Tuesday, May 04, 2021

The Hunger Strike, the Irish War and an English Town: Luton 1980-81

The 1981 Irish Hunger Strike started in the H Blocks of the Maze prison (also known as Long Kesh) in March and finished seven months later following the deaths of 10 Irish Republican prisoners.  The mass support for the hunger strikers was to prove a turning point in Irish politics, but it resonated across the world. 

I grew up 300 miles away in Luton, an English town albeit one with a large Irish community. The events had a profound impact on me as a teenager just getting involved in radical politics, it was heartbreaking following the news day by day of prisoners getting sick and dying in the face of the chilling, cold-hearted indifference of Margaret Thatcher and her Government. All the more so in that the five demands of the prisoners were quietly conceded shortly afterwards:

- The right not to wear a prison uniform;

- the right not to do prison work;

- the right of free association with other prisoners;

- the right to organize their own educational and recreational facilities;

- the right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week.

Luton had a significant role in the Irish republican movement in the 1970s and early 1980s, and was the scene of one of the last Hunger Strike demonstrations.

Frank Stagg and The Luton Three

An earlier hunger strike had been mounted by Irish prisoners in English jails in 1976, demanding a transfer to prison in Ireland.  In the course of this protest Frank Stagg died in Wakefield Prison and Michael Gaughan died in Parkhurst.  Frank Stagg had first joined Sinn Fein in Luton in 1972. 

In November 1973, three members of Luton Sinn Fein - Sean Campbell, Phil Sheridan and Gerry Mealey -  known as the Luton Three, were convicted of ‘conspiring to rob persons unknown'.  No robbery had taken place and it was claimed  that 'They were the victims of a trap laid by police agent Kenneth Lennon at the instigation of Special Branch. At the trial Lennon’s name and his role in the affair was concealed by the prosecution denying the defence any opportunity of contesting the basis of the police case. All three were sentenced to ten years' (Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! No 12, September 1981). In another twist Lennon (who lived in Francis Street, Luton) then encouraged an 18 year old Luton man, Patrick O'Brien, to take part in a plot to help the Luton prisoners escape from Winson Green prison in Birmingham. This seems to have been another Special Branch sting. Lennon later confessed his role as an agent provocateur to the National Council for Civil Liberties, shortly before he was found shot dead in the Surrey countryside.

The Luton Three all had a tough time in prison. Mealey spent seven weeks on hunger strike in 1976 as part of the same protest in which Frank Stagg died. While in Albany jail on the Isle of Wight, Campbell was badly beaten up by prison officers during a prisoners protest in 1976, sustaining a broken leg, jaw and ribs.  Shortly after his release in 1982 he was admitted to hospital after suffering a severe stroke, but he went on to become a Sinn Fein councillor in Cookstown, County Tyrone until his death in 2002

'They were taken to Luton Police Station where they were again assaulted and beaten and interrogated'. Republican News, 25 August 1973

The Luton 2: Jim Reilly and  Gerry MacLochlainn 

The case of the 'Luton 3' was followed in 1980 by that of the 'Luton 2', which I remember personally. Jim Reilly was a familiar figure on the Luton Left, and had been a union shop steward at Vauxhall as well as the Home Counties organiser for Sinn Fein.  He lived in Highfield Road in Luton's Bury Park area. As reported in Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! (no.4, May/June 1980):

'On Sunday and Monday 30 and 31 March two leading members of Provisional Sinn Féin (Britain) – Gerry MacLochlainn South Wales Organiser and Jim Reilly Home Counties Organiser – were arrested under the racist anti-Irish Prevention of Terrorism Act.

Sinn Fein and Hands off Ireland staged pickets of Luton police station, on one of which - on Easter Sunday - police piled in. 10-15 police rushed from the station and kicked and punched the demonstrators back from the entrance. This was followed by the arrest of five Hands Off Ireland supporters – four of whom were subsequently charged with ‘breach of the peace’.

That morning Jim and Gerry appeared in court and were charged with conspiracy to cause explosions. The conditions under which Jim and Gerry are being held also violate their rights as remand prisoners. Both men are forced to wear prison uniform and are being held on 23 hour lock-up in solitary confinement and denied association or recreation. Since being moved to Leicester prison, they have been held in the punishment block'.

On 28 June 1980 there was a demonstration from People's Park in Luton calling for the dropping off charges against 'The Luton 2', as well as those arrested in the police station protest. Around 150 people took part in the demonstration which was addressed by Jim Reilly (by then out on bail) when it paused by Luton police station. The march had been arranged by Hands Off Ireland, the Revolutionary Communist Group's Irish campaign.

(The RCG did not have a branch in Luton, but there were a few in nearby Hemel Hempstead including one of my teachers from Luton Sixth Form I believe. I recall them turning up at a Luton CND meeting around this time at the Communist Party HQ at 8 Crawley Green Road and trying unsuccessfully to get them to adopt a Troops Out of Ireland position.  They spent a great deal of time denouncing other left factions for not having the 'correct' line on Ireland, but to give them their dues they did priortise solidarity when for much of the Left the fact that British troops were on the streets just across the sea was treated as background noise, just another issue on the menu of causes) 

Report of the Luton demo in June 1980, from FRFI, July/August 1980

I remember going to a public meeting at the International Centre in Old Bedford Road called by the Defence Committee Against the Prevention of Terrorism Act at which both Jim and Gerry spoke- the latter also having just been released on bail. I believe this was the meeting on June 19th 1980 mentioned in the following article, it also included a showing of a film 'Prisoner of War' about the prisoners' struggle.

