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Dance before the Police come

Shut Up and Dance’s 1991 hardcore LP ‘Dance Before the Police Come’ was released at a time when the UK authorities were struggling to contain the massive explosion of raves. Thousands of people each weekend were playing a cat and mouse game with the police to party in fields and warehouses, and if the state was often outwitted by meeting points in motorway service stations and convoys of cars, it tried to keep the lid on the phenomenon by staging high  profile raids. In 1990, for instance, an incredible 836 people were arrested at a Love Decade party in Gildersome near Leeds in the north of England.

Since then the global spread of Electronic Dance Music has generally been  accompanied by the flashing blue light, the siren, and that moment when the music is abruptly turned off and the order given to clear the building. Indeed, let’s face it, the frisson of illegality has sometimes added a pleasurable edge to partying – the thrill of overcoming official obstacles just to get there, of getting one over on the authorities. And even the most mainstream of commercial club promoters like to pose as underground outlaws because they once got told to turn the music down by a man in uniform.

But police raids are serious business – often involving arrests which can lead to imprisonment, people losing their livelihoods and, in some parts of the world, social ostracism. People get injured, beaten and sometimes even killed. This article looks at a sample of police raids in recent times to get a sense of the current state of play between cops and dancers in different parts of the world.

Moral disapproval

For those at the receiving end of a raid it has often felt like a simple case of the police wanting to stop people enjoying themselves, or more simply of ‘the grown ups’ being down on ‘the kids’ like something out of the 1984 film Footloose – set in a small American town where dancing is banned and people get ‘busted for boppin’’.

It is certainly the case that there continues to be some straightforward moral disapproval of what people get up to in clubs and parties. For instance, in Redlands, California the Chief of Police denounced parties being held – and raided – at Pharaoh’s Lost Kingdom, a defunct amusement park, stating: “I do not believe a rave is consistent with the values of our community. I do not believe that raves are good for young people’.

Such positions usually have a religious basis. Generally in the US and Europe today, the impact of Christian fundamentalists on nightlife is relatively marginal outside of small communities and institutions in which they are dominant. Nevertheless absurdities still arise – such as the case of a 17 year old suspended from a Baptist school in Ohio for breaking its ‘no dancing’ rules by attending his girlfriend’s prom. Or the Mississippi High School that cancelled its prom rather than let an 18 year old lesbian student attend with her girlfriend.

Elsewhere religious intolerance is a bigger deal. Islamists have banned musical ringtones in Somalia, murdered singers and forbidden mujra dancing (a traditional women’s dance deemed as sexually explicit) in Pakistan, and banned Bollywood films in Nigeria because they feature singing and dancing on the screen. In Iran, 80 young men and women were arrested at an illegal gig for “lustful pleasure-seeking” in May 2010.

In Iraq, the rise of the religious right has led to a clampdown on nightclubs – at the start of Eid in November 2009 ‘hundreds of Iraqi police and soldiers stormed each of Baghdad’s 300 or so nightclubs. Officers from the most elite units stood outside as soldiers slapped owners’ faces, scattered their patrons and dancing girls, ripped down posters advertising upcoming acts, and ordered alcohol removed from the shelves. They left many of the clubs with a warning – any owner who tried to reopen would be thrown into prison, along with his staff’ (Observer, 5.12.09).

Unofficial dancing

Still it is hardly the case that the police authorities of the world are engaged in a systematic attempt to stop people dancing. After all, commercial nightclubs are an important part of many city economies and watching TV adverts quickly demonstrates that dance music is used as a means to sell a vast range of commodities.

Social dancing as such is not viewed as a threat to order, but it is seen as something that needs to be regulated. The combination of crowds, noise, chemicals and sex is too unstable a cocktail to be just left alone. Regulation can take many forms – from elaborate licensing regulations to informal corruption, whereby nightlife is only permitted if bribes are paid to police or officials.

