In the late 1990s open meetings called Riotous Assembly took place in the Yard Theatre in Homes for Change, a housing co-operative in Hulme, South Manchester. The meetings were intended to be spaces where people involved in radical, direct action, anarchist, ecological, autonomous and non-hierarchical organising could meet, celebrate their activities, network future events and actions and educate themselves about a wide range of issues.
This article consists of the edited transcript of a discussion between two individuals, one of whom was involved from the first days of Riotous Assembly and a second who became involved in helping to run the meetings in their later years. They’re not using their real names.
James: Riotous Assembly was born out of that time when the Manchester Earth First! (EF!) meetings were just too big, they were getting 20 or 30 people every fortnight. And some people just said, OK, there’s obviously a need for a networking forum but we don’t want that function to be taken on by the EF! meetings because we want to be getting on with organising ecological actions. So the decision was taken to set up an activist networking forum, and it was the first of that generation of them in this country. The Rebel Alliance in Brighton got a lot of cred and recognition – but we were first! And there had been similar things a decade or so earlier, there was something called Liberty Hall in Liverpool, but they’d fallen away for an activist generation.
Jane: Who picked the name?
James: I remember exactly who came up with the name [names an individual active in anarchist and direct action politics at the time]. Part of it was about the fact that Riotous Assembly was a criminal charge, which we thought was quite funny. But also that it was an assembly, riotous in the sense of both a riot tactic but also in the sense of riotous laughter, so not just a really full-on thing. But also the assembly was a real attempt to create something, the concept of an assembly – something that wasn’t a group in itself, something no one person or group could take control of.
The slightly fatter-than-bookmark fliers we created for it did say something about No Dogma, we were trying to think of ways that it wouldn’t just be a target for the SWP [Socialist Workers' Party] taking it over, and would be in form if not in name a truly anarchist way of organising. So if it’s an assembly, not a group, the idea was that there’s no power, there’s nothing to take control of, because any group can come along and say we want to organise next month’s meeting, but they’d only be doing the next month.
The format was quite regular in that there would be three parts. The later sections were a kind of review of what had been happening over the last month, actions and campaigns that people had been involved in, partly to update people but also as a small pat on the back, and to use that energy to move onto the final bit which was what was happening in the next month. That was mostly announcements, some of it was ‘this is happening but we need more people’ – so making ourselves accessible. And the first third could be around an issue of that group’s choice, and we tried to encourage people to do it in creative ways. So one time there was a little play and there might be a film but we’d make sure it wasn’t just a film where people became an audience but that there was active discussion afterwards. I think someone did a banner-making workshop and other creative things, or it could just be a speaker and discussion. But we were really hot on that section not squeezing the other two-thirds, because we really didn’t want it just becoming a talking shop.
Jane: What subjects do you remember being covered? I remember a genetics one, a Zapatista one, somebody wanting to talk about Palestine but it getting shouted down on the grounds that it was a nationalist struggle… but although I was involved in quite a lot of them from 1999 or 2000 – booking them and putting some of them on – I can’t remember many of the talks.
James: I think there was stuff about Strangeways and the prison riots there, there was stuff around racial discrimination, stuff on domestic violence, it depended on the group who organised it – the idea was always to publicise it well in advance and use different issues to pull people in… but I can’t remember all the other issues. Someone will have the fliers somewhere.
But I think I was saying before that the concept was really sound and could still work, although the practical issues meant it didn’t work at the time. I think it was partly around the process of creation, in that it came out of an Earth First! meeting and the ideas came out of that, but before it was actually launched there wasn’t another meeting to try and get more ownership from other groups that might want to get involved, and that was partly because we were naïve about it, we’d got an idea that the concept was sound and that that was enough.
We didn’t want this to turn into an SWP front or get taken over or turn into a talk shop, we want it to be there to promote discussion and action and a sense of movement-building, although that term wasn’t used, and connections between people because there were so many people doing stuff around Manchester but not necessarily in touch with each other. So the concept was sound but I don’t think we brought those other groups in early enough, and if we had done an early meeting to sort things out the danger might have been that it would have decided not to do something like that, so even if we’d done it better from a group work and community development angle we might not have ended up with the same result.
Jane: Do you think the venue was a problem? Because those Earth First! meetings were in the town centre, they were very accessible to a wide range of people, whereas being in Hulme cut it off from a lot of people. Obviously Hulme has been a hub for a lot of direct action and radical politics, but obviously for anyone not on the Chorlton bus routes, getting to Hulme means an extra bus journey on top of the one coming into the city centre, and Hulme itself, certainly then, was quite dark and isolated and scary feeling if you didn’t know it.
James: Yes, I remember a couple of the older people from Greater Manchester who would have to get a train in and then a bus out and then a bit of a walk, so they had to be very motivated, and students at that time certainly felt that it was kind of scary and off the student corridor and Oxford Road. But we still had 60 or 80 people turning up monthly, or maybe 30 or 40 later on…
Jane: Certainly my recollection is that by the time I was more involved, by 2000 or 2001, they were often down to a couple of dozen. But when do you think they actually started?
