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How the Police Have Obliterated British Youth Cultures

Skinheads, hippies, ravers, punks – all have fought their battles with the law.
Hannah Ewens
London, GB

(Photo by Henry Langston)

Nobody – bar maybe Charles Bronson – likes being set upon by police. As we recently discovered, people like it even less when their only crime is listening to a relatively unpopular form of hip hop and occasionally wearing clown make-up.

The worrying thing is that the FBI crackdown on juggalos isn’t anything new; authorities have been targeting subcultures for decades, presumably under the premise that anyone intentionally dressing like an idiot and putting themselves through, say, an entire Bullet for My Valentine concert must be completely detached from all societal norms and values. That, of course, translates to an increased propensity for robbing chicken shops and throwing cats in rivers, leading to the eventual moral decline of an entire generation.


Take the former Tory MP Jocelyn Cadbury, for example, who blamed punk and rock music for a rise in crime in the early 1980s, arguing it created an “ethos of violence”. Or the Tory government of the early-90s, which introduced new legislation to stop people from gathering in fields to spend the night listening to piano house and hugging each other.

To get a better idea of the history of police clamping down on British youth subcultures I spoke to Dr Chris A Williams, Professor of Urban History and a specialist in policing and crime, and Dr Andrew Wilson, Professor of Sociology and a specialist in drugs and subcultures.


Emerging in Manchester’s slums during the late 19th century, scuttlers were maybe the first British youth subculture – if beating the shit out one another with belts wrapped around your fists can constitute a “culture”. Storming around in brass-tipped pointed clogs, bell-bottomed trousers and neckerchiefs, the scuttlers belonged to various local youth gangs and would challenge each other to fights – or “scuttling”, as you’d call it if you were around in 1873 – in an attempt to prove their neighbourhood was the toughest in the city.

For whatever reason, police didn’t like this increase of children bludgeoning each other in the street, so cracked down hard on anyone with even a vague level of involvement. “The response was based on fear and a high level of violence that wouldn’t be allowed today,” explained Dr Williams. “Police didn’t need to know much about them, or make sure they were scuttlers – they could look the same as any other working-class youth.”


Thanks to the police aggression, harsh sentencing and the rise of youth clubs and association football – which allowed them to refocus their energies on screaming at players and each other – scuttlers had all but disappeared by the turn of the century.

(Photos by Derek Ridgers)


Before the skinhead look had been co-opted by racists and Dutch fashion designers, authorities targeted the relatively peaceful, apolitical subculture under the banner of public safety – because shaving your head and holding your trousers up with braces is clearly a sign that you want to bottle strangers. However, as Dr Williams noted, much of that initial violence was manufactured by the police themselves. “You had a very working-class police force at the time,” he explained, “and creating problems was one of the things they enjoyed.”

Dr Wilson added that skinheads were singled out from very early on, and were made to remove their shoelaces at football games so they couldn’t run away or kick out at people. “One element of the skinhead fashion was a piece of material in your top pocket,” he said. “At clubs and bars, if you had this they’d not let you in. At one point, a lot of them were wearing red ties, and this was a warning signal. This policing based on your clothing was relentless.”


The early northern soul scene basically subsisted on teenagers in tank tops and baggy trousers stealing speed from chemists. Dr Wilson – a soulie himself at the time – remembered that “burglaries took place mid-week” in preparation for the weekend, before dodgy backstreet pills took off as a slightly less brazen alternative from the mid-70s onwards.


Police gradually began to clock on to the fact that all these basement rooms playing imported Motown records were also full of sweaty speed freaks, and in 1971 Manchester’s Twisted Wheel club – the epicentre of the scene – was closed down after pressure from cops and the council. “It was a constant cat and mouse chase,” said Wilson. “Police would take you to one side and shine a torch in your eyes to look at your pupil dilation. If you failed you went to one side, and if you passed they kicked you out. It was a real ritual.”

A bunch of hippies in 1974, one wearing an "Arrive Stoned" number plate (Photo via)


The hippie movement was the first non-working class subculture that police paid real attention to. Because even though establishing world peace and sharing herpes wasn’t illegal, the mass production, supply and ingestion of LSD definitely was. This led to hippies being subjected to the first systematic policing of subcultures; instead of cops just wantonly bashing teenagers, they actually started putting some effort into their work. “A lot of drug squads decided to go undercover,” said Dr Williams. “The officers grew their hair long and disguised themselves as hippies for months at a time in order to nick people.”

