by armed riot cops and draconian laws. Acid house with its emphatic and collective experience of ecstasy in the late eighties/early nineties had a profound experience on British politics. The free festivals and the clampdown which followed in their wake shows just how seriously the state took the politics of hedonism. The soundtrack to the sixties riots and upheaval in the USA may have been 'Dancing in the Streets' but in the nineties anti-capitalist protest actually took the form of people taking sound systems into Britain's cities and turning areas into temporary autonomous zones. Just as some drugs fuel the utopian impulse others are a sign of hopelessness and
defeat. The crack epidemic which swept through America's black ghettos after Cointelpro 1 crushed the Black Panthers, and the flood of cheap heroin into Britain's cities during the nineties are a sign of the despair not rebellion.
For the last 40 years drug culture has interacted with and influenced social movements for better and for worse. The drugs might not have worked for Richard Ashcroft but they definitely had an effect on the rest of society... and here's a sketch of how.
LSD played a big part in transforming youth culture away from teenage cuteness and towards anti-establishment rebellion. The sixties slogan ?Turn On, Tune In and Drop Out? wasn?t just an invitation to take a trip into the personal pleasure dome, it was a conscious rejection of ?straight? values. Acid evangelist Timothy Leary actually believed that the key to cosmic consciousness and sweeping social change could come in a capsule. Men like Leary mistakenly attributed giant leaps of imagination to acid rather than to
their own minds. Acid was seen as little tabs of miracles rather than as a mind altering substance which might give a good or a bad trip.
The American military and the CIA?s predecessor the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) began developing what would eventually become acid in the early forties. They were looking for a truth serum which could be used in interrogations. After the Second World War ended the navy and the CIA continued research into developing a ?truth drug?. The Nazis had experimented with mescaline on Dachau prisoners, and the CIA secretly imported some of the Nazi scientists who?d tested psychedelics on Dachau inmates. Although experiments were haphazard and scientists were as likely to be met with a fit
of giggling as by a true confession of intimate secrets, by 1951 the CIA had decided to draft in outside professionals to monitor the testing. Cocaine and various other narcotic substances were tested on witting and unwitting victims before LSD was embraced as being the key to mind control. Discovered by Dr Albert Hofmann and used by Dr Werner Stroll on schizophrenic patients, the CIA found it ?useful for eliciting true and accurate statements from subjects under its influence during interrogation.? This was somewhat far from the mark, as subsequent tests showed that if anything, behaviour was remarkably erratic during LSD tests. The army was interested in LSD as
chemical warfare. ?They imagined aircraft swooping over enemy territory
releasing clouds of madness gas.? 2
Allen Ginsberg and Ken Kesey both tried acid as part of government sponsored
drug tests, and when Timothy Leary took up his professorship at Harvard he
was entering an establishment where both students and lecturers had been used
as acid guinea pigs for a good four years. Leary?s first experiments were
with mushrooms as opposed to acid but it?s more than a touch ironic that the
men who would later act as acid pioneers were first introduced to it as part
of CIA backed mind control experiments. Leary was 39 when he was sacked from
his Harvard job and he took up the torch of acid with the sort of enthusiasm
that only the born again can muster.
By 1962 the CIA had decided that it knew enough about acid without funding
further research. Underground laboratories had begun to spring up to supply
the ever increasing social demand for the drug which broke down inhibitions
and gave the user visions. From the CIA?s point of view it had created a
monster, the drug it had spent years researching and funding wasn?t helping
to keep citizens under control. Instead it was becoming an integral part of a
counter culture which would seek to undermine all the CIA held dear.
The introduction of psychedelic drugs into American life coincided with the
political idea of opening up new spaces. When Ken Kesey and a group of merry
pranksters got an old bus and began taking their Acid Tests across America,
as well as spreading acid they were also delivering the idea that delight was
possible. The world was not entirely signed, sealed and delivered over to
capitalist reason. The Acid Tests were an example of collectivity and
individual experience existing together.
?Pranksters in their reckless abandon, sheer ingenuity and bravado, they were
strangely of a piece with the civil rights movement and the new left, ? said
activist Todd Gitlin 3. ?Not in ideology obviously but in the absolute
audacity it took for a small squad to seize the moment and believe that they
could actually change the world with exemplary acts.?
