Northerners Doing It Down South! Manchester at J18

An article from Do or Die Issue 8. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 13-17. As well as recording the involving of Manchester activists in the J18 anti-capitalist activities in central London on June 18th 1999, the article reflects on failures in the organising process in Manchester itself.

Manchester began organising for June 18th at the beginning of the year [1999], when several people from the EF! [Earth First!] network instigated a June 18th organising group. The first few meetings were relatively well attended by a diverse bunch of people. Early on, the decision was taken not to do an action in Manchester, but to network, publicise and organise transport for the London event.

However, from this point, the J18 group lost focus and all but collapsed. Meetings became increasingly tortuous, numbers attending steadily dwindled, and in the end it was yet again a tiny handful of people from the EF! network who ended up doing most of the J18 work. The attempt to broaden the J18 group out beyond our usual networks failed in Manchester, and it may be interesting to look briefly at why this happened.

One of the reasons the meetings didn’t really work is that the group was operating in a vacuum. We had no idea what sort of event J18 was going to be until only a few weeks before the day. Our only frame of reference was a street party, and we had had it drummed into us that this was not going to be a street party. We had no idea what we were networking for. Even the morning actions were hazy, as we had some vague idea we might need to co-ordinate with other groups around the country, and this didn’t seem to be happening. The group also suffered from lack of a clear remit. Were we planning for a Manchester action on the morning or were we just a networking group? I recall it being totally unclear to all of us involved at first, as to which would be the most effective thing to do in terms of bringing together different Manchester networks both for this action and for future events here.

The group spent ages arguing about different action possibilities, and also the different politics around the event. And this was the final downfall of our group. The accepted wisdom on diversity is that it is a strength. Yet in a group trying to plan around an unknown action, with an unknown random collection of people, with different politics and experience, diversity is a real bind.

I felt particularly hampered by the fact that very few Manchester ‘activists’ (meaning those full/nearly full-time activists coming largely but loosely from the EF! network) got involved with these meetings, or in fact J18 generally. The original J18 group consisted of a tiny handful of ‘us lot’, a few old time anarchos, a few random nutters, a few students, and due to Manchester’s rich leftie history – a fair few revolutionary and reformist left groups/individuals. How do you hope to achieve anything, when in response to “what we think the aims of J18 are”, someone says that “of course, the main aim is good media coverage!” And when someone else says that we should steer clear of putting the word ‘capitalism’ on a poster because lots of people who might want to come to a street party think that capitalism is an okay thing? It became clear that the J18 group could not attempt to organise a Manchester action, and that we’d have to leave that to autonomous groups.

The J18 group would stick to organising transport to the afternoon event, producing publicity, organising trainings and briefings, and managing the money. We could, of course, have gone out to talk to community groups, student groups, grassroots workers groups, workers in struggle, animal rights groups (who, typically of that scene in Manchester, didn’t get involved at all with the exception of some individuals linked with EF!). But the J18 group became about 4 people, all ‘activists’ with tons of other stuff to do, and still without a clue as to what the rest of the activist population of Manchester thought about J18. This same group were the only ones really pushing to get the Manchester EF! network to do anything for the morning of J18, so it was just not possible to do everything. A group squatted the Hacienda as a networking weekend for J18 among other reasons, but the mini-riot resulting from this just gave us more work in court support and very nearly got most of the EF! group nicked, too.

The briefings and public order training went well, and we produced a good little booklet from this, on tips on how to behave in a public order situation, to be given to everyone on our transport. The coach was more than filled, and if people had got round to phoning to book the coach before 8pm on the 17th, we could have fetched many more people down from Manchester.

At the very last minute, four different groups emerging largely from the EF! network did do autonomous actions in the morning – involving blocking roads, bridges and tube lines. Other people from Manchester took part in a Northern Anarchist Network action at the TUC, a fair few went on a Campaign Against The Arms Trade (CAAT) action, a group of students attempted to organise a morning action, some went on the Critical Mass, and others scattered among other different actions.