When parties take place in defiance of these regulations they can face the full force of the state. On Christmas Day 2008, police in Uganda raided a dance at the Alikua trading centre in Nyadri district to enforce a ban on night discos that had been imposed by the local authorities. They opened fire and a secondary school student, Stephen Enzabugo, was killed.

The use of live ammunition is rare during police raids on parties, but around the world people out dancing can face various degrees of force. In Sydney (Australia) riot police with dogs closed down an illegal warehouse party in September 2008, turning over 1000 people on to the streets. According to one witness: ‘’I was at the party on Saturday night, standing directly behind decks on the drum n bass stage when the riot police invaded…and smashed both turntables and attempted to smash the mixer (about $5,000 worth of damage) and then they pushed and shoved and bashed everyone they could get their batons on’.

In Britain, police have closed down free parties in many places, but the front line has been in the East of England, where police in the counties of Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk have been waging a ‘zero tolerance’ campaign against ‘raves’ for the past few years.

In December 2008, ten people were jailed for ‘violent disorder’ during clashes with police raiding a party at Great Chesterford, Essex two years previously. They were captured after being featured on Crimewatch, a national television programme which encourages people to identify suspects and inform the police. No police officers were charged, despite eye witness accounts of a wall of riot police setting upon a party in the middle of nowhere and inflicting ‘savage beatings’.

In summer 2007, a raid sparked a riot outside Great Yarmouth police station in Suffolk. It all started when police seized a van carrying sound equipment to a party on a local industrial estate. People who had gathered at the site for the party formed a convoy with their vehicles and tried to stop the police car leaving with the sound equipment. They then demonstrated outside the police station, throwing bottles and cans. Meanwhile the party went ahead in a factory yard, and people barricaded themselves inside when police turned up. Cops used CS gas to force people out.

Since these events the local police forces have mobilized every effort to stop parties taking place. Norfolk police have stated that ‘we will use all necessary resources to prevent, disrupt and close down illegal raves in this county…We will continue to take a hard line against them and seek to prosecute and seize and destroy the equipment of anyone found to be involved in their organisation’. As well as the usual raid tactics they have started stopping and searching vehicles of party goers – after a party near Feltwell in Norfolk in October 2009, 150 vehicles were stopped and people were arrested for vehicle and drinking offences. There were further clashes between police and party people at Haverhill in Suffolk the following month, when police trying to break up a warehouse party were pelted with missiles.

The courts have also used their powers to back up the police. After police raided a party at Gayton Thorpe (Norfolk) in August 2008, one of the DJs was given a two year curfew by the court, requiring him to stay at home from 8pm to 6am seven days a week for six months. The court ruled that he had broken an earlier community order that required him ‘not to attend a rave or other unlicensed musical event’.

In an act of ritual sacrifice pour l’encourager les autres, police in Norwich issued a March 2010 press release publicising that a ‘seized sound system will be placed into an industrial shredder at Delmonte Garage on Concorde Road in Norwich tomorrow at 3pm.  Inspector Mike Brown said; “This is a clear message to rave organisers. The date is significant as it would be foolish for anyone to hold an illegal event over the Easter period’.

The Criminal Justice Act in Britain

In Britain, the main police powers used to shut down unofficial parties derive from section 63 of the Criminal justice and Public Order Act 1994. This notorious legislation, passed by the Conservative government in the face of mass protests, put the word ‘rave’ into law – defining it as ‘a gathering on land in the open air of 100 or more persons’ and with music ‘predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats’. When Labour come to power they passed the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 which amended the definition so that now only 20 people have to be present for a party to be defined as an illegal rave. Police have powers under the Act to remove people and to seize vehicles and equipment.

An absurd example of the use of the Act occurred in Sowton, Devon in July 2009 when four police cars, a riot van and a helicopter were mobilised to stop a birthday party barbecue. The host commented: ‘We were nowhere near anyone, we weren’t even playing any music… What effectively the police did was come in and stop 15 people eating burgers.”

