Exodus: To rave or to riot?
It’s no small irony that members of the Luton based Exodus Collective returned home from a community centre planning enquiry to find burning cars billowing clouds of smoke amidst the tower blocks of their estate. Boredom rules among Luton’s rebel youth” trumpeted one national newspaper after the disturbances on the Marsh Farm Estate. But as is so often the case, the real story is far more remarkable than the casual explanations used to explain what the media viewed as just another summer urban riot.
“A lot of the media rationale for the riots was stock straight out of the cupboard. It didn’t cut any ice up here and worse it gave credence to a few Herberts trying their hand at sociology,” observes Rick Hammond, Luton Borough Council’s publicity officer.
The real story does indeed involve a disaffected boredom, but also a continuing political disregard for youth culture, heavy-handed police riot control tactics and a collection of self described “freedom fighters” calling themselves the Exodus Collective.
Exodus have been in existence for three years, running free local raves, occupying and refurbishing local derelict properties and operating as the purveyors of unorthodox approaches to ‘community regeneration’ – their stated purpose.
On that Wednesday evening, members of the Collective had just attended a local authority planning enquiry into their proposal to establish a community centre in a disused warehouse in central Luton. After reading in the local press that the planning committee were intending to turn down their application, Exodus asked for the opportunity to address the councillors. After a five minute précis of their intentions, the committee agreed to forestall a decision pending a site visit.
“So we went back on a celebration tip,” says Glenn Jenkins, resident of the Marsh Farm Estate for the last seven years and a spokesperson for the Exodus Collective. “When we got back to where we live we found burning barricades on the estate.”
Most media reports of the Marsh Farm disturbances referred to the arrest of a 13 year runaway from a local youth detention centre, citing the incident as the spark for three nights of rioting. His friends had apparently made a hoax call to the police, pelting them with stones upon arrival. For the residents of Marsh Farm Estate, such incidents and the small flurry of youth violence that followed, was not uncommon. “This estate is portrayed as being worse than it actually is. There are problems with kids and vandalism – they’re little buggers basically – but I wouldn’t say it was any worse than a typical poverty council estate where there’s loads of kids hanging around,” says pregnant mother of two, Jacki Bridger. However, in the past such disturbances have not resulted in the kind of rioting, arson and looting that occurred over the next three nights.
“If the police had backed off to their normal patrol then it would have been just a gossip about Wednesday night – ‘did you see so and so’ and I reckon that would have been the end of it,” continues Jacki Bridger.
John Jefferson, a local councillor for four years and resident of the Marsh Farm Estate for 15 years, strongly feels a riot ensued from the way a fracas was dealt with.
“On Wednesday night I got a call from Chief Superintendent Gary Banks [Divisional Commander of Luton Police] asking me what the situation was and I told him that it had calmed down and that if the police didn’t come into the estate, people would go home. He told me that the police would not send anybody in for at least an hour, after which time he would give me another ring to review the situation. Then all of a sudden five minutes after the call, comes a procession of flashing blue lights and the police come charging in.”
Riot police immediately sealed off the area and the local youth still on the streets of the estate scattered. “The following day police were tugging everyone,” recalls Glenn Jenkins. “Tax discs, driving licences, anything; harassment all day long.”
The police remained on the estate throughout the course of a day that residents describe as one of “high tension”. “The police presence was unbelievable on the estate – it made you nervous,” recalls Jacki Bridger. “I took the kids to school in the morning and the parents talk was all about ‘something happening tonight because have you seen the amount of police’. It was like a red rag to a bull especially on an estate like this that doesn’t have good police relations anyway.”
“It was very heavy handed,” agrees Larry McGowan, a 57 year old local borough councillor. “Not being in the police, I don’t know what their motives were, but calling in the police from all over the bloody place was over the top.”
On Thursday night, after a day of incredible tension, the smouldering resentment blew up into a full scale riot. “There were hundreds of people all over the estate, burning schools, looting shops – it was atrocious,” recalls Glenn Jenkins.
According to John Jefferson, Chief Superintendent Banks claimed in a later telephone call that he had not been able to relay Jefferson’s on-the-spot assessment to the control room in time to prevent the riot police from going in. Judging by the short time span between the time of his alleged call and the arrival of the police on the estate, this is certainly likely.
However by Thursday, Chief Supt Banks appeared on Anglia television talking of “reclaiming the territory” on the estate, a phrase certain Marsh Farm residents found inflammatory in its own right. Chief Supt. Banks declined to comment personally on the conversations he had had with Jefferson. His spokesperson, Chief Inspector Woolf of Luton Police, said: “I know Mr Banks has spoken to a number of people on a number of different occasions. The police presence on the estate was well considered and appropriate for the time.”
