Reclaim the Streets and the Liverpool dockers
Interview with Chris Knight and Pauline Bradley on 9th March 2002. Video recording by Peter Woodward and transcription by Heather Stephenson. Edited by Alan Woodward.
Alan: Chris – you were the main link between the Liverpool Dockers and Reclaim The Streets. My first question is: How did Reclaim The Streets first become involved with the dockers and with the London Support Group?
Chris: Well, first of all I wouldn’t quite say I was the main link. Yes, from the point of view of the London Support Group I was the main link, but a friend in ReclaimThe Streets itself – Ian – was the main link between the dockers and Reclaim The Streets . But anyway, how did it happen? OK, let’s go back a bit. I’d become involved with Reclaim The Streets back in May 1994 – the very first Kill the Car action in Camden. I’ve had a connection with them ever since, partly because my students at the University of East London felt very good about this new movement. Something about their politics just seemed completely fresh, completely different and I really learned a lot from them.
And it was about things which really the Left had lost sight of, ever since I knew about the Left really. There’s just been no music for example. People on the Left didn’t think that on a demo you had music. They didn’t think you danced or enjoyed yourself very much – a lot of chanting maybe, but not much else. And it was clear that this action in Camden was just infectious and brought people in, involved people in just a totally new way. It was completely new to me, obviously. It wasn’t new to the people themselves, who’d been at, say, Claremont Road and other anti-roads actions. For them it was a cultural thing which had been happening, but I just wasn’t aware of it until it hit me really, especially on this Camden event, and after that I decided to get myself a drum.
I was in Chicago for a conference when I passed a Native American shop. I bought one drum for myself and one for Lionel Sims – big elk skin drums. We’d only had them a few weeks when the third big London-based Reclaim The Streets action took place, on July 13th 1996 – a huge street party across the M41 motorway in west London. As we were assembling, Lionel and I just banged these drums. We weren’t much good at it, but we just banged them. Still, as it happened, it was incredibly useful to the organisers because we had to get from Shepherd’s Bush along some railway sidings, through a tunnel, moving the whole crowd – evading the police – leading everyone through a hole in the wall, through a hole in the wire, up onto the motorway.
The Reclaim The Streets people didn’t have any drums at that time because all their music was electronic stuff. So they just grabbed me and Lionel and said “We need them drums – bang ‘em”, which we were doing already. They led us through this complicated route, still drumming, with this huge crowd behind us – and as a result we had this very successful occupation of the whole motorway.
We also had a dragon, a big red dragon, on that M41 street party. People in my group, the Radical Anthropological Group, had made it as a symbol of resistance. So, OK that happened. And that was certainly nothing to do with the dockers and not a lot to do with the trade unions actually – except that on the M41 street party one of the biggest banners, stretched right across the motorway, said ‘Victory to the Tube Workers!” – a tube strike against privatisation was just then beginning to get under way.
So, immediately after that M41 event I just had it in my brain. A definite element of solidarity with the tube workers had been prominent on that action. I thought ‘Well, these anarchists and environmentalists, they’re not just what they’ve been branded by a lot of the left – just middle class environmentalists. They’re obviously part of the movement.’
So I thought "Well OK’ ". I’d already been involved with the dockers for a while. That was basically through my sister Liz, who had got involved via the J.J. Fast Food dispute up in Tottenham near where she worked. I’d been going to that picket every week in the morning and a docker had turned up to that and expressed solidarity. My sister had made very good links between the Turkish and Kurdish Day-Mer community – whose supporters were heavily involved in that dispute – and the dockers. The Day-Mer comrades including J. J. Fast Food strikers would go up to Liverpool for demonstrations and I went up on one particular occasion late in 1995.
And again something struck me really forcefully. The Kurdish contingent had their drums and traditional costumes and they were dancing on the demonstration though Liverpool. So with the dockers you had a really classical class struggle, a courageous demonstration, which previously had been somehow lacking something. This extra thing was what the Kurdish and Turkish comrades provided – an extra real energy from dance and drums.
So that was already there through the Day-Mer comrades. That had already been going on. This was nine months before the M41 street party. So, as I say, I had already been involved with the dockers, largely through my sister. So after the M41 I thought ‘Well, why not find out where London Reclaim the Streets are meeting each week? Why not suggest to them maybe they could make a link with the dockers?’
About a week after the M41 thing, I found out that the next RTS meeting would be in a big bus garage behind Kings Cross. As I got to the disused enormous garage, I found a hive of activity. It was all just buzzing. These young people were making costumes and banners for an action in support of the tube workers. The guy there who seemed to me to be most prominently inspiring this action in support of the Tube workers was Ian. So we soon made friends.
The Tube workers action planned for 3 weeks time would be relatively small. And so RTS were still thinking about what to do for the next major action. I knew that September 28th would be the anniversary of the dockers’ dispute. So I said “Well, why not make a link with the dockers on that day?” There was support, but also quite a lot of opposition. There were people who thought Reclaim The Streets should remain fundamentally an anti-car campaign, fundamentally environmentalist. One argument was ‘What on earth are we doing supporting the dockers? I thought they imported cars? What on earth have we got in common?’ I just said “Well, why don’t we invite some dockers down and let them explain?”
Using the Day-Mer community centre’s FAX machine, I outlined this plan and checked that the dockers (by now good friends of my sister) would themselves welcome RTS support in Liverpool. They sent back a FAX – ‘Chris, go for it!’ So at the next meeting in that bus garage, Mick and Nick from Liverpool came down to explain to Reclaim The Streets why they should support their year-old dispute.
