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Whose streets? Our streets! Why it matters to fight for control of our space to resist

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As disruption flares up around the globe, Simon Basketter looks at how the architecture of cities, institutions and the system is designed to dampen dissent—but how these can face a radical challenge from below
Issue 2677
Protesters built barricades in Hong Kong during a protest last Sunday
Protesters built barricades in Hong Kong during a protest last Sunday (Pic: Studio Incendo/Flickr)

Disruption is back. From Extinction Rebellion locking down in London to protests holding the streets against riot cops in Chile and Lebanon, controlling the space we can resist in matters.

Blocking a road is always transgressive to the normal running of capitalist society. That transgression is important.

Those at the top want us to be passive observers of politics—but when we resist we put ourselves at the centre.

That’s why when the business of business gets disrupted, defenders of the system demand something must be done.

A symbol of resistance in Derry

A symbol of resistance in Derry (Pic: Paolo Trabattoni/Flickr)

Streets are for traffic and the smooth running of commerce. They are not—as every cop is there to remind you— your streets.

Challenging those restrictions affects those who take part.

Collectively standing up for ourselves and others breaks down the atomised grind of life under capitalism. Protest pushes against the subordination that capitalist society puts upon us.

The revolutionary psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich wrote that the German left was in trouble in the early 1930s when he saw a workers’ demonstration obey a “Don’t walk on the grass” sign as it entered a park.

One major crisis for the British ruling class in the last 50 years was when people in Northern Ireland rose up against discrimination.

Civil rights marchers saw the state and its allies attempt pogroms to reassert control. Barricades went up in Derry to keep them out.

The police lost control of the city and, by the third day of the Battle of the Bogside, the coercive capacity of the Northern Ireland state was running out. Britain’s Labour government responded by sending troops onto the streets.

The painting of the slogan “You are now entering Free Derry” on the side of a house is a symbol of resistance to this day.

Also to this day Northern Ireland streets are divided on sectarian lines. Every year people put up union jack bunting and paint paving stones red white and blue to show whose street they think it is.

XR protesters defied a police ban to occupy Trafalgar Square last week

XR protesters defied a police ban to occupy Trafalgar Square last week (Pic: Socialist Worker)

Controlling the streets is central to any vision of changing society. While battles over common spaces have been part of class struggle for hundreds of years, the fight to disrupt or reclaim capitalist space is central to modern resistance.

Sites such as the shopping malls of Hong Kong or Barcelona’s airport are the backdrop for struggle today.


The plethora of petty laws and regulations pushed on us to control the spaces we move through are deliberately overwhelming. And the rules are backed by force.

British cops are trained in a fake village in Gravesend on how to control the streets. In 2016 more than 350 Metropolitan police officers were injured after being attacked by other cops pretending to be demonstrators or rioters.

There are levels of successful resistance. There is a difference between a small group with a drone and thousands defying riot police. The action in Barcelona last week was better than last summer’s at Heathrow.

Militancy is good. Crowds are good and militant crowds are better still. It not enough to pass resolutions to bring down the system.

Class struggle is far messier and important for that. We have to disrupt and demonstrate not just to show our opposition, but to build on our potential to change the system.

Any demonstration involves group decision-making. Do we listen to the stewards or ignore them? Sit down or run, chant or change direction? Do we confront the police now or later?

The direction of street movements is harder to control than strikes which have won popular support in a workplace. Crowds who gather at demonstrations are largely unknown to each other and the dynamic of a protest can change quickly.

So each movement finds different ways to turn the demands of the ­collective into organised resistance.

Yellow Vests in France defying the cops for control of the streets earlier this year

Yellow Vests in France defying the cops for control of the streets earlier this year (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Popular street democracy can develop into workers’ self-organisation. This often results from people defending themselves against right wing forces or the police.

There were hints of it in the Arab Spring, where uprisings challenged dictators across the Middle East in 2011. People went from defending their streets to trying to sack their bosses.

Protests in Hong Kong or Catalonia or London could do the same. It is not inevitable that a street movement in Spain, the indignados, chose to look to the system and suffered collapse because of it.

Belief that the only way to change the system is from the inside can encourage people to dismiss—or even promote—marches and blockades purely as stunts or spectacle.

A better conclusion is to deepen confrontation. To win larger numbers of people to adopting the best methods to bring down the system.

That means escalating struggle. It means building mass resistance based on the immense power of the working class.

It means revolution. Then they will be our streets.

How poor people fought for Trafalgar Square

It was hot in 1887. The homeless and poor made use of the warm summer by creating an open-air encampment in Trafalgar Square.

