What Ever Happened To The Exodus Collective? Part One
An interview with former spokesman Glenn Jenkins
11th February 2003
The Exodus Collective built up a remarkable and well deserved reputation for organising large free raves and renovating derelict properties in the Luton area over a ten year period. Their work inspired several television and radio documentaries, and generated more column inches of press coverage than any other group of its kind. So why did it all collapse in a heap in 2000. For the first time, former spokesperson Glenn Jenkins answers the questions which mystified many........
......and reveals how an even bigger project is now well on its way.
Regular readers of SQUALL will be aware that in their extraordinary ten-year history the Exodus Collective faced off relentless attempts by the political establishment and local police to stop them in their tracks. However, their avowedly non-commercial, non-violent, pro-active community stance earned them a deep respect in a wide cross section of the community. From inner city youth to church organisations. And this respect proved stronger than even the more malicious of their detractors.
Ultimately even Bedfordshire County Council voted for a full-scale public enquiry into a series of malevolent police operations against Exodus, including drug plants and fabricated murder charges.
The Collective's unique confluence of spiritual ideals and roughneck knowledge of the inner city helped foster a unique combination of the caring and the cutting edge. As a consequence they offered radical yet simple solutions to inner city regeneration and didn't wait around for permission to put them into action. The Collective campaigned vigorously for social justice and was an instrumental political force against the commercialisation of modern dance culture. Using the credibility they garnered with some large landowners they succeeded in hosting the annual Free the Spirit Festival, a massive free festival which in its fourth year obtained a licence without any compromise of its cultural identity. This was a rare feat.
But after ten years of prolific activity, things fell apart at the Fourth Free the Spirit Festival in 2000. Some members of the Collective thought the spiritually-principled voluntary ethic of the Collective should be laid aside to make money, and a hasty downfall precipitated. Many people outside Luton were mystified at the sudden collapse of such an inspiring movement and to this day it is not generally known what happened. In the first part of a series of examinations on what happened to the Exodus Collective - and how even bigger projects are now fermenting in Luton - SQUALL interviews Glenn Jenkins, Exodus' elected spokesperson from 1992 until its demise in 2000.
SQUALL: Two years on now from the end of the Exodus Collective, what is the condensed version of what happened?
GLENN J: There came a point where we had to realise the consensus which we operated on wasn't there to enough of a degree. That there was a sizeable portion of people who wanted to move things in a different direction than the one we had originally embarked on together. And that maybe doesn't sound like too big a thing but when you're talking about your Modus Operandi - what you do, why you do it, and what you do it for - then these are big differences that were growing under the surface. Not being verbalised in meetings but growing anyway.
SQUALL: What was the new MO being put forward?
GLENN J: It was the rejection of the strictures, the disciplines. Some of the rigid things we held 'in house' in terms of our practices. It was about our stance our platform. And the ways of dealing with fundamental principles to do with spirit and a consensus on non-violence.
SQUALL: What were the differences in the consensus on non-violence?
GLENN J: Exodus has never been a green fringe thing. It's an urban thing and we all come from that world so there's no sort of judgement going on whether, if you punch someone in the face, you're a bad person full stop. It's just about whether you're looking to get away from that way of doing things or not. And the consensus disappeared on whether that was something we had to get away from. About whether we might have to deal with things in a different way if people come at us. If you adopt 'meeting fist with fist' as a philosophy... then spiritually we've divorced. And the non-violence was one part of the consensus which was lost in terms of our own personal behaviours for lots of us. And the philosophies of non violence seemed to turn to bollocks for some people. And they'd say 'Ah shut up with that bollocks' when our non-violent stance was talked about.
And I guess a part of me didn't want to believe we were losing the consensus. But we were.
SQUALL: What about collective decision-making?
GLENN J: Yeah that became increasingly less. Two years on I can look back and say there's things what went wrong in terms of our meeting structures. Not so much in attendance but in saying what you feel. In saying: 'I think this is bollocks', rather than just going with it because it's the direction that was collectively stated previously. More honest discussion about what's going on.... even if it offends the platform you're standing on, it should be said. And those things weren't being said but they were maybe being done, and action speaks louder than words. So it's no good coming to a meeting and saying, 'Yeah yeah yeah', and then saying 'Nah nah nah' when you're not at the meeting... when you're supposed to be carrying out the principles of what you'd agreed within the gathering. So again we lost the consensus, we lost the collective meetings. They actually became bigger as the situation stoked up because it was a major issue all of a sudden. But the respect for the meetings was lost in a big flank of the people. We were not a 'let's have a vote and the majority rules' type organisation at the time because if you're a spiritual battalion then you can't vote me out of my non-violent principles. I'd have to leave the space if the group decided that. You couldn't vote me out of my 'let's not be millionaires' principle. If it's alright to be a millionaire then spiritually it's not the right place for me to be in. So, with consensus, if we can't agree we stop and discuss and thrash it out and arrive at consensus before we move. But we lost that because people were moving ahead despite not agreeing with it.
