Towers Of Strength
Inside Europe's longest eviction. Report and interviews with protesters against the M11 Link Road.
Last December, the longest eviction in post-war European history took place at Claremont Road, East London. Resisting it all the way, with imagination and resilience, were over 400 non-violent direct action stars. Jim Carey spoke to five of them, whilst Nick Cobbing dangled from the roofs with his camera.
Squall 9, Jan/Feb 1995, pp.18-22
“It was probably the most amazing week I’ve ever experienced in my life, the most rich, intense, thing - furthest removed from anything I’ve ever experienced in my normal life otherwise.” Phil - Last person evicted from Claremont Road.
“The phenomenal thing is, Amsterdam was the longest eviction before this one at two and a half days and they had AK 47s and Kalashnikovs, so the fact that we held out with ingenuity and non-violence - that was the beauty of it.” Martin - Evicted after nearly three days on the wooden tower.
On Monday November 28 , 700 police, 200 bailiffs and 400 security guards surged in to Claremont Road, East London and spent the next four days and £2 million evicting one of the most imaginative political protests of modern times.
Whilst the No M11 Campaign didn’t stop the £240 million link road from carving its way through Leytonstone, it did play a major part in forcing the environmental implications of road building onto the national political agenda. More than that, it also showed a nation disillusioned with political accountability, that they can come together to protest in a significant way.
“They did one eviction previously that we hadn’t been warned about so we were frightened by surprise things,” recalls Phil. “But we knew it was gonna happen this time when we did get all the confirmations. In the beginning I hadn’t expected so many people but obviously they got the feeling. Because we knew, somehow it seeped out that this one was for sure - so we had about 400 people there at the beginning and the tension was just unbelievable.”
Alison was one of several protesters, watching the arrival of the eviction force from a 100 ft high scaffolding tower, specially built to resist the eviction.
“They just surged down the street and there was all these helmets and uniforms pushing everybody out and it was kind of scary at first. Most of the time you feel completely disempowered when you’re faced with loads and loads of police, but we had a sound system at the top of the tower and it was playing ‘Music for a Jilted Generation’ by The Prodigy. It made it seem that it was our eviction. We couldn’t control what happened but we had complete control of the sound. The music took everything over, raised everyone’s spirits and kept everybody together.”
Phil was also watching the arrival from the scaffolding tower, dancing as the diggers droned:
“It was two o’clock and the time was ticking. We had music playing on top of the tower, blaring out full volume. We were all raving when the police cars came round the corner and filled up all of Grove Green Road - completely packed. Suddenly loads and loads of these blue helmets surged in, moving everyone off the street.”
One of the first things the Police did, was to cut off the electricity to the street in order to silence the music. Twenty minutes later however, and much to the puzzled annoyance of the police, the sound system came back on courtesy of an underground electricity source. Code-named ‘Vicki’, a specially prepared tunnel stretched out beyond the police cordon and for many more hours, provided both a food supply and a power line; pumping the music and morale of those resisting the riot squad. “It made it all quite euphoric,” says Maxine of the music and the atmosphere. She was lying locked-on to the road itself as the eviction force flooded in:
"We didn’t realise how many of them there were. We thought there was gonna be about a couple of hundred, maybe equally matched with the number of protesters. I was lying there reading the newspaper actually - trying to be as cool as possible. They just walked on me cause they didn’t really see where I was. The house in front of me was crumbling, so somebody had put up some scaffolding. They removed that as soon as they arrived, even though they knew that was the situation. I started to get worried when after 2 hours of being there, they moved out all the media and legal observers."
Having lived in the area for much of her life, Maxine had very definite reasons for locking her arm into a specially prepared tube, sunk into the road itself.
“It was very upsetting for me when the Green was bulldozed. I used to stand there to get the bus to school. It’s a really poor area, there’s no money getting pumped into to rejuvenate it. There’s nothing for young people to do around here - it’s a really stifling place. They could have given £20 million to the area to rejuvenate it but then there’s this road costing over £200 million, just for commuters to drive more cars into the city - more pollution, more children get asthma, more people get generally unhealthy. The No M11 Campaign was brilliant. The way they secured those houses was like a fortress. I could not believe there was people underneath the houses with rubble on top of them - so brave.”
The diversity of techniques developed to resist the eviction of Claremont was a striking example of the inventive possibilities of non-violent direct action. There were protesters locked into the road with strapping, protesters sealed into the basements of the condemned houses and protesters dangling in netting stretched across almost the entire length of the road. Every tree in the arboreal line that separated the road from the tube track supported a tree- house packed with locked-on protesters. The roofs of the houses were crammed, as were the wooden tower on the top of No 15 and the 100 ft scaffolding tower that was later to become the last refuge.
