Peoples' movements and protests




About an insane project, a remarkable uprising and the emergence of a peculiar political tradition





by Jan Wiklund



In 1944, Stockholm's leading politicians at the time, Yngve Larsson and Sven Markelius, the city's director of urban planning, imagined that the business community in Stockholm obviously needed an American-style Central Business District, and that the central parts of Stockholm should therefore be demolished. They did not bother to ask the same business community. Nor did they ask themselves whether this hypothetical need was worth razing a couple of square kilometres and chasing away the people and businesses that belonged there. So confident were they that they managed to convince a majority of the city council that they had found the solution to the problems of the future.

By the end of the 1950s, the centre of Stockholm was a pit and the city was waiting in vain for interested companies to build there. Many people began to think that something had gone wrong, and a majority of city hall politicians – including Yngve Larsson himself – began to reconsider their position. But then the city building bureaucracy, backed by the construction industry, launched a campaign to save the jobs they saw disappearing. And the politicians changed their minds again.

Stockholmers in general were also tired of demolitions and potholes. In 1963, the opposition gathered in the Urban Environment Group, which was, however, well-behaved and devoted exclusively to debates, oral and written. The political situation at that time was quite happy in Sweden, social reforms were coming thick and fast and living standards were rising all the time. And the demolitions continued.

In 1969, a new kind of opinion group was formed, Alternativ Stad (Alternative City). Alternativ Stad had its roots in the generally questioning spirit of the late 1960s, and more specifically in an action against the commercialisation of Christmas in 1968. Instead of a shopping spree, Stockholmers were invited to a Christmas party and get-together at Konstfack (Stockholm High school of Arts, Crafts and Design), which they had borrowed. Continuing with an action against the commercialisation of central Stockholm was seen as natural. This anti-commercial demonstration was joined by a group of oppositional architecture students who turned against modernism's usual division of functions and the supremacy of car traffic. Opposition to car traffic would remain the mainstream of Alternativ Stad long after the issue of central Stockholm was settled. Alternativ Stad was also organisationally innovative. There was no board of directors, there were weekly meetings, major meetings and working groups – plus routines for making decisions. It was a structure that suited an upsirge but would cause some problems later on.

In its first year, Alternativ Stad tried to stop the eastward expansion of the 'national pit' with meetings and demonstrations, without success. At the same time, the world's first Reclaim the Streets action was organised on 24 August 1969. Plus many smaller actions such as when found park benches were placed at bus stops for the convenience of tired travellers.

The big turning point came in 1971. Alternativ Stad had also been campaigning for a year to preserve a grove of elms around an outdoor café in the city centre, a popular haunt for young people because the owner was so obviously fond of young people and let them sit there all night with a cup of tea. A metro station was to be built there and the plan was to remove both the trees and the café. Well in advance of the tree felling, Alternativ Stad had launched a list of names for those who wanted to be there; from this list a telephone chain was made (which was the Facebook event of the time) and when Alternativ Stad’s man at the park administration plus a policewoman pointed out the same night for felling, the telephone chain went off. A couple of thousand people arrived at midnight on 11-12 May and broke through the police barriers, some climbed the trees and the police gave up. After a few days of occupation, the city hall also gave up.

One can theorise about why the campaign succeeded, why the political establishment gave up in the face of a violent action by a few thousand people. But the fact was that the policy of demolition had become massively unpopular and also expensive, and therefore indefensible. Presumably they were waiting for an excuse to abandon the project.

Nonetheless, Alternativ Stad had been given a boost and launched a number of working groups. The most high-profile was a campaign against a regional plan for Stockholm comprising many new peripheral suburbs linked by motorways (the plan was scrapped in 1972), plus a parallel meeting at the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Stockholm in 1972. After that, you could say with M K Gandhi that the energy was gone - a political campaign cannot last more than four years or people get tired.

However, Alternativ Stad has continued to work for more than fifty years, in the spirit of what is internationally known as environmental justice. That is, the important thing is people, not nature, ideals or ideologies:

” Is Alternativ Stad a leftist group?

That question has been put to us by many, having seen that we are against the sell-off of public services and because we use terms such as class.

Life is not easy. In the seventies, people wondered if we were Centre Party because we talked about the environment.

But seriously - what is it really like?

One thing is clear. We don’t buy into comprehensive programmes wherever they come from. We don’t want to empower commerce, which is arguably a left-wing position. But we do not want to give more power to state bureaucratic planning either, after the unfortunate experiences with regional plans and city plans in the seventies, which can also be said to be a right-wing position.

And yet it is not.

Simply put, Alternativ Stad looks with scepticism at all hierarchies, both state and private. We do not, in an anarchic zeal, want to do away with them - they probably fulfil a function otherwise they would not exist - but we see it as extremely important to limit their power.

To create counter-power.

To empower citizens, beyond all ideological labels. To broaden the possibilities of being human, beyond all fixed customer and subject routines and roles.

In the seventies, we mostly turned against the destructive planning of the state and the municipality, because it was the most dynamic destructiveness then.

Today we mostly turn against the business community’s takeover of more and more positions of power and spaces because it is the most dynamic destructiveness today.

If Alternativ Stad stands for any tradition, it is perhaps the people’s movement tradition - the one that covers everything from the non-conformist church and the temperance movement to trade unions to Peoples’ Global Action and the Zapatistas. That is to say, one in which practical solutions to practical problems are at the forefront and ideologies are strictly subordinated to this purpose.

And where democratic participation takes precedence over routines, organisations, privileges and turf."

Doctrinaires have never had anything to gain in Alternativ Stad. ”You people in Alternativ Stad are completely unprincipled,” an otherwise friendly anarchist once exclaimed, and we gratefully licked our chops.

A new wave of activism emerged in the late 80s based on the general European opposition to motorways, reinforced by the 90s summit protests against the commercialisation of the world<>. Participants tend to remember particularly fondly when Alternativ Stad, as the only Swedish organisation, participated in the protests against European unemployment in the run-up to the EU summit in Amsterdam in 1997. The connecting point was, of course, that all unemployed people were needed to rebuild Europe into sustainability.

The 1980s was also a decade of reflection and thinking about what the soul of Alternative City really is. It is from this reflection that this website has emerged.

More about Alternativ Stad’s activities can be found here (in Swedish).


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