It is now twenty years since the British government first announced that it was bringing in new laws to prevent free parties and festivals. The legislation that ended up as the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 prompted a mass movement of defiance with long lasting and sometimes unexpected consequences.
Many people would see the origins of the story in the Castlemorton free festival in May 1992. Thousands of people had headed into the English West Country in search of the planned Avon Free Festival. After a massive police initiative – Operation Nomad – they ended up at Castlemorton Common in the Malvern hills. The festival that kicked off there featured sound systems including Bedlam, Circus Warp, Spiral Tribe and DiY. It soon became too big for the police to stop as up to 40,000 people from all over the country gathered for a week long party – many of them attracted by sensationalist TV and newspaper coverage.
It was the biggest unlicensed gathering of this kind since the state had smashed the Stonehenge festival in the mid-1980s. What made Castlemorton different was not just the soundtrack but the crowd. The free festivals of the 1970s and early 1980s grew out of a post-hippy ‘freak’ counter culture, later reinvigorated with an infusion of anarcho-punks and ‘new age travelers’. The growing free party scene in the early 1990s included plenty of veterans from such scenes, but also attracted a much wider spectrum of ravers, clubbers and casuals. The traditional divide between marginal sub-cultures and mainstream youth scenes was breaking down as people from all kinds of social, cultural and style backgrounds converged to dance together in warehouses and fields. What’s more, the movement seemed to be expanding rapidly beyond anybody’s control.
Soon there were calls for new police powers. In a parliamentary debate in June 1992, the local Conservative MP, Michael Spicer, spoke of the festival as if it had been a military operation, describing it as ‘the invasion that took place at Castlemorton common in my constituency, on Friday 22 May… On that day, new age travellers, ravers and drugs racketeers arrived at a strength of two motorised army divisions, complete with several massed bands and, above all, a highly sophisticated command and signals system’. He went on, ‘The problem of mass gatherings must be dealt with before they take place… chief constables should be given discretionary powers to ban such gatherings altogether if they decide that they are a threat to public order’.
In fact, there were already laws that the police could have used at Castlemorton, the problem was they were more or less unenforceable because of the sheer numbers involved. Another Conservative MP told parliament, ‘There is only so much that one can do once a crowd of 20,000 has assembled. It would have been of no benefit to local residents that May weekend if insensitive action had provoked a full-scale riot’ (Charles Wardle MP, 29 June 1992). As the Government put its mind to new legislation a key focus was on how to stop such numbers assembling in the first place.
In the meantime, it was by using existing laws that the state sought to make an example of people suspected of being involved in organising Castlemorton. At the end of the festival the police ambushed vehicles leaving the site. 13 people – most of them associated with Spiral Tribe – were arrested and charged with ‘conspiracy to cause a public nuisance’, carrying a likely jail sentence if convicted. Legal proceedings dragged on for nearly two years, until in March 1994, the jury acquitted all defendants of conspiracy after a ten week trial at Wolverhampton Crown Court. By that time Government actions seemed to show that it was the whole free party and festival movement that was in the frame.
The Government signaled its intention to bring in new powers against ‘raves’ in March 1993, and in November of that year confirmed that this would be included in a new Criminal Justice Bill with what a Government minister described as new ‘pre-emptive powers to prevent a build up of large numbers of people on land where the police reasonably believe that a rave will take place’ (Hansard, 23 November 1993)
The Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill was brought before Parliament in January 1994 and included increased police powers to stop and search people, and to take intimate body samples; provisions against squatters and travellers; and the criminalisation of many forms of protest with a new offence of ‘aggravated trespass’. And then there were the infamous ‘powers in relation to raves’. These included giving police the power to order people to leave land where they were setting up, awaiting or attending a ‘rave’, and to direct anybody within five miles of a rave away from the area. The police were also authorised to seize vehicles and sound systems before or during a rave.
Of course all this involved some tricky legal definitions – what made a ‘rave’ different from any other gathering of people where music was being played, such as an opera festival? Hence the notorious definition of a rave as ‘a gathering on land in the open air’ with music that ‘includes sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats’. Ironically by this point hardly anybody involved was still calling these events ‘raves’ – a word that already sounded dated was soon to become enshrined in law.
