Magazine article New Internationalist

Roads to Freedom: Direct Action against New Roads Is Giving Birth to a New Culture of Resistance in the West

Magazine article New Internationalist

Roads to Freedom: Direct Action against New Roads Is Giving Birth to a New Culture of Resistance in the West

Article excerpt

One very cold night in the spring of 1993 I walked across Twyford Down. We climbed the fence and wandered across to where the top - soil had already been stripped. Security guards with cameras followed us, so we covered our faces. Huge yellow earth - movers lurked in a hole which had been dug in the hillside.

Now there is nothing left of Twyford Down except a very large hole. Standing above, it is very strange to think that you once put your foot on the ground where now there is only empty space. Below, cars roar past along a six - lane motorway.

The biggest thing to come out of Twyford Down was, however, not the road that destroyed an historic and protected piece of Hampshire but rather the British anti - roads movement, a many - headed hydra of protest which has shaken the establishment and changed public perceptions.

Twyford was the first scheme in a huge government plan to build Pound23 billion ('Symbol not transcribed'50 billion) worth of new roads across the country. It provoked the first major direct - action protests in Britain against road - building, largely ignored by the media. Many people who had protested there returned shocked by the destruction and inspired to begin campaigning in their own backyard. Protests began to spring up all over the country - in Bath and Glasgow, Preston and Norfolk. 'At Twyford,' says 26 - year - old activist Stephen Booker, 'people saw that direct action could work and that you could take on the establishment by doing something as simple as sitting in front of a bulldozer.'

The largest campaign was in London, where a four - mile extension to the M11 motorway was due to be constructed. More than 300 houses had to be demolished for the road. This meant that the issues involved became broader. People were no longer protesting about the destruction of the countryside, but about housing and pollution, health and democracy. Most of the houses were squatted by protesters, necessitating long and complex legal cases to evict them. Activists began to build up increasingly sophisticated techniques to resist eviction peacefully, such as the concrete 'lock - on', an ingenious device constructed from diagrams in an Australian booklet helpfully entitled The Deluxe International Guide To Blockading.

The first major eviction of five houses took 12 hours, as 300 protesters forced more than twice that number of police, bailiffs, and security guards. 'I'd never experienced anything like it,' recalls another demonstrator, Tom Sunnyside. 'The sense of empowering yourself, just going out and doing it. Hardly anyone seemed to know anyone else at the start but by the end there was a kind of bonding between the protesters like nothing I've ever experienced before.'

Later, protesters occupied a whole street. Claremont Road had a cafe, a workshop, art installations and bizarre defensive constructions sprouting from its roofs. Meanwhile, protest continued to build up steam in other parts of the country.

The issues brought up by the campaigns eschewed traditional right and left lines. A generation of young people who, growing up under Thatcherism, had become highly cynical about conventional politics, saw direct action as a way to make their mark on the political scene. …

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