The Battle of the Beanfield
An extract from my book Fierce Dancing: Adventures in the Underground. Remembering the anniversary of an infamous day in British history.
1st June 1985. A date that signifies horror and disillusionment to anyone who knows of it. A date which reveals the poisonous worm at the heart of the British Establishment. The day that the dreams of a whole generation died.
Evil. What we have to face is the presence of evil and what we have to know is that evil is our master. It runs our lives. It lives in big houses and drives expensive cars. It makes our decisions for us. The law is its tool. the law wears jackboots. The law kicks in the faces of young mothers carrying babies. It destroys people's homes, destroys people's livelihoods. It destroys people's lives. It is the Enemy Within.
You see scenes of Fascist violence in faraway places and you say, "Yes, but that's somewhere else. It's not here. That sort of thing doesn't happen here. This is Britain."
But that sort of thing does happen here.
What I am about to describe is based on a TV film called Operation Solstice. It is a film which should be seen by everyone. It should be on the National Curriculum. Every child should be expected to see it, so that they know that evil exists. Evil is not an abstract principle. It has a name and it has an address.
For ten years the Stonehenge free festival had taken place, mostly peaceably. There'd been that biker riot, back when Crass had appeared. There'd been some trouble with heroin dealers. At one point, the old-style festival people had got together to drive the heroin dealers off the site. They were proving that the people's will was stronger than the strongest drug. And the festival was growing. Year by year, it was growing. It was becoming a beacon to the world. For one month every summer, the anarchist dream was being realised in this temporary autonomous zone. More and more people were taking to the road, buying large vehicles which they lovingly restored and fitted out, with pots and pans and working kitchens, with beds and settees and comfortable armchairs, which they would decorate with posters and ornamental knick-knacks, which they would paint in vibrant colours to represent to vibrancy of their own lives. This was life. For many people, this was the very act of being alive.
I spoke to someone at an anti-Criminal Justice Bill rally in 1994. His name was Bernard. He'd been on the road since the late seventies. I asked him what kept him on the road, what kept him travelling. "It's the thought of the thousands of friends I haven't yet met," he told me.
For four years, from 1981 to 1985, the numbers of people taking to the road had been doubling, year on year. And the Stonehenge free festival was the focal point for the whole movement. It was natural. It was right. Stonehenge was the symbol of freedom, built by early nomadic peoples to mark off the seasons, as an indication of their intelligence and their ingenuity. Now a new breed of nomad, recognising its importance, was coming back to claim it as its heritage, as its birthright. The festival was as vibrant and alive as the people who went to it. It was a cultural masterpiece: a functioning economy that ran on light and love and mutual respect. Painted faces and naked children. Late-night revels and early-morning cups of tea. Celebration. Hope. Dreams of a better future.
Nick Davies, journalist: "I wasn't aware of it at the time it took place, but I later became aware that really the whole of the Wiltshire Establishment had sat down to decide what to do about the convoy, and this involved various landowners and the county council and the police and their solicitors. they didn't want these people occupying the land around Stonehenge, but there wasn't a law to enable them to keep the convoy out."
They decided on a piece of legal subterfuge. English Heritage and the National Trust took out civil injunctions to prevent the festival taking place. It was these civil injunctions that provided the cloak for all that was then to take place.
So on 1 June 1985 the convoy set out, as it had almost every year since the long-gone summer of 1974 when Wally Hope and the prankster Wallies had organised the first festival. Some of them were no doubt aware of the injunctions. But what's an injunction, anyway? A piece of paper. They had right on their side. They had tradition.
They were proceeding down the A338 near Shipton Billinger, towards the A303 and Stonehenge. They were about eight miles away. They'd been staying in Savernake Forest, where many more potential festival-goers were still congregating. There were about 150 vehicles: buses, trucks, fire-engines, ambulances, London taxis, cars, in various states of repair. Most of them were brightly painted.
Police radio log, 1 June 1985, 2.04 pm: Vehicles 7 through to 15 appear to be personnel carriers and the ones to concentrate on...."
