Saturday, January 13, 2007

Bristol: a tale of two parties

1. Bristol area, 1611

'The village of Rangeworthy, a few miles north of Bristol, was a detached part of the large parish of Thornbury… In 1611 the vicar decreed that the customary Whitsun revel should no longer begin on the sabbath. The villagers obediently curtailed their celebration to Whit Monday; it was preceded by a sermon of 'near three hours'. During the afternoon the constable of Thornbury Hundred, John Parker, was called to the scene. He found, he told Star Chamber, 'a most disorderly, riotous and unlawful assembly' engaged in 'unlawful games and most beastly and disorderly drinking'. The ringleaders, Parker decided, were four 'unknown persons who passed under the name of musicians, all of them being strangers having no habitations thereabouts nor appertaining to any nobleman or man of worth' - vagrants or master-less men, in other words. He tried to arrest the musicians and put them in the stocks, but was resisted by the villagers, who surrounded the stocks and rescued them. According to Parker, he and his handful of assistants were badly beaten up.

Viewed from this standpoint the Rangeworthy revel pitted a group of law-abiding reformers against a crowd of violent, drunken louts. To the villagers it seemed very different. Their defence was based on a familiar system of values. 'By all the time whereof the memory of man is not to the contrary', they declared, the revel feast had been held in Rangeworthy during Whitsun week. Its purpose was 'the refreshing of the minds and spirits of the country people, being inured and tired with husbandry and continual labour… for preservation of mutual amity, acquaintance and love… and allaying of strifes, discords and debates between neighbour and neighbour'. It had always included innocent diversions like 'wrestling, leaping, running, throwing the bar' as well as dancing and 'other honest sport'. On the day in question there was no excessive drinking - just a few young people dancing while the musicians played and some of the older inhabitants lingered to watch on their way home from the sermon. This idyllic scene was shattered only by the arrival of the arrogant constable, who provoked the crowd by his 'reviling speeches' against the dancers and musicians… They denied obstructing him, though they admitted that nobody had lifted a finger when Parker called for assistance.'

Source: Revel, Riot, and Rebellion: popular politics and culture in England, 1603-1660 – David Underdown (Oxford University Press, 1985)

2. Bristol area, 2006

'Bristol Police attacked would be party goers and pedestrians attempting to walk up Cumberland road in the early hours of Sunday morning and used pepper-spray against those inside the party. Police had arrived at the scene earlier in the night to put an end to a free-party which was happening in an unused warehouse on Cumberland road. Despite causing no public nuisance, being sufficiently away from residential properties and set back from the road thus causing no road obstruction the police presence to stop the party was huge. A helicopter, three riot vehicles, at least 6 police cars, a police dog unit and mounted section were all at the scene in an attempt to crack down on this non commercial recreational activity…

In spite of their numbers, the police’s attempt to shut the party down was unsuccessful. A small group of officers who entered the building to turn the music off were met with a crowd unwilling to be silenced. After refusing to stop the music a number of people behind the decks were pepper sprayed directly to the faces. The flagrantly abusive police behaviour in this instance instantly galvanised the crowd to surge the officers towards the exit. With the officers just outside the building a defiant partygoer plummeted from the ceiling hanging on the chain to close the roller-shutter which due to the loss of power was too stiff to do manually from the ground. The police safely outside and at least 400 safely inside the sealed building, the party went on.

Meanwhile outside, the police, undermined by the solidity of the rave inside, and unwilling to leave it be, began to try and clear the area of anymore would be party-goers. Given the numbers inside the utility of expending resources in order to evict the no more than 30 people from the surrounding area was questionable. Logic notwithstanding however the police formed a line across the road. Shielded, with batons in hand and backed up by horses and dogs, at approximately 3am police baton charged the people remaining outside. A number of people were brutally beaten with batons as they ran away and at least two violent arrests were made of people posing absolutely no threat to the police themselves or the maintenance of public order.Within ten minutes of carrying out this violent attack the police presence completely dissolved leaving the party to its own devices save for a small number of officers who later returned to monitor the harmless proceedings. This change of tactic after having made some token arrests and venting their anger at their failure on innocent bystanders demonstrates the fickle nature of the policing of parties, which represents more of a test of crowd control tactics, a show of strength and intimidation than a genuine attempt to protect the public good. Indeed any genuine attempt to serve the public interest would consist of leaving harmless partygoers to have fun.'

Source: Bristol Indymedia

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