Throughout June and July, parties of several thousand people have grabbed headlines and focused right wingers’ attention on “illegal raves” during the pandemic.
Violet explained why she went to several raves during the lockdown. “If I can go to the cinema, a theme park, walk around Sainsbury’s, go back to work, go on public transport, why can’t I be in the same spatial awareness ratio doing something I want to do?” she told Sky News.
It’s true that large public gatherings, even outdoors, do carry some risk of transmitting Covid-19. But the same right wingers condemning people for dancing in a field are actively encouraging them into workplaces, classrooms and cramped public transport.
Cops trying to shut down parties this summer follows decades of legislation to stop large gatherings of people that they struggle to control.
The most significant attack came 26 years ago, with the Criminal Justice Act and Public Order Act 1994.
John Major’s Tory government was desperate to end the “New Age” festivals, illegal raves and free parties that grew in popularity in the late 1980s and early ’90s.
The 1992 Castlemorton Common Festival, which lasted a week in 1992 and drew up to 40,000, was a crunch point.
The cops arrested 13 members of the band Spiral Tribe/SP23 as they were one of the last to leave the site. Cyrus of Spiral Tribe/SP23 said, “The reaction is about fear as much as anything else.
“The authorities couldn’t understand how this many people could assemble in one place, in pre-internet, pre‑mobile days.
“Add into that the fact that Castlemorton coverage was peppered with shots of police looking, quite frankly, helpless.
“That loss of control hammered them into cracking down much harder than they might otherwise have done.”
The state doesn’t like large gatherings it can’t control and will use all its instruments of repression, such as the police, to undermine them.
And at Castlemorton, it didn’t look good that the police were unable to lay down law and order when tens of thousands occupied a corner of the countryside.
But it’s not just embarrassment that drives the police’s desperation to shut down the parties. Their role within capitalism is to defend property and privilege of the minority at the top of society and police working class people.
The Major government’s legislation—then known as the Criminal Justice Bill—strengthened the powers of the state and police.
“The bill is a savage attack on our rights to picket, protest and part aimed at increasing the control of those at the top of society over the majority of people,” reported Socialist Worker at the time.
It said cops could shut down outdoor events featuring music that’s “characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”. And a swathe of the Act was devoted to criminalising what were previously civil offences—trespassing, squatting and unauthorised camping.
Section 60 of the Criminal Justice Act gave the police greater stop and search powers.
The law also repealed the responsibility for councils to provide sites for Gypsies and Travellers to stay on.
It ended the “right to silence” for people accused of a crime, and said legal authorities could draw conclusions about their refusal to speak.
And it gave the cops new powers to take and retain intimate bodily samples.
There was huge resistance to the bill.
Sound systems and activist groups mounted three huge demonstrations in central London throughout 1994. The organisers of the 9 October demonstration said 100,000 took to the streets—it was here that the cops chose to attack.
Cops sealed Tube stations, blocked Park Lane, deployed tear gas and trapped demonstrators before charging them repeatedly on horseback.
“I was pushed down on the floor, punched, hit across the back with a truncheon, and then three police were just kicking me and hitting me with truncheons.”Vincent Seabrook, a Liberty legal observer
Vincent Seabrook, a Liberty legal observer said, “I was pushed down on the floor, punched, hit across the back with a truncheon, and then three police were just kicking me and hitting me with truncheons.”
People fighting for squatters’ rights, anti-road protesters and animal rights activists joined with the free party movement to kill the bill. And trade unionists and workers opposed the bill.
It was a direct attack on the right of everyone—whether listening to repetitive beats or speeches on a picket line—to gather and challenge authority.
Ultimately, the bill—pushed relentlessly by the Tories—was passed into law. Labour abstained in the final vote, but then‑leader Tony Blair boasted his party had helped write some of the legislation.
The first four protesters arrested under the Act weren’t accused of listening to repetitive beats, but climbing a 100 foot crane as part of an anti‑road action.
Although nothing like the scale of Castlemorton has been seen since, the bill didn’t quite stop the repetitive beats—raves have happened ever since.
The fight for the right to party spurred on an entire generation of activists who would be part of later battles against the system.
The movement against the Act—and its habit of having large sound systems on protests—fed into Reclaim the Streets movement to defend public spaces. Many activists joined the anti-capitalist, environmental and anti-globalisation protests of the early 2000s.
And it’s possible to see hallmarks of the free party movement in the audacious Extinction Rebellion occupations.
But the Bill did fundamentally change the landscape of British nightlife, and helped create the clubs and festival industry we know today.
That’s because counter‑culture—however subversive it is for a time—isn’t allowed to stay underground for long. Many of the collectives that operated the big sound systems went on to set up clubs both in Britain and abroad.
They sought legal means to keep the beats pounding, and the profits coming in. So a movement that had a subversive element at its heart eventually becomes subject to planning regulations, curfews and entry fees.
Free parties were eventually tamed both by bosses looking to make a quick buck and the state looking to control them.
The 1990s free party movement is part of a rich history of people pushing back against cop repression.
From the 1950s onwards, sound system parties with illegal bars and pounding sound systems provided a social focus of Caribbean migrant communities. They were filled with people who were often excluded from racist pubs and clubs—so they curated their own events in houses or community centres.
The cops usually weren’t far behind. Music journalist John Masouri remembers, “The police harassment was coming on strong at that time as well.
“You’d often be in places and the police would raid them and search everybody and close off the system, close off the club…but you kind of got used to that—it became part of the experience.
“Whenever young people gather to have a good time there’s always someone that wants to spoil it, y’know?”
It was partly this police repression that fuelled the politically-driven reggae music of the 1970s.
This fed into Notting Hill Carnival—a celebration of Caribbean music, food, identity and culture—which the police still try to control. Every year the cops whip up panic about drug dealing and rioting when, despite their heavy handed policing, there are very low rates of crime.
Then as now, state concerns about raves, parties or carnivals aren’t borne out of worries for public safety. In the 1990s worries about drugs were used as a smokescreen to attack the alternative scene.
It’s the same today—Tory ministers are quick to decry raves or free parties claiming they worry about the risk of transmitting Covid-19. They used fear about drugs in the 1990s in a similar way.
The truth is that ordinary people coming together in large numbers—whether for political rallies or all-night parties—worries the ruling class. They fear it will challenge the authorities’ control of the streets.
Although the much of the trade unions and revolutionary left supported the fight against the bill, the real drive to end it came from ravers. It shows that opposition to state repression can come from the most surprising of quarters, and pull in people who never would have considered themselves politically active before.
The Tories will continue to hammer us with legislation that criminalises pickets, protests and parties—it’s our job to repetitively beat them back.