Neon furs, white guys with dreadlocks and the unmistakable stench of stale weed was what greeted me as I walked out of Shoreditch High Street station on Saturday the 30th of January. As I headed down the steps, following the tinny thump of drum and bass, a mass of people gathered in the under-pass to the right of the station came into my view. What I had stumbled into was the ‘Freedom to Party’ protest, a call to arms to the free party movement and ravers everywhere, asking them to defend their right to party unencumbered by the police. With over two thousand people attending on the Facebook event, and another three thousand interested, I was hoping to witness a real significant cultural movement, a defiant act of social disobedience. However, it felt more like I had wondered into the middle of an after party at Boomtown that had gone on too long.
The whole event had a sad nostalgic atmosphere about it. Even though the organisers claimed on the events Facebook page that ‘it’s now our time as the new generation to take back our right in the underground scene’, it was hard to spot a young face amongst a sea of middle-aged revellers busy havin’ it large. The Facebook event seemed like a support group for people to reminisce about raves’ golden era and reconnect with people they’d shared a hazy encounter with, a kind of friends re-united for those that spent the nineties popping pills in abandoned buildings and empty fields in the West Country. In fact, the protest itself was an attempt to recreate the original Freedom to Party protest that took place in 1990, which saw 10,000 people march on Trafalgar Square to demonstrate against the newly introduced anti-party laws – but it’s 2016 equivalent didn’t seem to carry the same sense of significance.
I moved into the crowd and settled in a spot on the outer rim near the graffitied brick wall of the under pass, avoiding the inner circle where the rig was and where the most intense dancing was taking place. There were frequent and unplanned wheel up’s due to technical issues and, using these quiet moments to my advantage, I started chatting to a few protesters. I got speaking to a guy who ran free parties in one of the Spa towns outside of London. Dressed in a long beige coat and fairly healthy looking (distinguishing him from the crowd), he told me that to survive forty hour binges you’ve got to live clean in the week. At thirty-seven, he’d been running free parties for years. I asked him if he’d felt the effects of the police clamping down on illegal forest raves, but he didn’t seem to think there was much effort from the police to try and shutdown parties. He said that, for the most part, they let them be as it would be too much of a strain on resources to do anything about it. According to him, due to their socially responsible ethos of cleaning up after themselves, they weren’t really causing anyone too much bother anyway. The feeling I got from the protest in general was that nobody really knew what they were there for. Nobody there wanted free parties to be legalised. That would remove the sense of freedom that they represented for so many of the people there, so there wasn’t really a unifying reason for the protest, or anything for it to really achieve.
The demonstration on the 30th of January felt like a re-enactment rather than an organic movement. There was a small turn out in comparison to the numbers expected, but the crowd that had made an appearance contained every stereotype you could imagine. Each was such a watered down appropriation of a subculture that the crowd turned into a blurry, multi-coloured mess. As I waded through it was harem pants and festival bands galore, hoodies woven with the Jamaican flag colours worn by white guys and even an appearance of the ever classic, and always hilarious, ‘I’M A CUNT’ slogan t-shirt. At one of the more eventful moments of the day, a circle opened and surrounded someone hoola-hooping in a Pikachu onesie in encouragement (see below). This was ‘wacky’ for the sake of being wacky, as if people had googled ‘free party’ and then raided their fancy dress boxes. These rehashed stereotypes of rebellion have been seen too many times that they’re no longer individual and no longer meaning anything. It was a crowd made up of people that all seemed to be shouting ‘look at us, we’re rebelling!’ rather than actually representing any new ideas.
Wild pikachu spotted again going all mental with a hula hoop during Freedom to party protest in Shoreditch 😮
Posted by Hooping Pea on Saturday, 30 January 2016
After a few hours of steady skanking, the already small crowd began to decrease in size and with dwindling numbers the police, who had been lurking on the side-lines throughout the demonstration, began to move in. There was a small amount of resistance and some scraps between the police and the demonstrators, but by this point the police outnumbered the protestors and so the end seemed inevitable. The protesters that came to Shoreditch High Street seemed to be having a good time, but that was all it was. The crowd itself seemed tired. Aged ravers skanked till their knees were sore, slugging down cheap alcohol in tinnies and smiling toothless smiles. The little bubble these guys saw themselves in, against the world and ‘the man’, came across as tragic and deflated rather than liberating and refreshing. Maybe it was the skunk. If there is a fresh and exciting wave of the free party movement, this certainly wasn’t it.
By Sim Lotay