A rig at a free party (All photos, taken on a mobile phone, courtesy of Kit Morrison)
Twenty years ago, it suddenly became a lot more difficult to have fun in a field. Inviting more than 20 people to a field was banned, walking towards large gatherings in fields was also banned, and listening to music containing “a succession of repetitive beats” was so banned that Dreadzone wrote a protest song about it.
In fact, the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act – and the amendments within it that targeted free parties (or “free festivals”, depending on who you’re hanging out with) – managed to drive a lot of the more anarchic sound systems out of the UK and into Europe. More recently, it was used to shut down a private birthday barbecue for 15 people.
The free party petition at the time of publication – only 2,042 to go
Kit Morrison, an 18-year-old living in the West Country, recently started an online petition addressed to Theresa May that calls for free parties and free festivals to be decriminalised in the UK. It’s nearing its target of 25,000 signatures, and when it reaches that number, Kit is going to present it to the Home Secretary to see what she has to say.
Obviously, legalising free parties kind of defeats the point. If the police turn up to keep an eye on things – making sure nobody’s doing anything bad, like ketamine or arson – then the rigs basically turn into travelling V Festivals, but with crusties and psytrance instead of Steve Jones and The Saturdays. I wanted to see what Kit thought about that, so I gave him a call.
Kit Morrison, in the facepaint
VICE: Hey Kit. So what’s your background? Why did you decide to start this petition?
Kit Morrison: Well, basically my dad has been involved in music his whole life. He used to manage Thin Lizzy back in the day, and went on to manage loads of people – Gorillaz, Blur, Damon Albarn. So I’ve been raised with music my whole life. After my parents split up I moved down to Cornwall, lived in a sort of hippie commune and started attending free parties. Then I moved up to near Bristol and got involved in the free party scene up here.
The spiritual home of free parties.
Yeah. I knew a bit about Thatcher and her anti-free party bill, and I was angry that our parties were being shut down without any actual justification. I’ve been doing an enormous amount of research about the whole issue, and there are still very unclear guidelines. You can get shut down for a noise disturbance when there’s a party taking place miles away from the closest house. It’s like, how is that possible?
If, like you say, the police aren't using the law properly, can you not fight back against that? Complain of police harassment or something?
Yeah, I’m sure you can. Free parties do take place in certain areas, and are allowed to take place a lot more freely than elsewhere – probably because the rigs are more responsible and clean up after themselves.
Where are the more lenient areas?
We’re usually alright in Somerset. The police shut us down at around 11 or 12 the next morning, which is fine. But in certain places, like the Wiltshire Downs, police shut us down at 3AM and gave us an hour to remove all our equipment and get everyone off site. There were people drinking and on drugs, but they didn’t care, despite the fact it’s a huge health risk – knowingly and willingly putting a number of drunk and drugged-up drivers on the road. They had no regards for anybody’s safety.
Have you had any dialogue with the police other than when they shut you down?
I know there’s been some dialogue up north and in Norwich – some communication with the authorities about trying to pull off these events. But I just think the police are very uncooperative. There were a few rigs trying to organise legitimate club nights in Norwich, and the police were going to the clubs and telling them they’d have their licenses revoked if they allowed the rigs there. They attack us on all fronts, because they tell us we’ll have their full support if we do it legitimately, but when we try that they stab us in the back.
How do you mean legitimately? Free parties are always going to be illegal until the law changes, right?
Well, the nights in the clubs would be legal. But the issue we’ve got is that a lot of people don’t want to spend their money in towns, being ripped off for expensive alcohol and water. Also, if you go to any town on a Friday or Saturday night, it's just a mass of drunk brawls. You don’t get any of that at the parties we throw. Yes, people get drunk, and yes, people use recreational drugs – but they don’t end up fighting and getting themselves in trouble. It’s a much safer environment than the average town setting, which is what they’ve set up for us.
But if free parties were legalised, the police would presumably want to regulate them and possibly even police them themselves. Wouldn’t that defeat the point of free parties a bit?
Yeah, definitely. This is where the divide with this petition started. I’m only 18, and I started this petition when I’d only just turned 17. I didn’t ever expect it to take off like it has. The publicity is good because it makes people think about the issue, but there’s now a big divide; if we did try to legalise things and do it on the right side of the law, there’s the argument that it could just ruin the scene.
What’s your opinion on that?
I feel like there’s a massive paradigm shift going on. Attitudes around the world are changing towards these sort of things. I don’t see anything wrong in setting up in a field on public land and having a party with a bunch of conscientious people who are going to clean up after themselves and make it spotless by the time we leave.
Yeah. Obviously you guys might do that, but then there other rigs that may not be so responsible. So if free parties were legalised tomorrow, would you set up an advisory council or something? Some way of making sure people don’t act like dicks?
There would just be a lot more open dialogue with the police – that way the police could actually see the culprits, the people who aren’t being very responsible, the people who don’t clean up after themselves. Those rigs should have fines and restrictions or whatever, and the people who are doing them properly would be able to go about their business as normal.
What level of police involvement would you be OK with? Because there’s no way they wouldn’t get involved in some way or another.
I’d be happy to have the police there as a friendly presence, not trying to prosecute people for minor drug offences. At festivals, the police are there merely as a peacekeeping force – they’re not out to just pick people up on petty drugs charges. There have been certain events, especially in London, where people have ended up getting shot or stabbed at a free party. The reason is because gangsters see these parties as lawless, and come to take people’s money off them instead of to party. So we could work with the police to defeat that aspect.
How come you didn’t use the official government petition site for your campaign?
I started it off on the Facebook page, and my friend – who’s quite involved in activism – sent me a link to the 38 Degrees website, so I put it up there. It could have been a good idea to whack it up on the official government page.
Regardless, you’re not far off the 25,000 signatures you were aiming for. What's the next move once you hit that target?
Once we have all the signatures that we’re possibly going to get out of it, we’ll take the petition down and formally hand it into parliament, and get an official response out of them. I’m sure they’re not going to give us any kind of response that we want. But, at the same time, it has brought a lot of attention to the issue, which I don’t think can be a bad thing.
Horse riders making their way through a forest the morning after a free party
Do you reckon there will be any point in the future that you’ll get the kind of response you want? I’d imagine you do, otherwise you probably wouldn’t be campaigning for it.
I think that it could happen once we’ve established a free and open system, which I do think is on the verge of happening. Human consciousness is moving in that direction. If we look at it generationally, soon grandparents are going to be the old school hippies who were taking acid back in the 60s. So I think maybe, in five to ten years, there could be a serious call for it. It wouldn’t just be a dream any more – it could actually be something that could be seriously implemented.
Do you have any plans to form a physical organisation that campaigns for this? Or is it all going to remain online?
I’m just keeping it online for the moment. But I’m currently working with a few of my friends to get a soundsystem together. We have the rigs, we just need the amps. I'd like to do it with my soundsystem – make it a bit more of a politically motivated soundsystem.
What does that involve? Billy Bragg jungle remixes? Or speeches and stuff?
Yeah, have parties, give out flyers and get the petition signed. Basically making more than just a party rig – turning it into something that takes the message with it.
Cool. Thanks, Kit.
Click here to sign Kit's petition.
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