Most of these actions worked well, but we nearly screwed up our afternoon role, due to being unaware that we even had a crucial role. Either the secrecy was the problem or the last minute arrangements, because someone from Manchester went to London only the previous weekend in order to work this out, and wasn’t told anything really. By the time we managed to find out we had a role (midnight of the 17th) it was way too late to involve anyone other than our small affinity group for a job which required most of Manchester activists. Even at the point of being in the station, only one of us knew anything at all, having been sworn to secrecy. This clearly has the potential for a large fuck-up. I think we need to trust each other a bit more.

And just a final little dig (because of course in general, I felt J18 was inspiring), we must try harder to avoid London centrism. None of the publicity had space for local contacts, and one of the stickers actually didn’t even mention the action was in London, assuming everyone in the country would know which city Liverpool Street station was in. We lacked information from the beginning, and not enough was done soon enough to involve the regions (surely the colonies?) in J18. In Manchester, we shouldn’t have bothered with a J18 group in my view – we couldn’t effectively network and publicise it in advance because we lacked information from London and enthusiasm from activists here, and all the real organising was done in the last two weeks as per usual.

Finally, the after-effects of J18 are still with us. Many of us here felt the day was inspirational, some of us were disappointed we didn’t achieve more, and some were disappointed that J18 wasn’t a much broader alliance than the street party crowd. However, a significant number of people, including some activists from Manchester, said they would never go on an action like J18 again, due to the ‘violence’. We discussed this in our ‘Riotous Assembly‘ activists’ network forum, and had an interesting and amicable discussion.

We may be following the State’s agenda to be discussing the violence – as it deflects from the real issue and the real perpetrators of violence in our society – but in Manchester, if we don’t want to appear like some hardcore exclusive clique who don’t give a toss what some among us think of this, discussion is essential. Moreover, it reminds us that diversity can be not a problem, but a bonus.

This article first appeared in issue 8 (1999) of Do Or Die: Voices from the Ecological Resistance, a periodical associated with movements such as Earth First! and anti-roads campaigns from 1992 to 2003. The editorial collective of Do Or Die puts no restriction on non-commercial use of material from their publications.

Okasional Cafes

During the late 1990s and early 2000s, anarchists and environmental activists in Manchester organised a series of squatted cafe-social centres around the city, under the name Okasional Cafe. This article is based on interviews with two people – both of whom wished to remain anonymous – who were involved in organising several of the cafes and running events in them.

The first Okasional Cafe, in 1998, was supposed to be in a former kebab takeaway on Peter Street, near the junction with Deansgate, on the site now occupied by Bar 38.

“There was a big row of Victorian shop buildings and a takeaway called, I think, the Topkapi Palace, which had already closed down in preparation for being demolished as part of the redevelopment plans for the huge warehouses behind and Great Northern Square,” recalls one of the people involved in looking at this initial site. “Four of us went in to recce it, which involved a small person having to go through a hole in the brickwork where there had been a heating vent, and letting the others in. It was perfect – the big industrial-scale catering cookers were still there, which would have been great for events. But it stank from the barrels of kebab fat too…”

In the event, the organising group decided that this site wasn’t suitable because the demolition date for the buildings was imminent and, although the organisers were anticipating having to fight eviction orders, they didn’t want this to be the focus of their activity, or for scared developers to take aggressive action to evict them. The second choice of venue was the former Temperance Movement building on Oxford Road in South Manchester, immediately opposite the Manchester University Students’ Union, now Kro Bar.

At this point, the Riotous Assembly open radical activist meetings had not yet started, so the recce teams for both sites had been recruited at the Earth First! meetings which at that time still took place in the Friends Meeting House in Manchester city centre.

“I remember meeting the people who were going to turn it into the pub,” says one participant. “The head of what is now the Kro empire, I remember him saying, well the weekend you moved in we were planning on moving in as well, but we thought well, we can take a bit more time. His brother, who was on the dole, was helping him with the building work, and they had a month’s less rent to pay so they weren’t bothered.”