The movement against the Bill grew quickly out of the overlapping squatting, road protest and free party scenes. In October 1993, Advance Party was launched after a meeting in a squatted launderette in north London. As they declared soon after: ‘‘Unite to Dance! For the right of free assembly. Our music, our festivals, our parties, our lives… Enuff’s Enuff!. Defend the vibe against road blocks, arbitrary arrests, confiscation of rights, laws unfairly used, Criminal Trespass act, Anti-squatting laws, Caravan sites act, Public order act and general harassment and mass criminalisation… Join the Advance Party Collective” (Advance Party Information, Issue 1, February 1994).
If Advance Party was specifically linked to the free party scene, the Freedom Network sought to be a slightly broader network of ‘squatters, travellers, free party organisers, hunt sabs, road protestors etc’. By 1995, they said that they were made up on ‘80+ independent local groups who are trying to wake up their communities to the dangers of the Act’.
Around the UK, groups opposed to the Criminal Justice Bill came together. The scope of the movement is shown in ‘The Book’ a ‘directory of 200 active collectives in the UK’ published by Brighton activists in 1995. More than 60 groups were listed as having an ‘Anti-CJA’ focus (by this point ‘the Bill’ had become ‘the Act’ as it had passed into law). As well as the national contacts such as Advance Party and Freedom Network, numerous local collectives were included: Freedom Network local groups in Cheshire, Leeds, Lincoln, Manchester, Oxford and elsewhere; Campaign or Coalitions ‘Against the Criminal Justice Act’ in Dorset, Exeter, Hull, Isle of Wight, Leicester, Norfolk etc. North of the border the Scottish Defiance Alliance was made up of ‘over 30 different organisations from Glasgow’.
In these early days of the internet, there was some information available online through Green Net and pHreak (an ‘underground culture’ online network). But these were very limited and few people had internet access. Written communication was still mainly by the old methods of print, paper and post. Important sources of information included Squall: Magazine for Assorted Itinerants and the various local Free Information Network newsletters. There were various zines including Pod (‘the magazine for DIY culture’), Frontline and later Schnews, developed in Brighton as a weekly printed round up of resistance to the Act once it had become law. There was also coverage in Alien Underground, predecessor zine to Datacide.
Another medium of information was ‘video magazines’ featuring footage of protests and related news, such as Undercurrents (based in Oxford), Conscious Cinema (Brighton) and Hackney based HHH, who put out a ‘Criminal Injustice Bill’ special in 1994.
But it was primarily through the network of underground parties, clubs and gigs that news of the CJA spread through stalls, leaflets and word of mouth. In 1994, it seemed that virtually every party flyer had an anti-CJA slogan on it, and there were numerous benefit events.
Squatted spaces were important as bases of opposition, some short-lived and some lasting for months or longer. CJB activists initiated the six week occupation of Artillery Mansions, a 3,000 room empty building in Westminster first squatted in February 1994 (nicknamed ‘New Squatland Yard’ because of its proximity to the Metropolitan Police HQ at New Scotland Yard). Cool Tan, a squatted ex-unemployed office in Brixton, hosted many anti-CJA benefit parties, as well as housing the office for the Freedom Network. In North London, there was the Rainbow Centre in a squatted church in Kentish Camden Town, and in Brighton, the Justice? Collective squatted a Courthouse. In Oxford, riot police evicted an occupied empty cinema within 24 hours of it being squatted by anti-CJA activists in August 1994; 200 people later demonstrated in the city centre against police actions (Squall, Autumn 1994). There were also CJB ‘protest squats’ in Swansea (a church hall), Rugby and elsewhere.
Also significant were the big free festivals still taking place in London parks, linked to the squatting scene but having permission from Councils to party for a weekend: not pseudo-free festivals behind big fences with lots of private security, but proper sprawling mildy-chaotic events with sound systems, dance tents and lots of bands. Two of the biggest were the Deptford Urban Free Festival and the Hackney Homeless Festival. Up to 30,000 people attended the latter in Clissold Park, Stoke Newington in May 1994 with acts including anti-CJA bands such as The Levellers, Co-Creators, Fun-Da-Mental and Back to the Planet. 30 people were arrested later after riot police piled in after the festival outside the Robinson Crusoe pub.