'The racist anti-Irish Prevention of Terrorism Act... allows the police to arrest and hold people for eight days without any evidnce or charge, without any legal advice or contact with the outside world, and in atmosphere of intimidation and anti-Irish prejudice'

The death of Jim Reilly

Sadly, Jim Reilly was to die shortly afterwards at the age of 54. A long time asthma sufferer, he was admitted to hospital with a chest complaint and died at St Mary's Hospital in Luton. 

Born in the New Lodge area of Belfast in 1927, Jim Reilly was first interned in Crumlin Road prison as a young republican in 1942. After emigrating to England, he founded the Luton branch of Provisional Sinn Fein in 1971 and was arrested at least four times in the 1970s. For instance in 1975  Reilly and three other people from Luton were arrested in Liverpool as they left the Belfast boat on their way back from a Sinn Fein conference (Belfast Telegraph 31/10/75). One of those arrested with him, Luton electrician John Higgins, was later jailed for ten years for possession of walkie talkies and supposedly attempting to obtain weapons (BT 7/4/77).

Reilly's treatment in prison was widely held to have contributed to his ill health, not to mention his earlier experiences of being on hunger strike as a teenage prisoner in the 1940s: 'Jim Reilly, Luton Sinn Fein and Home Counties Organiser, died in hospital on Friday 26 September 1980. Jim Reilly was a lifelong revolutionary Republican fighter working right up to the moment of his death. His death was a direct result of the frame-up organised against him and his close comrade Gerry MacLochlainn (now serving a six year sentence). Having hounded Jim Reilly throughout his life, British imperialism succeeded in hounding him to death in September 1980. Jim Reilly’s death was a great loss both to the Republican movement and the British working class. He will always be remembered as a courageous dedicated Republican and convinced socialist' (Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! No 12, September 1981).

As a final indignity, British Airways refused to fly his body back to Belfast, resulting in his funeral at St Peter's on the Falls Road being delayed. He was buried in Milltown Cemetery.

Jim Reilly Obituary, from Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism, Nov/Dec 1980

Class struggle (Revolutionary Communist League), 2 October 1980

Gerard MacLochlainn was jailed for 6 years, like me he ended up in Kent a couple of years later: he was in Maidstone Prison and I was at University of Kent at Canterbury! Gerry applied for a course at the University and was refused admission, I was involved in a short lived campaign in his support which involved painting 'Defend Gerry MacLaughlin' and 'Troops Out of Ireland' across the campus among other things (his name variously given in English and Irish spellings in different reports). I also came across him later on when he was the Wolfe Tone Society/Sinn Fein organiser in London in 1990s, I was in Troops Out Movement at the time. Later he moved to Derry and became a Sinn Fein councillor.

Troops Out, December 1982

1981 Hunger Strike

Shortly after Reilly's death, in October 1980, prisoners in the H Blocks began a hunger strike in support of their five demands. This was called off after 53 days with the prisoners believing an agreement had been made. When it became clear that this was not the case, a second hunger strike began. Bobby Sands was the first to die on 5 May 1981, less than a month  after being elected as MP for Fermanagh and Tyrone. Immediately afterwards the Government passed a law to stop prisoners standing in elections to ensure there would be no repeat of this.

Between then and the end of August, nine other prisoners died: Francis Hughes, Raymond McCreesh, Patsy O'Hara, Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson, Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty, Thomas McElwee and Michael Devine. All were volunteers with the Irish Republican Army or the Irish National Liberation Army.  Kevin Lynch, who died on 1st August aged 25, had spent time in Luton including training with St. Dympna’s Gaelic Athletics Association club.

As the prisoners died they were replaced by others on the hunger strike and in September 1981 Sinn Fein announced that it planned a demonstration in Luton in support of the prisoners.  In the event the demonstration was banned, along with all other demos in the town, after the neo-nazi British Movement announced its intention to stage a counter-demonstration. Not long before, on 11 July 1981, more than 100 people had been arrested in a full scale riot in Luton sparked by clashes between skinhead British Movement sympathisers and predominately Asian youth in the town centre.  The threatened BM demo was the latest in a summer of threats from the group in the Luton area, and it provided a pretext for the Home Secretary to ban the hunger strike demo - not to mention the  fact that Luton Town FC were at home to rivals Watford on the same day (for the historical record I will simply state that the mighty Hatters won 4-1).

However, a static Sinn Fein rally did go ahead in Luton's Manor Road recreation ground on Saturday 26 September 1981,  which I attended along with about 250 people in the pouring rain. The speakers included prisoners' relatives including Nora McElwee (sister of Thomas McElwee), Malachy McCreesh (brother of Raymond) and Marius McMullen, brother of Jackie McMullen who was still on hunger strike (1). Other speakers included Michael Holden (Luton Sinn Fein), Eddie Caughey (Sinn Fein prisoners support) (2)  and ex-soldier Meurig Parri. Guest of honor was Owen Carron, who had been Bobby Sands' election agent and then after his death won the subsequent byelection on an 'Anti H-Block' ticket (3).

The British Movement had claimed that on the same day 200 - 300 people would protest outside Luton police station to protest against their march being banned (4)), but nothing materialised.

Just over a week later, on 3 October 1981, the hunger strike ended - but will never be forgotten.


Troops Out, October 1981

At the time of the Luton riot in July 1981, the local Herald newspaper said: 'The scene could have been Belfast, or even Brixton or Liverpool' (16 July 1981). I think it's important to remember that the Hunger Strike was going at the same time as the 1981 uprisings in English town and cities. I have no doubt that the young people rioting in Brixton and Toxteth on the one hand, and Belfast and Derry on the other took inspiration from each other - the TV news was dominated throughout the year by such scenes. Many black and Irish activists definitely saw each other as both being in the front line against British imperialism - to take but one example, radical black magazine Race Today published a text by Bobby Sands. And of course the British state was also not slow in making such connections -  in July 1981, the army demonstrated its water cannon to police chiefs and senior police officers from England visited their counterparts in the Royal Ulster Constabulary to learn about their methods of riot control.