As one interviewee recalls, the cafes were meant to be “a point where social and political activity could go on reasonably freely and workshops and film showings could happen, but also secondly that it was supposed to be an access point for new people who might not come to a meeting but would be comfortable coming and having a cup of tea and a piece of cake and picking up some leaflets and then might come back again for something else a few days later and actually speak to somebody about getting involved.”

Another interviewee emphasised that “about people having an access point for ‘our’ ways of working – ie anarchist – and forms of actual direct action. I remember it definitely as being for both those purposes, and also that there were actions actually happening at the same time, so people could go to the cafe, hear about an action, go to a meeting about it and get comfortable with the idea and then actually go along on an action and get involved, as well as providing a space for people who were already involved to meet together and have that contact. It’s also in my head as a post-Manchester Airport protest camp thing – lots of people had moved to Manchester, had been active and the EF! Meetings were too big and unwieldy and some people had the idea that everything in the meetings had to be agreed by everyone and others thought they were a forum, a place to go to where you could say, we’re doing this anyone want to get involved?”

“For me,” he continued, “the reason Okasional Cafe came round was that it was a physical point of contact, because people had had the experience of living on protest camps at the Airport together, and that was really important, and there was nowhere for people to meet and spend time together. I was completely sold on the model of squatting a place, holding it for a month, saying ‘we’re going to be here for a month’, not trying to do it for longer or make it a permanent place, not trying to say we’ll keep it for longer but put that burst of energy into it for that month and then do other things the rest of the time, rather than having a permanent centre…”

The first Okasional Cafes were not simply spaces where people could come and talk, but had well-organised schedules of events, including political meetings, exhibitions, film showings and fundraising parties. A distinctive logo was designed, probably by a resident of the ‘Redbricks’ estate in Hulme, and in the weeks preceding the squatting of a new cafe several waves of publicity would take place, starting with the logo being fly-posted around town, followed by posters bearing the words ‘it’s coming’ and then after the building have been occupied posters and bookmark-format leaflets with the address and workshop timetable would be distributed in cafes, pubs, bookstores and ‘alternative’ shops like those in Afflecks Palace.

“I’m not sure I can imagine such organised publicity happening now,” commented one participant. “people rely too much on the internet, they think that when they’ve put something on Facebook they’ve publicised, whereas actually they’ve just told a load of people they’re already in touch with, and they think they can advertise something the day before, instead of having to put in some work to really get word out.”

Okasional Cafes around Manchester

After the success of the initial Okasional Cafe on Oxford Road, a number of other squat cafes took place across South and Central Manchester over the next four years. Sites for these included an old canal keeper’s cottage on Dale Street in the Northern Quarter, a second one at Kro, one on Birch Grove in Rusholme and two at the Hacienda, one of which was a fundraiser for the massive J18 anti-capitalist protests which took place in London in June 1999.

There was also an abortive attempt to hold an Okasional Cafe in St Peter’s House, opposite the Peace Gardens and Central Library. “It was in November one year,” says a participant, “and people hadn’t really thought about the issues around that but it was just before the 11th and the police really cracked down on it because they thought it was an anti-war protest in time for the Armistice Day commemorations, which it wasn’t. So they just smashed their way in through the plate glass windows, using the fact that there was a back staircase which was shared with another building as a legal pretext for evicting the squat.

The Charles Street Okasional Cafe

Another site used was a former auction house on Charles Street, just off Oxford Road next to the BBC. One memorable event held there was a showing of the film Injustice, about the struggles for justice by families of people – mainly black men like Shiji Lapite and Roger Sylvester, but also including Harry Stanley and women like Joy Gardner and Sarah Thomas – who had died in police custody.

The Police Federation had tried to take legal action to prevent the film, which called for the prosecution of several serving police officers, from being screened. Venues were harassed and threatened with having their licenses revoked, and cinemas were told by police lawyers that they might face expensive libel suits. So when the Cornerhouse Cinema on Oxford Road was intimidated into cancelling a showing, people involved with the Charles St cafe, just round the corner, stepped in to offer an alternative.