On Saturday, after three nights of violence and running battles with riot police, an extraordinary event took place which Tom Shaw, Borough councillor for the nearby estate of Lewsey Farm, describes as playing “a major part” in quelling the disturbance.
The Exodus Collective had already planned to organise one of their fortnightly local raves for the Saturday night but the disturbances of the previous three days and nights gave the event an added significance.
They issued a three point declaration of intent. It announced that a dance was to be held as a “non-violent demonstration against the use of policing methods that had turned a spark into a fire”, “to try and alleviate the tension” and “to continue, by direct passive action, the campaign for a permanent community and activity centre in order that the youth of this community are able to express themselves positively”.
The rave was held six miles outside of nearby Dunstable and attracted 2000 local people. At 3.30 am on Sunday morning, members of the Exodus Collective received a call from Radio Bedfordshire to say that the streets of Marsh Farm Estate were now solely populated by riot police, with not a rioter in sight. Members of the Collective then travelled back to the Estate with a film cameraman shooting footage of riot police sitting on park benches. The film soundtrack recorded birdsong.
The police claim there is no evidence that the dance was instrumental in quelling the disturbance: “Whether or not that had the affect of causing an abstraction of people from the estate is one of those things we shall never know. There was what is known as a rave away from Luton on the Saturday night and that may or may not have had an affect. There may have been a number of factors that helped return the estate to normality, whether they are cumulatively significant we don’t know,” says Chief Inspector Woolf.
Other observers including local councillors are less unequivocal. “They got youngsters off the Estate and got them dancing to the music,” says Cllr Larry McGowan.
“It certainly took some young people from Marsh Farm Estate and those young people had they stayed might have been involved in further disturbances,” observes Tom Kiernan, Community Development Officer with Luton Borough Council.
The local Luton News subsequently referred to Exodus as the “Pied Pipers of Hamelin”. Some of the Bedfordshire Police’s hesitancy to credit Exodus for its contribution to stopping the violence was explained by Chief Inspector Woolf:
“I’ve got to be careful here because in the past Exodus have been to the courts and some of them have been subjected to an injunction as to whether or not they should be holding raves. It does make it an extremely delicate situation, they’ve been asking for a public enquiry into the handling by Bedfordshire Police of their activities which in effect stopped Exodus having raves in the Borough three years ago.” In fact these injunctions only stopped Exodus in theory, not in effect, as they have been holding dances regularly ever since. Furthermore, they have been granted a full scale public enquiry by Bedfordshire County Council’s Policy and Resources Committee, in a decision reached unanimously bar one Tory councillor’s vote. The Council have applied for Home Office funding for the enquiry and Michael Mansfield QC has offered to chair it.
In local warehouses, quarries, barns and landfill sites Exodus have, over the last three years, set up their speaker stacks and pumped out a music to which local youth have flocked. The events are marshalled by Exodus peace stewards, attended by their own first aid van and situated out of the way of residential areas. One New Years Eve dance organised by the Collective attracted 10,000 people.
“They play the rave music which I cannot stand,” says Cllr Larry McGowan. “But I think they do very good work with the youngsters in the town. They were labelled by the police as these raves where the drugs are, but Exodus actually counsel the youngsters on drugs and when they have a rave they don’t charge. Some kids can afford a few bob, some can’t.”
Using donations collected in a bucket, Exodus have occupied a derelict hospice on the outskirts of Luton, reconstructing it for use by homeless people.
They have also squatted a dilapidated farm next to the M1, rebuilding the barns with old pallets and stocking it with animals. Now with geese, sheep, goats and a third generation Vietnamese Pot Belly pigs, the Long Meadow Community Farm is about to open up to visits by local school children. In association with the Marsh Farm Residents’ Association, the farm animals have also been brought to the estate for family fun-days and both the hospice, renamed HAZ (Housing Action Zone) Manor, and the farm, now have licences.
Jacki Bridger, has lived on Marsh Farm Estate for the last seven years and now works as secretary to the Long Meadow Community Farm:
“It makes being a mum so much easier. I can’t afford to take them anywhere but now they’re helping out on the farm instead of hanging round the streets damaging bus shelters.”
“I helped build some of the barns on the farm,” explains Stuart, another Exodus member. “When we come to these derelict places we see what it could be, we’ve got vision and nothing is beyond us. I didn’t think I could build a barn and now I’ve helped build a farm.”
“That’s the thing,” adds Nobby. “There are people here willing to teach and there people willing to learn.” However, not everybody in area saw the value of Exodus’s work. Among a long list of police operations, set to become the subject of the public enquiry, was the collapse of a drugs charge brought against Paul Taylor, a member of Exodus, in 1993. The jury dismissed the case after police failed to explain a multitude of inconsistencies in police statements and how they had managed to find two separate caches of drugs within two minutes of entering a blacked out farm house. The jury’s decision was made without Taylor even speaking in his own defence.
