Giving internationalism new meaning

The Liverpool dockers' March for Social Justice took place 10 years ago, on April 12 1997. Chris Knight of the London Dockers Support Group, who acted as the main link with the Reclaim the Streets movement, looks back at the dockers' historic fight

The way I got involved with Reclaim the Streets was interesting. In 1996 I was in Chicago for a conference and I happened to pass a native American shop, where I bought a couple of big elk-skin drums. A few weeks later, on July 13, my work colleague and comrade, Lionel Sims, and I took them along to the third big London-based Reclaim the Streets action - there was a huge street party, which ended up across the M41 motorway in west London. A lot of our students at the University of East London had been going to these street parties, so that was one reason why we were there.

The Reclaim the Streets people heard us banging away and said, "We need them drums - keep banging." They led us through this complicated route, evading the police. We had to get from Shepherd's Bush, along some railway sidings and through a tunnel. Then we passed through a hole in the wire and up onto the motorway with this huge crowd behind us - resulting in a very successful occupation.

One of the biggest banners, stretching right across the road, read: 'Victory to the tube workers" - a strike against privatisation was just getting underway and a definite element of solidarity had been prominent on that action. I thought, 'Well, these people are not just what they've been branded by a lot of the left - middle class anarchists and environmentalists. They're obviously part of the movement.'

And something else struck me really forcefully. I had already been involved in solidarity work with the dockers since 1995. I had seen the Turkish and Kurdish contingent with their traditional costumes dancing on demonstrations though Liverpool. The dockers were waging a courageous class struggle, which previously had been lacking something. Music, colour and rhythm was what the Kurdish and Turkish comrades provided - and perhaps Reclaim the Streets could provide that extra energy too.


I discovered that the next RTS meeting would be in an enormous, disused bus garage behind Kings Cross and it was buzzing - a hive of activity. These young people were making costumes and banners for an action in support of the tube workers. I knew that September 28 would be the first anniversary of the dockers' dispute, so I suggested they make a link with the dockers on that day.

While some people supported the idea, there was also quite a lot of opposition. There were people who thought Reclaim the Streets should remain an anti-car campaign, fundamentally environmentalist. One argument was: 'Why on earth should we support the dockers? I thought they imported cars. What do we have in common?' I said: "Well, why don't we invite some dockers down and let them explain?" So at the next meeting in that bus garage, two dockers from Liverpool came down to tell Reclaim the Streets why they should support their year-old dispute.

Meanwhile Mike Carden, one of the dockers' shop stewards, had obtained new information about why the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company wanted to smash the union. According to Mike, certain members had interests in a proposed new waste disposal company and needed a workforce of pliable scabs who would unload anything for money. The dockers had historically caused trouble by supporting Greenpeace and other environmentalist organisations, acting on their advice and just simply refusing to unload crap. On several occasions, the dockers had been told to unload radioactive waste and had refused.

The two dockers who came down to Reclaim the Streets had been briefed by Mike and were very convincing, although there was still considerable opposition. There was quite a lot of polarisation, unlike with the tube workers. From the point of view of Reclaim the Streets - an anti-car, pro-cyclist, pro-public transport movement - supporting the tube workers was logical.

Shortly afterwards we occupied the St James Park headquarters of London Transport and this had provoked very little disagreement. It was a courageous, daring action that appealed to me. The left just preaches and gives out leaflets saying the leaders must do this and the leaders must do that. But Reclaim the Streets are not like that - if something needs to be done, do it yourself! They don't worry about passing resolutions. So they occupied the LT headquarters and strung a big banner across the roof - 'Don't squeeze the tube'. It made a big impact. A couple of days later we got an official letter of thanks from the London region RMT, signed by Bob Crow. It said: "Reclaim the Streets achieved for the tube workers in one day more than the TUC has done in a decade." We framed that.