(1) Belfast Telegraph, 24 September 1981

(2) 'Troops Out demand by Sinn Fein’, Luton News 1 October 1981

(3) Special Category: The IRA in English Prisons, Vol. 2: 1978-1985 by Ruán O’Donnel

(4) Luton News, 24 September 1981.

Leaflets from my own colllection, The Splits and Fusions RCG archive was a useful resource

A couple more leaflets on the Jim Reilly/Gerry Gerard MacLochlainn campaign. This from the Defence Committee Against the Prevention of the Prevention of Terrorism Act:

Back of leaflet advertising events in Luton

'Luton Magistrate Obstructs Bail' - Hands Off Ireland press release:

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Love is the Message Podcast

I was pretty excited to hear that Tim Lawrence  and Jeremy Gilbert have started a new podcast, Love is the Message. Tim is the great cultural historian of disco with his books on The Loft, Arthur Russell and early 1980s New York, while Jeremy co-hosts one of my favourite podcasts, ACFM on Novara Media which looks at the weird/pyschedelic left.

They describe the new podcast as follows:

'Love is the Message: Music, Dance & Counterculture is a new show from Tim Lawrence and Jeremy Gilbert, both of them authors, academics, DJs and dance party organisers. Tune in, Turn on and Get Down to in-depth discussion of the sonic, social and political legacies of radical movements from the 1960s to today. Starting with David Mancuso's NYC Loft parties, we’ll explore the countercultural sounds, scenes and ideas of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. ”There’s one big party going on all the time. Sometimes we get to tune into it.” The rest of the time there’s Love Is The Message'

In the introductory episode they talk a lot about David Mancuso and his famous Loft parties which they see as a bridge between the counter-culture of the late 60s/early 70s and the emergence of disco not just as a music but as a  new way of being on the dancefloor. As Lawrence describes it in the show, when Mancuso moved to New York he was 'heavily committed to the ideas that were fermenting around civil rights, around gay liberation, around the feminist movement of course the anti war movement and he also got interested in experimenting with LSD... it was very much the idea that the party could become a manifestation of these energies. It had become dangerous to go out on the street, anti-war protestors were getting killed by the state for protesting against the Vietnam war. There was this idea that the dancefloor space, that intimate private space could also function as a safe space, as a refuge where these energies could be cultivated, could be nurtured, could be given freedom to explore themselves'.

Of course there had been 'discotheques' through the 1960s but these were primarily heterosexual courting spaces with short songs and regular breaks for slow dances and trips to the bar.  The focus was not on losing yourself in the music and the crowd. Lawrence describes The Loft as a an experiment where Mancuso used longer, percussive tracks as part of 'setting up the parameters,  exploring the outer limits of what happens when you take the dancefloor,  you turn it into a space of openness, of possibility, of exploration, of transformation, where there are no clear cut limits being set... using the neutral space of the floor as a space where the rules were taken away and people were  allowed to enter it and redefine the set of the rules. The grand experiment was what happens when you start to bring a different form of music into this setting and you let the music take you somewhere, you let it drive the space'.

Lawrence and Gilbert are not just theoreticians of this sort of stuff but actually put on parties with Mancuso before his death in 2016, so expect to hear a lot more about this in future episodes.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

'The Night will not be Silenced' - Myanmar punks oppose the coup

Mass resistance to February's military coup is continuing in Myanmar, with more than 500 people killed as soldiers and police open fire on protestors. Among those taking part are members of the country's punk community. According to Myanmarmix:

'Myanmar bands The Rebel Riot, Kultureshock, The Outcast and The Slingshot, as well as several international bands, have formed a collective called Cacerolazo – the Spanish word for “casserole” and a form of protest popularized in 1971 when women banged empty pots on the streets to demonstrate against food shortages in Chile... the practice of clattering pots and pans is associated with exorcising evil in Myanmar and it has been deployed nightly to show disgust at the junta, which seized power from an elected government on February 1. Cacerolazo’s “The Night Will Not Be Silenced” pays homage to the noisy protest along with the people who have been killed by security forces since the coup 

“The voracity with which people crash their wooden spoons against their dented and deformed pots and pans is a daily reminder of the solidarity of the people against this regime," said a member of the band who asked for anonymity. “We wanted to share in this unity by bringing people together from across the Yangon punk community to write and record our own raucous din.”

Listen out at the end of the song for “Kabar Ma Kyay Bu” or “We Won’t Forget Until the End of the World” – a revolutionary song adapted from Kansas’ 1977 classic “Dust in the Wind” that became emblematic of the 1988 uprising and has also been widely sung since the coup'.

'Thousands of millions of people/An explosion of opposition/Very determined minds/ Oppose the perpetrators of the coup/Widespread everywhere/The sound of pots and pans/A song for freedom/Drive out the fascists... pull your head out of the sand/can you hear the pots and pans... the night will never silence this song'. You can download/donate here: https://cacerolazo.bandcamp.com/

Yangon band The Rebel Riot have released a track with the universal slogan on A.C.A.B. They say: 'We, Rebel Riot are furious with the current injustice and brutality of police towards peaceful protestors. We are protesting in anyway we can on ground and with our creation through music with our music video ACAB. This video is not merely a song. We are portraying their violence through this video. We hope our music video will help this revolution as a part' (see video on youtube).  The lyrics include: 'Behind the slogan of "May I help you", Lies the violence faced by detained civilians under the coup. We have no faith in the justice system.  Disgusting police. F**K the Police! A.C.A.B'.