In another incidence also taking place at the beginning of 1993, police arrested around 35 members of the Collective on the night of a planned rave. Four thousand dancers subsequently surrounded Luton Police Station, demanding the release of the Exodus members and the return of the sound equipment. Despite a Daily Express headline claiming “4000 Turn Rave Into Riot”, the protest had been kept peaceful, with demonstrators dancing to car stereos outside the station. Chief Inspector Mick Brown of Bedfordshire Police even went on record to praise their conduct: “The crowd left the demonstration with some panache. They even tidied up after themselves and put their rubbish in bags. I thought that was quite a nice touch really.”
The arrested Exodus members were subsequently released and the sound equipment returned. Originally Chief Inspector Brown was given the responsibility of cultivating a liaison with Exodus and grew to respect them for their community efforts; finding his own work as a policeman easier on their dance nights:
“Licensed premises were experiencing a fair amount of loss of trade, loss of customers. People might pop into the pub for a quick drink but then they’d be off for the rest of the night. As a consequence, there was a lessening of alcohol related offences, gratuitous assaults, bottle throwing, and random disorder that generally goes with town centres and drink.”
Then high level decisions were made and strategic police operations against the Collective began, with Chief Inspector Brown caught in the middle:
“I was rather put on the spot. I heard that a number of Members of Parliament had written to the Chief Constable saying this should stop and that the police ought to get on the case. At about the time the decision was made to pull the plug on negotiations [with Exodus], there were some Members of Parliament advocating drastic measures.”
Shortly after this, Chief Inspector Brown was transferred away from the area to an office job in Kempston. Interestingly, the two local MPs are Sir Graham Bright (Con MP Luton South), author of a successful private members bill against raves in 1991, and John Carlisle (Con MP Luton North) who spoke of the need to “break up” raves during the debate on the recent Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. When John Carlisle visited the Marsh Farm Estate after the recent riots, he was pelted with an assortment of vegetables by residents. In a verbal exchange in front of camera, ex-councillor and Marsh Farm resident, John Jefferson, told Carlisle: “It takes a riot to get you here, you are just sitting on your hands and playing the politician.”
The local Luton on Sunday newspaper described Carlisle as “speechless”. However, it isn’t only Conservative MPs who are the subject of Jefferson’s political dissatisfactions. After four years as a Labour councillor, sitting on the education, police, social services and public protection committees, John Jefferson has recently resigned both his position as councillor and his membership of the Labour Party.
“The Labour Party are hopelessly out of touch with the youth of this country,” he says. “The obscene way they’ve conducted the Labour Party campaign in Littleborough and Saddleworth is a prime example of their shift.” Directed by Tony Blair’s right-hand spin doctor Peter Mandelson MP, the Littleborough by-election was a bitterly fought one. Many thought it lamentable that the Labour Party spent so much time trying to rip the Lib-Dem candidate to shreds for suggesting that raves should be considered a part of our culture, and that the decriminalisation of cannabis should be the subject of an investigation by the Royal Commission. “Pub culture is history for us,” says Exodus’s Glenn Jenkins. “They say there’s a massive percentage of young people who smoke weed and then they treat their own kids as if they’re aliens. There’s a big culture difference.
“National government has lost the plot, it’s all about window dressing. They should free up local government to help the enabling process with local groups.”
This brings us back to the disturbances on the Marsh Farm Estate. For as long as the erosion of mutual respect continues between youth and the politicians responsible for legislation, disturbances such as these will continue.
“There is a certain amount of alienation and isolation felt by young people and perhaps not only by young people,” observes Luton Community Development Officer Tom Kiernan. “I think one of the things we’ve been very bad at in society as a whole is pretending that young people are homogenous. What you need is a range of different things happening for young people all the way through from scout groups to very very informal situations. “There are certain young people who want to do things at night and it is normally the commercial sector that has offered those opportunities but then the cost of getting to a night club, paying to get in and paying whatever they expect you to pay for drinks is a very real barrier for young people.” “It’s no good, a load of old fogeys sitting down round the council chamber assuming they know what’s best for the youth,” adds Luton Borough Councillor Tom Shaw. “We have organised community centres, sports and leisure facilities but a lot of youngsters don’t want that.
It’s all right looking after the nice white middle class kids, they’re the ones that fit into the local authority youth service, but what happens to the rest?”
At the end of last year, Luton Borough Council published a Survey of Youth, subtitled: ‘What can be done to improve the quality of the lives of young people living in Luton?’. Borough councillor Larry McGowan believes the survey’s findings should be heeded and applied:
One of the main findings of the survey was that the youth were more interested in organising themselves than being organised by someone who they saw as being a figure of authority; that is why Exodus are so successful. It’s freedom for the kids, where there is organisation but not the way the Borough Council do it. It’s the kind of activity missing everywhere in the country.”