On that same day, I heard some bad news. The anti-Criminal Justice Act contingent, which was a huge part of Reclaim the Streets, with their floats and music, were planning a demonstration in London on exactly the same day as the dockers' anniversary, so how could I persuade RTS to come to Liverpool? However, when I attended a meeting of a group called Justice, they had just received a letter from Westminster council and the police, refusing permission to use Hyde Park or Trafalgar Square on September 28. Everyone was so dejected and depressed.

So I said, "Well, how about going up to Liverpool? It's the anniversary of the dockers' dispute. It would give us all a completely different image - signalling that we're not just London-based, we're not just middle-class. We'd be branching out into a big industrial dispute up in the north-west, which has lasted almost a year. It would give us a lift, adding a completely different dimension to Reclaim the Streets." There wasn't a murmur against it.


We met regularly all through the summer and I found the way they organise so impressive. Or rather the way they don't organise. In fact it was anti-organisation, but somehow it seemed to work a lot better than the organisation I had been familiar with. No bureaucratic decisions were ever made. You would sit in a circle all afternoon in some dreadful disused cinema or squat. No-one really hogs the floor and everyone is quiet. It takes a long, long time, but, as the hours pass, a decision seems to emerge. But you know it will be solid - there will be no subsequent arguments or recriminations.

That was what happened in this case. We decided we would go to Liverpool on September 28 and we produced tens of thousand of very small fliers inviting people up. We spent the summer planning the occupation of the quayside. Reclaim the Streets, to be honest, actually wanted quite a bit more. Their angle was to have a big street occupation and party in the centre of Liverpool - a big cultural festival and celebration.

I have to say, though, that there was a dispute within the dockers' shop stewards committee over this whole thing, from very early on. Someone told Jimmy Nolan, the chair of the port shop stewards' committee, that anarchists were going to take over the demonstration and he said: "No way are we going to let those kids come up here and dig up our roads!"

We had a meeting with the shop stewards about six weeks before the anniversary, and the proposal for a festival was formally put. It turned out that Jimmy Davis junior, the committee treasurer's son, was a bit of a rave-goer! He, Billy Jenks and others had already talked it through with Reclaim the Streets and by now the dockers were just brilliant. Jimmy Nolan was persuaded it would be a great idea, although of course the decision which eventually emerged was a bit of a compromise, compared with what RTS had originally had in mind.

In the end, the plan was to have a demonstration through Liverpool with the cultural festival on the quayside. This was in many ways the dream those Kurdish dancers had given me, when they had celebrated with their traditional costumes and their drums and music. It was a really vibrant, wonderful atmosphere - we had a dragon that was actually breathing smoke. When we passed a McDonald's there were rows and rows of tooled-up riot cops, and the guy inside the dragon got carried away - he was nosing right up to them with this smoke billowing out. Afterwards, the dockers would endlessly repeat that particular story.

And what was absolutely magic was the next day. We occupied Customs House at about 2am. There must have been about 600 or 700 of us. Our trucks drove out very quietly and groups of us got through the wire, so that by the time Women of the Waterfront arrived for their morning picket at 5.30, they could hear whistling sounds coming from the top of a gantry and the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company offices.


The dockers did far more than just stand on that picket line. They did far more than just demonstrate. There were a lot of serious direct actions thought up and led by the dockers and it was a very important part of their struggle. I am not saying that they learnt it from Reclaim the Streets, but what happened on September 28 1996 was certainly a model. And the key point is, it was not just Reclaim the Streets that occupied the gantry and got up on the roof on that anniversary celebration - the dockers insisted on doing it themselves.

Take Jimmy Davis junior. Come hell or high water, he was going to get up onto that roof. We had to get the drums out before dawn and place them around a particular area of the fence, to create a commotion while people got to work with hacksaws. Some quite thick metal railings had to be cut. So, while all the drumming and music was going on, the sawing and rasping took place to the same rhythm so the police would not hear the difference. While I was drumming, the dockers were going ching, ching, ching, cutting through that fence. The dockers just had to climb up the gantries to show solidarity with the Reclaim the Streets activists. They were not going to be outdone by a few anarchists or environmentalists.

