This article was published in 1996, in Newsletter 8.
What follows is an account by on of our members of the “Reclaim The Streets” demonstration held in Cambridge. These events aren’t “organised” in a conventional manner, and this one certainly wasn’t organised by the Campaign. However, we thought our members would be interested to hear one person’s impressions.
The traditional warm sun (otherwise not much in evidence in Cambridge lately) shone on hundreds of merrymakers of all ages, shapes and sizes, and a ludicrously large number of police, at the Reclaim the Streets Cambridge street party last Saturday afternoon. About five hundred people, some from as far away as Somerset (and approximately one percent of them Cycling Campaign members – where were you all?), set off from outside the station at about 1.30, watched by interested travellers, a police helicopter and numerous officers on the ground, one of them videoing the proceedings. Led by strange creatures on stilts or with sunshine heads, we processed through the car park, along Devonshire Road and over Mill Road railway bridge, where we found someone on top of a tripod of scaffolding poles (another tripod having already been nicked by the constabulary).
The plan was apparently to carry on down Mill Road to the junction with Perne Road, but in the event those who’d gone on ahead came back, and the party took place outside the Lord Beaconsfield pub. People put down their rugs, cushions and even armchairs, and sat or lay down in the road; others enjoyed just walking up and down the middle of the road in safety, or the ever-popular dancing in the street. An attempt to set up a children’s activities area was for some reason discouraged by the police.
Music was provided by some excellent drummers, two sound systems (neither unfortunately arriving on the rumoured horse and cart), assorted whistles and horns, and a penny-whistle duet. People painted and pierced various parts of each others’ bodies, and strung up banners across the road, including ‘Mad car disease‘, ‘Underneath the pavement is the beach‘, ‘Stop the car-n-age‘, ‘http://www.McSpotlight.org‘ (a anti-McDonalds website), and ‘More cars? You must be choking‘, this one held by two girls skipping through the throng. Others drew and painted on the road, not only slogans but flowers, leaves, footprints and a bike. The Beaconsfield and Balv’s did a roaring trade, while other shopkeepers brought chairs out into the sunshine to watch the fun (complaining the while, of course).
Nor was the action all at ground-level. As well as the aforementioned stylite, later joined by a fish, several people shinned up lamp-posts to hang banners, and others danced on the roofs of houses and shops. Local residents yelled football results out of their windows to the police below. An occasional smile was even seen from these latter, although they must have been sweltering in their full riot gear and overalls as they stood shoulder to shoulder, five deep, at the out-of- town end of the party. Apparently their excuse for this massive over-reaction was that they had been warned of a right-wing counter demonstration (if so, this never materialised), or alternatively that the organisers hadn’t told them how many people were coming (spontaneity? Never heard of it, madam).
Even so, one can hardly believe it was necessary to bus officers in from Bedfordshire (twelve mini-buses and a black maria were seen on the streets), barricade Parkside police station, or keep the aforementioned helicopter in the air all the night before at a rumoured cost of £1,000 of our money an hour. We were pleased to see they’d closed Mill Road at the swimming pool, and their presence at least looked a lot more relaxed at the town end of the proceedings, but not that only about half the officers in the human wall the other end were displaying their numbers.
It has to be said that, up until the time your correspondent wimped out at about 6.30, alas no longer able to party all day and all night, all the police had actually done was escort an old lady through the crowd with her suitcase, but they were certainly being there in an extremely intimidating manner. On the other hand, they responded very mildly to numerous minor attempts to wind them up. A couple of people were removed from the scene, but no arrests were apparently made.
Intimidation notwithstanding, hundreds of people had an extremely good time, and Mill Road was made a much more pleasant place for several hours. Why can’t it be like this all the time? we wondered. The next morning, even Sunday now being spoiled by drivers exercising their divine right to shop, the noise and fumes and danger were back, but green banners still fluttered from lamp-posts, and smudged chalk footprints and a freelance zebra crossing could be seen on the roadway of the bridge.
If you wished you hadn’t missed it, there’ll be another chance in Oxford on Hallowe’en. Meet at the Carfax Tower at 6pm.
Stop Press: It turns out that, soon after I left, the police decided it was time to stop the party, and arrested some forty people in the process. I guess it was too much to hope they might put all those resources into the day without doing something to ‘justify’ their presence. According to the Cambridge Evening News (Monday 16 September), our cycling MP is to ask the chief constable ‘why the police commitment was so heavy’.