Section 63 notices were issued by police to disperse the May 2010 UK Teknival at Dale Aerodrome in Wales. The massive police operation included automatic number plate recognition, police photographers, helicopters and even a surveillance plane. Hundreds of thousands of pounds’ worth of equipment and vehicles were seized, and ten people were later found guilty under the Licensing Act 2003 for holding an event without a license.

Despite this pressure, free parties have continued. In the north west of England, sound systems like GASH Collective and Daylite Robbery have successfully outwitted the authorities. The latter’s party at Rivington Castle (Sept 09) went on all night, with the searchlight from the police helicopter paradoxically helping people locate it: ‘we got there before the coppers had blocked the road off, if it weren’t for that helicopter we? wouldn’t have found it’.

Most parties have been on a limited scale – hundreds rather than thousands of people – but occasionally bigger events have taken place, particularly on  bank  holiday weekends: around 4000 people attended a party near Warminster, Wiltshire in August 2009. Despite the powers available to the police, parties are often left to continue, sometimes because the combination of crowds, terrain and limited police resouces make it impossible to close down every technically illegal gathering.

In London, the highest profile squat party was Scumtek’s Scumoween, held in October 2010 in a multi-storey building in Holborn, central London with thousands of people and up to 30 sound systems taking part. The police originally tried to seal off the building and used tasers and batons against revellers trying to get there. But they were eventually overwhelmed by the crowd and the party went ahead until the next day without further incident.

The police seem set on revenge for this high profile humiliation, and before the next planned Scumtek party (Strictly Scum Dancing party in December 2010), people involved had their houses raided and the event was closed down before it started when police entered the warehouse in Enfield, north London, and seized the sound system. There were clashes between police and frustrated party-goers in the surrounding streets

In Italy meanwhile, more than 100 people were still appearing in court last year, 4 years after a party in a disused furnace at Caldè near the shores of Lake Maggiore in June 2006. They had been arrested at police roadblocks as they were leaving the party and charged with complicity in aggravated invasion (trespass) of the land.

In the USA, a politician in the California State Assembly is currently proposing an ‘Anti-Raves Act 2011’ along the lines of the British legislation. If passed it would prohibit raves on public property and prevent raves on private property unless a business owner has a license to host such an event. The type of gathering covered is defined very broadly as ‘a public event at night that includes prerecorded music and lasts more than three and one-half hours’. That would surely cover a huge range of parties.


Large festivals are subject to even more regulation than clubs and parties. In England, the Licensing Act 2005 gives the police extended powers to dictate how festivals are run. If they do not comply, they simply do not get permission to go ahead. In July 2009, the Big Green Gathering, expected to attract up to 20,000 people, was cancelled at the last minute following an injunction by Mendip District Council, supported by Avon & Somerset Police. Police demands included a steel fence, watchtowers and perimeter patrols, and wristbands for twelve undercover police. Very similar police manoeuvres led to the cancellation of the Grassroots Festival in Cambridge, planned for September 2010

A new development has been the use of the Misuse of Drugs Act against people organising festivals. This Act was amended by the UK Government in 2001 to make it a criminal offence for people to allow other people to take drugs on their premises. After the 2009 Thimbleberry Music Festival in County Durham the organiser was charged in court for permitting ‘the use of cannabis on his premises’. Although the charges were later dropped, the Council withdrew the festival’s licence so it could not go ahead in 2010.


One factor in the increasing regulation of nightlife is the gentrification of cities – the kind of run down inner city areas where clubs and bars have flourished are now increasingly being remodelled to meet the housing and leisure preferences of the wealthy. In Paris, a group of music promoters submitted a petition in January 2010 complaining that ‘The generalized law of silence that is battering down upon our events and our living spaces is soon to relegate the City of Lights to the rank of European capital of sleep’. In the city, for instance, the police have begun enforcing a long-overlooked law requiring establishments to hold a ‘night authorization’ permit in order to stay open past 2 a.m.