We did not stop everything from crossing the picket line, but we certainly stopped a hell of a lot on that particular day and it made a huge difference to everyone's morale. It was a fantastic feeling. In fact the dockers mostly said that without that big action on the anniversary it is doubtful the dispute could have carried on. But now there was no question it would continue and there was no way now the media could ignore it. The fact that it had happened went right across the world.

The word 'sexy' does not normally occur to you in relation to labour disputes. But this was a brilliant show of imagination, courage and solidarity connecting environmentalists and trades unionists in a way previously unheard of. The occupation was so successful, it absolutely transformed the dispute.


As I say, many people in Reclaim the Streets had thought of RTS as an anti-car movement. Maybe some were a bit middle class - they wanted to keep all those fumes out of their neighbourhoods and this class stuff was a bit new. It has to be said, though, that on the side of the dockers there were also some reservations: 'Who are these people? We're trying to defend our jobs, but these people don't even want jobs. They've never worked in their lives!'

Yet when the two sides met up there was a terrific bonding. The dockers began saying that they had never worked so hard. All that networking - of the type Reclaim the Streets had always been involved in - was a different kind of work. It was on that basis that the old divisions melted away.

This movement around the dockers became known as Reclaim the Future - the name that the aborted anti-Criminal Justice Act event was going to have. When the Liverpool action was decided on instead, I thought Reclaim the Future would be appropriate for the dockers' anniversary - it could well be taken to mean a future without casualisation, without capitalism. A future which the dockers could look forward to. So why not keep that name? When I put this to the London Dockers Support Group, everyone agreed. So we were not Reclaim the Streets, we were not just the Liverpool dockers. We were Reclaim the Future.

Reclaim the Streets do not think of their events as demonstrations or protests. They think of them more like DIY - if you want something done, do it yourself. Action comes first. And the truth is that many of the dockers - especially the younger ones, but not exclusively - thought that this was not such a bad idea. Occupations of gantries, of scab offices and so forth were conducted jointly between the dockers and these young activists.

But RTS learnt enormously from the dockers. They learnt first-hand the meaning of class struggle, class solidarity, the fact that you don't cross a picket line. For many that was a foreign country. But in Liverpool, they had been living with the dockers, bonding with them, becoming friends. The key people that were involved in this anniversary action became very, very close to the dockers. Terrific friendships were formed and links made up in Liverpool.

It was not too long before we were labelled 'the anti-capitalists' by the media. I admit that Reclaim the Streets was already against the system. It was already anti-capitalist because it is difficult to be a consistent environmentalist without being against capitalism. But it was not explicit at first. It was the link with the dockers that made it clear that this was an anti-capitalist class struggle movement of some sort.


Anyway, our action projected the dispute onto a new plane. Clearly the dockers had internationalised it right from the very beginning. They had gone out with plastic buckets and collected money to buy air tickets to fly out to US ports, establishing picket lines and inspiring solidarity action. But there had been a huge media blackout, so almost nothing had got out. September 28 just blasted that to smithereens.

Right across the world - but especially in Seattle, Los Angeles and along the west coast of America - people took their cue from what had happened in Liverpool. The US environmentalists woke up to the fact that here was a dispute on their doorstep that was worth supporting. That was what the whole action became - a move to 'reclaim the future' across the world.

There is no question that it was a precursor of Seattle 1999. I do not want to be sectarian, but there are still those on the left who have never acknowledged this. Many good comrades of mine are members of the Socialist Workers Party and they are doing great work. But you will notice that the dockers are never mentioned in anything the SWP writes about Seattle.

It was the same with June 18 1998, the great anti-capitalist event in central London which stopped the city for a day. For many in the SWP it came as a complete surprise. 'Where the hell did that come from?' they asked.

