provided by Sunflower, whilst others were dancing furiously around the lorry. 

I always feel “safe” on an RTS, under constant surveillance – from the police van with the telescopic camera on the back, to the police helicopter, with at least one stills photographer working through the crowd. 

A question I am often being asked is, “Am I worried about being arrested?” answer, “no”. Yes, it is illegal but, in my growing, but limited, experience the Manchester police don’t arrest people for simply taking part. There are always brightly-vested and fully briefed people acting as legal, police and media liaison officials. So, with all this taken care of, all that’s left is just to enjoy yourself, meet loads of like-minded “real” people and try to spot the plain-clothed police! Actually, that’s too easy – our two were spotted leaning against the cinema with  folded arms, in a pose that they must learn on a course. After a while they got fed up with the attention and we didn’t see them again.  

The band were excellent, after a minor power problem, and following their set, we borrowed their microphones for the trial. The performance was well received (as with football, it’s easier playing to a home crowd), with plenty of audience participation. We’d changed the ending slightly, to mirror the afternoon, and my verdict was to ‘turf out the car’- and as if by magic, turf was produced and. volunteers helped to cover the car with it. With hindsight, I’d choose a different verdict. How many of you have tried to ‘unturf ‘a car? 

Despite rumours that the police wanted us off earlier (obviously!), we started to tidy up at 5.30 pm so we could all be ready to leave en masse at 6 pm, finishing where we’d started the afternoon, for the end of another successful RTS. 

My verdict, in the vernacular of the day, was that it had been ‘cool and fluff.’ The only downside was the police impounding one van. Such events are often marred by the pettiness of the odd officer. For example, I observed one policeman ask a small, accompanied boy to get off a litter bin, whilst all around there were people up lamp-posts, on the advertising hoardings and on top of the telephone boxes. There was even a lady fire eater! They really don’t like losing “control.” 

I think that’s what RTS is really about – taking control, and enjoying yourself. I have heard disturbing rumours, from Oxford. where RTS has become extremely popular, that police tactics are changing and they are now “co-operating” with the organisers, helping to block the roads. Let’s hope that the Manchester police don’t get on to this as I, for one, would get no fun if it wasn’t illegal anymore!

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