“But we managed to prime one of the directors, Tariq Mehmood, who lives in Rusholme, so that when they reached the end of their talk and had to tell the audience that they couldn’t show the film there, they announced that the people who had just stood up could lead them to a venue where they could see it.”

The Cornerhouse cinema, according to one of the people involved in the Okasional Cafe screening, event loaned chairs to allow enough audience members to go to the alternative screening, and some of the box office staff had made significant efforts to deliver the coded message to people buying tickets for the event that although the event had been formally cancelled, something else might be afoot…

The Charles Street Okasional Cafe was also the scene for exhibitions giving ongoing information about the mass protests – and police brutality – which took place at the G8 summit in Genoa in July 2001. But, despite some of the good events which went on at Charles St, it was also an example of some of the things that could go wrong with such an enterprise.

“My take on what happened.” says one participant, who had been involved in many of the other cafes, “was that a lot of people were involved who nowadays would be curating slightly alternative art galleries or working for the World Development Movement or the Big Issue, but then, because it was the exciting ‘in’ thing they were there. But for the first part of the Charles St cafe, the people putting most time in were people who had less long-term experience or hadn’t made the same connections so the way it was organised was messier and events weren’t publicised. There were also problems because the site was near an all-night Spar and a big homeless hostel, and some people turned up from a protest came and stayed and behaved like arseholes, so there were social problems being dealt with by people with very little experience.”

The solution was to close the squat down for a week, regroup the organising committee and remodel the space. The main room was painted white to give it a completely different feel from the previous dark space, and the cafe was re-opened for several more weeks before it was finally evicted. “The eviction was,” says one of the people involved, “one of those classic developer things where they come to court and say they want to use the building for such-and-such and work will start straight away and the judge says ok, kick them out, and now eight years later it’s still empty, and there is still as Okasional Cafe sign over the door…”

Decentralised organising

As one interviewee who was involved in organising several of the Okasional cafes recalls, the networks and personal connections which had grown up during the protest camps at Manchester Airport were still in place during this era. “Although people were campaigning on different issues it tended to feel more like they were part of the same thing than it seems to now,” he says. “Animal rights people or whoever might be doing their thing, but a lot of the allocating work and responsibilities happened because various different people with different skills were involved. In terms of anarchist forms of organising there were weekly meetings at the cafe which set up the events for the week after and sometimes there were more regular meetings if there were other issues that came up.”

The tension between weekly and more regular meetings was, he says, “interesting, in that the people with most time and the people who were living there to hold the squat sometimes acquired more power than others. So some people were arguing that it’s more democratic to have weekly meetings because more people can actually come to them.”

Tactically, different methods were used to actually initiate the occupation of the squatted buildings. For the Hacienda events, many of the first groups of people to enter the building were asked to meet at a fairly public site in Hulme and then led away in small groups, under cover of darkness and sometimes through the gardens of squat sympathisers on a nearby estate. As a result, the police failed to notice that the crowd they were monitoring was actually slowly dispersing.

At most of the other Okasional Cafes, a small group would crack the squat in advance in order to take legal control, and then other members of the organising group would collect a larger selection of people who’d gathered at a publicly advertised meeting point and bring them to help with preparing the venue – cleaning, decorating and if necessary connecting water and electricity. “It was a balance of recognising that you have to keep some things secret for them to work, while making the process as open and participatory as possible,” commented one person who was involved in a number of the cafes. “And because we had the networks from the Airport protests and other direct action and free party scenes we knew who to get in touch with if we needed the water and gas and electrics to be turned back on. A lot of that was the result of lessons from 1990s direct action and Reclaim the Street.”