Of course, the SWP have been able to construct a story about Seattle. The trouble is that it misses out the main thing. You will not find in their version any mention of what the dockers and their 'international' succeeded in doing across the planet, especially on that stupendous day when you could say that the whole planet skipped a heartbeat - January 20 1997. On our International Day of Action, the whole west coast of America came out on strike in solidarity with Liverpool - these actions brought together environmentalists and trade unionists long before November 30 1999. Seattle did not come out of nowhere - the ground was prepared by the Liverpool dockers.


By the time of the March for Social Justice on April 12 1997, there was a big network in place involving the dockers support groups across the country and people in Reclaim the Streets who had now become really committed to the dockers' cause. The most active dockers were central to this same network. Sometimes, there was tension between the two and we always had to discuss things.

Reclaim the Streets and the London Support Group had been organising separately, so I was very much on both sides. I was the LSG chief steward for the march and had to negotiate with the police. But I was also very much involved with Reclaim the Streets, who never negotiate with the police. Of course, they have a strong case for not doing so - if you talk to the police and anything goes wrong, you feel under some kind of moral pressure.

April 12 itself was originally designed to be a bit more than a demonstration from Kennington Park to Trafalgar Square. Part of the plan was to stage an occupation of the big department of the environment offices near Westminster Bridge. Well, some of the dockers were a little bit worried about it, but in any case the police got wind of it and erected massive barricades around the DOE building. So plan B had to be implemented instead - a big action in Trafalgar Square.

It was Reclaim the Streets who shinned right up the buildings in Trafalgar Square with big banners that read 'Victory to the dockers'. It was more than the usual kind of thing - just a march and speeches. Obviously we did have speeches, but it was quite a bit more than that. Mounted police were charging up and down Whitehall and some of the older dockers might have been a bit worried about what was happening - 'If we go along with this it will be anarchy!'

We had a few disputes within the London Support Group as well. They were never sectarian and always comradely, but there were genuine difficulties in keeping the whole thing together, as there were bound to be. After the September 28 action, Jimmy Nolan had introduced Reclaim the Streets activists to the 500 dockers, to a prolonged standing ovation. The TGWU officials had been denouncing RTS as anarchists, so Jimmy invoked the Spanish civil war, saying: "I am proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with these anarchists!" But after the March for Social Justice it was getting quite tricky in practice.

On the Reclaim the Streets side, there had been people who were saying, 'What are we doing talking to the police at all? Why do we have to march from A to B?' Among the dockers, there were also concerns and worries. But in the end I have to say the plans were agreed collectively as to what we did on that day. But the direct action, which was illegal, had to be planned on a 'need to know' basis. So some of the dockers knew the details and others did not.

We were all concerned because there would be women and children on the march and we were not sure how violent the police would be. Reclaim the Streets - like us revolutionaries - do not favour violence, but, on the other hand, to insist on that when the police are beating you over the head is ridiculous. Reclaim the Streets did try very hard, in my experience, to use dance, music and rhythm, to be infectious and find other ways to avoid violence.

The point is, we are not the source of violence - the state and the police are. On occasion people from outside have come along and wanted to chuck bottles and so on, but that has never been approved of and never been thought of as particularly intelligent.


Nevertheless, April 12 1997 was an enormously powerful demonstration and celebratory action. It was a hugely successful coming together of environmentalists, trade unionists and activists. Again, I do not think it would have happened without the link that was made on the Liverpool anniversary action.

When I first got into politics, internationalism meant having comrades in Ceylon or Sweden and trying to form something called an international. Nowadays, we are a global movement against capitalism. And I would say the dockers have a right to be proud of the part they played in that.

Liverpool was perhaps the longest-running industrial dispute in the history of the British labour movement, mobilising global proletarian solidarity on a scale never equalled before. In a way they lost that dispute. But the planet has changed as a result. By winning over a whole swathe of variegated political activists - anarchists, greens, whatever - to the cause of the working class, they added a whole new dimension.