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Revellers clash with police at a party in Norfolk. August, 2020. Photo: REUTERS / Toby Melville

The War Over Britain’s Illegal ‘Plague Raves’

Illegal parties have been the subject of political and tabloid anger throughout the pandemic. We spoke to the people on each side of the battle.
April 8, 2021, 12:47pm

For 18-year-old George Parsons, the £319 fine was a small price to pay for a big night out. Leaving Bristol Magistrates Court in early February, where he’d been issued the charge for refusing to leave an illegal rave in Yate, near Bristol, on Halloween night of 2020, he told a reporter from a local paper, “Raves aren’t anti-lockdown, they’re anti-capitalism.”

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The 700-person party was just one of the many illegal raves that took place across the UK after the coronavirus pandemic forced the closure of bars and nightclubs. With parties from Sheffield to South Wales keeping police busy over the summer of 2020, Home Secretary Priti Patel denounced them as “dangerous” and said those behind the events “show a blatant disregard for the safety of others” – a point the government doubled down on by upping fines to £10,000 for organisers of gatherings of over 30 people.

Britain’s tabloid press echoed the party line, with the Sun on Sunday claiming in September that illegal raves and warehouse parties had “driven the surge” in coronavirus cases. In turn, these reports fuelled social media outcry over “plague raves” – with the majority decrying “covidiots” for attending perceived super-spreader events, and a minority arguing that young people couldn’t be blamed for blowing off steam after months of government-mandated house arrest.

With vaccines unlikely to reach the rave-attending generation until late summer, and spring heralding a potential grand return to outdoor illegal events, what do those on the frontline of this culture war think of the past year’s parties? Were they moments of “anti-capitalist” direct action, or just an excuse to take pills in a field? Was it a golden year for raving, or will future generations view 2020 as a mark on the scene’s rich history?

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A sign near an illegal rave in Banwen, South Wales that was attended by 3,000 people. Photo: Robert Melen / Alamy Live News

“Saying it out loud sounds really irresponsible and stupid, but we just wanted to have a party,” explained one party organiser from Leigh-on-Sea, Essex. The 26-year-old sales manager - who asked to go by “VinylJunkie420” – hosted an illegal boat party in London that attracted around 100 people in August of 2020.

“I think it was a big success. It felt like a real community, and everyone needed this release. The warmth I got from it was the biggest thing,” he said, adding of the health dangers: “I felt like it was a risk, and I acknowledge that. We let people know of the risk before and then we just hoped for the best, I guess.”

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Although VinylJunkie420’s party wasn’t shut down, he decided against throwing another one after the £10,000 fine was introduced. “[The fines] reflect a culture of penalising the poor,” he argued. “A £400 fine [for attending a gathering of over 15 people] could cripple a young family, or it might be just a bit of pocket money for some banker putting on a party with some pals, you know?”

According to figures from early January, of the 196 £10,000 fines issued in England, only five had been paid. Forty-two have been “ignored”, and at least two were dropped after being challenged in court. Of course, that’s not to say that organising a large event is advised. When I contacted the Department of Health and Social Care, they directed me to the government guidelines, which make it clear that police can take action against you if “you meet in larger groups”.

Chief Superintendent Pete Warren from Avon and Somerset Police has sent teams of his officers to disperse illegal indoor and outdoor events throughout the pandemic. While they “haven’t had a great deal more [raves]” than they usually expect, he says officers were met with fairly extreme resistance from people intent on reaching the parties.

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“At the Yate rave there was very high levels of violence towards police officers,” he said. “Setting fire to aerosol cans and using them as flamethrowers, throwing bricks, throwing stones, throwing anything they could get their hands on, just so they could get past the officers and get to the rave. I’ve been a police officer for 27 years and I was surprised at the level of violence people were willing to use to get to that event.”

Following the Yate rave, an investigation was launched after a 28-year-old woman was mauled by a police dog, causing “life-changing” injuries. At the time, Kevin Blowe, coordinator of police monitoring group Netpol, told the Independent: “The police need to justify why they thought it was appropriate to bring police dogs there […] If you go back to April [shortly after new coronavirus rules were introduced], there are many examples of the police interpreting the new powers that they’ve been given in an incredibly arbitrary and disproportionate manner.”

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A rave in London. Photo: Gianni Muratore / Alamy Stock Photo

Besides 1918, the year of the Spanish flu, last year was the second deadliest in a century, with 608,000 recorded deaths. I put this to Poppy, an 18-year-old University of Manchester student who attended forest raves in the summer of 2020.