Decision-making processes about how the cafes would be run were also decentralised, bringing in a range of experiences, ages and backgrounds. “I remember in the first OK Cafe there was a No Smoking room,” recalls one participant. “When that was first brought up some people were like, Noooo! But for me that was an example of the difference between two simplified versions of anarchism – the more individualistic, which I think is called Sternerite, and the more collectivist or community-based – ‘I can do what I like’ vs ‘I can do what I like but understand its impacts on other people.’ So there were lots of debates, and in the end there were No Smoking times and room in Okasional Cafes.”

Over the course of the various cafes, many lessons were also learned about the kind of events, activities and messages participants wanted to use the sites for. “The first one was around the time of an election, and it was also near a church,” recalled one person. “Someone put a big cross up outside with a politician hanging from it and labelled it ‘use your cross wisely, crucify a politician.’ And there were things like free stalls and also what became People’s Kitchen, ie experimenting with cheap meals and food by donation. That was quite hard, because especially being in a student area you felt you were putting in lots of effort to feed lazy students who’d got enough money anyway. So it shifted, became really nice set meals with candlelight or poetry performances but also with a suggested donation. Soft drinks would be free or donations but alcohol was a set price because there was a sense that if people wanted to spend money on alcohol it should be a fundraiser. There were also party night which were fundraisers too, and usually they were donations on the door and some people would just ask casually and people would put a few coppers in, but some more savvy ones would say ‘three quid, three quid’ as people came in and a well-run night at the Kro site could easily raise a thousand pounds. People lost that ability with some of the later cafes, especially the Kickstart ones that were done by a different group of people later on, people involved in residential squatting in Whalley Range, because they just weren’t as organised and people would nick the money and they didn’t really have a sense of how to replicate some of the really creative stuff we were doing at OK Cafes.”

To evict or not to evict?

In almost all cases the OK Cafe squats were time-limited, held for just a month and then handed back to their owners. They were also largely in commercial or public buildings rather than residential ones. One exception was the sixth squat, on Birch Grove in Rusholme in 2000, which – with the approval of the house’s owner – became a residential squat for at least six months after the Okasional Cafe there closed down.

Even though it had become a residential squat, the Birch Grove site did remain a hub for some direct action activity, serving as the meeting point for groups of Manchester activists who went to the Close Campsfield noise demonstration and actions against the asylum seeker detention centre in Oxfordshire.

In some other cases the landlords of squatted properties were less co-operative, although the reputation of the protesters occupying the buildings sometimes meant that evictions weren’t carried out. “With the first Okasional Cafe,” a participant remembers, “people remembered us from the Airport, where people felt they had to power to say to a landlord, ‘yes you can take us to court and get an order and evict us, but we’re going to resist, you’ll need bailiffs. Ask the Under-Sheriff of Lancashire, Andy Wilson, he’ll tell you that we’re going to be really expensive.’ It’s in your interest and our interest to negotiate – give us a month. And landlords would go, OK. At the Kro Bar site, Andy Wilson came along and people pretended to have been in tunnels and had dirt on their faces and head torches and he just backed off and from then on we had the reputation with other landlords that – take them to court, but negotiate with them.”

The one exception to this rule was the Hacienda squat. The police had succeeded in having the superclub closed down and, as one participant thinks, saw its re-opening as a challenge. They evicted it quickly and at times brutally, and were therefore furious when it was then re-squatted a second time – giving rise to graffiti in one of the rooms reading The People 1: Police 0 which was them amended to The People 2: Police 0. A number of people arrested in the first eviction successfully sued Greater Manchester Police for wrongful arrest. “The second time,” recalls one interviewee, “only once we we had negotiated our way outside did we see that there were lines of riot cops with battering rams all lined up by the walls, where we couldn’t see them from the inside. There was also a moment where, while they were using quite a lot of violence to clear the area, we saw one riot cop who was well known for being very big and violent whack someone across the back with the truncheon, and the person he’d hit getting out his badge and saying ‘I’m undercover!’ And that was great to watch…”

Article by Sarah Irving

Riotous Assembly – 1998-2001?

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

Challenge Anarchy

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,%20Oxford%20and%20North%20Wales.doc

Guide to Public Order Situations