Reclaim the Streets: Berkeley

Thinking globally, partying locally

About 700 people in Berkeley reclaimed the streets on May 16, as part of an international Global Street Party against the global economy and the global environmental destruction it is causing.

The Reclaim the Streets (RTS) movement, hatched in London in 1995, brings environmental direct action to an urban context. Car transportation, and the disastrous urban sprawl, pollution and social disintegration that goes along with it, is the urban equivalent of a clearcut. In England, RTS is the urban wing of Earth First! campaigns to save the countryside from more roads. The Berkeley RTS made the links between cars/car dominated streets and the global capitalist system which is increasingly impoverishing and disenfranchising workers everywhere.

Demonstrators in Berkeley RTS at the downtown BART station at 7 p.m. The large crowd, half on foot and half on bikes, marched down the street a few blocks waiving black flags and carrying a 25 foot long banner reading Take back our lives–Reclaim the Streets. Then the march divided with the bikes peddling straight for a Critical Mass to the secret location of the Street Party while the march turned left. On the way to the Street Party location, the march picked up couches, rugs and other props that had been left the night before in hidden locations.

At Telegraph Avenue, the march and the Critical Mass ride triumphantly met up with couches, bikes and flags held high. The rejoined group took a side trip to get around a line of cops and finally ended up at the intersection selected for the Street Party. An advance action group had already blockaded Telegraph Ave. with an old donated car and blocked a side street with dumpsters and signs. The intersection had been reclaimed!

A mobile sound system churned out tunes while the intersection was transformed into a living room with dozens of couches, rugs and miscellaneous furniture. Free food tables were set up, folks smashed up and overturned the car, smoked pot, danced and socialized. A TV smashing got a little out of hand as glass covered the dance floor. Then parts of the crowd ignited a toxic bonfire with some of the couches, while other people in the crowd repeatedly put out the fire. Finally, the fire was extinguished and the party got into full swing, lasting several hours. Activists handed out about 1,000 flyers explaining the politics behind the event: Welcome to a rupture of the everyday. Before you is a street party: a community festival on the [paved over] town square. By dancing and playing–turning the pavement into a playground–we are reclaiming the street from the automobile which ruins the street by making it a place to be moved through not lived in. We believe the city and the street should be for people to live, meet others and celebrate creativity and freedom. The city should serve the human community, not mechanized consumerism. Cars are only the most visible and tangible representative of an inhuman consumer society which is smashing community, constricting human spontaneity and freedom and destroying the Earth’s life support system.

Berkeley RTS was a huge success and plans are developing for another international RTS event, this time with much greater participation in the United States (which needs a vibrant anti-roads movement far more than England.) In addition to Berkeley RTS being one of the largest demonstrations for a few years in Berkeley, it managed to simultaneously take on capitalism and environmental destruction with direct action tactics. Particularly inspiring was the international aspect as thousands around the world with the same vision for a democratic and sustainable future gathered to rage against a global enemy that can only be challenged by an international movement.