Meanwhile I’d gone up to Liverpool and talked to Mike Carden, one of the dockers’ shop stewards who’d obtained new information about why the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company wanted to smash the union. According to Mike, certain members of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company had interests in a proposed new waste disposal company; they needed a workforce of pliable scabs who’d unload anything for money. The dockers had historically caused trouble by supporting Greenpeace and other environmentalist organisations, acting on their advice and just simply refusing to unload crap. On several occasions, the dockers had been told to unload radioactive waste and had said, “No, we don’t unload that stuff. We’ve got information from Greenpeace, we don’t do that. We’re not scabs, we’ve got a sense of responsibility. It’s a health hazard. You unload it!” And they refused to touch it.
Mike had all his dossiers and papers, which are still around – I think I’ve probably still got them all. He briefed Mick and Nick with all this information. So when the two dockers came down to Reclaim The Streets the following week, they were very convincing, although there was still considerable opposition. I have to say there were still some people who just thought ‘this is the wrong way to go’. But my new friend Ian and those organising the tube solidarity action were adamant.
There was quite a lot of polarisation there really. But anyway, the two dockers got a good reception. And shortly afterwards, with Reclaim The Streets and the cyclists’ movement Critical Mass, we occupied the St. James Park headquarters of London Transport. And you can see, can’t you, that from Reclaim The Streets’ point of view, supporting the tube workers was directly logical? Here we had an anti-car movement, a pro-cyclist, public transport movement supporting tube workers. It was logical because RTS naturally wanted to defend public transport. So there had been little disagreement around this tube action, really. It was easy to do.
Occupying London Transport HQ was a reasonably courageous, daring action and again this kind of appealed to me. I’d been so fed up with the left where we just go preaching and giving out leaflets saying the leaders must do this and the leaders must do that. Reclaim The Streets aren’t like that. They don’t say the leaders must this or that. They go and do it. They don’t just worry about passing resolutions. If something needs to be done, do it yourself! They occupied the LT headquarters and strung this great big banner off the roof – ‘Don’t Squeeze the Tube’ – and got right to the top of the building. And I mean these are slender kids in some ways. There were a number of young women who were very courageous in doing that. And it made a big impact.
A couple of days later we got a letter from the London Region RMT, signed by Bob Crow. It was an official letter of thanks. It said: "Reclaim the Streets achieved for the tube workers in one day more than the TUC has done in a decade ". We framed that. It was a beautiful letter of acknowledgement of what Reclaim The Streets is all about.
I might as well tell you the whole story while it’s in my mind because that day was very, very significant. During the action on that same day, someone came up to me with bad news. "Chris, there’s a real problem about going up to Liverpool on September 28th". The anti-Criminal Justice Act contingent, which at that time was a huge part of Reclaim The Streets – all the floats, all the music, all the people that provide the extra stuff – were planning a demonstration in London on exactly the same day.
So my heart was sinking. I thought "Oh my God, how can we get Reclaim The Streets up to Liverpool when they’re all going to be down in London on the same day, going from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square?" Then the same person remembered something: “Chris, if you just go down to the Oval this evening there’s a meeting happening where you may find out something which would help ".
I raced down there to the Oval. It was all very conspiratorial and really quite exciting. As they say, just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean the police aren’t trying to bug you. So during the meeting they kept moving from place to place. Eventually we got to a pub garden. Then the meeting of this group – Justice as they were called – at last started. They’d just received a letter from Westminster Council and the police, saying they wouldn’t give permission to use Hyde Park or Trafalgar Square on September 28th. Everyone was so dejected and depressed. And I was thinking "Whoopee, wow".
I said “Well, how about going up to Liverpool? It’s the anniversary of the dockers’ dispute. It would give us all a completely different image – signalling that we’re not just London-based, we’re not just middle-class. We’d be branching out into a big industrial dispute up in the North West which has lasted almost a year. We would get a lift, adding a completely different dimension to Reclaim The Streets."
There wasn’t a murmur against it. Everyone just thought "Absolutely". I remember thinking: “Thank God I knew about this crucial meeting!” As agreement was reached, it felt like such a big achievement. And I remember coming home that night and saying: “Something really big has happened today. Now we’ve got Reclaim The Streets and Justice and the whole wonderful bandwagon to go up to Liverpool on the 28th.”
Ian, who’d been very strong in supporting the Tube workers, was very excited and we all met regularly all through the summer. And it was just so impressive to me, the way they organise. It was anti-organisation. But somehow it seemed to work a lot better than the organisation I’d been familiar with. It just seemed to work in such a quiet way.
You almost never had decisions made. It was like you’d sit in some dreadful disused cinema, some squat, somewhere, all afternoon. Everyone sitting in a circle. No one really hogs the floor, everyone’s really quiet. It takes a long, long time. As the hours pass, you feel a kind of decision apparently emerging and when it emerged you knew it was solid, you knew it wasn’t just by a vote. There weren’t going to be people unhappy with it. There weren’t going to be subsequent arguments or recriminations about it. That decision was really going to stick. And we got these little fliers out, lots and lots and lots of them – tens of thousand of these very small fliers inviting people up to Liverpool for the 28th. And that was how the link was made.
Alan: You’ve mentioned Reclaim The Streets but I saw lots of banners for Reclaim The Future. Presumably that was the same thing?
Chris: What happened was we spent the summer planning the occupation of the quayside on the anniversary of the dispute, there were lots of discussions about what to do. Reclaim The Streets, to be honest, actually wanted quite a bit more really. Their angle was to have a big street party in the centre of Liverpool – a big cultural festival and celebration of the dispute.
I have to say as well there were big, big disputes within the dockers shop stewards committee over this whole thing, from very early on. Someone had told Jimmy Nolan – the Chair of the Port Shop Stewards’ Committee – that anarchists were going to come and dig up the roads in the centre of Liverpool. And he said “No way are we going to let those kids dig up our roads! We’d lose all support!” There was a big discussion and I think one of the key things was that Jimmy Davis Junior – that’s the son of the Treasurer of the Shop Stewards Committee – he was a bit of a raver and he really got the idea. He really understood the whole plan and so did Billy Jenks as well.