Many had come looking for work at Covent Garden Market but a drought meant fewer boxes of fruit to haul.

With no money for lodgings, they slept rough in the square. The camp grew with unemployed and homeless workers and their families. They would rather turn to the street than face the workhouse and the family separation that came with it.

They washed themselves and their clothing in the fountains.

Socialists and the religious came too, handing out leaflets, Bibles, bread and soup. Tents went up and daily speeches were made between the paws of the bronze lions.

The growing encampment brought police—and demands by respectable people to close it down.

Speeches given by socialists such as William Morris and Eleanor Marx led to angry, banner-waving processions of thousands. These spilled onto the surrounding streets.

The police and the courts tried to stop protesters and clear the square.

But no sooner were people pushed out than they returned.

On 8 November, Sir Charles Warren, the Commissioner of Police, banned all meetings in Trafalgar Square.

A demonstration was planned for 13 November. Its pretext was to demand the release of Irish MP William O’Brien from prison, but the grievances extended far beyond that.

Over forty thousand gathered. They were attacked in what became known as Bloody Sunday—three people were killed and 200 injured.

A week later protesters again marched and one, Alfred Linnell, was killed by a police horse. The battle for the space went on as tens of thousands attended his funeral.

That the poor of London fought hard means that Trafalgar Square remains a site of assembly and protest.

Cops’ tactics formed in Empire

The first modern crowd control squad was formed in 1925 in Shanghai, a British colony.

New policing methods, including combat pistol shooting, hand to hand combat skills, and knife fighting, were pioneered by William Fairbairn of the Shanghai Municipal Police.

The view from a barricade in Hong Kong

The view from a barricade in Hong Kong (Pic: Studio Incendo/Flickr)

Fairbairn started as a British soldier and went on to train spooks in how to kill people. He got cops to develop a myriad of riot control measures. He was proudest of his “gutter fighting” techniques—any amount of violence to quell your opponent quickly.

Fairbairn taught cops his methods in the US and the colonial regimes of Cyprus and Singapore.

Current police brutality in Hong Kong also has its roots in the British Empire.

And British cops’ violence has links to Hong Kong. In 1981, a year of riots and uprisings in Britain, British police met Hong Kong top cop Richard Quine in Preston.

Some 14 years earlier, Hong Kong cops brutally suppressed rioters.

In 1967 more than 200 people were killed with some rioters beaten to death by police. British cops were eager to hear how it had been done.

Policing techniques widely used today, including “kettling”, tear gas and short shields by riot squads, were first tested in 1967 in Hong Kong.

After the 1981 meeting the techniques were on full display in British police violence against miners during the 1984-1985 strike, and most infamously in the Battle of Orgreave.

French lessons from history

In the musical Les Miserables the barricades of Paris are made of crates and furniture. They weren’t.

Victor Hugo, chronicling the 1830 revolution more accurately, wrote, “The barricade was built with setts…Not a stone out of line…”

Setts are oblong roadstones.

Compacted crushed stone surfaced the roads, instead of cobblestones, setts or tarred?wooden blocks. This was to reduce the availability of ready?made missiles and fire-starters.

Like the road itself this was part of a plan to stop protests in the centre of Paris.

Throughout the 19th century, Paris had been at the centre of civil unrest that saw the country transition between royalty, republic and empire six times by 1870.

There were 21 instances of barricades being used between 1795 and 1871. The 1830 revolution saw over 4,000 barricades put up across the city. In 1848’s February Revolution, there were 6,000.

Building a barricade in Paris on May Day this year

Building a barricade in Paris on May Day this year (Pic: Guy Smallman)

By the time Napoleon III declared himself emperor in 1852 something had to be done. The man to do it was Georges-Eugene Haussmann.

A self-styled baron, Haussmann made up for his lack of architectural knowledge with enthusiasm for demolishing things.

Haussman was particularly keen to do over working class neighbourhoods with reputations for revolt.

He described them as “a floating mass of workers who are attracted only by impressions and the most deplorable suggestions”.

US writer Mark Twain pointed out the wide straight roads were to protect Napoleon.

Twain wrote, “He is annihilating the crooked streets and building in their stead noble boulevards as straight as an arrow—avenues which a cannonball could traverse from end to end without meeting an obstruction more irresistible than the flesh and bones of men.

“The mobs used to riot there, but they must seek another rallying point in future.”

Happily Twain was wrong and Haussman’s urban planning didn’t stop an insurrection in 1871 that led to the Paris Commune, a socialist government that briefly ruled Paris.

Setts were dug up in Paris to throw at police in 1968 and again by Yellow Vest protesters this year.

That is a story of the epic failure to develop the streets of Paris to prevent protest.

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