"Personnel carriers"? This was the Peace Convoy. They were full of people going off to a festival.
Ahead of them, heavy lorries were disgorging tonnes of gravel across the road. The convoy was diverted down a narrow country lane (the B308, maybe?), then they found that this road was blocked too. They were trapped.
Suddenly a large number of police officers in riot gear, with truncheons and shields, rushed forward and started trying to arrest the drivers. They were hyped-up and violent. They started smashing windscreens with their truncheons.
Helen Reynolds, traveller: "What's gonna happen now? No! Just tell me what you want to me to do...."
The Earl of Cardigan, witness: "One of the police reached through that broken window and grabbed a handful of hair... She was pulled through a window which had been broken ten seconds earlier, which was framed with broken glass."
The convoy reacted. There was a field near by. People attacked the fence with saws and axes, and the convoy broke through. This was the famous beanfield. And 1 June will be known as Beanfield Day for ever more...
Police radio log, 2.50 pm: "It is stressed that we allow them to enter this field... We have a suitable breach of the peace situation."
"Suitable"? Suitable for whom?
Detective Superintendent Burden, speaking on camera: "We knew that there would be a confrontation. I am hoping that we can get through the day without too many people being injured, either policemen, or Peace Convoy, or the people in the field."
By this time there were already people being carted off to hospital. Peace Convoy people, not policemen.
There was an uneasy stand-off, lasting about four hours. The festival-goers were trying to negotiate with the police, but the police were unmoved.
Reporter (off camera): "Why don't you want to go to hospital?"
Husband, arm around heavily pregnant wife: "We don't want to be split up."
Pregnant girl: "I don't want to leave me puppies 'n' me 'usband 'n' me 'ome..."
Husband: "If we do leave, we'll probably be arrested. We just want to get off this field as peacefully and quietly as we can, and this lot, all these coppers, are here for one reason, and that's to cause trouble."
Man in CND helmet: "They're trying to impose a police state. We're free-thinkers and we're gonna stay that way, no matter what."
Man with long hair: "What right have they to tell us what to do?"
By 5pm there were 1,363 officers from six constabularies available in the area.
Nick Davies, journalist: "Eventually Lionel Grundy, who was then the Assistant Chief Constable, arrived on the scene and made it quite clear that there were to be no negotiations and that everybody in the field was to be, what he called, 'arrested and processed'."
Assistant Chief Constable Lionel Grundy, Operational Commander: "Those of you who come out under those circumstances will be interviewed and dealt with. If I suspect that you've been involved with any of the offences that have occurred today, then you will be arrested. I'm not here to bargain with you. I'm here to say something to you for you to consider."
Reporter: "What's your reaction to what that police officer has asked you to do?"
Phil Shakesby, traveller: "Well I'm well upset about it." Voice rising to a fever pitch, addressing the camera: "We're genuine people, just like yourselves, and we need help. Help us, please."
The police moved in at about 7pm. I challenge anyone to watch this film and not cry. If you don't cry, you're dead. Mass movement and strong-arm tactics. Shields, helmets, riot-gear. Bludgeoning truncheons wielded with indiscriminate force. Roars, threats, screams, sickening violence. Here. In England. Where these sorts of things don't happen.
Huddles of blue-clad bodies wielding sticks. "Git out of it!" Pushing the cameraman aside.
"You stay there, boy!" Roar. Truncheon blows raining. A helicopter like a bloated insect hovering, roaring out encouragement to the frenzied police and warnings to the hippies, running scared: "You have no escape."
Lyn Lorien, traveller: "They just started attacking the bus and they were hitting the window, the driver's window, with an iron spike about four-feet long. The windscreen finally broke and I went back, and this spike came through the window."
A man, with blood on his face being frog-marched by two policemen using restraining techniques: "I didn't do anything, mate. They smashed me windows, they hit me over the head with truncheons, then they hit me when I was on the floor."
