The Mother, The Bill And The Bookshops
Ally Fogg notes Hampshire Police's sudden over-interest in political activism.
Squall 11, Autumn 1995, pp. 22-23.
It would have been the Mother of all Parties: a massive show of defiance of the Criminal Justice Act, and the biggest free festival since Castlemorton in 1992. Sound systems, travellers and party-goers were making their way from around the country towards the planned venue in Corby, Northamptonshire, but so too were a small army of police officers.
By midnight on Friday July 7 members of one sound system had been arrested under the CJA and alleged organisers from the Advance Party Network had been raided at home in London, and arrested for conspiracy to create a public nuisance. Police roadblocks around the site had created chaotic convoys of ravers and travellers heading off to find another venue, creating more policing headaches in at least three counties. But how did it happen? How can the free festival and party movement learn from the events? And what is the connection, if any, with raids on small radical bookshops in Oxford and Manchester earlier this year?
First and foremost, the Mother was the subject of some intense police surveillance. Michelle Poole, of the Advance Party, arrived home on Friday afternoon to find her flat full of policemen busily bagging up most of her possessions and even taking the pictures off the walls. “They made no secret that they’d been watching us for days, they were even boasting about the transcripts of my telephone calls that they’d taped,” she said. “But before, and even after, the event lots of people were getting dodgy phone calls from people they didn’t know asking about the Mother, so we’d known something was up”.
The police also arrested Andy, a friend of Michelle, and her dog and held them all for ten hours for questioning. Earlier that day another Advance Party activist, Debbie Staunton, had been woken at 6.30am by the police letting themselves into her flat with a battering ram. She phoned her solicitor immediately who then talked to the senior officer. Because of this she believes they were more cautious about what they removed from the flat. Nevertheless she was not allowed to take her seven-year-old son to school, he was taken by a WPC instead, and Debbie was taken for questioning and also held for ten hours. Debbie believes she was raided by officers from the Met, Northants and Hampshire. Michelle by the Met and Hampshire.
It may be that this massive police operation was successful in establishing the location and plans for the Mother, but sadly it is likely that they found out by a more traditional means, namely carelessness. Posters were stuck in Corby advertising the event from a week before and details were also posted on the Internet. Too many people around the country knew too many details too far in advance for the police not to find out somehow. But even if they did know in advance, it becomes much harder to justify the excessive force used against the Advance Party.
Hampshire police are not coy about the extent of the operation. Their press office told me: “We were just one of a number of police forces who were monitoring this event, the number may even go into double figures. We were there simply because we believed at some stage that the event might be held in Hampshire.” This is understandable, although by the time the raids were carried out they knew otherwise. Their apparently unusual presence may have something to do with the experience Hampshire Police have in surveillance of those at the radical end of animal rights and environmental activism.
A week before the Mother, Hampshire police were involved in a raid on Frontline Books in Manchester, with a warrant to seize articles relating to two publications: ‘The Green Anarchist’ and ‘Scumbusters’ and any other materials likely to incite others to criminal damage and arson. Neil Swannick of the cooperative which runs Frontline told me: “Our relationship with Green Anarchist is strictly commercial, they send us the magazine and if we sell it we send them the money. Scumbusters was apparently being advertised in Green Anarchist at a box number here, unbeknown to us and under a different name, which presumably is the connection with us, although I still haven’t seen a copy of whatever ‘Scumbusters’ is. As for the incitement, they basically took that as a brief to seize any materials involving direct action. They seized around a hundred magazines and two books, including ‘Eco-defence’ by Dave Foreman which is in its third edition and widely available.”
Hampshire police also raided two bookshops in Oxford earlier this year, apparently seeking information about Green Anarchist, four of whose activists are currently on police bail for conspiracy to incite arson. Robin Webb, allegedly press officer of the ALF, is currently on remand in Winchester Prison on firearms charges, arrested in East Anglia by Hampshire police. The press office acknowledges that they have a special unit dedicated to animal rights “extremists”, but they are adamant that the unit is only investigating crimes which have occurred or might occur in Hampshire, ranging from minor criminal damage to parcels laced with razor blades and letter bombs. The unit is funded and staffed by Hampshire Constabulary. It was, they say, definitely not involved in the arrests made in connection with the Mother.
Nevertheless, rumours are rife in the press and among activists of special units funded centrally and involving CID, Special Branch or MI5 depending who you listen to, providing a role for all the spooks who have lost their way with peace in Ireland and the end of the Cold War. This has led to a paranoia which may or may not be justified. Ultimately though, if the police forces of the nation are willing to exercise the kind of collective muscle they used against the Mother, then whether it is being coordinated from London, Hampshire or John O’Groats is largely irrelevant. We now know exactly the lengths the police and/or security forces will go to to prevent major acts of defiance from taking place.
According to Michelle, the authorities felt they had to clamp down on the Mother in order to justify the expense and time that had gone into gathering intelligence and collecting data on travellers and sound systems. “Just imagine what all this has cost the taxpayer. None of us are violent people, it was a festival thing, all we wanted to do was have a party.”
Michelle and Debbie maintain that the police did not ‘win’ over the Mother. After the Corby site was busted sound systems led convoys to alternative sites in Leicestershire and Cambridgeshire and eventually parties began which continued all weekend. “The Mother had children,” Debbie says, “and everyone found a party to go to.” Michelle adds: “It just shows that you have to be persistent, if you come to a roadblock don’t just give up and go home. But it also shows how many people were willing to play a part in making the weekend worthwhile. A party is no longer something that someone else organises and you go to, it is something you become part of and help make yourself. Even if that just means taking a bag full of rubbish away with you when you leave.”
The reaction of the Advance Party to the Mother is a positive one, a determination to learn from the mistakes made, particularly regarding communications and secrecy, but also a strength taken from the excessive reaction of the police, showing just how terrified the authorities are of a movement and a culture which only seeks to make people happy, something that they do not understand. Debbie says: “I always knew that if they came to arrest me I was on the right track. I felt quite cheered and heartened as they were going through my underwear drawer!” A reaction to cheer and hearten us all.
Mother Fucked! - from SchNEWS the same week.