Lock-ons have become an evolved feature of non-violent direct action, reaching an advanced development on the No M11 Campaign. Using hand strapping devices known as ‘Karabiners’, it is possible to lock your hand to a metal rod at the end of a sunken tube. Only the locked-on person is able to unlock themselves, leaving the bailiffs and police powerless to remove them, other than by drilling into the tarmac or concrete. Some protesters locked into the ground through obstacles such as mattresses, corrugated iron and steel plates, rendering their removal even more difficult. From his position on the wooden tower, Martin could see the ground lock-ons lying amid the throng of riot police, bailiffs and security guards.
“The ground lock-ons were the most lonely and unglamorous because no-one can help you. You’re down there on your own and they’re standing above you and can do what the fuck they want.”
By the time the police arrived at 2.20pm, Maxine had already been lying locked to the road for 3 1/2 hours.
“I was dying for a piss,” she recalls. “But I held it in.
“When they first arrived the police tried to get us out but we said we are physically attached to the road and you can’t pull us out. Then I got this dust in my face which everyone in the tree-house opposite me later said looked on purpose. Then I got hit round the head with something - I don’t know what it was but I had a massive lump on the back of my head. The security guards were laughing but the police said ‘oh are you alright?’, but I don’t know if they were very sympathetic at all. I was eventually dug out with a pneumatic drill at around 8pm on Monday. - I felt woozy but I decided not to go to hospital. The next day I was sick and went to the hospital, they said it was concussion.”
Martin spent the days of eviction either on the roof of a condemned house with his head in a noose, or perched on top of the wooden tower:
“For the noose they did a special operation,” he recalls. “A cherry-picker went to one part of the house and everybody went over to that part and they sneaked round and took the noose. It was a big success for them when they cut the noose off - they really believed someone was gonna do it.”
One of the highly effective and ingenious resistance techniques was the use of rope-netting stretched from the roofs of the condemned houses across the road to the tree-houses.
“The nets were a major success,” recalls Martin. “Supplies were coming in and people could go up and down the whole street on the nets. They can’t cut you from underneath the net unless they actually grab hold of you. They were chasing Kie around the nets for hours. He was dancing round like a fly - it was brilliant. When they actually got hold of him they not only cuffed him but they had a policeman on each foot and put a bag over his head. We’ve actually got that on film thank god.
“The nets connected everything, we started losing when the nets went - we were suddenly individuals not connected up.”
Eddie arrived at Claremont Road only a few days before the final eviction and found himself spending two cold nights in the nets.
“This is all a new scene to me, I came down on Thursday just to help out - just to observe. I do a lot of rock climbing and I asked if they wanted rock-climbers to go up the scaffolding. But they said there was too many people on the tower so I stayed on the nets.
“I didn’t move out of the net for 2 days. I had only a T-shirt and a jumper on, so I caught mild hypothermia and was vomiting. A policeman come up to me and asked for two minutes of my time. I said OK fair enough, I’ll listen but I’m not gonna take any notice. I said the only way you’re gonna get me off this is if you explain to one of the organisers - one of the persons I really respect. If they tell me to get off the nets then I’ll get off the nets. They explained it to a guy I knew and he told me to get off the nets. They escorted me off and the first thing I did was find a fire.”
“At night, after all the press and media had gone away, the bailiffs started cutting the nets with people on them,” recalls Phil. “It was a really dodgy thing ‘cos obviously the protesters had to be close enough so that the bailiffs wouldn’t cut the net but if they were too close, the bailiffs would start nabbing them. I saw one really hairy moment when they cut the net and someone fell but just managed to grab the net again.”
Most of the protesters held their breath however, when one girl fell through the net and into a crumpled and motionless heap on the tarmac.
“They ripped a hole in the nets and a girl was falling through,” recalls Maxine from her road lock-on position by the first house. “They were trying to grab hold of her, so she put her feet on the digger and everyone shouted for the digger to stop. It didn’t stop so she fell right onto the floor and I thought she was badly hurt.”
Fortunately she recovered later, with bruising her only injury.
“When she fell out of the netting, people started to get very scared,” continues Maxine. “It just looked like danger demolition - looked like they did not give a shit how they were gonna get people out as long as they got people out. I mean they didn’t get a stretcher for her, they just carried her out. It was like ‘let’s just get rid of these people’.”
For Martin, the final showdown came on the wooden tower built on top of No 15 Claremont Road, the house lived in for ten years by Mick.
“In the end there was 6 of us left on the tower locked-on to the wooden tower. It was Mick’s house and because Mick had lived there for ten years and was on the roof with us - he was hardcore. The sheriffs had to draw straws who was gonna have to take that house. They went from being really violent and aggressive people and then seeing that all we could do was resist - we weren’t gonna hurt them. They had these Stanley knives to cut the strapping and they dragged me off.