There were several anti-CJA music compilations, notably ‘Taking Liberties’. With a cover design by Jamie Reid, it featured acts including Transglobal Underground, Orbital, Test Dept, The Orb, The Shamen, The Prodigy, Galliano and DreadZone. A house tracks compilation ‘No Repetitive Beats’ was also put out. Autechre released their Anti-EP on Warp Records with a message declaring that two of the tracks ‘contain repetitive beats. We advise you not to play these tracks if the Criminal Justice Bill becomes law. “Flutter” has been programmed in such a way that no bars contain identical beats and can therefore be played under the proposed new law. However, we advise DJs to have a lawyer and a musicologist present at all times to confirm the non-repetitive nature of the music in the event of police harassment’.
While all this was going on the police were certainly not waiting around for new powers. There was to be no repeat of Castlemorton – the following year (1993), a massive police operation was mounted to stop an attempt to hold an Avon Free Festival, culminating in a police road block that closed the M5 motorway – ’12 people were arrested for Blocking the Highway – exactly what the law had been doing earlier on’ (Festival Eye, 1993). In the South of England, police established Operation Snapshot to gather intelligence on parties, festivals and travellers, with the Southern Central Intelligence Unit maintaining a database with personal details and vehicle registration numbers of thousands of people. The Luton-based Exodus Collective also faced an ongoing campaign of official harassment. In February 1994, a police seizure of equipment and arrest of collective members prior to a planned party led to 4,000 people surrounding the local police station.
If all this fuelled a culture of opposition to the Criminal Justice Act, its public presence was marked by a series of three large demonstrations in London in 1994. The first major event was called by Advance Party on May Day 1994. Around 20,000 people took part: ‘all those involved in the alternative culture, ravers, protestors, squatters, travellers and all sorts, came together… it was a jubilant display of people power’. It started off in Hyde Park and ended in Trafalgar Square: ‘Eventually the armoured vehicle rave machine kicked in and the whole square erupted into dance and party’ (Frontline, No.1, Summer 1995). After the demo, sound systems including Sunnyside, Vox Populi and Desert Storm (whose armoured vehicle had been in the Square) put on a party in woodland on Wanstead Common in East London.
The second demonstration took the same route on Sunday 24 July with estimates of the numbers attending ranging from 20,000 (police) to 50,000 (organisers). Politically there were a number of tensions – the established Left, the SWP in particular, had woken up to the emerging movement. Their organisational skills may have helped increase the turnout, but some complained that something that was fresh and creative was being funnelled back into the traditional routine of A to B marches with speeches at the end.
Still, it certainly didn’t feel like a traditional demo at the end. Trafalgar Square once again became a big party, with people playing in the fountains on a sunny day, lots of drumming and some music from the then ubiquitous Rinky Dink cycle powered sound system. There were clashes with police in Whitehall, after some people tried to scale the gates guarding the entrance to Downing Street. Police on horseback charged the crowd there, and 14 people were arrested.
The largest march against the Criminal Justice Bill took place on October 9th 1994 shortly before it became law. Perhaps 100,000 people took part, this time ending up in Hyde Park. Trouble started after police tried to block two lorries with sound systems entering the park:
‘A big crowd was gathered around dancing in the streets and refusing to be intimidated. There were people on top of a bus stop and at one point a couple of people even climbed on top of a police van and started dancing. The police put on riot gear, a few missiles were thrown, and somebody let off some gas, but after a standoff it was the cops that backed down and let the trucks carry on. The lorries headed off into the park with the crowd partying on and around them. People pulled police barriers across the road behind the crowd to prevent the police horses who were following from charging into us’ (The Battle for Hyde Park: radicals, ruffians and ravers, 1855-1994).
Police horses charged the crowd but were driven back out of the park. For several hours the park was a largely police-free autonomous party zone, while at the edges police launched baton charges and were repelled with bottles and sticks. Many people were injured on the day, and 48 arrested. Later the police launched “Operation Greystoke” to identify and arrest more of those involved, and the courts ordered the press to hand over film and photos to the police.