SQUALL: So people were moving in disparate directions without finding out whether there was a consensus to back up what they were doing?
GLENN J: What I was doing in the same way was what I was always doing. Moving it forward, driving it where it needs to be and defending it when it's attacked. And because that's such a busy thing, such a head full job... what I was doing was what I thought we was always doing, striving hard not to be the Romans that we were born. At the time I had many a chat with SQUALL about the malaise that was gathering - but it took me by surprise when one of our eyes had gone. A flank of the movement with people in there who'd been there as long as me, who've sworn it as tight as I have and had now decided to go in a direction despite what the collective consensus was.
After the Free the Spirit Festival, we ground to a halt. Spiritually you can't go ahead together if you haven't got this consensus and clearly we had disagreements in the camp. After we ground to a halt there were parts of the Exodus Collective who thought it's more important to put events on than sit around talking about these bullshit issues.
SQUALL: You mean the raves?
GLENN J: The raves, the work on the farm... the whole programme. You have to understand that members of the collective are there on condition of loving these principles that we're on. And all of a sudden if those principles aren't there anymore then you can't put your work into it. You can't put your back into it because you would be building something you don't agree with. So anyway Exodus' activities came to a grinding halt and we had meeting after meeting after meeting. People shouting at each other and all of that kind of thing. It was like a divorce. We had our arguments. We had rare-ups. And when we realised we couldn't be a family again, then a fair section of the people couldn't stay there and removed themselves. The hardest thing is to keep your principles and know that your principles are bigger than the bricks and mortar which is looking you hard in the face at the moment. But there's a broader picture that helps us keep our principles rather than drop 'em for some bricks. If there wasn't a wider picture it might have been even more difficult to deal with than it was.
SQUALL: You said that a lot of things weren't said at meetings for a period and then it all started coming out. What precipitated the collapse, what circumstances brought about the final grinding to a halt?
GLENN J: The last Free the Spirit Festival .
What happened at the festival was that the gaps in our shared direction - which in hindsight existed clearly - blew up. For me, representing some of the hearts and minds in the collective establishing the Free the Spirit Festival was ultimate victory. We'd squatted land for years with a view to freeing up that land. We'd established a template for a licensed festival where the licence was cut round the culture rather the culture being cut to fit the licence. But some people in the Collective didn't see it like that. Maybe it felt to them like we were letting go of the reigns. But we'd always said this was for the people. What we were fighting for is the space for a community to organise itself. We weren't fighting to become the new landlords. It wasn't all about us saying this is now our space and we'll let the people in sort of thing. So I believe there was some people in the Collective who felt that this is ours.
SQUALL: Exodus's you mean?
GLENN J: Yeah man.
SQUALL: And Exodus run tings?
GLENN J: You have to look at this in a balanced way. You couldn't say: 'Exodus Collective you lot lost it and think you run tings' and all that kind of thing. Because there are people who attend the events who are used to people who run the space. What we're trying to forge here is community self-policing and all this kind of thing. But people were content to leave it to us. So for the fourth Free the Spirit Festival that responsibility was a heavy load on an already creaking back. I could give you lots of examples like people coming and selling drugs, all this kind of stuff coming at us. But what happened at the Festival was that the underlying boil popped and, thank God, apart from those of us who were actively putting the festival on infrastructurally, the tens of thousands of people who came had a seriously beautiful time. But the people who were putting it on were fucked at the end of it. It was the most horrible period of my life. Seriously, I've never been under anything like that before. On a level like that when our Collective has all gone horrible. So then for me there began misty city til now and still now to some degree. Cos there's a lot of different emotions involved. But I don't write this book. I'm just a actor playing a part of life and because we're not plotters and planners, we're just living out the experience with all its grooves and turns. I might perceive a framework or a sketch but then there's the actual finished article, which is a serious work of art if you like as the organic development unfolds. But then there's been twists and turns which I personally wouldn't have written into the story.
And it's only later on that you realise you're a fool because you're not aware of why these things happen for the greater bigger good. So there's a lot of pain and a lot of fucking confusion. Divorce, but on a different level.
SQUALL: In the immediate aftermath of the festival describe what was happening in the Collective and at HAZ manor?
GLENN J: Well obviously there was a devastation for one. That's how I felt. That's an understatement as it goes. I can't think of a word about how I felt actually. And the way I felt was shared by quite a few people in the Collective. Confused to some degree. There was different levels, some surprised, some not... because the situation had been growing and there were people who noticed it a lot more than me because they were on the ground in house [Glenn lives with his wife and four children on a nearby housing estate and not in one of Exodus's housing project]. 'Surprise' is perhaps the wrong word, 'taken off guard' might be better. There were 'domestics' going on which became heightened and there was an inability by us to be able to do what we did anymore in terms of being an open caring door. Other people felt it was our downfall that we were this open door, that we let idiots in. We had different outlooks on life now all of a sudden.