In Rome, the (ex?) fascist mayor Gianni Alemanno has also tightened up on nightlife – in November 2009 33 clubs were closed for violation of alcohol regulations. In New York, clubs have not recovered from the assault launched on them in the later 1990s by then mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The current mayor has somewhat eased up on this campaign, but the arcane 1926 cabaret laws restricting dancing remain in place despite promises to scrap them.


In the never-ending ‘war against drugs’, the dancing body is a key battleground. As well as seeking to control what substances individuals put inside their bodies, laws about drink and drugs have always been a way of controlling the places where people do these things, giving the state a reason to enter clubs, pubs, and parties and regulate the ways in which people come together.

In many countries, police drug raids are accompanied by mass arrests and compulsory on the spot drugs testing. In Mumbai, India police raided a ‘rave party’ at a Juhu pub – all 240 people present were held overnight and made to undergo blood and urine tests (Oct. 2008). The Anti-Narcotics Cell of Mumbai police have set up a telephone line for people to inform them of raves, which have become increasingly popular with IT and call centre workers in the city: ‘The next time you get a whiff of a rave party in your neighbourhood or see a hippie-looking character trying to pass on drugs to youngsters, just dial a number and help the police’.

In Kuala Lumpar, Malaysia, police raided the Laiketong karaoke cum mini discotheque in September 2009, where 118 revellers were screened for drugs, of whom 37 tested positive. A local paper complained that it ‘was shocking was that more than half of the revellers inside the mini disco were Muslims who were either drunk or under the influence of drugs and showed no respect for the Holy month of Ramadan’. In the same country a few months earlier, police raided the Raptor discotheque in Jinjang. The 300 revellers were each given a small plastic container and ordered to submit a urine sample for drug testing. As a result 70 people were arrested, ironically including five off duty cops including an inspector who tested positive for ketamine and amphetamine.

Meanwhile in Vietnam, the state announced it was considering banning dancing in karaoke bars with a government official stating that ‘Ecstasy always goes with wine and music… karaoke is a cultural activity which is always latent with social evils’ (May 2009).

Sometimes these raids are justified by rhetoric about protecting the health of clubbers, but it is obvious that they actually put people’s health at risk. For instance in the panic of a police raid, people may increase the risk of overdosing by swallowing in one go any drugs in their possession. And causing panic in a confined space has its own risks, as was demonstrated in June 2008 when police in Mexico City raided News Divine nightclub in a crackdown on underage drinking – with the police blocking the exit there was a surge and crush in which 12 people died.

Raiding Gay Clubs

June 28th 2009 marked the 40th anniversary of the police raid on the Stonewall Inn in New York, which famously prompted a gay riot and heralded a new phase in the gay liberation movement. On this very day in the US, police and agents from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission raided the Rainbow Lounge, a gay dance club in Fort Worth.  One man suffered a fractured skull after officers slammed his head into a wall and people were made to lie face down outside in the parking lot. Their alleged crime – being drunk in violation of public intoxication rules.

There were similar scenes in Atlanta, Georgia, when police raided a gay bar called The Eagle a few months later. A cop shouted “Shut the fuck up!” when bar patrons asked why they were being forced to lay face down on the grubby floors. Police were also heard to say “I hate queers,” and “This is a lot more fun than raiding niggers with crack!”, as well as demanding to know who was in the military and threatening to report them. Eight staff members were detained for the crime of ‘Dancing in their underwear without a permit’.

If events like this are possible in a country with a well-established and open gay clubbing scene, things are worse in parts of the world where violent homophobia is still an organised political presence. In Serbia, plans for an LGBT Pride parade in September 2009 had to be abandoned when police said that they would be unable to protect it from attacks by homophobes, fascists and rabid nationalists. In the Ukraine, police raided a gay club called Androgin in April 2009, detaining more than 80 people at a police station, where they were photographed and fingerprinted. In Saharanpur (India), 13 gay men were charged with ‘obscenity in a public place’ after police entered a party in December 2010.

