I met John Jordan under a foot of mud at the Glastonbury Music Festival in England last summer. He was standing in front of the Reclaim The Streets tent, spreading the word about what already may be Britain’s fastest growing activist phenomenon and is certainly its most interesting. Since 1991, RTS has been throwing carnivalesque "Street Parties" on reclaimed strips of private space — city streets, construction sites, stretches of highway. The location of the street ambush is kept secret until the day of the event when RTSers gather at a meeting place and proceed en masse to the roadway. They block it off with barricades, hook up sound systems and spend the day dancing, socializing and planting trees in the asphalt. The last major RTS event — part rave, part labour rally, part riot — drew 20,000 partiers into London’s Trafalger Square. I had hoped to interview John Jordan at Glastonbury but the mud and other muddying influences kept us from getting overly serious. We agreed instead to correspond by e-mail when I got back to Canada. What follows is the e-interview:
NK: I’m writing a book which argues that the rise in anti-corporate activism is an inevitable reaction against ever more intrusive marketing and commercialization as well as a response to the stark inequalities of economic globalization. It’s looking at brand-based campaigns like those against McDonald’s and Shell, as well ad-busting and culture jamming. Where, if anywhere, do you see RTS fitting into this analysis?
JJ: RTS developed out of the no M11 campaign, a local campaign that fought a motorway that cut through 350 homes in East London and an ancient woodland. As a result RTS has always had its roots in both social and ecological activism. This is very different from the majority of UK anti roads campaigns that were coming from a deep ecology/earth first background. This social foundation, led RTS to move from the issues of Roads, to the car itself as a force of social control and domination. Inevitably once the car was taken as a symbol of social divisions, private space versus public space, isolation from nature/the outside world (the steel cocoon/bubble)and of the break up of community - its not a big step to see the car as central to the economic system and a key pin of increasing corporate power. (look at the top TNC’s of the G7 nations only one is not car or oil based). RTS has always tried to take the ’single issue’ of transport and the car, into a wider critique of society- an attack on the enclosure of capitalism, to wrestle power away from the undemocratic and profoundly unecological hands of corporations and to dream of reclaiming all space for collective use as commons.
The link with anti-corporate activism also goes beyond theory, although known for its street parties, RTS has also been involved in anti oil industry actions - sHell AGM - 1995. BP action 1996; anti car manufacturers actions - car launch sabotage 1995 (under the spoof guise of the Pedestrian Liberation Front!) - critical mass and banner drop at London International Motorshow 1996 . The link up with the Liverpool Dockers, places us directly in the position of critiquing corporate greed, the casualization of labour and the attempt to bring radical ecology face to face with traditional labour movements.
People involved with RTS are also working in other groups and campaigns such as Mc Libel campaign, Corporate Watch, anti genetics campaigns, anti logging and anti globalization groups.
NK: How much ad-busting/subvertizing is going on in England right now?
JJ: There has always been a strong current of ad busting/subvertising in the UK. Partly because Situationist ideas took root here in the early 70’s with groups like Heatwave, the Angry Brigade and then of course the ultimate recuperation of the Sex Pistols. Many key people in RTS see Situationism as a strong influence; its ideas of play and pleasure as revolutionary practices, of creating transformatory urban ’situations’ and of ’detournement’ subverting any sign into something else (even its opposite) - have all helped develop RTS’s practice..
RTS has always seen subvertising as part of its strategy, and it has also proved a great way of ’democratizing’ direct action. To subvertise a billboard you don’t have to have any particular skills or fearlessness, you just go out in a group with paint or prepared messages, and go to work on your chosen billboard. Many people have seen subvertizing as their first step into the unknown and sometimes terrifying world of direct action.
In my own work I have done series of spoof events - ranging from a spoof sex shop, a spoof porn CD-ROM (part of a 5 year project I worked on about men’s relationship to pornography) and a spoof developments agency to dig up a buried river in London. Personally I see these as forms of adbusting, as they are using the aesthetics and marketing strategies of corporate culture.
NK: Like ad busting or billboard "subvertising," RTS seems to be about taking back space, without asking permission. Is there a sense, as there is among some North American culture jammers, that this is a necessity — that privatization and commercialization has become so all-encompassing that there is no alternative?