But there was a bigger picture, something almost mystical about it all that was holding me together personally and that was: 'Fuck me man we have just done it and then it happened. We done what we set out to do with the festival and freeing up land for community use... all that trek for years... occupy, occupy, occupy leaving landlords and landowners letters and even poems saying 'Free up the land'... and the land was freed up and the badamm!... we blew up. It was verging on the mystical and I was thinking this could have happened six months ago and we wouldn't have been where we were. And the plans for a big community centre run by the community for the community were on the horizon. The public enquiry was on the horizon [a groundbreaking public inquiry into systematic police malevolence against the Collective had been voted for by Bedfordshire County Council]. Big tings were still there despite the fact that we had popped as a Collective... and it's that that preventing me from collapsing in a heap I think. And that's why I understand people who did collapse in a heap... because maybe they weren't in the 'crows nest' department looking out from the bridge. They were ground warriors. There were people dropping in a heap and saying fucking hell my life's just been torn up. So there was serious devastation about the place. And a series of months where we went through meeting after meeting. Personally speaking I went through a period of time where I believed we had to pull it together. I was in a state where the only way was pulling it together or otherwise it was the end of it. It felt like a book closing at such a crucial time. So it was well weird... the mixed emotions. And I was stuck on pulling it together but as things developed there was a sizeable team of people who wanted to drop the principles. Because it's heavy to strive to be better, rather than go "well that's the way I am so that's it". Most people get to a stage in their life when they get tired of striving for change and they think "I'm getting older and I've got to make my space".
So anyway it came to that point where I had to realise there was a bigger picture and I focused on that and trying not to let the high emotion stop me fulfilling that. Because I felt if we stopped moving with the bigger picture then not only was it the end of the book but also a serious victory for badness over what's right. Because it would be really bad for us to strive for so long to free up land 'by the people for the people' and it all goes in the shape of pear. So I was driven by that and to some degree that anaesthetised me from some of the everyday having-to-sit-and-wallow-in-it-pain that goes with that. So I was blessed in a way. But to the people who couldn't do anything other than that because they were plunged into a situation of homelessness... you know we were always so much more than a housing co-op or a dance. As a Collective we were a battalion. I believe in a movement which is worldwide and people picked up and strive for this movement. The global anti-capitalist campaigns are a part of the movement. It's everywhere. And the Collective was a single battalion of many for change and the collective became unwilling to continue with that burden of responsibility and so we separated in terms of our everyday activity and stance. It's painful shit.
SQUALL: When did you finally decide that the Collective couldn't pull it back together and how did you finally announce that you could no longer be the spokesperson and that the battalion had expanded?
GLENN J: There were internal declarations made, ie I said to those people that if we're not bound by the same principles, disciplines and agreements as we were before then I can't be there. Basically that was my choice and that was all good.
SQUALL: Did you wake up one morning and say 'right that's it I've given it enough time?
GLENN J: Nah. It was over months. I was in a period of believing in my heart that we would get over this. Somehow or another people would - how I would see it - wake up to what they were doing away with. But it didn't happen and that took months. And then it took me months. I think in a way I started to set myself mental deadlines. But then things happened which released me from that because it put me in a headspace of thinking: "this is the end of a chapter not the end of a book".
Exodus means to go on a trek - many of you - from one space to another. But when you reach the other then the Exodus has actually finished for you and then you've got a building job to do within the principles and doing battle in the new place. Next round, next chapter. And when I was able to get into that headspace with a bit of help from Bob Marley and all that, I was able to feel differently about it. It's the same mission. I always thought that HAZ Manor and the farm were gonna be major demonstrations to people who don't believe in collectivity and that kinda way of doing things; of the success of those. In my book I would have written it so the manor and the farm would be perfect examples of spiritually sound, physically and materially beautiful projects and then we would have gone out with those on your heart and sleeve and say if you can't see what we're talking about then check that out. That was what I believed was gonna be the case. So well you could look at that as, well, a big failure but it's not about the manor and the farm. When you get on the bigger headspace one - which takes a long time to do - you start to realise that's still the case in a way because of the serious lessons that you draw from the experience. So instead of there being like this sketch version of how the manor and the farm were going to be demonstrations of fineness, they are that for the time that they were and then theyre big lessons for each and every one of us in the Collective. Because as I've said before I love all the people within the Collective, we stood through a lot of shit together and we're all damaged through that in terms of our relationships because people are still stinging and I would like to see the day when we can all live the life we believe in and not resent each other. But it's gonna take a while for the sting to go out of it.....
Part 2 of this interview coming soon...
To see Squall's full coverage of Exodus click here