Tolerance for noise has undoubtedly increased over the last 50 years and it might seem unusual for traffic to be the starting point for a protest. But, on the other hand, the benefits of a peaceful living and working environment are becoming more and more obvious. This is the reason for constructing noise reduction barriers and soundproofing rooms.
But such technologies did not exist when the demands for the reduction of traffic volumes on Aškerčeva Street occurred in 1971. And the traffic flowed in a very different way. Tivolska Street had not yet been built (the construction of VII. Korpus Street, as it was known then, started in 1978) and work on the Ljubljana bypass was not to start for several years. Less than ten years ago Zoisova Street was a cul de sac, trams had been replaced by trolleybuses. Ljubljana's star-like design and incomplete municipal centres, coupled with a booming economy and growing number of inhabitants, led to a busy and bustling city centre. Noise, problems crossing the road, constant tremors, bad air etc. Fed up students announced a demonstration that would block traffic on Aškerčeva Street on the 14th of April. The protest was promoted by an anonymous leaflet Technology against people or technology for people, which also attracted considerable attention among the wider public.
Despite the leaflet's barbs, the students had registered the protest in line with the regulations, at the Agency for Public Security (UJV). It was carried out – for longer than planned – on Wednesday, 14th April. They set themselves up between the Faculty of Arts and today's school centre on Aškerčeva Street and later without prior notice headed for the Post Office and Parliament.
The occupation of Aškerčeva Street
Bojan Štih wrote in the Naši razgledi journal that the students were joined by numerous professors, but there were no other external guests, and this, in his opinion, justified even more the students' demands and the awareness that their freedom was being curtailed, in other words their right to think differently. Štih stressed that even though the number of passengers on Aškerčeva Street surpassed the number of students at the local Faculties, freedom was not a privilege of the majority, as Rosa Luxembourg had already pointed out. And this is the reason why the protest was much more than an expression of the students’ desire for silence. The younger generation “did not want to put in place a ‘protest-romantic nothing’ during the demonstrations; it raised its voice because it could not and refused to accept the modern world as a prescribed and self-confirmed social reality and entity.”
The protest in front of the Faculty of Arts, in which between 2,000 and 3,000 students took part, started in the morning. While listening to speeches the demonstration poured along Aškerčeva Street. The programme was scheduled to last 30 minutes and at first the Action Committee feared that it would be too short. But then the programme lengthened considerably due to the increasing number of speeches made by both invited and unofficial speakers, who had asked to have a say – the microphone was available to anyone – and that’s how Jadran Strle read a children's poem about the homeland. Students also called Tone Kolar, the president of the Center municipality, to the microphone but booed him because he failed to come up with immediate measures due to a lack of funding. The protest was scheduled to finish by 1pm, but there was no indication that the students were about to stop, let alone disperse, especially after they received a telegram expressing solidarity from students in Belgrade: ‘Demand a stop to traffic during certain hours – report back what you achieve.’
Doubts about the effect of the protest
The most ardent ones pushed for more enduring measures – such as digging a hole in the road or putting up barricades. The restless atmosphere was enlivened by a number of anti-police statements, one of the most well-known being ‘shooting the policemen between the eyes’ by Milan Jesih. Different factions within the movement interpreted these statements either in a very concrete or extremely metaphorical manner. The student leadership found themselves with the problem of how to stop the protest in a peaceful way and how to unblock the traffic, which the police had been in the meantime diverting along nearby streets.
Shortly before 2pm, the leadership took control of the situation and deemed that the agreement with the Agency for Public Security should be respected. It gave an ultimatum to the city and to the leadership of the Republic: the city has to arrange a detour within ten days and the latter should call an extraordinary session to consider their issues. ‘If the problem is not solved within ten days or if we do not receive a well-argued answer, we will continue with radical actions using all available means,’ they wrote, threatening another rally on the 26th of April at noon. They also suggested that traffic should be re-routed between 7am and 9pm.
An ultimatum in front of the Parliament – with the consent of the police
Then, with the call by Jaša Zlobec ‘Now, everybody to the front of parliament!’ they marched along Gradišče towards the city centre, creating a veritable traffic jam. The police did not stand in their way, but a police line backed up with a water cannon was waiting for them at Kazina. It is said that the police were poorly equipped, in old uniforms and fire fighters’ helmets, ‘only their shoes were tougher than usual,’ recalls Tone Stojko for the Delo newspaper. The police prevented the demonstration from marching towards Ajdovščina and the RTV Centre (some were even suggesting an occupation of the RTV Centre) and stopped the marchers from reaching the parliament building itself. Professor Vojan Rus intervened, after which the police cleared Šubičeva Street and even lent a megaphone to the students, so that Darko Štrajn could read out the students’ ultimatum in front of the building of today’s parliament. At 3pm the students slowly began to disperse.
The event woke up the media, which started to devote more attention to the issue of 'heavy traffic' in Ljubljana and to reflect on how it must be like to work on a street with an even heavier traffic than Aškerčeva Street. Data from 1969 showed as many as 22,500 vehicles in a 16 hour period on Prešernova Street, 15,200 on Zoisova and 12,080 on Aškerčeva. Ljubljana’s urban planning agency promised to deliver a detailed study of traffic conditions for the current year by June.
Professors evaluate the occupation
A university committee, with some members not present, discussed the rally at two sessions, the first the day before and the second the day after the event. At the first session it justified the rally as a means of protesting for the reduction of traffic flow. It also pointed to broader social issues and stated that the rally would probably last longer than an hour. Furthermore, the committee said it trusted the student organisers, as many of them were communists, but added that articles in the special issue of Tribuna magazine should have been more balanced regarding individual actions and actual demands. At the second session they evaluated the protest and the way it had resonated with the public. The committee welcomed peaceful nature of the rally, because rioting had been limited to individuals, who did not gain the support of others. It also welcomed the reality of the students’ endeavours and the media coverage, including that of RTV Slovenija. The committee endorsed the students’ ultimatum.
The committee pointed out various shortfalls in the organisation, particularly insufficiently prepared material (studies about a possible detour and the renovation of Aškerčeva Street), the poorly organised management of the speakers and the fact that the length of the rally was inadequate given the mood. It also stated that the opinions expressed through the action committee were inconsistent and wanted to see a greater participation by professors and the tailoring of protests to individual issues, which included the reform of the university and its work. The committee concluded that raising the awareness of individuals and mass shock actions were not enough to attain the goals – everything needed to be wrapped up into an organised operation, with a persistent shaping of suggestions, arguments and demands. The committee also endorsed further rallies in cooperation with the police, the work of whom was commended as being sober and sensible.
It soon became clear that the 10 day deadline was too audacious a demand. The Aškerčeva action committee continued to organise events warning of the traffic problem. The next one took place soon afterwards, on the 19th of April, at the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering and several similar gatherings were held in May. Jaša Zlobec wrote in Tribuna magazine: ‘The Wednesday demonstrations taught us many things. This society is incapable of solving problems successfully and completely. The example of the street and its noise needs to serve us in our future actions. We must not stay quiet about the problems we face on a daily basis and in growing numbers. We need to show society (to show those who lead it) that we do care about what it is doing to us. We need to bring to a halt this unique practice of all change passing us by, without us reacting to it.