So we had a big meeting with the Shop Stewards up in Liverpool about six weeks before the anniversary, and the proposal was formally put. And by this stage Jimmy Davis junior, Billy Jenks and others had got together with Ian, in particular, from Reclaim The Streets and had talked it through. The dockers by now were just absolutely brilliant. And Jimmy Nolan was persuaded it would be a great idea, although of course the decision which eventually emerged was a bit of a compromise compared with what RTS had originally had in mind.
In the end, then, the plan belonged just as much to the dockers’ as to Reclaim The Streets. It wasn’t to have a big street party in a big busy street in the middle of Liverpool. It was to have a demonstration through Liverpool and then to have the cultural festival on the quayside. So this is what happened, and thanks to Pauline we’ve got some brilliant pictures of that demonstration winding its way through Liverpool with the fire-breathing dragon.
It was an absolutely fantastic thing. This was in many ways my dream – the dream those Kurdish dancers had given me when they’d come previously, when they’d celebrated with their traditional costumes and their drums and music. By the anniversary there was a really vibrant, wonderful atmosphere to the whole thing. This dragon was actually breathing smoke. We were passing a MacDonald’s shop in Liverpool and there were rows and rows of armed riot cops, and this carnival dragon – the guy inside the dragon got carried away – he was nosing right up to these coppers with this smoke billowing out and they all looked worried and it was really very, very funny. Afterwards, the dockers would endlessly repeat that particular story.
And what was absolutely magic was the next day. We occupied this Customs House at about 2.00 a.m. There must have been about six or seven hundred of us. Our trucks drove out very quietly and groups of us got through the wire so that by the time Women of the Waterfront arrived for their morning picket, at 5.30, they thought -"This is funny . . . . "
It was dark, but they could hear these whistling sounds coming from the top of the nearest gantry and from the top of the rat house, the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company offices. Later that morning, I was told by one of the women “Oh God, that was magic!” It was a fantastic feeling and it just absolutely transformed the dispute because the occupation was so successful.
We didn’t stop everything from crossing the picket line, but we certainly stopped a hell of a lot on that particular day and it made a huge difference to everyone’s morale. In fact the dockers mostly said, didn’t they, that without that big action on the anniversary they’re not sure the dispute could have carried on. But following the action there was no question it was going to carry on. Also there was no way now that the media could simply ignore it.
And it went right across the planet, right across the world that this action had happened. It just looked so good. When you have labour disputes, the word ‘sexy’ doesn’t occur to you normally. But that action was like that. It really was a brilliant, vibrant show of imagination, courage and solidarity – connecting environmentalists and trades unionists in a kind of unheard-of way.
As I was saying, many people in Reclaim The Streets had previously thought their movement was an anti-car thing. Some tended to be a bit maybe middle-class about keeping cars out of our neighbourhood and not having too much fumes and stuff. This class stuff was a bit new.
It also has to be said, though, that on the side of the dockers there were also some reservations. “Who are these people? We’re trying to defend our jobs. But these people don’t even want jobs! They’ve never worked in their lives!” But when the two sides met up there was this terrific bonding. The dockers began saying “Well actually, since being out on strike we’ve never worked so hard in our lives!” All this networking and organising – a different kind of work – was actually the same kind that Reclaim The Streets were always involved in anyway. It was “work” on a different level. So on that basis the old divisions melted and a real bond was formed.
But after all that, I forget: What was the question you were actually asking me?
Alan:Many of the reports, like John Pilger’s, don’t mention Reclaim The Streets. They just mention Reclaim The Future.
Chris: Sorry, yes. OK, I’ll tell you what that was about. As I was saying, I went along to the Oval to meet with Justice and they were thinking of a name for their 28th September anti-C.J.A. event. They were going to call it Reclaim The Future. When the Liverpool action was decided instead, that name might well have been abandoned. But I thought to myself "Well actually what’s wrong with Reclaim The Future? It could well be taken to mean a future without casualisation, without capitalism. A future which the dockers could look forward to. So why not keep that name?
When I put this to the London Dockers Support Group, everyone agreed. One benefit was that the umbrella itself now had its own name. We weren’t exactly Reclaim The Streets, we weren’t exactly the Liverpool dockers. We were Reclaim The Future and this was something all of us could be part of.
Pauline: There was also a newspaper that the dockers put out – ‘Reclaim The Future’.
Chris: Yes. I’ve got a copy of that if you’re interested.
Alan: OK, so that was the first anniversary in . . .
Chris: That was 28th September 1996. And, as I say, our action projected the dispute onto a new plane. It had already been internationalised, so I don’t want to exaggerate. Clearly the dockers had made their dispute international right from the word go, from the very beginning of their dispute. They had gone out with plastic buckets and collected money in these to buy air tickers fly out to Seattle and other U.S. ports, establishing picket lines and inspiring solidarity action. So we already had that. But there’d been a huge media blockade on it, so almost nothing had got out about the dockers. September 28th just blasted that to smithereens. It was just gone from then on. There was no way the media could pretend that there wasn’t that dispute going on. So it helped overlay the dockers’ international action and connections with this new level of connectedness and publicity.
And of course it meant that right across the world, wherever there were dockers in support of Liverpool – especially in Seattle and Los Angeles, and right along the west coast of America – environmentalists took their cue from what happened in Liverpool. The U.S. environmentalists woke up to the fact that here was a dispute on their doorstep which was worth supporting. So in a way that was what the whole action became – a bit of a move to Reclaim The Future across the world.
Alan: A precursor to Seattle?