“On the way down in the cherry-picker they both went ‘Respect - you lost but due respect. We’ve never had to do anything like this before.’ - absolutely phenomenal.
“They were gonna give me a hiding ten minutes before, that is the power of the whole thing to change people. They’re just tools of the state and they were scared - up to that point they thought we were gonna give them a good kicking and throw bricks on their head and all that. We looked them straight in the eyes and we said it’s not personal - that is the important thing - it’s not personal. Up to that point because they were scared as well, it was personal with them. But they were just one ideal and we were another ideal and all we could do was hang on for dear life, then they sort of chilled out. We’re training them; they’re learning from us.”
The availability of hot food and tea during the days of the eviction proved essential to the continuing moral and internal warmth of the protesters. Over in Mick’s house an open fire was kept going, to which a number of the protesters flocked as a respite from the freezing nights. The Jazz Cafe, a previously permanent and communal feature of Claremont Road, also made a heroic reappearance.
“During the day I tended to be up the tower because we were worried about them sending up a crack team of climbers when no-one was really guarding it,” recalls Phil. “By Tuesday evening I relaxed a bit. It was brilliant, I’d come down, wander along the roofs and help Keith set up the Cafe on the roof of the flat house. He was making beans on toast and cups of tea for people! Then I’d wander over the nets to Mick’s house and sit down in front of the good fire they had going in there. Then I’d wander over the nets to the tree-house for a chat.”
For many people the plate of beans on toast, the hot cups of tea and the very existence of the cafe were warming features of a cold siege, and fuel for perseverance.
“One thing I realise in retrospect was that all the effort we put into building towers, bunkers and the most insanely complicated barricades - if we had spent a tenth of that time organising blankets, loads of food, thermos flasks and gas stoves, we could have had people up there for ages,” observes Phil. “A lot of people went down in the night just because they were shivering to death.”
By Wednesday night the roofs had all been cleared. Only the scaffolding tower remained, smeared with grease and illuminated by powerful halogen floodlights; a formidable monument to resistance and visible from all the surrounding police road blocks. Most of the arrests made during the eviction were of people who were trying to break back into the site in order to get provisions to the remaining protesters. Throughout the course of the eviction, a radius of about a half mile round Claremont Road resembled a full on military operation, with the press photographers kept in a small ‘sheep’ pen across the tracks and away from the thick of the action. Road blocks were heavily manned and the tube track lined with riot police, illuminated at night by passing trains but otherwise lying quietly in wait for any would be cordon-breakers. The large graveyard on the other side of the tube tracks was full of shadows; sealed off by police and patrolled constantly with torches off. Chief Inspectors warmed themselves by fires throughout the night, whilst hundreds of hard hatted security guards milled around smoking, all dramatically illuminated by powerful floodlights. From beyond the heavily manned police road blocks, evicted protesters and late arrivals shouted support to those still on the tower after over three days of eviction.
“There was loads of support from people cheering across the road - ‘Power to the Tower - Power to the Tower’. It was brilliant,” says Phil recalling the morale boost.
Alison had been up the tower for almost the entire course of the eviction, only coming down twice in the night to visit the fire at Keith’s roof-top cafe, and to speak to people still left on the roofs. Once everyone else had been evicted from the site, she, Phil and five others, were left to hold the tower:
“First of all they came up and said ‘There’s a really bad weather front coming in. We think it’s dangerous and you ought to come down,” she recalls. “So we radioed base on the CB and they said it’s a load of bollocks. Then they came up again and said ‘This is a scaffolding expert and he says your tower is leaning by 13 degrees - so we figure it’s really dangerous and you’d better come down’. But that was a load of bollocks too, ‘cos compared to the block of flats over the road, the poles were straight. Then they came up and said ‘Right we’re gonna evict you using minimum required force’.”
The bailiffs and security guards decided that they didn’t want to have anything to do with dangling 100 ft up in the air trying to remove people from the tower, so the cherry-picker boom arms that stretched up to the protesters, were full of police.
“We had this big thick chain that Greenpeace had paid for, and we chained ourselves to each other and to the scaffolding,” continues Alison. “They came up with these bolt croppers and they didn’t touch the chain. Then they came up with these big hydraulic bolt croppers and we sat there looking really smug, thinking this is a really big chain, it cost a couple of hundred quid - they’re never gonna get through it, but they did. We weren’t really expecting it to be that easy for them. They tied a bit of rope to me and I kept untying it; all I could do was hold onto the scaffolding poles. The policeman said ‘You said you wouldn’t resist, I’m gonna put quick cuffs on you and its gonna hurt’. Then they sat on me and I didn’t really have much of a chance. They put me in the cherry-picker and sat on me all the way down.”