JJ: The whole issue of ’taking back space without asking permission’ is often misunderstood as a necessity. i.e a last resort. RTS does not see Direct Action as a last resort, but a preferred way of doing things. It sees direct action as a corollary to direct democracy, a way for individuals to take control of their own lives and environments. Direct action enables people to participate in social life without mediation or bureaucratic control of politicians. This direct unmediated way of doing things is yet another alternative to the increasingly mediated forms of control and power, that are developing in a globalised high-tech economy, where choice is about the number consumer brands available and democracy becomes yet another form of ’interactive’ edu-tainment. If Global capitalism does not manage to destroy the ecosphere and human (so called) civilization in the next 40 years ( which seems to be the time left - according to most scientists) and a new culture of social and ecological justice is developed, RTS would hope that Direct Action would not stop but continue to be a central part of a direct democratic system.
NK: Another way in which the notion of public space is colonized by the private sphere is through the use of trademark, copyright and libel laws— we are able to be bombarded by images in our "media environment" but responding to those images is often considered theft or slander. The police impounding of Evading Standards seems to be a prime example of this. Can you elaborate on this?
JJ: Although the UK has some of the toughest libel laws in the world, we are lucky that the corporate tactic of issuing SLAPS has not taken off as it has in the states. The success of the McLibel case may be partly responsible. A worrying development however, was the recent BP/Greenpeace case. Where BP sued Greenpeace over its disruption of the Atlantic Frontier oil fields. BP soon dropped the case (with a promise by GP that they would no longer take direct action on BP’s rigs) but a leaked letter from the UK minister for Energy, to the oil companies showed that the government is encouraging oil companies to take legal action against activists.
Another case, was a few months ago an animal rights campaigner was sued by the department store John Lewis, but again the case was soon dropped. Scare tactics work to discourage activism but don’t work on already committed activists.
The Evading Standards event was not actually linked to any corporate, libel situation. In fact the mainstream press kept trying to get a response from the Evening Standard, who refused to comment let alone sue. The papers were impounded by the police - and we were charged under criminal law - for incitement to cause affray and incitement to cause a blockage of the public highway. Only later (once the police had actually read the paper) were we re arrested for copyright theft of the Evening Standard Logo and the Metropolitan Police logo. The impounding and arrests were clearly a strategy to disrupt/intimidate us the night before a major action ( the Dockers March For Social Justice). The fact that we were asked to return from bail the next day (very unusual) and spent the whole day of the March for Social Justice, in police cells, showed that they thought that by arresting the three of us (who they wrongly assumed had been key to organizing the action) they thought they would ’put a spanner in the works’. They also wrongly thought the paper was a key part of our publicity, and therefore that by impounding it, they would affect turn out. The paper was really seen as a parallel action - a kind of textual accompaniment to the action. Two weeks later we reprinted it and distributed 20,000 without any intervention by the police. The police have now gone completely quiet about the arrests and it looks like they have dropped all the charges, we are now preparing to sue them for wrongful arrest, wrongful imprisonment and trespass of goods.
NK: Like ad-busting, the success of RTS seems to lie, at least in part, in the action’s sense of humour and play. How big a part do these factors play in RTS’s appeal?
JJ: humour and play have always been at the core of RTS actions. This element can be traced back to many actions on the M11 such as cheekily climbing onto the roof of the houses of parliament, driving a mock road through the minister of transport’s house and erecting a 100 foot scaffolding tower in a condemned street with rave music blasting out of the top of it. RTS sees creativity and imagination as an important strategies, not only to inspire the traditionally non-political constituencies (eg. rave and youth culture) but also to fight the tyranny of ’rationalism’ which dominates corporate culture and economics. Corporations may have all the power in the world, but they lack the ability to have crazy, non-rational, creative ideas - lateral thinking and imagination are tools which corporate culture can never really develop, despite the slick aesthetics of advertising and the irrationality of the financial markets, corporations are fixed in a linear strategy of growth and accumulation. They are super tankers moving in straight lines - we are shoals of small fish darting under the waves and changing direction with the flick of a tail.
