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Reclaim the streets

An overview and analysis of police responses to Reclaim the Street (RTS) events in Melbourne and Adelaide.

RTS in Melbourne

It appears that the police in both Melbourne and Sydney have been becoming increasingly intolerant of RTS as they get over their initial surprise at such a brazen community action and develop some 'fears' once they conducted some research into the UK versions of these full scale political street parties.

At the first Melbourne RTS (about two months after the first Sydney one in 1997) Victorian police initially sent a low-level presence of a couple of cars. Then the senior police arrived only after they realised that they had lost control over an entire city street! The police liaison was certainly intense but the police were unprepared and there was no way they could mobilise to move such a large, organised crowd of partying people.

The second Melbourne RTS, however, was substantially different, with a massive police turnout, twenty horses and the Inspectors (senior police) present and in control of the liaison from the outset. The march to the secret site was heavily policed and they had obvious fears that the RTS would take over a major arterial like the first time.

On arrival at the site (Smith Street, Collingwood a relatively minor local road) horses blockaded further movement onto the larger Victoria Parade, RTS road barriers were confiscated and the police began running interference with the party set-up at every turn.

From an initial stated intention of 'shutting the party down, with force if necessary' the police attitude gradually changed to one of grudging tolerance after some incredibly heated and assertive police liaison. (Which also served quite nicely to allow time for enough of the party structure, sound systems and couches, etc to be set up.)

Police attempts to shut down one of the generators failed due to the resilience of the large blockade around it and, again, more assertive police liaison. Police concerns gradually shifted to 'public safety' concerns about the safety of power cords on the streets etc. that we could easily mitigate to allay further police action.

Sydney Glebe Point Road RTS in 1997 was similar in that there was a massive initial police presence, high degree of intolerance and a great deal of concern about which street was planned to be blocked. (RTS organisers need to be aware that the grading of streets on which the RTS is to take place is a large determining factor in the police response any sort of 'secondary or major arterial' road which assists traffic flow through the city will reduce the likelihood that police will 'tolerate' the action.)

RTS in Adelaide

Adelaide held its first Reclaim The Streets (RTS) on Saturday 25 March 2000. There was nonviolent direct action training for organisers including marshals and police liaison people the week before. The organising group was quite large and the training was full of excitement, plans and ideas.

On the Saturday, about 400 people piled into the central square in Adelaide. Several media organisations showed up and interviewed one of the organisers. When everyone was ready the march piled out onto King William St (the largest thoroughfare in the city), blocking all lanes on one side of it completely. The route had been organised so that no single street was blocked for very long, and the marshals managed the traffic very well.

When the march reached the secret party site, part of Hindley St (full of nightclubs and such) it was about 2.30 pm. The road was blocked and the blockage signposted quickly and effectively. Cars wishing to leave the street party area were escorted out. Sound systems had begun playing music, dancing and juggling and a small skatepark had started and a permaculture display garden had been established in the street before the police arrived.

The police soon realised that two of them would not be able to move 400 people and police liaison began in earnest. The police liaison from RTS did a fabulous job of engaging waves of ever more senior police as the police cars arrived. They were assisted by the chosen site being a low traffic area in the afternoon (though it gets very busy at night). Thirty one individual police attended, including six STAR force officers (SA's paramilitary policing team) and 7 cars.

It was difficult for police to argue that the event was badly organised (when it was so obviously elegantly organised, albeit without any permit), or that it was unsafe (when the road had been blocked so as to minimise hassle for motorists and danger to pedestrians), or that businesses were unhappy (when all the businesses had been told in advance, all except one were supportive, and two had opened especially for the event!), or that it was violent (children having their faces painted, people dancing, street decorated with chalk...)

By about 4 pm RTS had negotiated to move the barricade past the business that objected to its presence, provided police ensured the continued safety of that part of the street. A police officer who said "I'm in charge of the city!" arrived and eventually offered to leave RTS alone in place until 7.30 pm provided people then moved, and negotiations among the activists in the street began as to what to do next. Sometime after 7.30 pm people paraded through a busy part of central Adelaide to a city park where they partied on into the night!

It was exciting to be part of such a positive and well-organised event, and to see how well the police liaison team managed what could clearly have been a difficult or violent confrontation with police taken by surprise by a large public event.

Adapted from discussion papers by Anthony Kelly (Melbourne) and Mary Heath (Adelaide).

For further discussion of police tactics see the Police tactics at protests section.