“I don’t necessarily feel guilty [for going to raves and parties], because I didn’t get COVID from there – nobody did,” she said (while meeting outside is known to be safer than mixing inside, there is no way to verify that the raves Poppy attended were COVID-19-free). “If somebody had it then we’d all have it, because we were skanking and we had mosh pits. […] The youth get a lot of blame - and fair enough, because sometimes we’re fucking cunts – but to blame it all on us is wrong, because it’s not all us.”

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Poppy falls into the under-19 age group that is the least at risk from COVID-19, but people can still spread the virus even if they’re asymptomatic.

As we talked, Poppy redirected the focus of our chat: “Overall, the government reacted so shit. Boris is ridiculous. COVID is killing people and ruining people’s lives, but there’s no need for them to be cunts about it.”

Teenagers and students have been on the receiving end of much of the tabloid vitriol, but they aren’t the only ones organising and attending pandemic parties. Geoff* is a 35-year-old computer scientist from London who danced at illegal raves throughout the summer of 2020, alongside hundreds of strangers. “I remember looking into people’s eyes and they hadn’t seen anyone for months,” he said. “They were so excited. There was a lot of beautiful energy around.”

Geoff has asthma and recently recovered from pneumonia, so is vulnerable in the eyes of health experts. “I’d had COVID-19 twice already, so I knew my body could fight it off,” he added.

Geoff spoke to me from his house in north London, which he shares with 29 others, saying he largely agrees with the lockdown measures and health advice, so wouldn’t share a beer at the raves he attended, and hasn’t visited his family for over a year.

Over the last year, NHS staff in hospitals across the UK have had to step into serious roles outside of their expertise. Early on in the pandemic, many were working either with ineffective PPE, or none at all, putting themselves and their patients at increased risk.

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Melanie* is a cancer nurse at a London hospital. When the ward she was working on closed – leaving many of her patients without vital chemotherapy and other treatment for months – she was redeployed to an intensive therapy unit (ITU) and has been there ever since.

“At one point, two-thirds of the hospital was COVID-positive,” she said, adding that ITU nurses usually match patients one-to-one, but at some points had to care for six people at a time. Currently, Melanie has to look after two patients simultaneously, despite working with drugs and technology she isn’t used to. “It was a case of having to learn on the job,” she said. “It can be a really intimidating experience.”

I asked her what she thought of the illegal rave scene. “I completely get it,” she said. “I think, on a scale, we’ve all broken the rules – and it’s really confusing what the rules even are. I don’t like the idea that the people organising raves are the ones to blame, when Boris wasn’t quick enough to action a lockdown the first time around. I’m much more angry at hospital bosses and Boris Johnson for not being clear and not taking it seriously. Illegal raves: not cool. But before that, the issue is with how this has been dealt with at a government level. The blame is with Boris.”

Melanie’s attitude towards illegal raves are not representative of all NHS staff – in January, ICU medics pleaded with the public to follow COVID rules – but her anger at the British government chimes with how many others feel. In September of 2020, a survey found that over 1,000 doctors intend to leave the NHS over the government’s mishandling of the pandemic, and earlier this year The Royal College of Nursing criticised the “pitiful” proposed 1 percent pay-rise for NHS staff in England.

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Police surrounding speakers at a rave in Branwen, South Wales. Photo: Athena Pictures / Shutterstock

None of the ravers I spoke to for this piece strongly disagreed with lockdown measures. Some were politically-minded, while others were just out for a good time. However, regardless of their motives, what they’ve been doing has become political, attracting more tabloid attention, anger and discourse to the rave scene than it’s received since the Second Summer of Love.

In May of 1992, Castlemorton Common Festival saw between 20,000 and 40,000 people rock up to fields in Worcestershire for a week-long illegal party. This titanic event caused an avalanche of media attention and controversy, resulting in the passing of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. The Conservative government’s battering ram against the rave scene gave police the power to shut down events featuring music “characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”.

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Mark Harrison is a visual artist and one of the founders of Spiral Tribe, a seminal collective and sound-system that helped to organise Castlemorton Festival and many other free parties across the UK and Europe.

“It was something that was a political act, whether we wanted it to be or not,” said Mark on a video call from his home in Berlin. “Even though we went on the record saying, ‘We are apolitical, we are not going into the political arena,’ just by holding that space, it is a very strongly political statement.”

