Challenge Anarchy was a day of protests in Manchester city centre on Mayday 2000. Organised by activists from environmentalist, anarchist and other direct action-orientated communities, it was intended to be both fun and political, and to address some of the problems for protesters that had arisen in the policing of large Reclaim the Streets and Mayday demonstrations in London.
[This post is also Manchester Radical History’s slightly belated contribution to Blog Action Day 2009, blogging on climate change and the environment.]
Mike (not his real name) is a Manchester-based activist in his late 30s, who has been involved in Earth First!, anarchism and other direct action-orientated campaigning since the early 1990s.
“I think there was definitely an awareness that this was a workers’ day but that it also had deeper roots than that. There was anarchist stuff that linked in with it, although I can’t remember what it is at the minute, I can’t remember if it was an anarchist attempt to do something on that day in the nineteenth century and got thwarted and they probably got killed, or what, but then going further back from that there were pagan ideas about Mayday and Beltane and those having been appropriated by the labour movement, and blending those things. When Earth First was stronger people could see more of the connections, what was stereotyped as the Red, Black and Green (red for labour, black for anarchism and green for the environment) and seeing them as melding together.
“So Challenge Anarchy took place after people had started organising for Mayday in London and there had been big Mayday Reclaim the Streets events there that made it into something different, and there was an awareness in Manchester that we wanted to do something like that, I think it was the year after the Guerrilla Gardening in Parliament Square.
“There was already organising around Mayday in London from an anarchist kind of perspective and there was an awareness that we wanted to do something in Manchester but we really didn’t want to get surrounded by cops and kettled the way they were. Mike Todd, who later came to Manchester Police, had pioneered the Zero Tolerance approach to Mayday ‘rioters’ in London and cordoning people as a tactic, that became known as kettling. So we thought: we want to do something on this day, we want it to be interesting, and we’re not going to let ourselves get kettled.
“Somewhere in all of that the idea of the Challenge Anarchy came through and there were lots of different parts to it – there was a seaside in the city, so on Market St some sand was put down and there was a coconut shy where you could throw balls at coconuts with politicians’ head on them, and there was an eco-crystal ball reader who would talk about eco-doom at people in her tent, and sticks of rock done which were red, black and green with the words ‘resistance is sweet’ down the middle and a little label with some kids making faces, sticking their tongues out, and information on how to get in touch with Manchester Earth First!
“There was ‘money’ as well. Some fake £20 notes were printed up and they had different slogans on as well to make people think. It’s quite tricky to get stuff like that printed because it’s so illegal, printers won’t touch it, but someone managed to do it and people in advance were scrumpling them up and just dropping them in places around town. But on the day someone had a suitcase full of it and as he crossed the road he let the suitcase fall open and had people rushing into the road and stop traffic like that… so there was things like that as well as the ‘direct action’ stuff… and also some people had read in the Guardian that there was going to be Guerrilla Gardening, which we hadn’t planned on at all, but they brought trees to the meeting point in Piccadilly Gardens. So people felt empowered enough to bring along things like that, and it wasn’t people who were already involved so that was really nice.
“A lot of effort had been put into meeting at Piccadilly Gardens but also into not getting kept there, so the idea was that there would be different ‘Challenge Anarchies,’ named after the Challenge Anneka TV programme with Anneka Rice, so there were different Anarchy Rices, which was the name of a facilitator for an affinity group. Some groups we already knew in advance and they could just be sorted out with a bag of goodies. With others we had to go round Piccadilly Gardens looking at little groups of people who were clearly here for the event and approach them and see if you could get a group of friends or even strangers into a group with a facilitator if they needed help, and gave them a bag of ‘goodies’ and those were things like ‘should you accept this mission’ type things for a whole range of tactics and issues. There were stickers and chalk but also superglue and spray paint, and leaflets on lots of issues, so you could go round with leaflets and stickers. It was brilliant because the police didn’t notice that the number of people in Piccadilly Gardens wasn’t getting any bigger, and it was only at a certain point that they realised and I remember the panicked reaction of them suddenly realising, and at the same time hearing of all these little actions going off all over town.
“There were different targets. Some temping agencies because there was a lot of stuff around casualisation and the death of Simon Jones [a young activist in Brighton who, having been forced into temp work by his dole officers, was killed on an unsafe work site in 1998]. There was stuff around banks – one of the fly-posting targets was the bank headquarters on King Street – and there were stickers to go on cashpoints. And there was information on media control and media corporations, and McDonald’s, both environment and animal rights things and some other animal rights targets, and probably others.
“And it was brilliant, because you’d see groups of people getting led out of the Arndale Centre by security after having done something and another group going in past them to go to the same place, or the police standing guard outside a McDonald’s because they’d just chucked people out but were still letting customers in so people would go in as punters and start doing stuff behind the police’s back… another interesting thing was that it was partly based on a Doin’ It Up North that happened in Sheffield, where it had been a similar idea where you got bags of stuff where you could choose to ‘accept the mission’ or not.
“A lot of similar strategies of organising and advertising had been used with the Okasional Cafes – people came up with a logo which had been used by EF!, the spanner with leaves growing out of one side, but it actually came from before that, from Paris ’68, and came up with some more situationist-inspired words but not getting into the whole thing that London Reclaim the Streets did where they had whole fold-out fliers where if you figured out how to unfold them that was the easy bit and then trying to get your head round the words was even harder. We tried to find words that sounded good and had some kind of resonance or radicalism in them. So like Okasional Cafe it started with that thing of getting just the logo out there on posters or stickers, then adding the words, then putting a date on and then more detail, but very much with the idea of using the logo so people might be, aah, I’ve seen this somewhere before… and feel that there was a buzz going on. Part of it was because the internet wasn’t really around, and I think that actually meant that the organising was better, it had to be better than now, because if you wanted to get people you had to step outside your ghetto, you couldn’t just put it on the internet and think people will come, which I don’t think actually works but seems to be what people do now. And you can’t just ‘put some leaflets in the Basement [social centre]’ which is what happened in later years. You actually had to go to every single venue you could think of, even if they weren’t political, getting publicity out and fly-posting and really making the stuff we do more accessible than people seem to now, which is really crazy. Because people talk now about getting stuff in the mass media and getting out there now when actually all they’re doing is sending it to their mates on Facebook.
“But we hadn’t realised that there were going to be so many people, so not only were all these small group actions going off but there was also a group of about 200 people who we didn’t have facilitators for, and also even though if experience tells you that being in small affinity groups is safer and more effective, people tend to go to the large group and want to do that. There were a few people who had more experience who were like, ‘OK, I’ll stay with the big group – I don’t think it’s a good idea but I’ll stay with them,’ so they were really spirited and were doing things like pulling huge bins out of alleyways to make barricades against the police, but not solid barricades so you can pass through those lines. A lot of the lessons that had been learnt from big public order events – the Guide to Public Order Situations was published from Manchester at about that time – and they moved before they could be controlled, and at one point they occupied the Mancunian Way, which was something that people wanting to organise RTS in Manchester had wanted to do for years but never managed to. There was an RTS that accidentally occupied Princess Parkway at another time….
“But that’s another story.”
Article by Sarah Irving
Simon Jones Memorial Campaign
Earth First! UK
Brian Doherty of Keele University on direct action in Manchester, including Doin’ It Up North
Guide to Public Order Situations