The punk community's Food Not Bombs projects have continued to be active since the coup, distributing food to those who need it most. According to their facebook group (18 March), one of their activists was recently hospitalised in the represssion:

'Our friend Japan Gyi (Nickname) is 24 yrs old and he is from our community. He is a musician and has been an active volunteer of Food Not Bombs. He is the vocalist of band Outcast.

Since Feb 1 coup, all of our people from the community have been feeling angried towards the coup. We have been protesting from the start with the crowd and it was a peaceful protest at the start. After a while, they have been cracking down the protest violently by arresting people, beating people and killing people. Deaths of protestors has been increased day by day. Despite the violence caused by junta, people have not   been stopping the protest and still protesting in any way they can .

Hlaing Thar Yar is a township full of factories and many working class people across the country resides. The junta has been oppressing Hlaing Thar Yar more than any other townships to protect China factories. On March 14,Japan Gyi participated on the protest in Hlaing Thar Yar. In the afternoon,many soldiers and police arrived to crackdown the protest. In the evening, they started the crackdown by using tear gas, rubber bullets and live rounds. More than 50 people died and many injured. Japan Gyi got wounded with a bullet (possible rubber bullet) on his right arm and he got a fractured bone. He was sent to the nearest hospital and put in a  cast. His arm condition is still not in a good shape. Our community is worried for his current condition. He is not just a vocalist but also have a hobby for instruments and can play bass, drum and guitar. He is an important youth for our community and has been participating delivering food with Food not bombs. We are all praying for his hand to be back to normal. We need support for his family. We hope he will be back with us soon'.

One small way you can support this community is by paying to watch the Myanmar punk film 'My Buddha is Punk' on Vimeo, all proceeds of which are currently going to Food not Bombs and the Rebel Community

[thanks to Stefan Szczelkun or the heads up on this]

Saturday, March 27, 2021

'Weird youths in tight trousers' and 'demoralising scenes' at 1950s dance in Huddersfield

An everyday tale of police, the licensing laws, spooning and weird youths from Leeds in 1950s Yorkshire:

Huddersfield club wants inquiry into dance "slur"

'A public inquiry into police allegations about a dance in Huddersfield is to be requested by the organisers. Longwood Harriers Athletic Club at its annual meeting last night decided to ask Huddersfield Town Council for an inquiry. The club was recently refused a licence for a dance after police witnesses had spoken of "disgusting and demoralising scenes"..

Huddersfield teenagers' dance hall behaviour was defended last night at a meeting of Huddersfield Youth Committee. The troublemakers whose actions were criticised might have been some of those weird youths in tight trousers and extraordinary dress who come into the town from Leeds and the Spen Valley, said Mr W A Hinchcliffe'.

(Bradford Observer, 21 September 1955)

Longwood Harriers protest at police criticism of dances 

'A police officer stated in court that when he visited a dance which Longwood Harriers held at the Town Hall on August 19, the bar was crowded out, the floor was littered with empty bottles, and some of the couples were spooning. The officer suggested that 90 per cent of the people in the bar were under 20 years of age, and he described conditions as disgusting.

(Bradford Observer, 9 September 1955)

Harriers are granted dance drinks licence after police objection

Longwood Harriers Athletic Club who were recently refused a drinks licence for a dance at Huddersfield Town Hall after police complaints about a previous dance, successfully supported an applicatoin at the Borough Court yesterday for an occasional liquor licence for a ball which they will run at Cambridge Road Baths, Huddersfield

(Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 1 October 1955)

I stumbled across this story at the great British Newspaper Archive while looking for something else, as you do. Longwood Harriers is still going as an athletics club, as a committee member for an athletic club myself I can only dream that we could put on an event today that could attract such notoriety.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

'And I Dance with Somebody' - Diamonds are Forever & the Yokohama AIDS Conference 1994

In 'And I Dance with Somebody: Queer History in a Japanese Nightclub' (History Workshop Journal, Autumn 2020), Mark Pendleton  reflects on queer spaces, drag and HIV activism (among other things) through the prism of  'a drag-based club night called Diamonds are Forever' which was launched in Kyoto in 1989 and is still going. Pendleton frequented the club while living there in 1998-9 and returned to it recently.

The club was started by the 'artist and activist Furuhashi Teiji, also known by his drag persona Glorias' who while living in 1980s New York  became part of 'the East Village’s burgeoning drag and gay scene centred on the Pyramid Club'. Back in Japan he started the club in Kyoto as well as being involved in 'the radical performance art collective Dumb Type, which challenged social norms around gender, sexuality and identity'.

Pendleton honours the club founders but also warns against 'a narrow focus on creation.. A scene is created, sure, and that act of creation is fundamentally important, but what is created is also experienced by participants, who may or may not be known to the creators themselves and who make those spaces their own through their acts of resistance, or their dance moves'.

In Japan and elsewhere, Pendleton argues, queer spaces can be 'A retreat from the heteronormative world outside. A place to grow into cultures and histories marginalized from that world. That flash of bliss that gives a sense of a future beyond those dull places that fettered us. And a damn fun night of dancing, as a political act in and of itself'.

The 1994 International AIDS Conference in Yokohama

Pendleton highlights the significance of the Tenth International AIDS Conference held in Yokohama in August 1994, a decade into the AIDS crisis and the first event of its kind held outside of Europe or North America. The conference was attended by 10,000 people from 140 countries, with researchers, clinicians, policy makers, community workers, activists and others gathered under the slogan ‘The 
global challenge of AIDS: together for the future’.

