M11 Link road protest

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M11 Link Road

"We are more possible than you can powerfully imagine."

The M11 Link Road is less than 4 miles long, & yet cost 250 million, destroyed 350 homes & acres of green space. Local people fought the road for a decade before the Dept. of Transport finally got planning permission, & by then the road was already an an anachronism.The road brought around 75,000 extra motor vehicles a day into inner London - At least until it became jammed with traffic, which experts (correctly) estimated would take no more than a few years. A Newham Council report in Autumn 1995 revealed that the M11 Link was likely to be congested to or beyond design capacity when it opened in 1998 - so the road never gave even one day of traffic relief.

Work began on 13th Sept 1993, when the Norwest-Holst bulldozers were met by about 70 protesters, & energetic direct action was sustained throughout the campaign.

Local people joined forces with the emerging Direct Action movement, who had already learned a lot from Twyford Down. It proved to be a formidable alliance. Actions involved protecting threatened houses by squatting and barricading them, & peacefully stopping site work. The campaign cost contractors at least 40% above tender costs.

For more information, see Exploring 20th Century London.

The 'Battle of George Green' was a turning point for the campaign: It aroused immense media interest, which in turn encouraged wide public debate, & helped to unite local residents & direct activists.The tree made legal history when the High Court recognized it as a legal dwelling, mainly because the Post Office had delivered a letter to the makeshift letter box built in it's branches. But that only delayed the inevitable eviction. Local people had been told that the road would tunnel under Wanstead Common, & the tree would be spared. But when they assembled for a 'Tree Dressing' ceremony on November 6 th, they were faced with a 7 foot high steel fence. In a glorious act of spontaneous defiance, respectable Wanstead residents, pensioners, & school children applied a bit of 'Non-Violent Direct Action', & pushed down the fences. Not only was the tree & the Common reclaimed, but earth moved by contractors in preparation for building was carried back to where it had come.

With 70 year old pensioners & the local Lollipop Lady cheerfully committing 'Criminal Damage', any division between experienced anti-road activists & local people disappeared.

The 'Battle of George Green' itself started in the early hours of December 7th. Several hundred of us were huddled round the tree, with more up above in the branches. It was cold, with a steady drizzle that left the Common wet & the protesters muddy.This was to be my personal 'baptism by fire' - The first big confrontation of the campaign, & one of the most violent. Neither the bailiffs nor the police seemed to know how to handle the situation, & the result was predicable aggression. Those closest to the tree were chained together - arms locked through metal tubes. Those of us further out formed a mass of bodies, huddled tight together, arms locked as best we could. We were determined to hold firm as long as possible.The police were as determined that we would move, & many of us were left bruised & bloody as the police pushed & punched their way through. One woman was badly injured as two policemen dragged her face down through the remains of a fire. A police Inspector was asked to help.

His response?

"She's your mate - you call an ambulance".

It took the police two hours to to get to the base of the tree & two hours more to cut loose the seven people who were locked around the trunk with their arms held hand to hand in heavy steel tubes. Dislodging the tree house proved more difficult. The cherry-picker crane had to negotiate dozens of protesters as it struggled across the muddy Common. A cordon of security guards surrounded the crane, while a ring of police held us away from the tree. Progress was slow, but steady.

Once the machine reached the tree I witnessed for the first time a sickening disregard for human safety that has now become familiar. One of the protesters managed to scramble onto the hydraulic arm of the crane, & locked on. A cheer went up from the crowd, sure that this would stop the machine for a few valuable minutes at least. But no, the operation continued regardless. The figure high above on the steel arm held on for his life as the machine continued as if he wasn't there.

Far from being a one-off incident, this seemed to be policy. Around noon one of the sheriffs men climbed into the tree & began to saw through a branch which still supported a protester. Predictably, the branch broke, taking the squatter with it. He fell onto the roof of the tree house, & slid further into danger. A fellow protester caught his arm, & finally he was hauled to safety. The outrage of the crowd was palpable. Amid screams of angry disbelief, an old man walked up to the ring of police & addressed one of the stony faced stares.

