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Sunday, June 22, 2014

Pink Floyd's Bike: the Provo Influence

The Provo movement (1963-1972) was directed by a "playful anarchist" group which combined non-violence and absurd humor to create social change. The name Provo was coined by Dutch sociologist Buikhuizen to describe, in a condescending way, post-war disaffected Dutch teens who spent their time provoking the authorities. Provo is loosely defined as: a creature of my own making. Provo has also been co-opted to mean: hippie though it pre-dates it. The term was used for the movement as a whole and for individual members. It was preceded by the Nozem movement and followed by the hippie movement.

Provo was founded in 1963. The Provos believed and espoused that the Revolution would not come from the Proletariat (working class) but from the “Provotariat”. On 25 May 1965, the first Provo Pamphlets were handed out by Robert Jasper Grootveld, an anti-smoking activist and the anarchists Roel van Duijn and Rob Stolk. These political pamphlets were some of the first, that came to be later called, mass produced psychedelic writings and images of the Sixties. Provo was officially disbanded on 13 May 1967.

Provo fused three countercultural elements: an emerging group of angry, alienated young people; the provocative methods of the performance artist Robert Jasper Grootveld; and the revolutionary ideas of philosophy student Roel Van Duyn.

Provo used pranks to provoke the police into action - and usually overreaction. In fact Provo considered the police to be an essential element of a happening; the happening would provoke the police and the police's response would fire the crowd's resentment which would eventually erupt into revolt. The media were also central players and could fuel a provocation with outrage and panic. 

The theatrical street happenings organized by the Provos attracted huge crowds and often resulted in over-reaction by the police. The group found great sympathy among Amsterdammers and at one point obtained five seats on the City Council. Its ideas influenced urban planning, social housing, and cultural life in general. It campaigned against marijuana prohibition, air pollution from urban traffic congestion, and the tobacco industry, and it created numerous anti-royal events and literature. Despite the flippancy of some of their methods Provo's direct actions usually had a serious motivation. Their 'White Plans' are a particularly good example of provocation for public good.

The original Witte Fietsenplan (White Bike plan) was an anarchic free transport programme and the most famous manifesto of the Provos. It proposed that cars be banned from the city centre to be replaced by twenty thousand free bicycles provided by the city. These would be painted white and always left unlocked. Provo released 50 or so, free to use, specially painted white bikes which were scattered across the city of Amsterdam.

This was done as a statement against the rise of consumerism, pollution and congestion caused by the privately owned vehicle. Although the action was short-lived due to theft and vandalism, Provo members used seats on the local council to propose further large-scale white bike plans. The initiative stands as the source inspiration for the (PUB) Public Use Bicycle systems which have been updated and ‘officially’ replicated in cities worldwide.

Both: My White Bicycle, by Tomorrow, and Bike, by Pink Floyd are thought to be inspired by the White Bicycle Plan. According to Tomorrow drummer John Alder, it was inspired by an anarchist group called the Dutch Provos who “had white bicycles in Amsterdam and they used to leave them around the town. And if you were going somewhere and you needed to use a bike, you’d just take the bike and you’d go somewhere and just leave it.”

The Provos had a series of other "White" Programs:

  • The White Chimney Plan proposed that air polluters be taxed and the chimneys of serious polluters painted white.
  • The White Housing Plan proposed that the city legalize and sponsor squatting: the revolutionary solution to the housing problem.
  • The White Wives Plan proposed a network of women's sexual health and family planning centers and sex education in schools.
  • The White Kids Plan proposed shared parenting in groups of 5 couples who would take it in turns to care for the group's children on a different day of each week
  • The White Chicken Plan was a statement against increasingly violent police responses to happenings and demonstrations. It proposed that the police force (then known in Amsterdam as blue chickens) changed its image by disarming, riding white bicycles and handing out free first aid, fried chicken and contraceptives.
Left wing student groups began to unite with Provo to protest against the war in Vietnam. Demonstrations were banned and grew in size and popularity as a direct result. The police responded with increasing force. By the middle of 1966 hundreds of people were being arrested every week. The public began to condemn the police and express sympathy for the Provos and anti-war demonstrators. An official investigation into the crisis was opened in August 1966 and the police commissioner, and eventually the mayor, were fired as a result of its findings.

The Provos had a sting influence upon the Diggers, a well-known counterculture collective in San Francisco. This, in turn, had great influence upon other such organizations at the time.

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