Pendleton is critical of a framing of this conference as a culture clash between 'the conservative Japanese society and the western activists' (International AIDS Society), noting that it 'also featured Japanese artists and activists joining with those from elsewhere to remind scientists and policymakers that HIV positive people continued to live their lives through the crisis'. Specifically, Furuhashi and others involved with Dumb Type and Diamonds are Forever  intervened at the conference 'hanging red banners and hosting a party to reflect this insistence and the mechanism through which they understood that life could continue to be realized – collective acts of dancing and love. The AIDS acronym was stripped of its association with illness, stigma and death to become 'And I Dance with Somebody, accompanied by the slogans LOVE POSITIVE in English'.

Yokohama 1994 - image from Mori Art Museum

I attended the Yokohama conference and the party mentioned here so it was great to see this documented, and I thought I would contribute my fading memories of this event and my small collection of documents related to it (I wish I'd taken more photos now of course - I did take some of Yokohama street art which I've featured here before)

'Love Positive' with its slogan 'And I Dance with Somebody' was a series of cultural events, including a Symposium involving the US art critic and ACT UP activist Douglas Crimp. The Love Ball was an evening event taking place in the Plaza in front of the Pacifico Yokohama International Convention Center, the main conference venue. The Ball was described as 'A party to conference participants and the general public' with 'appearances by Diamonds are Forever's drag queens from the Kyoto club scene'. 

'And I Dance with Somebody' - postcard from AIDS Poster Project, Japan

More details are included on this fyler which lists DJ Lala and performers including Ms Glorias (Furuhashi), Simone Fukayuki, Maria Le Reina, OK Girls, Blue Day Girls and others:

As I recall there were a few hundred people there. It wasn't the wildest party, starting as it did in daylight in the humid outdoors, but it was a striking departure from the conference format of endless presentations. The drag acts would certainly have disabused anybody with misconceptions about Japan being a homogenously conservative nation! Of course I was familiar with drag, but I guess the mainstream UK conception of it at the time was of men dressing up as versions of women. If I had to describe it now I would say in Yokohama it was people (who may have defined themselves as men, women or neither) dressing up in outrageous costumes that were beyond anything usually worn by anybody and in a sense beyond gender.

There was a kind of utopian energy, captured in the slogan on this postcard featuring OK Girls, one of the acts participating in the Love Ball: 'O Developed Nations of Desire! O Superpowers of Fantasy' . As described by Pendleton, Japanese slogans on the banners 'imagined a dissolution of binary divisions, whether HIV+/-, man/woman or citizen/foreigner: "I have a dream that my status disappears. I have a dream that my sex disappears. I have a dream that my nationality disappears"'.

 After the performances everyone was invited up on the stage where we danced to disco.

The Plaza venue for the Love Ball (though this photo is of another event at the conference)

My encounter with the Kyoto crew was fleeting but it cheered me up, the conference itself was (understandably) a sober affair. At that point the World Health Organisation was estimating that 6000 people were being infected with HIV every day and that at least 17 million people had acquired HIV world-wide. Medical treatments had not progressed much beyond AZT, which had first been licensed in 1987. There was some positive news at the conference, such as a study that showed AZT could prevent babies being born with HIV to HIV+ mothers. But even the limited treatments available were out of reach of many in Sub Saharan Africa where the  majority of people living with HIV resided.  In her speech at the closing ceremony, 'Noerine Kaleeba from Uganda said that many young women there were asking why, if AZT was effective in reducing mother-to-child transmission, did they not have access to it' (quoted in Orr, Children, Families and HIV: The Global Picture, 1994).

It sometimes felt that such issues were as at risk of being sidelined in the increasingly professionalised AIDS industry of doctors, drugs companies and NGOs. Of course many of these people were doing good work and I was in the latter category myself. But there was a need for a strong activist challenge to put the lived experience of people with HIV at the forefront, and to maintain a sense of urgency.

There were some people in Yokohama from direct action group ACT UP, and they staged a protest at the closing ceremony focused on immigration restrictions on people living with HIV. New York activists reported that  'ten ACT UP members from New York, eight from Paris, and more than 100 members of Tokyo's OCCUR spearheaded several events during the week, including an unprecedented AIDS/coming out march in Yokohama on the opening day of the conference' (The Advocate, 15 November 1994)

ACT UP New York Press Release for Yokohama
(full publication here)

OCCUR (Association for the Lesbian and Gay Movement, based in Tokyo) had established  'The Executive Committee for Learn from PWA and Minorities' in May 1994 and had spent the months leading up to the conference lobbying against immigration restrictions on people with AIDS, sex workers and drug users that would have prevented many people from attending the conference. While some flexibility seems to have applied for the conference, the Committee continued to argue against discriminatory immigration laws and that 'The fight against AIDS has no border and so efforts must be made to assure all PWA/H's [People with AIDS/HIV] freedom of international mobility and to encourage solidarity through global networking, cooperation and actions of community-based organisations'. 

Newsletter published by 'The Executive Committee for Learn from PWA and Minorities'/OCCUR for Yokohama conference (full text of document here)

As well as discrimination against people with HIV, another big issue in Japan at the time was the blood products scandal. At least 1,000 haemophiliacs had been infected with HIV through blood products and those affected were taking legal action against the Government and drug companies for failing to take action when the risk was known. Japan did not switch to heat-treated blood products until more than two years after the US had taken this action.

With language barriers and time constraints I didn't engage with Japanese activists other than picking up their literature and attending the Love Ball. But with the visible presence of OCCUR, Love Positive and the large numbers of young people who acted as volunteers to help conference attendees, there was no sense that Japan was in need of enlightenment from outside. The issue of discrimination, including in relation to immigration, was one faced in most parts of the world.