Feminism, civil rights, the anti war movement, the revolt against work and
chemical stimulants were all an attack on ?straight? consensus reality. The
sixties were a time of possibility. Technology, television and the media all
held the promise of aiding social movements and youth culture?s very
existence was a threat to the old establishment. The hippest place to be in
the early sixties was in dissident campus circles. Getting high was part of
being a student rebel ?Even if you weren?t political marijuana gave you
something in common with those who were,? said Todd Gitlin. The modern mass
media meant that drugs - the currency of tiny groups - quickly percolated
through society. The so called New Left, Students for a Democratic Society
(SDS) were not as new or as radical as the groups that formed in the
Psychedelia was explosive and far reaching: ?Every edge of the left caught
fire of it if only by contamination,? said David Zane Mairowitz. 4 ?It
knocked off balance the old style political action and its residue in the New
Left. It bred the later American political movements of neo-Buddhism,
environmental sanctity and cocaine. And it gave the movement its first ever
dose of real fun. Not giggle-fun, but exposure fun, terrorist-fun,
foaming-at-the-mouth-fun, gun-fun. The renewal of counter violence to the
state was only a further stage in the puff of pleasure blown up by
hallucinogens, a visceral reaction to the cold porridge of pacifism. So the
immediate enemy was the naive bubble of psychedelic transcendence. A
fly-poster disseminated on New York?s Lower East Side in 1968 by a post
?peace and love? gang called Up Against The Wall, Motherfucker (The
Motherfuckers) condemned Timothy Leary for dragging organised religion into
the subculture and ?for not expanding the mind but for limiting the
The Motherfuckers came from situationsist and SDS roots to develop a new line
in urban militancy. They were a reaction to the ?peace and love? message
which was largely promoted by the media and was making the hippie movement
ineffectual. Their brand of revolution was dosed with Acid and they were
instrumental in developing freak style activism. Motherfuckers demonstrated
that there were some in the movement who refused to go down the blind alley
of peace, love and containment.
The San Francisco Diggers had a palatable psychedelic war cry: Utopia Now! ?It
was an attempt to demistify the religious blur along with the leftist
pretence to dream futures,? said David Zane Mairowitz. The Diggers despised
leaders and adopted positions of anonymity to avoid becoming figureheads. If
they gave press interviews they?d swap names or give ludicrous ones. Their
street handouts, poems, papers and leaflets were never signed and they
attempted to take politics into the community instead of to Washington. By
the time they disappeared from the San Francisco scene in ?68 they?d
established a switchboard information centre, newsletters, free food storage
and distribution, a free garage with semi professional mechanics (who also
taught people how to mend their own cars) free legal assistance, free housing
for those descending on the city and free medical aid.
There were those who dubbed the Diggers the Hip Salvation Army but there was
no Marxist religious fervour or saving of souls, The Diggers motto was not to
ask for what you needed but to take it. They passed out thousands of free
acid tablets not because they thought revolution could come in a pill but
because they disdained money, burning dollar bills and giving money away in
the street. The Diggers were something just short of hallucinogenic
Communism. They pushed neither violence nor peace, insisting that the way to
take on the status quo was not to appeal to it but to try and out fox it.
Another group active at the same time who were concerned with theatrical
stunts and direct action were the Yippies (Youth International Party.)
Emerging straight out of the hippie subculture, the Yippies held a
Human-Be-In at Grand Central Station during the rush hour and caused mayhem
in the stock exchange by throwing hundreds of dollar bills off the balcony.
In Britain they caused an outrage (akin to the Sex Pistols on the Bill Grundy
show) when they took over the David Frost show. Britain?s acid experience was
a different trip to that of the US. There were many experiments with style
but few in the art of living. According to Mick Farren, people in the UK took
isolated trips in twos and threes as opposed to the huge gatherings which had
swept through America. The newly emerged underground press didn?t champion
the psychedelic revolution, pushing the almost meaningless slogan: ?Anything
that can be achieved by drugs can be achieved by other means.? By ?67 British
freaks had moved from acid and marijuana on to methadrine. Powerful speed was
causing the sort of paranoia which was turning a fledgling movement into a
series of isolated bad trips.
In the US speed and heroin hadn?t yet taken hold of the movement, at the 1968
Chicago Democratic Convention the Yippies nominated a pig called Pegasus for
President. The guerrilla theatre turned into riots and in 1968 eight radicals
(including Yippies Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin) found themselves in court
on conspiracy charges. The resulting prison sentences showed the Yippies that
American capitalism was even more brutal and oppressive than they?d imagined.
The Freak style of political agitation continued with the White Panthers
(inspired by the Black Panthers) and the Deviants. Unfortunately the state
had cottoned on to just how dangerous freak power was and acted accordingly,
one of the main figures in the White Panthers, John Sinclair, was jailed for
ten years for passing an undercover cop two joints.