"You're facing the wrong way officer." He said politely. " Look behind you. The real crime is going on behind your back, & you're doing nothing about it."

Close to noon a large digger appeared, edging towards the tree as schoolchildren sat & lay in the road to block it. Police & security had to escort the digger to deal the final blow to the old tree, which was smashed with visible glee by the sad bastard who drove it. The tree shattered like matchwood.

People screamed & cried, for this was more than an old chestnut tree - It was a symbol of the whole campaign. After that moment of loss & anger, some of us felt strangely victorious. The tree lay smashed, but each side had shown their colours.The police suddenly seemed strangely sheepish - Powerful only as cowards. But the people had shown their courage & strength, not only to the media who thronged to view the drama, but to themselves.

Claremont Road

"Forced eviction is a gross violation of human rights." Statement by the United Nations. March, 1993.

For 7 months Claremont Road was home to the M11 campaign, but it was always far more than a squatted campaign site. With an Art House, two cafes, a stage, bicycle workshop & information centre, Claremont was an ongoing work of performance art, an experiment in communal living & car free space.

'Homes not roads' was the slogan that had defined the campaign for much of its life, but with the arrival of the Criminal Justice Act the political ground had shifted. Claremont Road became as much about "Defending diversity & dissent', a key slogan of the summer of '93. For this was the flowering of the art of activism, whose motto is "Creativity, Courage & Cheek."

The Situationist call to "Be realistic - demand the impossible" became a way of life at the M11. They didn't just demand it, they did it. Non-violent Direct Action is both deeply theatrical & fundamentally political.

"Direct action is a theatre, The media like that. A mixture of symbols & decision making - wars & celebrities. "
Allison, M11 campaigner.

This was political art that grew from life.

At Claremont Road a hole was cut in every single wall of a row of 30 houses to create a tunnel that linked every home. Conceived as strategy to evaded the bailiffs, it became a physical expression of community.The 100 foot scaffolding tower was the crowning glory of Claremont Road. It could be seen for miles & for its brief life became a local landmark. But during the siege of Claremont, the longest eviction in post war history, the tower was destined to be the dramatic stage for the final showdown.

The evening of November 27 th 1995, & the scene is set. There was an electric expectancy as people arrived at Claremont that night. We had heard the word - Tomorrow was the big one,the 'Mother of all evictions' as some wit named it. We wandered around in the crowded darkness, greeting old friends & meeting new ones, telling stories & reassuring newcomers that all would be well. I went to find a space to sleep quite early. Evictions tend to happen first thing, & I wanted to be prepared. How naive. Quite how anyone could be prepared for the days ahead, I really don't know. This 2 million extravaganza had an all star cast: 500 protesters, 700 police & 400 security guards.

"It was probably the most amazing week I've ever experienced in my life, the most rich, intense thing - furthest removed from anything I've ever experienced in my life."
Phil, the last person evicted from Claremont Road.

The next day was bright & cold. No sign of a dawn police invasion, so we headed for the cafe. The day dragged, & tension mounted. There were several false alarms that sent us scrambling for a secure spot, only to emerge half an hour later feeling slightly cheated.

When they finally arrived it felt like a relief. The Prodigy's Music for a Jilted Generation blasted out from the tower as the uniforms flooded in, clearing the road of anyone who wasn't physically attached to it. People were locked into holes in the road, sealed in basements, & hanging in netting. Every tree had a treehouse & the roofs of houses were crammed, while number 15 had the famous 100 foot tower - the last refuge.

Things started badly with the police removing all legal observers & press: Without independent witnesses no-one outside would know what went on there. The area for a radius of quarter of a mile around was sealed off by police roadblocks & the press were kept in a small pen across the railway tracks, away from the thick of the action.

Then they cut the power to the tower. The music was obviously not to their taste, but the silence didn't last. The return of the music was to be the first of many surprises as electrical power, supplies & people could be channeled into the exclusion-zone via an underground tunnel affectionately known by the code-name 'Vicki'.

Although the Tower was the prize, the nets were also a prime target as they were a very effective means of communication.