A mass of policemen surrounding a bus. One of them tries to break a window and, when it doesn't give, proceeds to smash a window that is already half-broken. They're mad with frenzy, mad with hatred. Smashing everything indiscriminately. Shouting, "Come out! Come out!" Kicking the bus. Climbing in through the smashed windows. A man appears at the door, looking frail and scared. He's shaking. They pull him down and, as one policeman tries to shield him from the camera's gaze, hit him over the head. The man falls. he is kicked. A policeman roars, snarling, "On the deck! On the deck! Now! Stretch your arms out. Stretch 'em out, now!" You see a pair of boots standing over him, almost treading on his hair. Those boots, they remind you of something. Those boots. Those jackboots, those jackboots, those jackboots....
Is that what you fought the war for, Grandpa mine? Is that what your brothers-in-arms died for? To see the jackboots marching across Europe again, and here in Britain now, in this blessed Isle? Is that why we suffered? Is that why we died? Is that why we withstood the dark nights of the blitz, huddled up in our shelters at night, keeping our spirits up with songs and laughter? To see the jackboots standing over our children again. Is this what Britain is about?
And seeing those jackboots there, positioned over a young man barely out of his teens - a young man who'd travelled there just to have a laugh with his mates, like young men like to do, to dance and listen to music - seeing those jackboots, it makes you think about all the other pairs of jackboots around the globe and throughout history; it makes you realise that it's the same people in control, everywhere. British jackboots, Chinese jackboots, Serbian jackboots, American jackboots, Russian jackboots. Capitalist jackboots, Communist jackboots. Just jackboots.
A woman is dragged away, screaming. Her top is coming off. She's struggling to stay upright, to pull up her top and to do what the police are forcing her to do, all at the same time.
Phil Shakesby, traveller: Just as we got to the brow of the hill there, these bobbies stopped me, span me round and said, 'See that?' and I looked at me 'ome and there was smoke comin' out the side doors. They'd gone and set me 'ome on fire."
Then, the worst scene: a brief glimpse of a bloodied, smashed face, so pulped that you cannot tell if it is a man or a woman. It's the voice that gives it away: Someone help me" Help me! Help me," she screams, like the high-pitched squeal of a pig being slaughtered.
Another man, being marched along: "See what they're doin' to us?! See what they're doin' to us?!"
Some anonymous testaments, not contained in the film: "At one point I saw a youth inside a bus, surrounded by policemen, trying to give himself up. He climbed out of a broken window and found himself falling on a sea of policemen who, only a few feet in front of me, were leaning over each other to get a blow. I saw the young man's glasses swiped from his face and his front teeth break under the raining blows..." "Above us a police helicopter, circling overhead, barked down encouragement from a loud hailer: 'You're doing a great job. This is how they like it...'" "The occupants pleaded to be allowed to leave. The windows were smashed by the police and the occupants were dragged out through a storm of truncheons; broken heads, broken teeth, broken spectacles. Officers started to climb through the broken windows, lashing out on all sides with their sticks. Reporters screamed at the police to calm down."
Kim Sabido, TV journalist, addressing the camera, with marching policemen at his rear: "What we, the ITN camera crew, and myself as a reporter, have seen in the last thirty minutes here on this field has been some of the most brutal police treatment of people that I've witnessed in my entire career as a journalist. There must be an inquiry. I don't know what the results of it will be, but at this stage the number of people who've been arrested by policemen, who've been clubbed while holding babies in their arms, and in coaches around this field, is still to be counted..."
There was no inquiry.
You are probably wondering why you never saw any of this at the time. The film disappeared. From the offices of the BBC and ITN, the film went missing. Kim Sabido returned to the ITN offices the following day to look over the rushes. Most of it was gone. All of the really nasty scenes had disappeared. The only reason we have this much film is that a cameraman took his camera home with him with the film still in it.
Four hundred and twenty people were arrested and dispatched to holding cells across the South of England.
Social services were on hand to take children into care.
Two hundred and forty-one people were charged with unlawful public assembly, which carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. These were later dropped or reduced to lesser charges.
The estimated cost of the operation and subsequent court case exceeded £5 million.
© 2014 Christopher James Stone