Infusing political action with play and pleasure enables the specialist boundaries between social disciplines to be made fluid; it can break apart the ritual monotony of daily life and suggest a world where the joys of play and pleasure are reclaimed from the confines of art and childhood to enter every living moment of everyday life. RTS events manage to inspire a whole diversity of different communities, because of their obvious cheekiness but also their inability to be defined as fixed specialized forms - is a street party a political rally ? a festival ? a rave ? direct action ? or just a bloody good party ?
NK: When is it too much fun? What I mean is, there is a debate raging among many North American culture jammers over whether the movement has become too trendy, with club kids wearing logo-jammed T-shirts as more of a fashion statement than a political one. We have already seen that the youth culture industry’s appetite for the so-called cutting edge is insatiable. Since RTS was born, in part, out of the rave scene, are you also struggling with the ramifications of becoming too fashionable?
JJ: Capital’s ability for recuperation is always astounding and RTS has constantly drifted close to the its voracious jaws (sorry more nautical references - but actually I am writing this on a train!!!). We have appeared in style mags such as ’the face’ and are lauded in rave mags ’mixmag’ etc, we have featured in motoring programs on TV and even the traditional left such as Arthur Scargill (Miners Leader) have sung our praises. In this way we have had our ideas recuperated. The best recuperation was when exactly a year after the Angel Street party, Islington Council held their own legal street festival, complete with sandpit etc, on the same spot. But then we recuperated or rather reclaimed the idea of the street party itself, reclaimed from state celebrations jubilees etc..
The street party has undoubtedly become a ’fashionable’ youth culture event. One of the problems we are constantly dealing with, and the main reason that we don’t feel like doing another street party, is that we felt it was easy for the street party to be seen as JUST fun, just a party with a hint of political action. It’s interesting that the action which we felt failed most was the Social Justice/Never Mind the Bollocks event - not only did it fail in that we did not manage to carry out our main plan, but also because a street party in Trafalgar Square, followed by newspaper front pages with "Anarchist Riot," "Attempted Murder" etc... is not politically effective. The rave mags may have called it the best free party since the infamous Castle Morton rave, and a lot of the ravers had a great time, but for RTS it did not work - it may have empowered people but did not develop a critical/political agenda. Effective politics involve economic disruption, personal empowerment and political education. If people think that turning up to a street party once a year, getting out of your head and dancing your heart out on a recapture piece of public land, is enough - then we are failing to reach our potential.
RTS was not really born from the rave scene, in fact most of the key people in RTS are NOT ravers - in fact one is a classically trained musician and several other play folk music! The Rave scene latched onto what we were doing and we saw it as a powerful dynamic force. Rave music and the sound system only appeared at the second Street party ’Angel Islington’- the first one only had a bike/solar powered one playing a range of music. Music is a vital element of what we do, but it should not be just one type of music. If the street party becomes to associated with just one form of culture eg. ravers - then we are also failing to diversify and attract other constituencies. All these issues are at the heart of our present discussions and dilemmas about where to move to next. As a form, the street party need serious consideration and transformation.
NK: Your coalition with the sacked Liverpool Dockers was really quite a unique collision of a very new form of activism and a more traditional kind of activism — the labour union. Do you think we will see more such coalitions and pairings, and if so, what do you foresee and why?
JJ: Real revolutionary social change will only happen when diverse groups begin to work together and share basic common goals. The environmental (I hate that word as Wendell Berry so eloquently states "The concept of country, homeland, dwelling place becomes simplified as ’the environment’ - that is, what surrounds us. Once we see our place, our part of the world, as surrounding us, we have already made a profound division between it and ourselves." - so lets use the ecological movement) - sorry I digressed - — The ecological movement is in serious need of social engagement and the social justice/labour movement needs to imbed itself in the ecological context. I think this coming together will be one of the major political developments of the turn of the century. Since Rio - questions of North - South - poverty and environment have been put on the agenda - and if one looks around the world, one can see the two movements beginning to come together from farmers in Kerala, India to the Zapatistas - from the anti McDonalds campaigning to RTS and the Liverpool Dockers, one can see a powerful convergence occurring.