Chris: Oh, there is no question that it was a precursor of Seattle. I don’t want to be a sectarian, but I mean there are still comrades on the Left, you know, who have never acknowledged this. Obviously a very valuable and important part of the left is the Socialist Worker Party. Many good comrades of mine are members and they’re doing great work. But their official line regarding Seattle is that it didn’t come out of the dockers’ dispute. The dockers are never mentioned in anything they write about Seattle. Well, that is just inaccurate. Maybe certain comrades weren’t involved with the dockers very much, but even so they should know – everyone should know, actually – what really happened.
The truth is that the groundwork for Seattle 1999 was done by the Liverpool dockers back in 1996. I mean, we’ve got the fact that on our International Day of Action on January 20th 1997, we already had the whole west coast of America out on strike in solidarity with Liverpool. Now these actions brought together environmentalists and trade unionists long before Seattle on November 30th 1999 — you know, nearly three years before. So Seattle didn’t come out of nowhere. The ground was prepared by the Liverpool dockers.
Alan: I’d like to return to that topic later, but for now can we just look at the way in which the Reclaim The Streets influenced the strike. People traditionally think of Reclaim The Streets in terms of big demonstrations etc – we’ll go on to the second, the London demonstration in a moment – but did Reclaim The Streets do any more than just participate, lead, give vibrancy to the big demonstrations ?
Chris: Oh, a huge amount more. I wouldn’t say Reclaim The Streets are about big demonstrations. They don’t really like demonstrations and they also don’t like protest – they don’t really have protests. They don’t think in that way at all. They think of it more like D.I.Y. – if you want something done, do it yourself. Action comes first.
And the truth is that many of the dockers – maybe especially the younger ones, but not exclusively those – thought that wasn’t such a bad idea. Occupations of gantries and of outfits that provided scabs to the employers – occupations of their offices and so forth – were conducted jointly between the dockers and these young activists.
People in Reclaim The Streets, including myself, we planned some of these actions. People were very courageous and before long, the dockers just ran with it. They did far more than just stand on that picket line. They did far more than just demonstrate. There were a lot of serious direct actions conducted by the dockers themselves and it was a very important part of their struggle. I’m not saying that they learnt it exactly from Reclaim The Streets, but what happened on September 28th was certainly a model. And of course the key point is, it wasn’t just Reclaim The Streets that occupied the gantries and got on the roof of the offices on that anniversary celebration – the dockers themselves did that.
They insisted on getting there. I remember Jimmy Davis Junior. Come hell or high water, he was going to get up onto that roof. And it was quite funny because, in order to do that, we had to get the drums out before dawn and place them around a particular area of the fence, to create a commotion while hacksaws and cutters were making a big hole. Some quite thick metal railings had to be cut. So, while all the drumming and music was going on, the sawing and rasping took place to the same rhythm so the police wouldn’t hear the difference. While I was drumming, the dockers were going ching, ching, ching, ching, ching, ching – cutting through that fence. I remember particularly because Jimmy Davis just had to get up on that roof, and the dockers just had to climb up the gantries, to show solidarity with the Reclaim the Streets activists who had already made that climb. They weren’t going to be outdone by a few anarchists or environmentalists. As soon as this was going on they thought "We can do it". There was absolute equality. So, once that precedent had been set – it was part of what the dockers were very much into.
Alan: Can you give us any other examples of direct action taken later by the dockers or by Reclaim The Streets?
Pauline: I can tell you of one beforehand because, as Chris says, the dockers insisted on climbing up the gantries and all that. I also thought they felt quite protective of Reclaim The Streets as well. Obviously the dockers know the ins and outs of the docks and the safety hazards and that kind of thing.
And I do know that before this action, in Canada, two of the dockers, Terry Southers and one of the others, climbed up the gantry dressed in the clothes of the Canadian dockers and that was like they were setting up a picket line. Because they were up there at their picket, on top of the gantry with their mobile phone, the Canadian dockers wouldn’t cross that picket line. So the Canadian dockers were then on strike in support of the Liverpool dockers.
Pauline: Those kinds of actions took place quite a lot all around the world. In the call for international solidarity the dockers around the world, people in other countries would say to Liverpool: “Well, we just need one or two of you to come here to say here’s the picket line”. And then nobody else went across it. That’s what they did in lots of places.
Alan:OK. Well, of course the other big event that people associate with Reclaim The Streets is the demonstration a year later, the big London one – was that a year later?
Chris: Yes, the March for Social Justice.
Alan: How central were Reclaim The Streets in that ?
Chris: Well, I would say that by 12 April 12th 1997, by that stage, there was this big network which involved the Dockers Support Groups – maybe particularly London, but across the country – and people in Reclaim The Streets that had now become really committed to the cause of the dockers. The dockers – those who were most active – were equally central to this same network. So again, obviously, there was a little bit of tension, we always had to discuss things. As for the event on 12th April – it was designed to be a bit more than a demonstration from Kennington Park to Trafalgar Square. Part of the plan was to stage an occupation of a very large building.
Just beyond Westminster Bridge, before you get to the House of Commons – on the other side of the river – there were these huge big offices of the Department of the Environment. And the idea was to occupy that building. Well, I can’t go into details, but basically the dockers – some of them – were a little bit worried about it. They weren’t quite sure it would work and some of them were more keen on the idea than others. But essentially that was the plan and the fact that it didn’t happen meant that plan B had to be implemented, which was to have the big action in Trafalgar Square.
Here it was Reclaim The Streets who shinned right up the building surroundings in Trafalgar Square with big, big banners, ‘Victory to the Dockers’,. It was more than the usual kind of thing – people arriving there and then speeches. Obviously we did have speeches, but it was quite a bit more than that. That was an enormously powerful march and demonstration and celebratory action. It was a hugely successful coming together of environmentalists and trade unionists and activists. It was a very, very powerful thing I would say.
