Critical Mass and Reclaim The Streets

Talk by Roísin O'Donavan at the WSM's 'Ideas and Action', May 2002. Roísin was involved in the organisation of RTS and Critical Mass events in Dublin.

Much as Critical Mass makes the statement "we're not obstructing traffic, we ARE traffic," so too does Reclaim The Streets make the point that people and community are more important than cars. Unfortunately, instead of being the center of creativity and autonomy that it could be, the city is merely a focus for maniacal consumerism and profiteering, and the streets nothing but car pipelines facilitating all this madness. And so car culture becomes a focus for these two types of demonstration: not because we are all so anti-car, but because cars are only the most visible and tangible representatives of an inhuman consumer society. The car represents the ecologically detrimental capitalist system that has usurped the person and the environment in the incessant quest for profit.

Of course we could register our indignation at this whole process by marching up and down O'Connell Street with black + white placards that read "Down with the oil companies," and "Boycott the automotive industry," but that wouldn't be very enjoyable. For the most part, direct action as a form of protest embodies the ideal that we must live and be the change we wish to see. I think I'd rather be laughing and dancing when the revolution comes than be standing around po-faced listening to somebody deliver a speech. Like Emma Goldman said - If I can't dance I don't want your fuckin revolution.

This idea of 'fun,' like all spheres of human activity, is increasingly subject to capitalist control. Having undergone one's weekly dose of exploitation, and returned most of one's earnings to the capitalists for subsistence, one is then permitted to 'recharge' one's batteries through a procedure of 'entertainment,' and this is procured by relinquishing one's remaining wages to the capitalist class, who also own the means of entertainment. A wonderful remedy to this miserable cycle is a massive free street party.

When it comes to strategy, the principle of non-hierarchy is one of the movement's greatest strategic attributes. There is little that irritates the authorities more than being unable to finger ringleaders. In the Angry Brigade communiqué of 1970, they declared "we were invincible because we were everybody. They could not arrest us for we did not exist." And, as one organizer of the J18 demonstration in London commented, "the state is completely unable to grasp the way fluid 'disorganizations' work. They are so used to hierarchy, orders and centralization that they just can't see us, let alone catch us."

Another promising element of the movement is the diversity it can and does encompass. Herbert Read wrote in The Philosophy of Anarchism that "progress is measured by the degree of differentiation within a society." This element must be encouraged if RTS and the movement as a whole are to grow. As one of the main aims of RTS is the protection of community space, more contact needs to be made with local groups, for example community clean-up teams and support groups for families bereaved through road accidents. There are myriad 'single-issue' campaigns and causes that do, on further inspection, have much in common ideologically with those who organize and participate in Reclaim The Streets. Connecting and working with groups also at work on the same project spreads the workload and increase the diversity.

Problems besetting the execution of RTS include lack of adequate dispersal techniques for the inevitable end of the party, and insufficient direct communication between organizers during the event. Those involved need to liaise successfully, and be in such positions and to be readily contactable, as well as being intermittently obvious to the crowd in a pre-established way. Thus if panic arises or there is need to move, people are already aware that a plan has been made and they can choose whether or not to follow that plan. Another problem that be encountered is a lack of spontaneity among the people who arrive at the party, expecting to be entertained. This is due to the monoculture of passive entertainment that we are enveloped in once we leave childhood. Instead, every single person could bring one item &endash; be it a football, a piece of carpet, or a huge papier maché dragon. Anything to contribute to the party atmosphere.

It can only get bigger and better as people are coaxed out of their cars, office cubicles and TV rooms into a liberated space where they have the chance to practice life as they'd like it to be. And we already have that tantalizing aura of infamy