I didn't do that much networking and socialising on my all too brief visit, I diligently spent my time in conference sessions as I was writing a report on it. I did meet some interesting people though, including hanging out with some folks involved in a HIV prevention project with young women sex workers on the German/Czech border (we went on a trip to see the Amida Buddha statue in Kamakura). With so many people present there must have been many connections made, some with lasting significance. For instance, a meeting in Yokohama led to the foundation of the Asian Pacific Network of Sex Workers.

[Mark Pendleton, a historian of Japan, is conducting research on the Yokohama conference, so I am sure would be interested in any memories or reflections - you can find him on twitter]

Commemorative stamp from Yokohama conference 1994

Tuesday, March 09, 2021

'We sing to keep ourselves from falling' - On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

I loved Ocean Vuong's poetic tale of growing up a young queer Vietnamese migrant in the US, 'On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous' (2019).  On the music front I liked this reflection centred around 50 Cent's 'Many Men (Wish Death)', which gets a few references in the novel:

'Trevor, beside me, was singing the 50 Cent song... I joined him. 

"Many men, many, many, many, many men"

We sang, nearly shouting the lyrics, the wind clipping at our voices. They say a song can be a bridge, Ma. But I say it's also the ground we stand on. And maybe we sing to keep ourselves from falling. Maybe we sing to keep ourselves.

"Wish death 'pon me. Lord I don't cry no more, don't look to the sky no more. Have mercy on me!"

In the blue living rooms we passed, the football game was dying down.

"Blood in my eye dawg and I can't see"

In the blue living rooms, some people won and some people lost. 

In this way, autumn passed.

Monday, February 01, 2021

No Blood for Oil: NHS workers and the 1991 Gulf War

The 1991 Gulf War was months in the making and just a few weeks in the fighting. After Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, the US and its allies (including Britain) spent time building up a military presence in the region before launching a massive airborne assault on Iraq in 'Operation Desert Storm' on January 16 1991. The expectation was that this would be followed by a prolonged ground war but in the event this did not materialise - Iraq withdrew from Kuwait and after bombing retreating Iraqi troops the US military did not go any further, declaring a ceasefire on 28 February and giving Saddam Hussein a free hand to repress the uprisings against his rule that were erupting across the country.  Really it was more of a one sided massacre than a war - less than 200 'Coalition' combatants were killed by Iraq compared to at least 30,000 Iraqis bombed, burnt or buried alive (many others died as a result of sanctions preventing medical and other supplies being provided to Iraq). 

There was mass opposition to the war across the world, particularly on the weekend before the war broke out with huge demonstrations in many countries - including up to 100,000 marching from Hyde Park in London on 12th January 1991 in a march called by the 'Committee to Stop War in the Gulf' - banner pictured below. Around 30,000 took part in another London demonstration on February 2nd where the crowd in Hyde Park was addressed by Vic Williams who had deserted from the Royal Artillery in protest against the war (he was later jailed

I was working at the time in the AIDS Education Unit for Barnet Health Authority, based at Colindale Hospital in north London. It was quite a radical workplace - we had earlier initiated a hospital workers anti-poll tax group - and we progressed to organising an anti-war group. The NHS had been put on war footing on the expectation that there would be large numbers of British military casualties, but this never happened. There was though some impact on the health service. The following text is edited from something I originally wrote for my Practical History website, back in 1991.

'Hospital workers say No War for Oil' - A4 poster

War damages health and the health service: Health Workers and the 1991 Gulf War

The effects of the war on the NHS were not as dramatic as many people anticipated, for the simple reason that there were few allied casualties. Despite this it is worth looking at the plans that were made, at the embryonic resistance to these plans, and at how this resistance related (or could have related) to a wider anti-war movement.

From the moment British forces were sent to the Gulf, the NHS was included in strategic military planning. At the end of 1990 the Department of Health initiated Operation Granby. Instructions on war preparations (Gulf Contingency Planning- NHS Plan and Procedure Guide) were sent to Regional Health Authorities. These instructions were marked "restricted", to be "used only for briefing and action by senior staff, and not released to the general public or the media". In particular it was stressed that "No impression should be given to the Press or public that NHS beds are being cleared for military casualties".

But the same guidelines predicted that at least 65-70 beds a day would be required from each of the regions. Nationally managers were ordered to prepare up to 7500 beds for military casualties (there were of course no plans to put private beds aside in this way). Plans were also made to use the already stretched NHS ambulance service to ferry war casualties from airports to hospitals. In January Command Post Exercise, a full-scale practice, was carried out to test hospitals' preparedness, and to estimate how quickly wards could be cleared.

In the event large numbers of beds weren't needed for Gulf War casualties. Nevertheless, patients were affected as preparations were made. In February the health minister William Waldegreave claimed: "we do not believe that it will be necessary for patients to be turned away from hospitals, or for wards to be emptied at present". However in his own Bristol constituency, Cosham hospital closed three wards of 50 beds each through the redeployment of staff in anticipation of Gulf War casualties.

It was a similar story across the country. At John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford (near RAF Brize Norton), patients were turned out of wards, and operations were cancelled. At the Luton & Dunstable three operating theatres were closed in January, and admissions halted. Minor operations were cancelled and beds cleared at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital. At the Woodlands orthopaedic hospital, near Leeds, hip replacement operations were postponed to keep beds free. And in Edinburgh, an 87 year old woman was told her operation at the Princess Margaret Rose Orthopaedic Hospital had been cancelled because a ward had been closed in readiness for Gulf casualties.