And again, I don’t think that would have happened without the link having been made on the anniversary of the dispute. It was all part of the same thing. It was really growing, getting bigger and bigger. In the months which followed, it all actually started to unravel – I think we would agree on that. It began to go downhill from then on, really.
Alan: But the 12th April demonstration itself, presumably the bulk of the mobilisation was done by the London Support Committee?
Chris: Yes. Although I would say it was a sort of twin track thing. We probably did most of it, or at least half of it, but the Reclaim The Streets – they had their own way of organising and they had some brilliant posters everywhere and they pulled their people out, there’s no question. I wouldn’t want to be competitive. It was really a very good partnership I would say. What would you say, Pauline, on that?
Pauline: Yes. I would say that the London Support Group organised the structural bit of the March. Anybody who’s organised a demonstration will know that one of the jobs is you have to talk to the police and there is always a committee of three or four people. And they have big arguments about where the March should go and we wanted a Central London March. So the London Support Group organised the structure of the March and where it should go and we organised getting trade unionists on board and getting sympathetic people and so on.
Chris: That’s right.
Pauline: And then Reclaim The Streets had their separate meetings and occasionally some Reclaim The Streets people would come to the meetings of the London Support Group so we could share information. But on the whole they organised separately until a few days before the March actually.
Chris: Yeah, I was very much on both sides. I was Chief Steward for the March and negotiating with the police along with Kevin Hargreaves and others. I was also very much involved with Reclaim The Streets at the same time. Pauline’s right, there was obviously a bit of tension between having something where you’d negotiate with the police and it’s all set in stone beforehand, and then doing the kind of thing that Reclaim The Streets want to do. They never negotiate with the police. They just don’t want to know.
And of course they’ve got a strong case – if you talk to the police and anything goes wrong, you’re held under some kind of moral pressure to do as you’re told. And they’re just not into that, so it was quite tricky – as Pauline’s hinting – to keep the whole show on the road. But we did and the thing was very, very powerful.
What actually happened? As we were coming up Whitehall there were mounted police charging up and down. I don’t know, there may have been some of the older dockers might have been a bit worried about what was happening, thinking "If we go along with this it will be anarchy!". It was beginning to transcend those boundaries a bit, but still one had to make sure that the whole movement stayed together. We had disputes within the London Support Group – never bad disputes, by the way, they were never sectarian disputes, they were always comradely. But there were genuine difficulties in keeping the whole thing together really, as there were bound to be. After the September 28th action, Jimmy Nolan had introduced Reclaim the Streets activists to the 500 dockers, to a prolonged standing ovation. The T&G officials had been denouncing RTS as “anarchists”, so Jimmy invoked the Spanish civil war and said “I am proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with these anarchists!” But now at the end of the Social Justice March it was getting quite tricky in practice.
Alan: So essentially what we are saying then is that there was a difference between Reclaim The Streets and the dockers and their supporters in terms of political ideas, forms of organisation and the methods of doing things, but they were resolved in discussion ?
Chris: I wouldn’t say there was a difference between the dockers and Reclaim The Streets. It’s not quite as simple as that because Reclaim The Streets had their differences and the dockers had their differences. I would say, from where I was, the dockers I work most closely with – Billy Jenks, Jimmy Davis Junior and so on – and also the Reclaim The Streets people I was working most closely with – for example Ian – and thirdly Pauline and my sister and others, weren’t always in total agreement. But we didn’t have serious disagreements , I think we were very much together.
On the Reclaim The Streets side, there were people who were saying " What were we doing, why are we talking to the police at all, why do we have a march from A to B and all that?" Among the dockers, there were also concerns and worries. But in the end I have to say the plans were agreed collectively as to what we did on that day, as Pauline said. So Pauline was right to say that it wasn’t until last minute really that things gelled together and we went for it.
Pauline: I think I arrived late to this meeting, but I do understand that there was a dispute about something that Reclaim The Streets were going to do and the dockers were saying that “If you do this, we’re just pulling out straight, we’re just not going to have anything to do with you” and that conflict happened a day or two before the March.
Chris: Yes, but it was some of the dockers and not all. Billy Jenks and Jimmy Davis Junior were with Reclaim The Streets right the way through, all the time, right up to late in the night and phoning up Liverpool. And then we had a meeting, didn’t we, the night before in the Cock Tavern near Kings Cross. But Pauline’s right. There were concerns and nobody could tell what was going to happen.
You can’t have a direct action, which is illegal – and remain legal. The Reclaim The Streets idea, which was to take over the Department of the Environment building, had to be on a need to know basis. So some of the dockers knew the details and others didn’t, which is always difficult for a democratic movement, but what do you do? I’m sure Lenin had the same problems. There’s moments when you’re not sure.
Alan: I’m sure that Lenin had lots of problems. But in a sense, what we’re saying is that the political views of the dockers tended towards keeping to the law and . . .
Chris: I don’t want to say that.
Pauline: I just want to say as well that a lot of people came down from Liverpool to that March including a lot of women and their children. Obviously one of their concerns that they wanted to make sure that the March was safe.
Alan: So it was non-violent ?
Pauline: Yes, they were worried about violence. And of course the media was playing up the fact that there would be violence and so that does attract violent elements. So there’s always this threat that there might be violence and we didn’t want it.
Alan: Reclaim The Streets ?
Chris: Reclaim The Streets are not either violent or non-violent. They’re certainly not violent, but like all of us on the left – revolutionaries – we don’t think we’re in favour of violence at all, but on the other hand to go round saying we’re not violent when the police are beating you over the head is ridiculous. So Reclaim The Streets do try very hard, in all my experience, to get dance and music and rhythm and other forms of energy to make violence not necessary, to be infectious and have numbers and find other ways than violence. Maybe some people relish violence, but Reclaim The Streets are certainly not that kind of people, they’re just not. But on the other hand obviously there were fears, worries. We were all concerned because there would be women and children there and we weren’t sure how violent the police would be. We just didn’t know.
