This post originally appeared on VICE UK.
Lambeth. Walthamstow. Brick Lane. The entirety of central London. If you've picked up a copy of the Evening Standard lately you'd be forgiven for thinking each one of these areas had gone up in flames; that the UK is a hotbed of masked rioters throwing petrol bombs at police and being nasty to innocent cutesters just trying to enjoy their £3.50 bowls of cereal.
Thanks to Twitter, the time between a Chicken Cottage window being smashed and mass media coverage of so-called "riots" is quicker than you can hashtag the phrase "hate crime." But why are these minor disturbances being labeled as riots, and why has there been a spike in the reporting of them?
The most recent example of this was Saturday's Scumoween rave in Lambeth. Under the terms of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, the police have the right to shut down unlicensed parties. It was under this rubric that the party was eventually emptied, with the clashes that ensued between ravers and police reported as a riot the following day.
Of course police had the responsibility to clear the revelers away—I can't imagine local homeowners would have been too happy if no cops had turned up to disperse the crowds. But as history has shown, dispatching riot police to a public disturbance often actually increases the likelihood of a riot. It's common sense: sending a bunch of cops in to swing their batons around doesn't usually engender goodwill from a crowd of people who might already not be the biggest fans of law enforcement.
I reached out to Paul Townsend, a crowd control expert, Dr. Clifford Stott, a public order expert, and some illegal rave veterans to find out how much heavy-handed policing tactics are responsible for all the "riots" we keep seeing reported in the news.
Sam Lister, a Press Association political correspondent who witnessed the clashes at Scumoween, told me "the roads around the rave were blocked off by police, but the crowd was still determined to get in and would not leave [...] For a couple of hours it appeared to be just a bad-natured stand-off, but groups started rioting—smashing windows and setting fires—as the night wore on."
Sam's account begs the question of whether the police would have been better off managing the event instead of trying to shut it down. According to Townsend, from a crowd control point of view, this is often a better solution. "The problem is that when police try to prevent people from getting to an event they can antagonize things—especially as there's often a very anti-police vibe at these things anyway," he told me. "So there has to be some careful thinking from police as to whether it's worth it to shut down an event, even if it is illegal, because it can cause bigger problems."
Townsend added that technology can reduce the risk of police heavy-handedness sparking riots by allowing the cops to track situations in real time remotely: "You can look at data from mobile phones or social media and make decisions about what policing response is needed on the ground," he said. "This ranges from monitoring Twitter feeds to gather information, to using technology that picks out key words to judge the general feeling of a crowd in a particular area. If lots of tweets are going out in an area that are anti-police, you might allow the event to go ahead under a management regime, rather than trying to shut it down, which will risk increasing trouble."
Dr. Clifford Stott—an academic at Leeds University who specializes in understanding riots, hooliganism, and public order policing—agrees that when police are perceived to be unduly harsh in dealing with crowds they can "play an important role in escalating situations into conflict."
His research looks at finding less confrontational ways for police to manage crowds. "We use police officers who are specially trained and deal with situations through communication and dialogue," he said. "They're called police liaison officers or dialogue police, and they don't wear riot gear, but dress to differentiate themselves from riot police."
Dr. Stott tells me that police liaison officers were introduced in 2011 and have been used successfully so far at British political protests, such as anti-fracking events, but that they're not used consistently by police forces across the UK. He's currently working with the Swedish authorities to develop a dialogue police capability in the Swedish football scene.
"These police officers are more focused on building positive relations in the crowd and generating trust to influence the situation in positive ways," he said. "We know that when we use police liaison officers we're more likely to be able to avoid violent outcomes. It's all about engaging with people on the ground to prevent disorder from breaking out."
But what about the people on the sharp end of the police batons? I spoke to Kris and Tom (not their real names), an illegal rave organizer and long-time rave DJ, respectively, from the southwest of England, to get their take on how excessive policing can create clashes rather than prevent them.
"Since the government changed [to Tory rule], the policing response to raves has become a lot more militant," said Tom, referencing a UK Tek rave in Lincolnshire he attended in May that resulted in 43 arrests and a confrontation with armed riot police. "What happened at UK Tek was just disgusting. I was there, and if it wasn't for a friend of mine getting on the mic and calming down the crowd it could have been so much worse. [The police] blocked off the A1, threw flares [into the crowd], and then attacked us like they were a line of Spartans with all their riot gear.
"I saw this young woman standing between the police and the ravers, and she was telling the ravers not to throw stuff at the police, because there was this one guy being aggressive, and the police went for her and broke her hand. You know in The Nutty Professor when his hands swell up? That's what her hand looked like. Another guy, he was on the floor and the police were beating him with batons and knocked his tooth out."
When I put these allegations to them, Lincolnshire Police emailed me a statement saying: "Enquiries are ongoing and as such we would not comment on any specific complaints in relation to this incident."
According to Tom, police hostility and a refusal to engage with the ravers was a dumb move. "Their tactics were so militant," he said. "You've got to be aware of the psychology of a situation—how easily things can flare up and develop into a riot."
By comparison, he said: "I was at French Tek earlier this year, which is also an unlicensed event, and they set up a police cordon to make sure nothing bad happens, and police arrest people who are doing stuff that's visibly illegal. They give you a time window to run the party, but they don't infringe on it—they just contain things rather than trying to stop the party in full flow, which can be risky."
Although there's a media perception that ravers are always anti-police, Kris argued that this isn't the case. "We don't dislike the police—the police dislike us," he said. "You just wish the police would come and talk to us instead." In fact, Tom told me, "Having a police presence—for example, at French Tek—is actually a relief. If they didn't have the perimeter, things could be a bit lawless and Mad Max-y."
In their view, the best approach for dealing with unlicensed raves is to emulate the French Tek approach—speaking to organizers and agreeing a time that people need to be out of the area (having cleared up their mess), before securing the perimeter and containing things until then, without shutting the party down.
While nervous about the longer-term consequences for free parties following Saturday's events—"Now that it's happened in London, it's going to interrupt the rave scene across the country so much"—Tom is confident that the rave community will pull through.
"These parties attract a certain kind of people—they're free parties for free people," he said. "And if you're a free person—well, the society we live in nowadays doesn't like that. [The police] come down on you with an iron fist. But when you oppose a group of people with violence—any group—you cause that group to pull together more. So they're actually going to end up strengthening the rave community."
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