What psychedelic drugs had helped bring to the left was both cultural and
political alternatives to capitalist domination. The establishment?s reaction
was first to over-emphasise the ?peace and love? aspect of the hippie
generation and when that didn?t take the sting out of the movement they
brought in the cops and the courts. The Black Panthers got a worse deal, the
state?s fear of a rising black underclass brought an undercover campaign of
murder and a flood of cheap narcotics into the black ghettos. The enormous
wave of repression that the Panthers faced was accompanied by a tide of crack
cocaine. During the Nixon years heroin became a fixture in America?s cities,
the mood of youthful optimism and mind expansion had been replaced by
desperation and drugs which wiped out all feeling.
Britain in the early eighties was in the grip of the Thatcherite revolution.
Enforced unemployment and battles with the Miners and trade unions were
smashing the traditional left, and the numbers of disaffected people looking
for ways to survive the onslaught were rising. Suddenly, ?bailing out of
concrete? and living in vehicles and caravans became an option. The
travellers prised open the doors opened by hippie culture. Peace camps sprang
up around American bases, and those rejecting city living came to be known
collectively as the Peace Convoy. The Stonehenge Free festival was the place
where travellers converged and the highlight of their calendar. By June 1984,
50,000 people were gathered at the Solstice Festival.
The festival was seen as a free space, a green city where travellers could
take drugs, listen to music and make the life they wanted without the uptight
codes of straight society. Those attending in 1984 didn?t realise that the
movement?s success would be its downfall as later that year the state started
moves to squash the travellers movement. The Nostell Priory free festival was
attacked by riot police and the vehicles which served as people?s homes were
sledgehammered. Then came the eviction of the Rainbow Village peace camp at
Molesworth. Government minister, Michael Heseltine donned a flak jacket and
led the attack. War had been declared and the travellers were unprepared for
'The travellers had their own explanation for the severity of the crackdown,'
said Matthew Collin in Altered State, The Story of Ecstasy Culture and Acid
House. ?Their numbers were doubling yearly, they said, they were the pied
pipers leading Thatcher's children out of the inner cities and into
alternative lifestyles... the very name the Peace Convoy, implying active
links between nomadic dropouts and political activists, may have struck fear
into the sections of government that believed a travellers way of life
involved a rejection of and a threat to the system of property and land
rights on which Britain is based.?
In 1985 a massive police operation was mounted to smash the Peace Convoy and
make sure the Stonehenge Free Festival didn't happen. Razor wire was erected
around the monument and the Assistant Chief Constable of Wiltshire ordered
his men to attack the Peace Convoy. Blocked from reaching the festival site,
travellers? vehicles were forced into a nearby beanfield, there they were met
by cops in crash helmets and riot shields. Vehicles were smashed to pieces,
their occupants dragged through broken windshields and beaten by the police.
Journalist Nick Davies was at the scene of the carnage but his report of
police brutality was replaced by the cops version of events. TV footage of
events was replaced by a voice over and the BBC and ITN both showed a police
video instead of the impassioned reports shot at the time. The Battle of the
Beanfield was followed by a summer of evictions and harassments. Thatcher
publicly said she was 'only too delighted to do anything we can to make life
difficult for such things as hippie convoys.? In 1986 the Public Order Act
tried to outlaw the travellers? alternative lifestyle.
Despite government attempts to outlaw travellers, sites were still scattered
throughout Britain. 'After the Battle of the Beanfield, sections of a
downcast and disillusioned travelling community started to seek oblivion
through Special Brew superlager or even heroin as the hippie dream turned
sour. Festivals had lost their shine, and were plagued by marauding,
sometimes violent drunks, the crustie punks of the Brew Crew,' said Matthew
As the eighties drew to a close, many travellers were highly politicised.
Battles with police, landowners and the law in conjunction with internal
struggles against the Brew Crew meant that some travellers had a high level
of political organisation. When Acid House and Ecstasy shot through Britain
in the late eighties, the travellers had the experience to turn the movement
into more than just drugs and commerce.
'In 1990 an alliance between travellers and ravers began to take shape,' said
Matthew Collin. 'The travellers had the sites and the know-how to staff and
run an event that would run for days rather than just hours. The ravers had
the electronic sounds and the seductive, new synthetic ecstasy. It certainly
seemed a lot better than what either the Brew Crew or the increasingly dated
free festival rock stalwarts had to offer. And although ideological and
sartorial differences remained, both shared an interest in getting high and
dancing all night.'
The rave scene took Britain by storm. Although many promoters and dealers saw
it as a way to make a quick buck, many of the DJ?s and dancers wanted more.