The gradual awareness of the effects of Globalization, and its radical transformation of both Northern and Southern societies, has ironically helped bring social and ecological issue together. In their voracious destructive and increasingly free and unhindered path to growth and profit, Transnationals are affecting democracy, work, communities, culture and the biosphere. Inadvertently, they have helped us see the whole problem as one system, to connect every issue to every other issue, to not look at one problem in isolation. We can now start to use an ecological, systemic model to connect everything - and will be more powerful and at the same time more diverse and localized than any transnational can imagine !!
NK: How much of the rise in direct action — from RTS to ad busting to anti-roads activism — is a reaction against the failure of democracy to provide avenues of real change. In other words, how literally should the slogan "Never mind of ballots... Reclaim the streets!" be taken?
JJ: "The twentieth century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy" A Carey (quoted in Andy Rowell’s Green Backlash - Routledge 1996)
Direct action is a direct reaction to the death of democracy. It is a response to the politicians who don’t represent us, the governments who are in the hands of the multinationals and the unelected bodies which rule so many aspects of our lives, the WTO, IMF etc... Direct action wrestles power out of their hands into the hands of those whose lands and lives are being destroyed for profit. The direct activist does not wait for four years to put a cross on a piece of paper, she/he does not get paralyzed by images of the apocalypse on the TV . Direct activists recognize their alienation and lack of power and do something about it.
Direct Activists understand that Global Free trade, TNC’s and an out of control international financial system are killing democracy and that the only way to bring democracy back to life is to wake up from the alienated trance of consumption and take control of as many aspects of our lives as possible.
NK: In your opinion, are these movements primarily about providing a vibrant underground, an alternative culture for those that want to opt out, or does it have the potential to transform the mainstream? In other words, is this a parallel universe or a revolutionary movement?
JJ: We HAVE to become the mainstream. It’s no good just having parallel "alternative summits", alternative this and that.... in some ways this legitimizes the outrageous behaviour of the ’mainstream’, it kind of says " look we are very reasonable, we even allow you to have a parallel conference in the same city at the same time as ours. Your ideas are valid....(hushed tones) but just keep them to yourselves and over their on the fringes of society." The present system cannot last... it will destroy itself sooner or later, either we will be waiting in the wings to dance on the ruins or we will actively visualize industrial collapse while imagining and creating the future now.
NK: Related to this question, RTS uses Hakim Bey’s phrase "Temporary Autonomous Zones" to describe its street parties. How central is the idea of transience to RTS — is all we can home for temporary moments of true freedom, however fleeting?
JJ: The street party does fit some of Bey’s definitions of TAZ, but in one fundamental way it fails his litmus test - it is NOT invisible, it does not escape the eyes of the state, and can be destroyed/disrupted by the state.
The street party is only a beginning, a taster of future possibilities. To date there have been 30 street parties all over the country, imagine that growing to 100, imagine each one of those happening on the same day, imagine each one lasting for days on end and growing... Imagine the street party growing roots ... la fete permanente..
NK: A goal of many activists is to attract media attention for their cause — to use the media as an educational tool or to fight for better and fairer representation for their group within the media. It strikes me that RTS is very different in this way — that you are actively against the very fact of constant mediation and believe that having an unmediated experience is a victory in itself. Is this true, and if so, how does this effect your strategy for dealing with the media?
JJ: Yes you are right about the importance of the unmediated experience. But unfortunately we have not had a decent media strategy to go with this philosophy. After all we are really just a bunch of unorganised, chaotic anarchists !!! we neither ignore the media nor court it. We recognize the limits of our own media as well as the benefits of the mass media. (the irony being that many of us go involved with the movement because of reading mass media articles ! ) I think the media is just one thing that exists in the system in which we are working, inevitably we will have to deal with it in some way, but we give it no more importance than any of the other elements.
NK: How big a role has the Internet, email and other new technologies played in your organization and the spreading of the RTS idea?
JJ: We run an email list and have a www site ( which never gets updated and is frankly useless). The net has proved of great value for some aspects of networking, and to some extent with organizing, with the use of PGP security. When the first issue of Evading Standards was impounded, one of the few un-impounded copies was up on McSpotlight’s site within hours - this for me was a great use of the internet.
NK: Already RTS has gone international, as did the McLibel movement. With the proliferation of counter-summits and the like, are we seeing the beginnings of a global resistance movement? (please excuse the hype)
JJ: Lets hope so - there’s not a lot of time left. Yours (also excuse the Hype), JJ