The Festival, The Council And The Scapegoats
Squall 7, Summer 1994, pg. 14.
The Hackney Homeless People’s Festival was organised by local squatters, homeless people, travellers, and others who gave months of their time so that an estimated 25,000 people could spend a lazy Sunday afternoon soaking up the sun, the music and the festie vibe in the middle of London.
This year the organisers recognised the importance of the event as a forum for discussion about the Criminal Justice Bill, as well as a celebration of a sub-culture which is up against it this summer. The festival incorporated an Alternative Ideal Homes Exhibition, bringing together advice, information and action groups (see 'The Alternative Ideal Homes Exhibition' in this issue). Speakers on all stages reiterated warnings and advice about the Bill throughout the day.
During the planning of the event the festival committee liaised closely with Hackney Council. Some departments offered advice and funding and were open and encouraging. A precious few individuals recognised the festival as the most vibrant and positive event in the borough for years. Others were less than supportive and steeled up all available bureaucratic doors.
Two weeks before the festival Pat Tooey, Head of Licensing Administration, reclassified the event, completely arbitrarily, as a pop concert rather than a community event. She then made it clear that issuing a licence for a pop concert was out of the question at such short notice (a community event only requires two weeks notice).
After days of serious-league stress, conspiracy theories flying and phonecalls of protest to the right ears, with loads still to do and morale teetering on the edge, it was announced that there had been a misunderstanding and the festival was a community event after all.
On the morning of the festival the council arrived an hour late for their health and safety checks and demanded a bizarre all-systems-shutdown for the issuing of a licence. They brought only two Noise Boys to check the electrics on all 10 stages and failed to provide three promised sound limiters for the stages likely to be the loudest.
You could taste the tension hanging in the air of an unnaturally quiet festival site, where thousands of people with the Criminal Justice Bill on their minds waited nearly two hours for music stages, a circus, children’s area, and cabaret to kick off. The stressed-out voices of stage managers pleading for the go-ahead could be heard over walkie-talkies. At one point everyone was waiting for a problem with one circuit breaker on one stage to be resolved. The phrase ‘set-up’ sprang to several minds.
Finally, two hours late, the second Hackney Homeless Peoples’ Festival began. The sun shone, bands played, and people came. The day passed as all the best festival days do. It was peaceful, celebratory and over too soon. Inspector Baff of Stoke Newington Police (Liaison Officer for the festival) said that the festival was “very well held and very well stewarded….. The organisers were very helpful and listened to police advice”. By 8.30 people were leaving to contemplate the Forest Fayre in a few weeks time.
Less than an hour later an ‘incident’ occurred on Green Lanes. It began at about 9.30pm outside the Robinson Crusoe pub, where festival-goers were drinking in the garden, and ended at 10.30 with 30 arrests and several people hospitalised.
Inspector Baff described a “hard core” who “threw bottles at police vehicles. They were very much the worse for drink and all I can say is that they didn’t like seeing a police van drive past”. He noted that seven police were injured and “a number of officers” were “off work for a number of days”. He added, “it is pleasing to note that there have been no complaints brought against the police. Some questions have been raised but there were no complaints”.
Some questions have indeed been raised. Hackney Community Defence Association (HCDA) witnesses say trouble started when a police van stopped on Green Lanes because they saw a man wearing a traffic cone on his head. Words were exchanged, traffic cones were thrown and finally the man was arrested. Apparently his friends were also arrested when they became involved. Another witness, John, told us that he arrived on the scene after the traffic cone incident, when a police cordon had just been set up to block the road and is clear that “nothing was happening within the cordoned area. We were there for at least 15- 20 minutes”. During this time people leaving the park were not allowed through the cordon. John told us, “we were told that ‘there was a disturbance’... but there was no disturbance.”
The incident did not, therefore, escalate immediately after the traffic cone incident. There was a period of 20 minutes when people trying to go home were gathering within the cordoned area and asking what the problem was. Then, says John, “riot police just piled into people in the pub garden and began pushing them back”.
Moira, another by-stander, told us that she was prevented from passing through the cordon to get home by a line of “ordinary” police who would not explain why. She could not see any disturbance but noticed that the line of police had been replaced by members of the TSG. “They ran straight towards us and hit me in the stomach with a truncheon”.
It is uncertain when the first bottle was thrown or why the area was cordoned off but all witnesses speak of an unprovoked attack by police. HCDA is quite clear that the police were not attacked until after people had been arrested.
The incident left three people hospitalised. One man had his head split open. Witnesses say another, in a wheelchair, was dragged out of it and assaulted by police.
20 people are being charged with offences under the Public Order Act ranging from violent disorder (which carries three years imprisonment) to obstructing police on the highway. At least one person is still in custody.
We have also been informed that senior officers are not at all happy with the way police on the ground dealt with the situation. Chas of HCDA described what happened as “a classic example of the wrong-headed thinking behind police public order tactics”.
Appeal for Witnesses
Eloise Parrack assaulted and then arrested for affray outside the Robinson Crusoe pub at about 9.45pm. Her wrist was broken, allegedly by Police Sergeant John Prescott (175/174) who claims she used abusive language and threw bottles at him. Her solicitor would like to speak to anyone who witnessed the arrest. Eloise is 17, with fair hair. Contact Desmond O'Reilly at MacCormacks on 071 790 4339.
Hackney Homeless 'Incident' Acquittals - All five acquitted of public order offences following last year's Hackney Homeless Festival - Squall 10, Summer 1995.
Hackney's Homeless Peoples' Festival - Is to go ahead on May 8th at Clissold Park - Squall 6, Spring 1994.