The similarities between then and now don’t end there. In 1992, the Conservative Party was 12 years into its 18-year rule; 2020 marked the tenth year of the party’s current run. “We were persecuted, as it turns out, by the government, not by the police,” Mark explained. “The government then used that as an excuse to change the law, much like they’re doing now with COVID and the protest thing.”

Mark said he doesn’t think young ravers deserve the “hefty fines and tabloid nonsense”, and shouldn’t be demonised for wanting to have “a bit of fresh air” and “a dance”.

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Dr Tina Joshi, a molecular microbiologist and lecturer at Plymouth University, said, “We can’t blame one group. It’s collective behaviour across the country, from many different people.” She explained that raves can be “spreader events”, but said viral transmissions are unlikely outdoors if people are socially distanced: “At raves or parties, I imagine people aren’t going to be socially distancing, so maybe there would be an element of transmission – but that’s debatable if it’s outside.”

Dr Joshi explained that indoor events are much more dangerous. “Imagine the impact they could have,” she said. “If one person has COVID and is asymptomatic, and they spread it to another person who is asymptomatic, then that person goes home and speaks to somebody who is not very well… even if the person they speak to has had the vaccine, they might have a bad immune system and it could still cause them to go to hospital and die. I know that’s extreme, but it has happened in the past.”

According to Dr Joshi, “The last thing we want is loads of people going – like they did at Cheltenham Festival last year – and super-spreading. That was a real super-spreader event.” One of the biggest horse racing events in Britain, the event attracted 251,684 people – only 5.5 percent fewer than normal – in March of 2020, despite the COVID-19 outbreak. The government did not implement lockdown measures until ten days later.

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When I asked Dr Joshi for her thoughts on the government’s coronavirus response, she said that “from an epidemiology point of view, one thing we should’ve done is shut our borders at the very beginning of the pandemic, preventing international travel and containing the virus”.

Chief Superintendent Pete Warren highlighted that this can also be a problem within the UK. “At the raves in Bath, we’ve had people come from Manchester and other cities and counties,” he said. “That can only cause problems in relation to COVID, because people might be coming from areas with high COVID rates.”

He added that, despite their use of PPE, his officers are at risk because “they’re likely to end up less than two metres away from people, so social distancing will be reduced […] There’s a likelihood that they’ll have to put hands on people at some stage, which is another risk during COVID.”

Warren also echoed the worry that if people are asymptomatic they can pass the virus onto loved ones or vulnerable people. “I don’t know why anyone would want to take that risk,” he said.

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An illegal rave in London. Photo: Gianni Muratore / Alamy Stock Photo

I put Warren’s question to the ravers and organisers I spoke to for this piece.

“It was a release that people needed,” said the man going by VinylJunkie420. “We found ourselves in an unprecedented psychological situation and we felt like we needed to do something. It wasn’t necessary, but it felt important at the time. As far as I’m concerned, it was worth it.”

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Geoff went much further, saying, “I honestly think [the raves] help prevent suicide. It’s [ravers’] church, you know? Rave is a form of communion.”

Poppy, who identifies as an “avid partier”, said, “It’s my passion, the same way that a runner likes to run or an artist likes to paint a picture. If you tell me I can’t do that, it’s a cap on my passion. It sounds bare cheesy, but I genuinely see it as something I love and look forward to.”

While making it clear that he wouldn’t be attending – or involved in organising – any events during the pandemic, Mark from Spiral Tribe sees raving as anthropologically vital. “It’s part of evolution, part of our natural development,” he said. “It really is deep in our nature to be social creatures, to come together, to celebrate just being alive while listening to great music and having a really good time. It’s not a luxury, it’s not decadent, it’s not hedonistic – it’s an absolute basic human right.”

Mental health was mentioned by every rave attendee I spoke to. According to the Mental Health Foundation, loneliness, suicidal ideation and not coping well with stress have greatly worsened during the pandemic. The Centre for Mental Health has predicted that up to 10 million people – almost a sixth of the population – will need mental health support as a direct consequence of COVID-19.

With this in mind, one could make the argument that illegal parties and gatherings are a form of self-medication for those suffering with poor mental health. That said, health professionals could make an equally convincing argument that this form of self-medication might end up damaging the health of people who didn’t even attend the events.

It’s too early to say how the last year will be remembered in the coffee table books of the future. But it’s clear that neither public scorn, a global pandemic nor the threat of extortionate fines will stop some people from gleefully dancing their way through a succession of repetitive beats

*Names have been changed to protect anonymity.

@Jak_TH