A reflection on the interplay between control and chaos through the prism of a shut down illegal rave. The soundtrack for this article is at the end 😉
Picture the scene. Massive fuck off warehouse in South London and I mean massive. You could have resurrected Britain’s manufacturing sector in there and still had room left over for Boris Johnson’s ego. Proper gaff and a sublime venue. So we’re in there setting up – the sound system is in place and we’re now rigging all the lights (I say we – I am in fact having a quiet drink and offering moral support) when suddenly 3 of the Met’s finest come strolling into the middle of it all. Beautifully surreal I can tell you – they usually don’t turn up until it’s too late, the place is rammed and we have the upper hand in negotiations. You rarely catch a glimpse of Sierra Oscar inside the rave until the next morning when it’s thinned out or unless they’ve scored themselves a JCB and removed their identification. But there they were, looking suitably awkward in the halogens, a tad confused, and with only about 50 people in the area setting up, this did not bode well. They were as surprised as us for 3 helmeted plods do not a raid make. So what were they doing there?
Well some total imbecile had left the one of the doors wide open and they had just wandered in on patrol. They left just as quickly but we knew we were bang in trouble. They were off to assist their careers in a northerly direction and us into the back of a riot van. Now this was only the second or third party I’d been involved in since coming back to the UK and it was full blown London urban, so the usual practice of a meeting point in some supermarket car park and then a convoy piling in all at once to secure the venue with overwhelming numbers wasn’t on the cards. Instead, we just released the address on the phone lines and waited for people to turn up in their own time.
In fact, we had a good few hundred people in the venue before the inevitable happened. Enter the Police Commander of Lewisham who had obviously been rousted reluctantly out of his bed. And his entourage. As soon as a senior officer puts his credibility on the line by making a personal appearance, they simply cannot be seen to back down, so this was going to be a fraught negotiation process. A phalanx of vans was reversing into a line blocking the entry points and it seemed that even at midnight, the Commander had some serious resources. Probably called in half of South London because there is of course no violent crime on a Saturday night and thus people dancing was the major security priority.
The year was 2000 and there was no political endgame for us. This really was just a party, and not a fight to establish our rights or a new social consciousness, so there was only so far we were prepared to go – getting battered and losing all the equipment was definitely far too far. Been there, fucking loved it, but not there now. But still, caving immediately was unthinkable. After years in Europe negotiating with senior officials by blending 3 respectful words in their language with broken English, florid signage and trustworthy smiles, it was going to be interesting to take on a good old sarky English copper.
Police negotiation is, I confess, something I always secretly quite enjoyed. It’s all about being the reasonable face of something that instinctively frightens them and that they simply do not understand. If you can be sober, smiley, helpful, responsible, respectful but quietly insistent that there will be no stopping the party, you’re halfway there. And always skillfully turn them so they can’t see the inevitable ‘hardcore’ shouting Fuck Off You Pigs and discussing the merits of bacon at raucous length. Fear is the driving force of almost all over reactions, and diffusing that is the key to a mutually beneficial resolution with the authorities.
And fuck me were we reasonable. Positively fucking saintly. Representatives from the UN should have been taking notes. But our new friend the Commander seemed remarkably impervious to our charms and still less our logic. He was however, prepared to have a bit of a pavement debate about it all. It was clearly illegal. unlicensed and all the rest of it, but what with not far off a thousand inside and the police lines groaning with eager ravers, we were now in a situation. Surely our Metropolitan companion could be persuaded that it was in his interest to let the party go ahead – contained, safe and without thousands of people who’d now missed the last train pouring out onto the streets of Lewisham. I mean honestly – you’ve got thousands of people laden with alcohol and drugs and with their spirits up. Where would you rather have them – in one space all night then going their separate ways tired and happy in the morning – or rioting in the streets?
‘Who is your security firm’ he asked. Funny – I’d never been asked that question in any other country.
‘You’re looking at them’ we replied with a comforting, you can count on us officer – we’re actually very similar – some of our best friends are policeman – if only we’d met in different circumstances – kind of grin.
He did the maths. Thousands of people. Drugs. Booze. Music. No security.
It was almost as if that in itself decided it for him rather than any legal, licensing or noise questions. I couldn’t help feeling if we’d had a gang of skinheads in black bomber jackets, he might have taken a different line. To a policeman’s logic, if there was no ‘official’ controlling force, the inevitable result would be utter carnage. I could see him having visions of murders, rapes, stabbings, muggings and a swift defrocking of himself as senior officer after being crucified in the tabloids.
It goes to so many questions in philosophy and psychology. Is the human instinctively ‘good’ or ‘bad’ if left to his own devices? What came first – crime or law? Having been involved in illegal raves with crowds in the tens of thousands for many a year, I had learnt this incredibly inspiring lesson. Amongst those thousands you’ll have bad boys, muggers, gangsters, the whole roll call of darkness whipped into a heaving mass of loved up humanity. And almost never…….ever……any trouble. And yet you go to a 300 person capacity club with a moody security firm on the door and you’ll have a stabbing, 3 bottlings, a load of shit drugs sold, dealers ripped off and so on. A mini crime wave – regular as clockwork in towns up and down the country.
What is it about so many clubs that their security think that credibility rests on being large, menacing and unpleasant. Well partly because they’re mostly run by gangland firms. But conventional logic would have us believe that official security acts both as a deterrent to crime and as it’s solution. The same conventions would insist that the absence of security can only result in a criminal orgy of Hogarthian caricature and that an authority vacuum releases the ugliest inevitabilities of the human condition. The evidence I’ve seen in my life proves precisely the contrary. Attitude begets attitude. Put unsmiling authority there and people will go up against it. Inevitably
But strip it all down to bare humanity, lose the bomber jacket barrier, make everyone responsible for themselves and whoever happens to be next to them, and the results are extraordinary. Human beings step up, they take up the mantle and there is barely a sniff of trouble. Any incidents that do crop up are quietly handled by a family of strangers united by their environment. A community. The abrogation of responsibility away from the self and from the community to an external structure or ‘force’ seems a counter intuitive social dynamic – and certainly not one that encourages autonomous communities. Now the E’s definitely helped foster this spirit and the mindset of the kind of people who go to raves in the first place is certainly a factor, but the organic beauty of reclaiming people’s freedom and watching them honour it with loving responsibility is one of the most inspiring sights I have ever witnessed.
All lost on the Commander of course.
Well. We lost that argument. There were 80 arrests where they would have been none, the TSG beat the living shit out of anyone they could find after Commander Plod gave the go ahead. Vehicles were vandalized, windows were smashed in frustration, Everybody lost….
This is not an argument for the dissolution for the legal system – merely a series of observations on the tensions between ‘society’ and ‘community’. And it’s important to question how and why we are taught to underestimate and fear humanity. A Randian subtext sees self interest as the only rational barometer of human behaviour and has built the framework of a society on the expectation of selfishness and the fear of humanity unbound. Perhaps it is little wonder that control structures stay in place so successfully if we all accept that as a starting point.
First published – LSD Magazine – Issue 2 – Booting off the Doors
Ballerina image by Doublespace
Abandoned warehouse by Jamie Link