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.

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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
http://www.simonjones.org.uk

Earth First! UK
http://earthfirst.org.uk/actionreports/

Brian Doherty of Keele University on direct action in Manchester, including Doin’ It Up North
http://www.keele.ac.uk/depts/spire/Working_Papers/Brian_Doherty_working_papers/Comparing%20Radical%20Environmental%20Activism%20in%20Manchester,%20Oxford%20and%20North%20Wales.doc

Guide to Public Order Situations
http://www.wombles.org.uk/article200610188.php