Alan: Well, organisations like Earth First!, out of which Reclaim The Streets grew, were traditionally being linked to things like non-violent direct action, and that’s always been their line from pretty early on.
Chris: Well, Earth First ! is one strand. The word non-violent isn’t used within Reclaim The Streets. They don’t say non-violent actually, they don’t say that. I think they’re right really. I think the whole idea of being non-violent is just missing the point really.
Of course we know we’re not the source of violence – the State is and the police are. We find that debate isn’t very helpful. In practice Reclaim The Streets have found much more effective ways of organising. All the costumes and dance and music and stuff and the symbolism and the appeal is central to that. It doesn’t mean that on occasions people from outside haven’t just come along and wanted to chuck bottles and stuff, which they have, but that’s never been approved of, never been thought of as particularly intelligent.
Alan: So the Reclaim The Streets forms of activity were things like occupations, things like demonstrations with music?
Chris: It came out of Claremont Road. This was a formative experience for the Reclaim The Streets people in London. It was non-violent. It would be ridiculous to say that Claremont Road was violent. It wasn’t.
Alan: So essentially then we’re saying in terms of political ideas the main emphasis of Reclaim The Streets was the emphasis on reclaiming the streets, meaning anti-car, etc. ?
Chris: It had been the emphasis before the Tube workers’ action and the link-up with the dockers. Once the dockers’ thing had got off the ground, the signal that Reclaim The Streets was putting out was different. It was no longer just anti-car, it was obviously a proletarian thing in many ways.
It was linked up with the big international day of action in Seattle and across the west coast of America and elsewhere across the world. So it wasn’t too long before we had June 18th in London, where we became labelled for the first time “the anticapitalists” by the media. All of us in Reclaim The Streets accepted that. But it would have been impossible again without the dockers, without the link with the dockers.
I admit that Reclaim The Streets was already anti-capitalist, against the system – because it’s difficult to be a consistent environmentalist without being. But it wasn’t explicit at all. It was the dockers, it was the link with the dockers that made it clear that this was an anti-capitalist class struggle movement of some sort.
Alan: So what you’re saying is that in the same way as the dockers were influenced by Reclaim The Streets in terms of direct action and things like that, the reverse process took place as well?
Chris: Absolutely. I would say so.
Alan: Whereby Reclaim The Streets were politicised ?
Chris: I would say so, yes.
Alan: By the actions that they undertook
Chris: Enormously. They learnt from the dockers. They learnt first-hand the meaning of class struggle, class solidarity and the values of trade unionism. For many in Reclaim The Streets that was a foreign country. They were not familiar with it at all. But in Liverpool, they had been living with the dockers, bonding with them, becoming friends. The key people that were involved in this anniversary action became very, very close to the dockers. Terrific friendships were formed and links made up in Liverpool.
Alan: Coming now to the point about the development of the anti-capitalist movement. You’ve said that certain political points of view tend to emphasise that Seattle happened out of the blue, and that there was nothing really that went before it, so it was a dramatic and sudden change. But your perspectives are that the activities of the dockers influenced the Reclaim The Streets and influenced a wider audience, particularly in America, that paved the way for the events that happened in Seattle?
Chris:Yes, I’d say that June 18th 1998, the great anti-capitalist event in central London, which stopped the City for a day – that wasn’t to us a surprise, those of us who’d been linked with the dockers, we’d seen that happening. But I know that for many comrades in the SWP it was a complete surprise.
“Where the hell did that come from?”, they asked. Anti-capitalists suddenly stop the city for a day. I mean, an incredible big thing. Of course, they were not claiming that anti-capitalism came out of the blue. They have been able to construct a story. The trouble is that the story misses out the dockers. You will not find in their version any mention of what the dockers and their International succeeded in doing across the planet, especially on that stupendous day when you could say that the whole planet skipped a heartbeat – January 20th 1997.
Let’s remind ourselves of that. The West coast of America was brought to a halt. That included Seattle and Los Angeles. It had been an incredible coalition between environmentalists and all kinds of other political activists with trade unionists. We’d already done that. So when Seattle erupted on November 30th 1999, it was a development from that.
You cannot write an honest account of the development of the anti-capitalist movement without seeing that the dockers, in a way, constructed it with Reclaim The Streets. There’s no question that’s what happened. But that story is completely missing. You’ll read anything about anti-capitalism by, say, “Globalise Resistasnce” and all their publications. They’ll make a kind of story about how it happened, but it misses out the key thing.
Obviously huge things have happened in Argentina. Huge things have happened through People’s Global Action in India, all around the world. Enormous important things are happening. But one thing which specifically happened back in 1998 was that the media woke up and started labelling us the anti-capitalist movement, and that hadn’t happened before. That development began in this corner of the world, and it was through the dockers that it happened. And it just made it much easier to organise and sense that we’re part of a global movement.
And nowadays it’s a different situation. We can think globally. We’re using the internet, using these new media in a way which transcends that old idea of the International. I remember when I got into politics, Internationalism meant writing to Ceylon or something and having comrades trying to form a thing called "Something or other Committee for the Fourth International ". Nowadays, things are immediately international. We are a global movement against capitalism, which the ruling powers are really quite scared of.
And, I would say, the dockers have a right to be proud of it. If you had to give credit, I would say more credit to the dockers than anybody. The dockers built an International. In a way they, "lost". They "lost" that dispute. But the planet has changed as a result. By winning over a whole swathe of other political activists to their cause, they added a whole new dimension of struggle. And I’m obviously annoyed, unhappy that for what seem to me internal sectarian reasons, the dockers have been written out of that story by some who’ve written those histories.