Right wing newspaper the Daily Mail carried the headline: ‘Revolt of the Ravers’ going on to report that the ‘flashpoint came when thugs opposed to legislation against raves tried to turn the park into a giant party’ and warning readers of ‘The ravers who call the tune- behind a front of legitimate protest, the underground party organisers who have spread misery throughout the country – music that became a rallying cry for violence’ (Daily Mail, 10 and 11 October 1994).
Within the movement there was a polarised debate about violence that became characterised as ‘Fluffy’ vs. ‘Spiky’ or ‘Chill the Bill’ vs ‘Kill the Bill’. Leaflets from the fluffier faction repeatedly urged people to ‘keep it sweet, keep it right, remember this is a peaceful fight’. One activist later reflected: ‘We wasted a lot of time feeling forced to pick between two equally-badly-defined boxes… Either you were a ‘fluffy’ and all that implied: you’d gladly lie down and let the police ride their horses over you… Or you were ‘spiky’: hard as nails and twice as loud…threw things from the back of the crowd and managed to injure or just offend most of your fellow demonstrators’ (Schnews at Ten, 2004). If there were certainly some very naïve ideas about how good vibes could sway the powers that be, it was also true that many more traditional ‘revolutionaries’ were out of their comfort zone in the unpredictable arena of techno-charged collective sociability and found it hard to conceive of escalation beyond the usual horizon of set piece confrontations with the cops.
The Act finally became law in November 1994 – the next day, five people climbed on to the roof of Westminster Hall at the Houses of Parliament and unfurled a ‘Defy the CJA’ banner. Later in the month several hundred people protested in Home Secretary Michael Howard’s front garden in Folkestone, Kent (Schnews, 23 November 1994).
At the end of that month, the police evicted the squatted Claremont Road in East London, preparing the way for the houses to be demolished as part of the M11 motorway development. A TV programme covering the police’s ‘Operation Garden Party’ included the classic line: ‘Claremont Road was notorious among locals for its psychedelia, squatters and new age travellers. But everyone living in this time-warped street of the 60s knew the rave had to end sometime’.
Hunt saboteurs and road protestors were soon being arrested for the new offence of ‘aggravated trespass’, but it was not until April 1995 that all the anti-rave powers came into full effect. Soon the powers were being used. In May, the first seizure of equipment took place when police broke up a party on a traveller site in Rendlesham Forest, Suffolk. Road blocks were set up to turn people away, and vehicles and equipment were seized from Cheba City Sounds, Virus and Giba sound systems (Schnews, 12 May 1995).
By this point there were different views about how to proceed. With the political process seemingly exhausted, many of the sound systems took the view that it was time to get back to basics. Pulling together under the umbrella of United Systems ‘the International Free Party Network’, they argued: ‘Free parties, and gatherings, along with the right to attend a free celebration, will not be saved by political campaigns, by TV chatshows, by magazine articles, by speech makers or celebrity appearances. Nor by flyers, newsletters, posters or stickers. Only free parties can save free parties!!! Only by the continued ‘input’ into our culture may our culture survive’.
In Spring ‘95, they reported ‘Every single weekend, without fail, since the enstatement of the act a huge party has gone on, without interruption from the law. Sometimes one, sometimes two, sometimes seven soundsystems. A brand new wave of enthusiasm has swept the country as ‘every posse and crew out there’ has said ‘fuck it’’.
In this climate, an effort was made to organise a festival on a similar scale to Castlemorton as an act of mass defiance. The 7/7 ‘Mother’ of all festivals was widely publicised in advance and the police were determined to prevent it, co-ordinating action across the country with helicopters and road blocks. On the weekend of July 7th 1995, they carried out dawn raids on the houses of people believed to be involved in organising the party, including Debbie from United Systems and Michele from Advance Party, and charged eight people with ‘conspiracy to cause a public nuisance’ (charges later dropped). They used Section 60 of the new CJA to set up five mile exclusion zones around potential festival sites at Corby (Northants), Sleaford (Lincs.), and Smeatharpe (Devon). They also seized and later destroyed the sound system belonging to Black Moon, a free party collective based at Buxton, Derbyshire. Three people were prosecuted under Section 63 of the CJA for failing to dismantle the rig quick enough, the first arrests under this part of the Act.