More discrimination

As raids on gay clubs demonstrate, the police do not indiscriminately target all dancing spaces equally. When clubs and parties are frequented by people from collectivities and communities with a history of being singled out for police attention, they are much more likely to be subject to raids and eviction. The collective presence of (mainly) young people from some social groups is likely to be viewed as a problem by the police even if people are just going out enjoying themselves on a Saturday night.
Hence, social centres and squats associated with radical movements are much more likely to be raided than commercial nightclubs. In Greece for instance, police raided the Resalto social centre in December 2009 as part of an operation to pre-empt protests on the first anniversary of the police killing of Alexandros Grigoropoulos. In London, the rampART Social Centre was evicted in October 2009, having earlier in the year been a base for the G20 anti-capitalist protests as well as for gigs and parties. In the same months, Triesterstrasse 114, an old school building in Vienna was violently evicted shortly after being squatted as ‘a space for self-organised, non-commercial projects and communal living’.

Spaces where migrant workers socialise are another focus for repression. In Spain, police raided a disco in El Ejido during a crack down on Moroccan migrants, as a result of which 70 people were deported from the country in May 2009.

In London, the Metropolitan police have even tried to dictate what kind of music is played in a clubs. ‘Form 696’ is a document which the police ask premises to complete for all music events, including names and addresses of all DJs, artists, promoters and sound systems. Most controversially the form asked for details of the expected crowd, including its ethnicity, and in requiring details of the music to be played singled out kinds of black music, asking: ‘Music style to be played/performed (e.g. Bashment, R’n’B, Garage)’. There is anecdotal evidence that the police have pressurised clubs not to put on grime nights in particular. The police have claimed that the intent is not racist, but is aimed at preventing gang-related violence. While it is true that there have been a number of shootings in and around clubs, the police already have powers to deal with murder and assault without treating all young black people and whole genres of music as quasi-criminal. After protests, the police have taken out references to ethnicity from the form, but it remains the case that the police can use their influence to prevent clubs and bars getting a license for music and dance because they don’t like the crowd they attract.

A police officer told Lambeth Council Licensing Committee in 2010 that Mass in Brixton (South London) was ‘a problematic club and the main reason is the type of music that is played… ‘bashment’. We know it attracts gang members.”  The club responded that they had ‘already agreed with the police not to stage further bashment… or funky house nights.’

The spectacle of humiliation

It is clear that the apparently simple act of people moving together to a rhythm takes place in a complex field of social relations characterised by the bio-political regulation of dancing bodies. Struggles over sex, drugs, noise, subversion, racism and class are all played out at that moment when police come pouring on to the dancefloor.

Once the raid is over, people carry on as before. But the fact that raids can never prevent the things they ostensibly seek to combat is hardly the point. The raid is a kind of performance to demonstrate the exercise of power and to define its victims as illegal, immoral or both. Hence the high profile police raid is invariably accompanied by journalists tipped off advance, and immediately followed up by a press release. As queer theorist Kane Race has argued in the context of drugs raids: ‘this drama seems more like high-profile posturing on the part of the police, designed to reassure middle-class voters that the state is tough on law and order, and driven more by the state’s desire to be seen to be “doing something”….For the point is the public spectacle of detection and humiliation, the making-suspect of populations, and the desire to create a demand for authority in the sphere of consumption. The state confirms its image of itself and its moral constituency in these forcible attempts to expose its other’ (The Pleasure Principle, Sydney Alumni Magazine, Summer 2009).

Still, people will not only dance before the police come, they will continue to dance after they have gone. More than 20 years after the first explosion of raves in the UK, people are still partying every weekend in defiance of the laws passed to contain them, and around the world no amount of police attention seems to be able to stop people people gathering to dance on their own terms.

Further details on many of these events, including full references, can be found at:

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