Alan: I’m sure it’s more of a political perspective rather than anything of that nature, but it may well have happened.
Chris: Yes, it comes from a political perspective. But the political perspective, as Pauline was saying, was "Why on earth should the dockers mix with environmentalists? What’s all this about? What do you want to dance on the streets for?”
There’s a real contempt and dismissal of Reclaim The Streets by sections of the traditional hard Left. And I’m in Labour Briefing and I won’t excuse them for it either. They suffer from it. The whole of the hard Left, all of the Left, have suffered from that blindness with respect to this new generation of activists. They just didn’t see what they had to offer.
Alan: To a certain extent, though, it may well be that the split in the labour movement occurred in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, with the rise of Stalinism and the defeat of what was termed the “ultra left”, etc
Chris: That’s right, yes.
Alan: And is still being felt today and is only slowly being overcome.
Chris: Yes, I think that’s true. I think there are some parallels between Stalinism and some of these lethargic attitudes towards new developments in the class struggle. And I think that that’s really quite an important parallel. And I think that it’s partly a failure to listen and to learn from each new generation, because each new generation brings up new methods of struggle and all of us have to adapt. And the dockers have adapted so quickly so incredibly quickly.
Pauline: I think it’s a lack of will. It’s a lack of will to win and it’s a lack of will to look outwards and to grasp what’s there is out there, to bring in to win the struggle. People get stuck in old habits when they get into a group. They’ve got their friends, they’ve got their comrades. They give up to a degree and the group becomes the end in itself rather than the struggle, rather than the big picture. And I think every group on the left has to watch out for that.
Alan: Coming back to another aspect of the situation. In this country it’s fairly clear that the dockers themselves were powerfully behind their stewards and there was certainly support from Magnet strikers and even hospital strikers. Trades Union Councils and a fairly wide range of the rank and file were in support of the dockers, whereas it seemed it seems equally clear that the leadership of the T&G had to be pushed every inch of the way towards support. And certainly many people have alleged, it did very, very little to assist. And some people have portrayed people like Bill Morris as traitors, etc.
Chris: Well, I mean, Bill Morris wasn’t just “not doing a lot to assist”. I mean, he was definitely trying to defeat the strike. Definitely, no question, trying to undermine it and stop it. That was the perception of all the dockers. And that was what was going on. And that’s their own union. The dockers were just about able to use the T&G offices in Liverpool. They were able to use that as a base from which to organise, but, I mean, it wasn’t just they didn’t get a lot of support from the national officers. The national officers were very strongly trying to get the whole thing called off. Especially Bill Morris. He played a disgraceful role, to be honest, a shameful role.
Alan: Yes, I think great play was made of his speech and his total failure to implement it .
Chris: When he first turned up, he said “I want to hold my head high to my grandchildren, telling them that when it mattered, I supported the dockers!”. Well, he cannot hold his head high, that man – he can’t.
Alan: Drawing that comparison, then, across the wider picture. The support that was gained in America and around the world – did that come primarily from what we might describe as rank and file dockers, or was there any support from the equivalents of Bill Morris in these countries? So essentially was it rank and file support that was engendered or was it wider than that?
Chris: Well, the thing is that in many countries the dockers union, like for example in Sweden, the whole dockers’ union supported the Liverpool dockers. I’m not best qualified to describe the details of the official support. If you talk to some of the dockers, they’d give you the chapter and verse on that.
Pauline: Jack Hayman on the American West coast was extremely supportive. Then there was the International Transport Federation.
Chris: The ITF was on the brink of giving official support. In fact they did give official support, but
Pauline: . . . they were waiting for the Transport and General Workers Union
Chris: The only thing which stopped the ITF giving official support and calling out dockers world-wide was Bill Morris. Bill Morris actively said “Don’t do this, we don’t want this support" and put a spanner in the works.
Alan: So, coming back to our central point, in a sense, the development of the anti-capitalist movement. The support that’s been gathered in America was primarily from the rank and file that had been involved in the dispute, but also extended to the lower levels of the official trade union movement.
Chris: Yes. In Australia, it was both lower and higher levels. In the west coast of America it was right up to the top. And, as Pauline said, in many other countries it was almost unanimous support from dockers right across the world. The least support probably was from the dockers own union in this country.
Pauline: That’s a reflection of the anti-union laws in this country. It was due to those eighteen years under the Tories when they brought in all these anti-union laws and that was demonstrated in practice. Everywhere else in the world, trade unionists were able to pull out the dockers. You had the whole of Australia on strike in support of Liverpool. You had the whole of the west coast of America, Greece, Cyprus, Canada.
Chris: Cape Town.
Pauline: These huge countries. All the dockers on strike.
Chris: Every port in Japan came out. I think forty ports in Japan came out on that day.
Pauline: In support of this little town in England, you know, Liverpool. And yet you couldn’t get the dockers in this country, their own country, out on strike. And that really just brought home to everybody just how backward things have become for the labour movement in this country and how damaging the anti-union laws are.
Alan: Well, carrying on with this theme, another dimension to the anti-capitalist movement is it’s internationalism. The fact is that there is activity around the world wherever the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank, etc, attempt to meet. . To a certain extent, can this international activity again be traced back to the support for the Liverpool dockers?
Chris: Yes. The first of these actions actually happened in Birmingham very soon after the end of the strike. On that day, the dockers turned up, quite a lot of the dockers with their banner, so they very much wanted to be part of that.
Alan: Yes, Cancel the Debt.
Chris: And I think that was that was the first thing that the media regarded as one of those events in that series. It was the first of them and it was born out of the dockers dispute and you could say that the dockers were very much part of it. They weren’t part of the organising of it, but they wanted to be there and they were there.
Alan: Right, did you want to add anything, Pauline, about the international element from the dock strike leading indirectly to the anti-global capitalist movement?