A large number of the protesters evicted and brought out of Claremont Road report being photographed or filmed by the Police. Many of these were given a notice not to return to the area and asked for their names and addresses, including Alison:
“I could see they were doing it to everybody from when I was up the tower watching everything, so when I got down I covered my face. I could see through my fingers that there was a police photographer on Claremont Road and then they led me to the junction of Grove Green Road and Claremont Road where there were a couple of police with a video camera set up on a tripod. They were filming me even though I had my hands over my face. They had no right to be asking us - I told them my name was Norma Leven-Link and my address was 66, Claremont Road.”
After Alison and five others were removed from the tower, Phil, who had elected not to lock-on, was left sidling around the edges; balancing on the scaffolding poles 100 ft up and moving whenever the mechanical boom arms swung near.
“It was about 1-2pm on Thursday afternoon when the last people went down. I didn’t have any water because after they got the last person they tipped it all away. Then they went through all the stuff on the tower and started moving that. I managed to get three blankets and move to the top. For some reason they took everything else down off the tower and left a saw. There were some spare bits of wood that were used to barricade the tower so I cut them up to keep myself warm and made myself a coffinlike thing; tied it all up with ropes, laid some planks over the top and slept in that. It was a bit too small and my feet poked out the end and got really cold but it was OK - I had a warmer night's sleep than some of the people who had been in the tower before.
“There was a police negotiator coming up in a cherry-picker to see if I was alright and to let me know that he had my best interests at heart - looking at me constantly in the eyes and speaking in a most sincere way, saying that it was my well being, and ‘you know it’s very dangerous’ and ‘I’m concerned for your safety Phil’. I was in fact calling myself Mike Link cause then we get mail arriving at Claremont Road for M Link, but he found out I was Phil.
“Basically the whole thing was a sleep deprivation exercise. I was sleeping quite soundly actually but he was hassling me all night, coming up to see if I was alright.
“At dawn I was asleep in my coffin and the whole tower started shaking. I lifted up a couple of wooden slats in front of my face and suddenly the police were on me and they had me. It was the same police who had been really matey the day before and now they were saying - ‘You move and you’re fucking....” They were really aggressive as they put cuffs on me and then they suddenly switched back, smiling and saying ‘We’re friends again now - Were you cold over night? - Did you have enough blankets?’. It came out in the press that I had voluntarily left the tower at 7 am but it must have been a police press release ‘cos I didn’t volunteer.”
That extra night on the scaffolding tower cost another £500,000 of eviction time, pushing the total cost of the eviction to £2 million and the total cost of evicting all the No M11 protest occupations to £6 million.
The aim according to Maxine was always to “make it as expensive as possible to build the road”, acknowledging that the only place that the DoT and the Government have any remnants of feeling, is in their wallets and bank accounts.
“The road’s costing over £200 million and it’s unnecessary. I personally think it’s justifiable that people can go out and protest. People have said ‘Look I’m sorry but I’m not taking this anymore.”
“Direct action is a theatre,” observed Phil after a long recovery sleep. “The media like that. A mixture of symbols and real decision making - wars and celebrities - they flip back and forward - they drop interest really quickly. Direct action is totally direct; it’s real and not just mediated politics. The agreement on non-violence is ritualised. It’s like a performance everyone knows they’re gonna get evicted, everyone knew that we’re not gonna stop them building the road at this point. It is a form of ritual but at the same time it’s completely real.”
“It is a massive force to be reckoned with,” adds Alison. “The trouble is convincing people that everyone of them counts. One of the biggest things a campaign like this can achieve is getting individual people involved in the empowering experience of non-violent direct action and that changes them and their attitude to everything they come up against in life.”
It is certainly the case with Eddie, despite the hypothermia and vomiting he suffered after two nights in the nets.
“Now I’ve seen the energy and how fantastic these people here are, you’ll see a lot more of me,” he says. “I’ve no longer got my van, I sold it last Sunday night - you know pollution and that, but I’m still mobile - I’ve got my bicycle. I’m not a political person never will be, but there’s a road protest in Preston I fancy going to.”
The 500 protesters that resisted the eviction of Claremont Road last December, helped give back a stolen significance to ethical and environmental voices. With passion, commitment, inventiveness and just cause, the No M11 Campaigners fought for our right to breathe; both with our lungs and our social concerns.
Life In The Fast Lane - The No M11 Story (1995) - viewable for free online - produced and directed by Mayyasa Al-Malazi and Neil Goodwin
ROAD-HOUSE BLUES - The largest Road and Housing protest in Europe erupts in Wanstonia, NE London, to fight the M11 Link Rd - Squall 6, Spring 1994
Arsonists Who Attacked No-M11 Protester Are Jailed - Squall 8, Autumn 1994.
For a menu of many other Squall articles about the Anti-Roads Movement, including protest camps, Reclaim The Streets and more click here