James: I’m not sure, but it was certainly the time that Earth First! meetings moved to the EF! Office in a flat on the Redbricks. Because we decided we’d got these open, accessible Riotous Assembly meetings and we’d got the squat cafes still, and what we needed was for EF! meetings to be about planning action, not fortnightly meetings where every time you’ve got new people coming along who feel a bit excluded because you’re using shorthand terms or hand signals. So they weren’t meant to be totally private, but a bit more private, so if someone specifically wanted to come to an EF! meeting they’d be collected from a pub or a bus stop and brought in, so people were more aware when there was a new person and could make that effort and explain things more clearly…
Jane: So what’s your take on why Riotous Assembly folded?
James: Well, maybe there are more reasons but my top one would be the old ‘beardies,’ by which I mean the old-style anarchists who weren’t all men and didn’t all have beards but largely were and did. They were people who’d spent decades in tiny meetings with each other, shouting across each other, not able to listen to each other, and never getting beyond little circles of Anarchist Federation, Solidarity Federation and little temporary groupings. They knew each other but still couldn’t communicate and were still trying to convince each other of things that they obviously weren’t going to shift each others’ opinions on. And suddenly, they had 60 people to play with and be their audience.
A lot of it was that they didn’t have the social skills to understand their impact. One of them accused EF! of running those Riotous Assemblies, and it often was people who’d done EF! who were putting most time into organising and facilitating them, but actually people from EF! were really aware that they weren’t an EF! forum, it shouldn’t be controlled or dominated by EF!, that EF! discussions didn’t discuss Riotous Assembly because we felt that was undemocratic. But for some of those older people it wasn’t just that they objected to Earth First!, it was that it was a new way of doing things that was actually more anarchist – not that I want to get into a ‘I’m more anarchist than you’ fight – but in terms of collective autonomy and groups being able to create and organise what they wanted, and take direct action together, rather than just talk about it. And using consensus decision making as well, and for some of them it was all a bit new and they had trouble adapting. They would try and block things and accuse people of doing things that they weren’t doing, so each time that happened it would drive some people away.
Equally, I have met people who said afterwards that it was really good that they’d heard these discussions and that there may only have been 6 people talking but they were ideas they’d not heard before and were interested in, so they didn’t mind that they didn’t get to talk. But I tend more to wanting people to participate…
Jane: My memory of some of the ‘beards’ is that not only did they not have some of the social skills, but also what a lot of them wanted to talk about was theory. They weren’t people who were actively doing direct action and largely what they wanted to hold forth on were points of theory, and I remember having the sense that there were 5 people there who had 3 anarchist reading groups between them because they just kept splintering off from each other over points of disagreement… and I think those people were a big problem and drained a lot of energy. But the counter-argument might be that if those meetings had been better facilitated and less hung up on feeling that you have to accommodate everybody, however dysfunctional, then you might have just told some of those people to shut up occasionally and they wouldn’t have been able to drain energy the way they ended up doing.
James: Absolutely, but I think that was partly about ownership, and those people who had the facilitation skills tended to be Earth Firsters who didn’t want to assert control over an assembly that no-one was meant to be asserting control over. So they were caught between a rock and a hard place, that we don’t want to rule these people out and tell them they were impacting on other people and that they should go and talk about it in room with themselves, or with the other 5 people you’ve been talking about it with for 15 years. But we didn’t want to exert that control, and it’s really hard because if one person, and it was just one person, is accusing something like EF! of exerting control, you do everything you can not to make that a reality, although you’re sure it’s not reality, you over-compensate. So you put yourself in a powerless position instead of saying, look, this is the original idea, it was working fine, now it’s not working fine because of some people’s lack of social skills and us not facilitating actively and strongly enough… well, it just imploded.
And it was difficult, because in amongst some of those beardies there were people who were really destructive, like the one who kept accusing EF! of running things, and others like X who was really cool and because of his links with other organisations like Solidarity Federation would turn up every so often with a hundred quid to give to ecological direct action. So there was that personal contact that was brought about through it. And we used to learn about lots of other stuff from some of the older activist generations who used to come to Riotous Assembly but wouldn’t have come to an Earth First! meeting and who had been involved in things like trade union struggles. And it was around the time of the Loombreaker [a local direct action/anarchist newspaper], so there meetings were a really good way of collecting information and finding out about other stuff that was going on…
So I can’t remember how Riotous Assembly actually ended, whether it just petered out or whether someone actually took a decision to end it, but for lots of reasons there just weren’t enough groups stepping up to facilitate the next one…
Jane: My memory of the last ones was that it was a very small group of us that dragged it along towards the end, feeling that we had to go out there and find a speaker and that one of us would have to facilitate it, rather than what it was supposed to be, with groups and campaigns taking one on and sorting out the content and facilitator and publicity and us just having to book the venue…
James: And then it had become something extra that Earth Firsters had had to do with a different hat on, but which then stopped them doing the campaigning that they actually wanted to be doing…
Article by Sarah Irving