Thousands of people took to the roads in search of the festival, and despite the efforts of the police several smaller parties did happen, including at Grafham (where over 1,000 people partied) and at Steart Beach near Hinckley Point in Dorset where 150 vehicles managed to gather. But there were to be no more big, unlicensed free festivals and there haven’t been since.
Twenty years later the police are still making use of their ‘anti-rave’ powers, but nevertheless free parties are still happening all over the country. For a start, the Act only ever covered parties in the open air, not those in buildings. Open air parties in remote areas still go ahead because they are unreported, or because the police cannot mobilise the resources to close them down. Clearing even a few hundred people from a beach or field in the middle of the night is still not easy.
The Act had some unintended consequences, perhaps chiefly in uniting large parts of a generation against the Government. In September 1994, Brighton’s Justice? wrote an open letter to Home Secretary Michael Howard: ‘We are writing to thank you for the positive effect the Criminal Justice Act has had on our community. Your attempt to criminalise our culture has unified it like never before… Your inspiration has made us work closer together. Networking is happening across the nation – Road Protestors and Ravers, Gay Rights Activists and Hunt Saboteurs, Travellers and Squatters and many more’.
One result of this unity was the development of new tactics. After the ‘Battle of Hyde Park’, the Metropolitan Police paper The Job warned ’The business of allowing large, mobile sound systems in political demonstrations is a serious new problem that we will have to deal with’ (October 14, 1994). The practice of combining sound systems with protest was soon to be taken to the next level by Reclaim the Streets.
Their first big party took place in Camden High Street in May 1995, where 1,000 blocked the road and partied. But it was the ‘Rave Against the Machine’ on 23 July 1995 that really upped the ante with a sound system in an armoured car and thousands of people dancing on an occupied Upper Street in Islington. The anti-capitalist/alter-globalisation movement that developed over the rest of the decade had its roots in the anti-CJA campaign, culminating in the huge ‘Carnival Against Capital’ in June 1999 where the pounding of sound systems accompanied riotous scenes in the financial heart of the City of London.
Another effect of the repression of festivals and free parties in the UK was their spread on continental Europe, the virus transported by sound systems leaving Britain – some for long periods, some just for a break in sunnier and less hassled environments. Spiral Tribe had first headed to France in the aftermath of Castlemorton and in the summer of ’94 they were joined by others who collectively detonated the ‘Teknival’ explosion. In Milau in the South East of France, Spiral Tribe, Bedlam, Circus Irritant and Desert Storm were among the UK systems joined by local crews such as Nomad and Psychiatrik. In August, the largest Teknival so far took place in the hills of the Massif Central, brought there by 200 vehicles. The first Czech teknival took place that summer too, and at the end of the year there was a New Year’s Eve event in Vienna (Frontline, Summer 1995). Soon enough the authorities in some of these countries were framing their own new laws, but once again the genie was out of the bottle and could never completely be put back in.
There was some paranoia in the mid-1990s that the Criminal Justice Act was just the start of a more generalised offensive against dance music that would soon close down clubs as well as free parties. But this was not to be. Instead the CJA had the effect of strengthening the commercial clubbing sector as people were driven indoors to places licensed by the state for dancing – even if some of them were run hand in glove with gangsters! Mainstream dance music publication Mixmag (Jan. ’97) was to look back on 1996 as the year ‘Everything Went Nuclear’, as corporate superclubs expanded their brand, superstar DJ fees went through the roof, and huge commercial festivals like Tribal Gathering took off.
Recently UK business magazine the Economist reported ‘raving is back, but in a calmer, more mainstream form… From the Teddy Boys to the Sex Pistols, British popular music history is full of examples of edgy outsiders who horrified the establishment, then, not much later, dominated it. Rave, it seems, has taken its place in that pantheon’ (The new ravers: repetitive beats, 17 August 2013). Whether the emancipatory potential of beats and bass has really been exhausted remains to be seen, but the Criminal Justice Act of the mid-1990s was certainly a key turning point for everyone involved.