All of this came at a time when 4500 beds (1000 in London) had been closed as health authorities attempted to wipe out debts in time for the reorganisation of the NHS. In east London for instance, wards had been closed at Mile End and Whitechapel hospitals.

Working Conditions

Ward closures were accompanied by attacks on the working conditions of health workers. Many nurses were put on longer shifts and had leave cancelled (for instance in Newcastle some nurses were told to work 21 consecutive 12 hour shifts). In Enfield student nurses were asked to sign a piece of paper agreeing to 'volunteer' if needed. At Glasgow's Gartnavel hospital the training of psychiatric nurses was halted, when their tutors were transferred to the hospital's trauma unit.

At the end of January 1991 it was announced that nursing staff, midwives and health visitors would get pay rises ranging from 9.5 to 11.0 %, but that these would be phased in over seven months. The armed forces on the other hand were given an average 12.2% rise with immediate effect from April 1st.  Prime Minister John Major commented: "When many of our armed forces are on active service, we have concluded it would not be appropriate to ask them to wait for their full pay award" (never mind the health workers on active service trying to save lives instead of taking them).


Military reservists with medical experience were conscripted into the armed forces and sent to the Gulf. At least 25 reservists publicly refused to serve in the war, including Tim Brassil an ex-army nurse who went into hiding, saying: "as a nurse, I am disgusted that massive funding has become immediately available to fight a war when for years we have seen the National Health Service starved of funding". Jo Tetlow, a student nurse at North Manchester General Hospital, was equally adamant: "I face being called up as a medical reservist. But I am not going... I do not want to go and fight in a war about oil".

One again there were double standards for the public and private sectors. Of 10 physiotherapist reservists who appealed against call-up, five in private hospitals had their appeals upheld, five in NHS did not.

Health workers called up were not always replaced, so conscription hit services as well as the individuals concerned. For instance, two staff nurses were conscripted from Birmingham Accident Hospital, but nobody could be employed to take their place because recruitment had been frozen since November 1990.


It would be misleading to give the impression of mass active opposition to the Gulf War amongst health workers. A significant minority were involved in some anti-war activity though, and this could have blossomed into an important movement had the war lasted longer.

Early effects of the conflict were felt at Great Ormond Street children's hospital in London, where wards were closed because fewer private patients were coming from the middle east (the hospital relies on private sector income to help finance free health care on the site). Health workers at G.O.S. staged demonstrations demanding that the government provide funds to prevent cuts.

Later there were small demos linking the war to cuts in the NHS at the London Hospital in Whitechapel, the North Manchester Hospital, and in Leicester. Anti-war groups were set up in at least six London hospitals, and in Manchester the war was discussed at mass meetings at hospitals in the district attended by over 700 people.

At the hospital I worked at in north London, a small group of activists simply booked a room and put out a leaflet announcing the setting up of an anti war group. About 30 people from various backgrounds and unions turned up (more than we expected), with staff from both Colindale Hospital (Barnet Health Authority) and the neighbouring Public Health Laboratory Service. From this meeting various activities were organised including leafleting the local tube station, issuing a statement to the press, and making a banner to take on anti-war demos.

Barnet Health Workers Against the Gulf War leaflet, 1991

We also participated in the inaugural meeting of Health Workers against the War, which was attended by 120 people in London on February 17th with speakers including COHSE [health union] London secretary Pete Marshall and Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn (the Labour Party leadership on the other hand supported the war.). This group planned a demo against the war at the Department of Health, but the protest was cancelled with the news that the war was more or less over.

Health Workers Against the War leaflet - the planned demo at Dept of Health on 28th February was cancelled as the war was over.

Management response

NHS managers were unsurprisingly hostile to anti-war activity. Manchester Royal Infirmary managers banned an anti-war meeting, threatened to sack staff for talking to press, and told nurses they would be under Ministry of Defence control. In Barnet health authority, managers cancelled a booking for a meeting, and pulled down leaflets, as well as applying informal pressure (such as letting activists know they were being talked about amongst senior managers). There were also cases of people being threatened with disciplinary action for wearing anti-war badges.

Partly this was because in the new NHS culture, the power of managers had been increased. Everybody else was supposed to do as they were told, and certainly not to think, speak or act for themselves. There had been many cases of people being disciplined for exposing cutbacks or other problems in their hospitals. Nationally, NHS management seemed to be trying to create a climate of fear sufficient to intimidate even those groups, such as nurses, whose professional code of conduct obliged them to blow the whistle when patients interests were at risk.

The prospect of health workers speaking out in war time was a threat to more than just NHS managers. It threatened to undermine the censorship about the bloody reality of the conflict. The propaganda offensive reached new heights during the Gulf War. To people in the West it was presented as a high-tech video game in which the human casualties were invisible [in this sense, Baudrillard famously wrote that 'The Gulf War did not take place'].

Media manipulation extended to the health service, where plans were made to put information under military control. The Department of Health instructed managers to "liaise with Army District HQ about information being provided". Quite conscious attempts to mislead people were organised. In January confidential Department of Health guidelines for press officers were leaked. These included model answers to deal with media enquiries. One said: "NHS staff and hospitals have plenty of experience of dealing with the effects of toxic chemicals and with infection". This message for public consumption was contradicted in the secret guidelines which stated "The management of chemical warfare casualties will present new problems for doctors ...the compound likely to be used differs from those encountered in ordinary toxological practice".

Undoubtedly if military casualties had been treated in hospitals here they would have been kept largely hidden from view. Only sanitised images of smiling squaddies with their limbs intact would have been allowed on our TV screens. The weak link in this propaganda war would have been health workers who would not only have known the full extent of injuries but would also have heard what the war was really like from the injured troops.