As Martin, an M11 campaigner, said:
"The nets were a major success. Supplies were coming in & people could go up & down the whole street on the net s... The nets connected everything, we started loosing when the nets went - we were suddenly individuals not connected up."

Hours passed, and night fell, leaving the street lit with the acid light of halogen like the film set of some apocalyptic movie.

From my perch on a roof cut off from the main terrace of houses, I could see the scurry of the police & bailiffs working through the night to clear the road of locked on protesters. Occasionally a figure would appear from below, held aloft in a cherry-picker platform to tempt us with offers of hot tea & a free passage off the site. We sat on the roof wrapped in blankets, huddled together for warmth & refused his kindness.

Martin was in the wooden tower on Mike's house at the opposite end of the road. "The sheriffs drew straws to see who would have to take that house. They are just tools of the state & they were scared ... they thought we were gonna give them a good kicking & throw bricks on their heads". But non-violence had always been central to the campaign. So when the bailiffs actually came face to face with the protesters, the fear turned to respect. Martin recalls what they said to him as he was taken off site:
"Respect - you lost, but due respect. We've never had to do anything like this before."

The change was profound. "They were gonna give me a hiding ten minutes before. That's the power of the whole thing to change people. We looked them straight in the eyes & we said it's not personal - that the important thing - it's not personal."

Meanwhile, other protesters set up a cafe on the roof of one of the houses. Phil helped out:

"It was brilliant. I'd come down , walk along the roofs & help Keith set up the Cafe on the roof of the flat house. He was making beans on toast & cups of tea for people. Then I'd wander over to Mick's house & sit down in front of the good fire they had going in there."

Phil realized how much hot food & tea helped morale:

"A huge amount of effort & resources were spent building towers, bunkers & insanely complicated barricades. If we had spent a tenth of that time organising blankets loads of food, thermos flasks & gas stoves, we could have had people up there for ages. A lot of people went down on the night just because they were shivering to death."

By Wednesday night the roofs were cleared. Only the scaffolding tower was left - smeared with grease & lit with powerful halogen lights. Crowds stood cheering across the road -"Power to the Tower!"

" It was brilliant", said Phil, recalling the morale boost. But this was the final scene.

The police tried the softly softly approach:

"There's a really bad weather front coming in. We think it's dangerous, & you ought to come down."

But a quick call on the CB radio confirmed that was a lie, so they tried a different story:

"This is a scaffolding expert & he says your tower is leaning by 13 degrees - so we figure it's really dangerous & you'd better come down."

That didn't sound very plausible either.

Finally , the police warned that they were coming onto the tower "using minimum required force."

Those left on the tower locked on to a heavy duty chain supplied by Greenpeace which rendered conventional police bolt croppers useless. But there was nothing conventional about this eviction, and a high power hydraulic cutter soon dealt with the chain leaving Phil alone without food or water:

"After they got the the last person they tipped it all away."
He managed to get three blankets, & built a small platform to sleep in. The police repeatedly came up to talk to him - apparently to check if he was OK, but according to Phil; "The whole thing was a sleep depravation exercise. I was sleeping quite soundly actually, but he was hassleling me all night, coming up to see if I was alright. "

They finally came for him at dawn. Although the police press release said he came voluntarily, that's not the way Phil remembers it: "Suddenly the police were on me, & they had me. It was the same police who had been really matey the day before & now they were saying - 'You move & you're ducking...' They were really aggressive as they put the cuffs on me & then suddenly they switched back, saying, 'We're friends again now - were you cold over night? Did you have enough blankets?' "

That extra night cost another 500,000 of eviction time, pushing the total to 2 million & overall cost of route eviction to 6 million. In many ways it was a massive success for the campaign, with World-wide press coverage & an object lesson in what can be done with creativity, courage & cheek.

"One of the biggest things a campaign like this can achieve is getting individual people involved in the empowering experience of non-violent direct action. And that changes them & their attitude to everything they come up against in life."
M11 activist.

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related links: Twyford Down, Newbury, Stringers Common, Reclaim the Streets, 100 Days of Protest, A Corporate response
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