This is the story of how we became human bollards.
On a warm, summer afternoon in 2019, I (Deborah) was standing outside Balliol College on Broad Street and witnessed half a dozen cars and vans drive past the no-entry sign and out at the west end, where the rising bollard has long been broken. I had witnessed this behaviour often before, but this time I somehow couldn’t filter it out.
On this day, I went to stand where the bollard is. The response was unexpectedly empowering: by remaining calm and reasonable when cars approached and the drivers asked me to move, they were persuaded to turn back.
I had much support from passing pedestrians, who applauded, filmed and generally enjoyed the spectacle – which definitely helped!
A bit of context: there are four spots in Oxford City centre (Oriel Square, Broad Street, Turl Street and Cornmarket) where there are supposed to be ‘rising’ bollards in place, to prevent motorised traffic passing through. The bollards in Oriel Square are supposed to rise between 7:30am and 6:00pm, and only lowered for emergency vehicles and vehicles with permitted access (such as council vans doing public works). There are signs facing in both directions clearly showing that access is prohibited to motorised transport, including motorbikes/mopeds. However, the bollards have not been functional for years.
On Cornmarket, there seems to be sufficient critical mass for this not to be an issue for drivers – we are unaware of anyone ignoring the no-entry sign illegally and driving through (though cyclists often choose to ignore the pedestrianised nature of that street between 10.00 a.m and 6.00 p.m).
However, at Oriel Square we have known for some time, but recently witnessed in a very dramatic and real way, that drivers seem to be increasingly using Merton Street-Oriel Sq-King Edward Street to by-pass the camera-enforced bus gate on High Street. Noting a rise in this behaviour, and having discussed potential direct action within the group, in April 2021 we as members of Oxford Pedestrians Association (OxPA) decided to stand in for the bollards.
On a Saturday afternoon in April, OxPA members Sushila Dhall, Cinderella Lingwood and Deborah Glass Woodin, all stood for an hour as human bollards in Oriel Square.
As we stood in for the bollards that first day, we were confronted by drivers revving towards us and demanding we move so they could pass through. When we refused, they first tried to explain their reasons for wanting to pass through (e.g. “I’m picking up my child”, “I need to go to the pharmacist”) and when that didn’t work they became livid. Despite apparently ‘urgent’ reasons to pass, some sat in their cars threatening us for the entire hour-duration of our action rather than find an alternative route.
When their attempts to bully their way through failed, they blared their horns for minutes on end, swore at us and shouted. We were told to ‘get jobs’, that we were too old or too young to be protesting, that we were ‘crazy’. The language was sexist and aggressive. It called for violence, and a few drivers even got out of their cars and shoved phone cameras in our faces. In desperation, one driver called the police to enforce their ‘rights’.
The commotion brought an audience of passers-by who filmed the action and offered their support. When one driver became particularly aggressive, members of the public told him to stop acting like a fool and get back into his car.
When the police arrived, the drivers expected them to arrest us. Instead, they defended our right to protest, and told the drivers that to drive through the sign would be illegal. The officers said that members of the public should not have to put their lives at risk to uphold the law, and that they would continue to lobby the council to repair the bollards. The action ended as planned, after an hour.
Since the first human bollards protest last month, we have continued to be human bollards. Drivers continue to threaten us, though we find 50% now turn away when they see us. We have been joined in these actions by other CoHSAT members including Cyclox and Oxfordshire Liveable Streets. Thank you to everyone who continues to support us.
While we’re seeing that our actions are raising awareness and attracting media attention, the bollards are still broken. And so, we intend to continue being human bollards, at random times of day, until the actual bollards are fixed. Anyone wanting to join or support us is welcome to contact us via Facebook.