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Roads To Freedom

United Kingdom

The Grim Reaper arrives and the Dragon finally gets its own back on St George. In this play enacted by protesters against the destruction of Twyford Down, the Dragon represents the Earth and St George the British Government.
Roads to freedom
Direct action against new roads is giving birth to a new culture of resistance in the West.
Ursula Wills-Jones reports from the British frontline.

One very cold night in the spring of 1993 I walked across Twyford Down. We climbed the fence and wandered across to where the topsoil had already been stripped. Security guards with cameras followed us, so we covered our faces. Huge yellow earth-movers lurked in a hole which had been dug in the hillside.

Now there is nothing left of Twyford Down except a very large hole. Standing above, it is very strange to think that you once put your foot on the ground where now there is only empty space. Below, cars roar past along a six-lane motorway.

The biggest thing to come out of Twyford Down was, however, not the road that destroyed an historic and protected piece of Hampshire but rather the British anti-roads movement, a many-headed hydra of protest which has shaken the establishment and changed public perceptions.

Twyford was the first scheme in a huge government plan to build £23 billion ($50 billion) worth of new roads across the country. It provoked the first major direct-action protests in Britain against road-building, largely ignored by the media. Many people who had protested there returned shocked by the destruction and inspired to begin campaigning in their own backyard. Protests began to spring up all over the country – in Bath and Glasgow, Preston and Norfolk. ‘At Twyford,’ says 26-year-old activist Stephen Booker, ‘people saw that direct action could work and that you could take on the establishment by doing something as simple as sitting in front of a bulldozer.’

The largest campaign was in London, where a four-mile extension to the M11 motorway was due to be constructed. More than 300 houses had to be demolished for the road. This meant that the issues involved became broader. People were no longer protesting about the destruction of the countryside, but about housing and pollution, health and democracy. Most of the houses were squatted by protesters, necessitating long and complex legal cases to evict them. Activists began to build up increasingly sophisticated techniques to resist eviction peacefully, such as the concrete ‘lock-on’, an ingenious device constructed from diagrams in an Australian booklet helpfully entitled The Deluxe International Guide To Blockading.

Raw Nerve. The direct action may be non-violent but the feeling still runs high, as here at Newbury, the latest of the road wars.

The first major eviction of five houses took 12 hours, as 300 protesters faced more than twice that number of police, bailiffs, and security guards. ‘I’d never experienced anything like it,’ recalls another demonstrator, Tom Sunnyside. ‘The sense of empowering yourself, just going out and doing it. Hardly anyone seemed to know anyone else at the start but by the end there was a kind of bonding between the protesters like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.’

Later, protesters occupied a whole street. Claremont Road had a café, a workshop, art installations and bizarre defensive constructions sprouting from its roofs. Meanwhile, protest continued to build up steam in other parts of the country.

The issues brought up by the campaigns eschewed traditional right and left lines. A generation of young people who, growing up under Thatcherism, had become highly cynical about conventional politics, saw direct action as a way to make their mark on the political scene. ‘With non-violent direct action you can go out there and show people that it is possible to make a difference,’ explains Justin, an activist from Nottingham. ‘Ordinary people, people who’ve never been politically active before, can go out and say “we’re not taking this any more”.’

For many people, the sense of community and solidarity brought about by the protests was unprecedented. Although the majority of protesters were young, it was the involvement of individuals from every part of the community that allowed the protests to be effective. Faced with a common enemy, people who had never spoken to their neighbours before suddenly found that the barriers of race, class and wealth became less important. Claremont Road’s most effective protester was a 93-year-old woman, Dolly Watson, who refused to leave the house she had lived in all her life. Journalists flocked to photograph her drinking tea on her doorstep with dreadlocked, para-booted squatters. In Glasgow, children went on school strike and spent their time obstructing construction work on the M77 until their parents were threatened with legal action.

The movement has enjoyed a remarkable degree of success. The Government is loath to admit that protests have had any effect, but a large number of road schemes have tactfully fallen victim to spending cuts. More importantly, there has been a sea change in public opinion towards roads and cars. Most people now accept that the number of cars on the roads simply cannot continue growing. Pollution is now firmly linked in the public mind with the epidemic of asthma in British cities. Transport has become a ‘hot’ political issue.

This year’s showdown is at Newbury, where a bypass is due to be constructed across nine miles of countryside, including two historic battlefields, several Sites of Special Scientific Interest and the habitat of a rare snail. The protest has already added £20 million ($32 million) to the proposed cost of the job.

Direct action has not been restricted to road-building. It has also been used to campaign against tropical timber imports, opencast mining, and the World Bank, to mention just a few. The most recent initiative is the Reclaim the Streets movement, which ‘reclaims’ – blocks off to traffic – city-centre streets, holding impromptu street parties to protest at the pollution, congestion and dangers caused by cars in urban areas. The Government, for its part, was sufficiently worried by the growth in protest to bring in a set of laws attempting to outlaw it – the 1994 Criminal Justice Bill, which has undoubtedly meant more court appearances for regular protesters but does not seem to have deterred anyone. For many people, a process of radicalization has taken place. A new and optimistic culture of protest and dissent has grown up which is unlikely to go away.

‘Direct action is a whole lifestyle,’ enthuses Carolyn, a 24-year-old Manchester activist. ‘There’s a saying that if you see a snowball rolling down a hill, give it a push. It seems to me that more and more people are giving it a push. We’re going to change this world, we really are.’

Ursula Wills-Jones is a journalist and activist from Manchester who specializes in writing about the new generation of direct action in Britain.

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