All this dressing up came to a head during Operation Julie in the mid-70s. Targeting two major LSD rings, bosses had dozens of cops trained in the ways of the hippie – paving the way for the future Mark Kennedys of British policing – and dispatched them to a farmhouse in Wales that overlooked a cottage belonging to one of the suspects. After 13 months of surveillance, 87 homes in England and Wales were raided, leading to the arrests of 120 suspects and the seizure of 1.1 million tabs of acid.



Punks weren’t directly targeted by police in the way other subcultures had been, though all their spitting and pre-watershed swearing was picked up on by the media and spun to create a widespread moral panic (despite the fact the culture was formulated by art school students who just wanted to sell more bondage wear and swastika T-shirts). That said, the police did keep an eye on them, thanks to – as Dr Williams put it – “the fact that punk and post-punk communities were strongly aligned with left politics; they were sympathetic towards the miners, for example”.

Predictably, punk shows were made difficult to host. In December of 1976, the Sex Pistols, The Clash and Johnny and the Heartbreakers united for the Anarchy Tour, a series of concerts throughout the UK. Many of these gigs were cancelled by venue owners after local police hyped up minor incidents involving punks and the national media jumped in, claiming the bands and their fans weren't really the kind of people you'd want getting drunk in a building you own.

(Photo by Gavin Watson)


Neither the police or the government of the late-80s really knew how to deal with ravers at first – something Dr Williams told me was due to their elusiveness compared to other more recognisable subcultures. “People going to these acid house raves didn’t necessarily look like they were going to one,” he said. “You didn’t have to dress ridiculously to be a part of the subculture.”


Of course, the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act was eventually passed in 1994, which tightened up the laws around throwing illegal parties in fields. Raves were then moved indoors, meaning the government could tax the hell out of everything and police could raid clubs for drug dealers and users.


It’s hard to think of anything more menacing than a bunch of mild-mannered hippies sloping around the country, smoking weed, stewing lentils and washing in rivers. Which is probably why Tory MPs at the time compared these New Age travellers to “medieval brigands” – gang members who ambushed and robbed people in forests – and police raided the 1985 Stonehenge Free Festival, in an attack that would later be dubbed the “Battle of the Beanfield”.

The ambush was mayhem, and journalists at the time reported vicious scenes of police brutality; ITN reporter Kim Sabido said what she’d seen had been “some of the most brutal police treatment [she’d] witnessed in [her] entire career”. Vehicles were contained, windows were smashed and people were beaten with truncheons, which cops naturally claimed was a response to the hippies pelting them with wood, stones and even petrol bombs. Claims that, weirdly, were dropped and never mentioned again in the following court cases.

According to Dr Williams, “That was the first time in British history where you had a subculture that wasn’t necessarily being overtly political, but every element of it was being treated as criminal.”

Tempa T with a baseball bat (Photo by James Pearson-Howes)



According to Dr Williams, grime and garage are the first two subcultures that the police have found unsettling in a long time. While cops can’t force a venue to shut down a grime show, “they can threaten to revoke licenses”, said Williams. “They can also make it very difficult for a venue to hold an artist they see as problematic.” A recent example was Just Jam at London’s Barbican, set to feature artists like JME and Big Narstie. The night was cancelled the day before on the grounds of “public safety”, AKA venue owners bowing to police pressure.

All of this control revolves around Form 696, a risk assessment sheet that judges the supposed danger of violent crime at an event (Noisey released a great documentary about it earlier this year). There used to be a section asking whether there would be any ethnic minorities in attendance, but despite that blatant red flag of racism now being removed, the question is still implied. It’s a worryingly effective way of policing an entire musical subculture.


“Police have become a lot more powerful with regards to public order in the last 20 years,” said Dr Williams. “They’re on top of nearly every gathering that happens.” And he's right – it's a lot harder to keep things quiet than it was when outdoor raves meant driving to a spot and hoping there'd be a rig there. Nowadays, police generally have a good idea when the next warehouse party or unscheduled gathering at an English Heritage site might be happening.


But what's all the surveillance even for? Occupy – if you can class that as a subculture – fizzled out as quick as it started. The last real musical subculture we had in the UK was emo – or maybe new rave, if you grew up somewhere with a metro system – and the only impact that had was a couple of misguided Daily Mail headlines and a proliferation of young adults with dangly earlobes. “The music industry is blocking genuine crazes,” Williams suggested to me. “I can’t see anyone on a major label releasing a single about all the scary crime going on at the moment.”


More stuff about this kind of stuff:

The UK's Teenage Moped Gangs Have a New Subculture

I Tried to Sell Cybergoth and Steampunk Clothes to 'Wavey' Streetwear Kids

What Does It Mean to Be a 'Teenager' Today?