Pauline: I was in Prague and there were a couple of American dockers there, who’d been involved in Seattle, and one of them, Robert Erminger, had been very supportive of the Liverpool dockers and, in fact, was threatened with prison in America for getting workers out on strike to support Liverpool. And when we were in Prague they were telling the story about Seattle because they had all been involved in Seattle.
And it was apparent to me that, because they were dockers and knew about the activities around the Liverpool docks, they were well prepared. When Seattle happened and the police were trying to get the labour movement and the environmental movement to split, the American dockers or longshoremen – longshore workers they call them now – did a revolutionary thing in a sense. They broke through the police lines.
One of them had a megaphone and was shouting “Over here, come over here, come and join us, come and join us”. And all the environmentalists came and joined them. In fact they broke with their own leadership and got the environmentalists to come over to their side, then they got sprayed with tear gas. But they were all together and they all had to help each other out because they were being attacked by the police.
Chris: If you think of some of the names of places which have been a focus of joint environmentalist and trade union activity and you take Montreal, Sydney, Genoa, Seattle, Gothenburg – these are all places where dockers were part of that Day of Action. They are all places which, since then, have come to prominence as centres where there’s been this fusion, this ferment of activity and linkage between direct action, including environmental direct action, and classical trade union action.
And all of that was inspired in all those different places around the world in 1997 on 20th January. So, it isn’t a coincidence that those same places have recently come to notice, have recently hit the headlines. It isn’t – the dockers did it.
Alan: So what you’re saying is there’s a direct link between the support for the dockers and the actual anti world-capitalism movement in practice?
Chris: It’s the same thing. It’s the same thing a few years later. It’s exactly the same thing, it’s not a different thing.
Pauline: It’s planting the seeds and this is the result
Chris: That’s it, exactly.
Pauline: Plants growing.
Alan: Yes. So we’ve heard that the rank and file were directly involved in the Seattle dispute, but again it’s sort of typical of the activities in this country, which reflects the emphasis being on the rank and file. So this consciousness, then, that’s been developed of the movement, has blossomed out and we’re now in a different situation, as you’ve identified. It would be interesting just to trace the subsequent history of Reclaim The Streets, which I know was targeted heavily in this subsequent period. I mean, what is the situation with Reclaim The Streets now?
Chris: Reclaim The Streets were kind of upset and annoyed about the way which, on their actions, people turned up who hadn’t prepared, hadn’t been part of the planning. These were people who didn’t want to send out the signals that Reclaim The Streets needed putting out. It gave the impression that they were kind of lager louts or something. And that has happened. They got really upset about that, really annoyed about that. As I say, it’s not about being non-violent as a sort of absolute rule. It’s just about needing to get a message across, whereas, of course, the media don’t want that at all.
So, there has been a lot of thinking about what exactly to do. Let’s take, for example, 11th September 2001. Obviously quite an important date. Myself and many others connected with Reclaim The Streets had for many months been planning to close down the Arms Fair which was being opened on that day in Docklands. It was a working class area, Canning Town, and the last thing we needed down in that housing estate was to attract a lot of violence. So the leaflets didn’t use the word Reclaim The Streets. On that day we had our samba band, we had this pink and silver idea, which came from Prague. It had been the pink and silver block, the samba block, that got closest in among the delegates in the conference centre in Prague, and this ‘pink and silver’ flag was carried over into the Arms Fair action..
So there we were, all wearing pink ribbons and pigtails. Everything was pink and silver and looking as fluffy as it could possibly look, although, of course, the aim was to get into that Arms Fair and close it down. But as a result of soft-pedalling on the Reclaim the Streets identity, I think we unintentionally minimised the number of people that turned up. We were taking such measures to avoid a huge ruck that the signal hardly got sent out. We weren’t that many there, something like 1000 on that day. It was good, but there is now a lot of thinking going on as to how to get it right really.
My feeling is, although we’ve been doing very well with May Day – I mean May Day last year and May Day the year previously with the guerrilla gardening – the press again just treated us as hoodlums because MacDonalds got trashed. Still, it was an important event. But last year, when Ken Livingstone’s police tried to completely ban May Day and prevent us from having any kind of celebration, we did very well, we turned it round. We certainly won the publicity war and from now on May Day it will be a contest and I’m sure there’ll be some good actions at May Day this year.
Just to finish, I think my own feeling is that when there is in this country another big industrial dispute anything like the scale of the dockers dispute, Reclaim The Streets will come into its own again. It will seize the chance with both hands and champion that. We’re kind of waiting for something big to happen. It could be the tube workers, it could be postal workers, could be who knows what. There is a need for something to celebrate, some real struggle to focus around. Then we can act. In a way, it’s been a bit hard to find one in the last couple of years.
Alan: Of course the forces of the state are always very heavily oppressive towards organisations like Reclaim The Streets, the IWW for example. And they’ve traditionally taken a sort of hard line in terms of harassment. Has this had a serious effect on Reclaim The Streets do you think?
Chris: No, I don’t think so. I wouldn’t say it’s had no effect, but we’re still around. I mean, just yesterday was International Women’s Day. We marched all through London. We had a ‘No Sweat’ action through Oxford Street. We stopped Gap – we closed the whole shop down. We stopped Next, we stopped Nike, we stopped Walt Disney. In some ways, dispersed in different campaigns, there are more of us active than ever.
It’s true that some very brave people have been locked up and it’s obviously been difficult. But I don’t think that’s dented anyone’s morale or stopped us from campaigning one bit really. If there’s been some decline in RTS activity recently, it’s not because of state harassment. My explanation would be that there’s been a slight loss of direction since we haven’t had that dockers dispute, with its international dimensions, to focus around. And I think we’re confident there’ll be another such eruption of the real class struggle to get behind.