Nottingham Sound system DIY were among those who took acid house away from
the entrepreneurs and towards a more egalitarian vision. Fed up with paying
for expensive raves (which half the time didn?t happen) they linked up with
Salisbury travellers and began to throw their own free parties in the
Wiltshire and Somerset countryside. Their choice of name Do It Yourself,
sprang from their punk backgrounds and the course they felt the house scene
should take. In London, Spiral Tribe began squatting venues and throwing free
techno parties. Once they started playing the free festival circuit they
found themselves on a mission: 'to make some fucking noise' and decided not
to return to the city.
'Like Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters on their historic bus trip across the
states in the sixties, the tribe grew constantly as it left a kaleidoscope
trail through the idyllic countryside of the south-west in its Luton van,'
said Matthew Collin.
While the media or the mainstream press remained unaware of the links between
travellers and ravers, the police had been monitoring the actions of
travellers since the eighties. The cops began smashing up free festivals and
raves even though the legislation to back-up their actions wasn?t fully in
place. When travellers and ravers began to mass at Castle Morton during the
May Day weekend of 1992 the police weren?t prepared for the scale of the
gathering. 25,000 people entered the temporary autonomous zone of the free
festival and the sound systems blared out for over three days. When the
revellers dispersed the cops moved in and seized the Spiral Tribe with their
sound systems and vehicles. The ravers were charged with conspiracy in a
trial that would eventually cost the state over £4m. It was the British
equivilent of the Chicago Conspiracy Trial and the start of a summer of
arrests and harassment. Tory Prime Minister, John Major made clear that
dissenting voices and alternative lifestyles wouldn?t be tolerated when he
said: ?New age travellers. Not in this age. Not in any age.?
Castle Morton had alerted the government and media to the scale of the free
festival scene, and their reaction was the Criminal Justice Bill (CJB).
Designed to wipe out mass gatherings and alternative lifestyles, the bill
banned 'repetitive beats and gatherings of more than three people.? There?d
been moral panics over youth culture before but this was the first time that
the state had felt so threatened by young people?s music that they?d tried to
legislate against it.
The CJB, and more specifically the anti-CJB campaign, unified a diverse
movement. Thousands of young people who just wanted to take E and dance all
night were being treated as if they were hardcore criminals by the state, and
the experience politicised them. Some ravers were already consciously
political, Luton's Exodus Collective put on raves and channelled the proceeds
into self-help projects, squatting local buildings and turning them into
community centres. The police reaction was harassment, eviction, seizure of
sound systems and beatings. After some of the Exodus collective were arrested
in 1993, 4,000 Luton ravers gathered outside the police station and demanded
their release. 'Exodus's story demonstrates how any political manifestations
of Ecstasy culture were taken very seriously indeed, and dealt with
ruthlessly,' said Matthew Collin. 'Radical politics and drug culture was
still an explosive combination.'
The march against the CJB in 1993 attracted 60,000 and ended in a riot. The
Criminal Justice Act became law in 1994, but the authorities were reluctant
to try and implement it's unworkable ban on repetitive beats. It would be a
mistake to see the CJA as just an attack on dance music and free festival
lifestyles. The CJA is best seen as a bundle of prejudices, all the favourite
scapegoats are attacked but its main target is anybody who dissents against
the logic of capitalism. Sections of the bill were drafted specifically with
road protesters in mind - a movement which has been shaped and influenced by
the lifestyles and ecological concerns of travellers and the emphatic and
collective experience of Ecstasy. The anti-road movement and Reclaim The
Streets both seek to drag physical spaces back from the control of capitalism
but they take the line: many yeses, one no, which means that while thinking
globally they realise there's lots of different flights out of capitalism as
opposed to the state communist model. There is no party line. RTS has a
direct lineage back to the counter cultural politics of psychedelia and free
festivals but its far more politically sophisticated and theoretically
developed than previous movements.
When RTS linked up with the striking Liverpool dockers during the dispute, the
alliance was forged from a mutual position of weakness which resulted in
strength. What?s also interesting about the politics of RTS and latter day
anti capitalists is that they're influenced by events in India, Mexico and
Brazil. Self-obsessed, campaign based single issue politics have given way to
a wider perspective. By seeing struggle as truly global, those in a position
of weakness have linked up to support each other and become powerful.
The J18 demonstration in London and the events in Seattle during the World
Trade Organisation (WTO) summit show the links between the politics of
hedonism and the struggle against capitalism. Simply by calling the protests
Carnival Against Capitalism the demonstrators have introduced the spirit of
pranksterism but combined it with real politics. In Britain the struggle has
progressed from trying to find free spaces for our own personal party, to
snatching the space to party and develop viable alternatives to capitalism,
poverty and wage labour. The joy and spontaneity of drug culture and free
parties have been combined with a deeper political purpose. We're in the
first stages of a truly global movement.
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