Health workers against the war membership card

Welfare or warfare?

During the Gulf war, plans were made to re-open hospital wards for military casualties which had previously been closed due to cuts. The government offered to provide funds for this which had previously been denied (although significantly the government didn't provide these funds immediately- £9.5 million had been spent on NHS war preparations by late February 1991 which the government offered to refund at a later date).

A Health Workers against the war leaflet pointed out:

 "One Tornado costs £20 million, one Challenger costs £3 million. Meanwhile Mrs Kendrick form Christie Hospital has been refused essential drug treatment costing £3000. Managers said it was too expensive! Last year 312,000 NHS operations were cancelled. Now 7500 hospital beds have been emptied for war casualties... With the money they spend every hour on this war we could build three hospitals, or run 90 hospital wards or give Mrs Kendrick her drugs."

Similar links were made by the radical AIDS direct action group ACT UP during a "Day of Desperation" in New York on January 23. Protestors forced the CBS national evening news off the air when they invaded the set shouting "Fight AIDS, not Arabs". When 500 activists also shut down Grand Central Station for an hour during the evening rush hour, they floated a large banner reading "Money for AIDS not war" to the ceiling with helium-filled balloons.

As always, comparing health and military expenditure clearly demonstrated our rulers' priorities.

Extracts from documents:

Link up to fight the cuts - Great Ormond Street Health Workers Group, Leaflet, October 1990.

'We are all here to today to demonstrate against the cuts which management have said have to be implemented within this hospital. These cuts have catastrophically affected our N.H.S., and are basically the result of Government underfunding.

As health workers, we want to be able to offer our patients the greatest possible care. This notion is in complete conflict with that of management who care only for sticking within budget limits. As far as we are concerned, health is not a budgetable commodity. Management have argued that the cuts will not "unacceptably" affect patient care. I'm sure that most workers within this hospital feel that safety levels (the balconies), and patient care, often fall short of acceptable levels now, due to inadequate staffing levels, stress, etc. We should not forget either that by implementing these cuts we are inevitably going to threaten the lives and welfare of those children and their families who are unable to be admitted. We must stop these cuts.

The Gulf Crisis

At the meetings held last week Sir Anthony informed us that the Gulf Crisis has already affected this hospital's revenue due to loss of income in our private sector, as well as increasing inflation in oil prices which will result in price rises in pharmaceutical, heating and other fuel bills. This again is going to reduce the already short budget even further. Why are we in the Middle East?

 1) To try and keep the price of oil down.

 2) To distract our attention away from our deflated economy.

 3) To encourage us to put our nation's interest before our own.

This war must end. It threatens the lives of millions in the middle east and it is now endangering our health and our jobs'.

Press statement by Barnet Health Workers Against the Gulf War:

Barnet Health Workers Against the Gulf War statement, 1991
(OK sticker says 'Hospital Workers' not 'Health Workers', think we settled on the latter to be inclusive of people working in NHS but not in hospital)

'So far the war in the Gulf has been presented as a virtually bloodless affair, or even as a glorified firework display. One American journalist went so far as to describe the bombing of Baghdad as looking like "sparklers on the 4th of July". Given the amount of bombs and missiles that have been used in the first week of the war however, there must already have been many casualties. And as the war progresses many more ordinary people on both sides face being killed or maimed.

As workers in services concerned with preventing loss of life, we are opposed to the needless slaughter now being carried out in our name in the Gulf.

We are also concerned about the effects of the war on the health service, and on our working conditions. At least 7500 hospital beds have been put aside to treat military casualties. As the war wounded are brought home, other patients in need face being turned away. North West Thames Regional Health Authority is considering cancelling operations and discharging hospital patients. In some parts of the country health workers have been told that they will face compulsory overtime and the cancellation of leave.

We are not opposed to the treatment of British soldiers (or Iraqi prisoners of war) in our hospitals. However this should not be provided at the expense of the needs of other patients and health workers. At the very least, private hospitals should be taken over before NHS beds are used, and full funding should be provided to cover the extra costs of treating military casualties.

The best way of preventing the latest threat to our health service is to put a stop to its cause: to put a stop to the war. This would save many lives in the Gulf. Many more lives could be saved if the millions of pounds being spent on the war were to fund a decent health service for all'.

Health workers against the war petition

Friday, January 22, 2021

Revolt of the Ravers – The Movement against the Criminal Justice Act in Britain 1993-95

by Neil Transpontine

[first published in Datacide: magazine for noise and politics, number 13, 2013]

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.

Castlemorton, 1992

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’.

Freedom Network benefit gig at Cool Tan in Brixton, the squatted former dole office

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 Socialist Workers Party 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).

'The Battle for Hyde Park: ruffians, radicals and ravers, 1855-1994'
(written by me as part of previous Practical History project)

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.

Back copies of Datacide, including this one, can be ordered here

Neil Transpontine (2013) 'Revolt of the Ravers – The Movement against the Criminal Justice Act in Britain 1993-95' in Datacide: magazine for noise and politics, 13. https://history-is-made-at-night.blogspot.com/2021/01/revolt-of-ravers-movement-against.html

This article was published (without pictures) in Datacide magazine, number 13, 2013. A version of it has been up on their website for some time but facebook is not currently allowing links from that site to be posted. For that reason I have decided to repost it at this site. 

I gave a talk based on this article for the Datacide 13 launch event held at Vinyl in Deptford in October 2013. The article also served as the starting point for an event on the anti-CJA movement held at the May Day Rooms in October 2014.

See also on the CJA:

Marching against the CJA, July 1994

Eternity report of July 1994 anti-CJA demo