Yesterday morning at 4.57 am I sat amidst the giant stones of stonehenge with 15,000 others watching the sun rise on solstice morning. Wow!
For the last fifteen years this is something that I never dreamed could or would happen. The police had stopped the Stonehenge Festival in the tumultous year 1985 when they had a pitched battle with New Travellers. The New Travellers had been holding a festival in the field next to Stonehenge for eleven years and 1985 was the to be the 12th Stonehenge Festival. The New Travellers had grown out of the free festivals and attending the free spirited Stonehenge Festival provided a focal point for the New Traveller culture. In its 12th year the police decided to stop the festival at any cost. They herded a convoy of New Traveller vehicles into a field and attacked them despite the presence of many children. The Travellers tried to escape initially, but were held down in this field - a beanfield - when the police charged, smashing up the vehicles that provided homes for the numerous people inhabiting them. Mass arrests were made but the police could not charge those arrested bar a few who ultimately won their cases in court. So the Battle of the Beanfield went down in history as one of the most gruesome police actions seen in Britain.
Since 1985 Stonehenge has been closed to the public on solstice morning. Many people have been fighting for the right to stand and watch the sun rise in this exceptional historic monument. The police have persisted with exclusion zones however, until last year when they opened things up successfully. This year (with no Glastonbury Festival running this week) many people travelled to the stones to celebrate midsummers day. There were approximately 15,000 people there; singing, dancing, drumming, chanting, juggling and swinging lit poi. It was fabulous. The stones were completely open.
The police were there of course, hassling most New Traveller vehicles that turned up, but they generally kept a low profile. They had organised parking a few fields away. Welfare was provided and other organisations were there such as the RSPCA and St Johns Ambulance. Even toilets were provided and fresh drinking water. There was the odd food and drinks stand too, all well away from the stones themselves. A private security firm had been employed by English Heritage to police the site too. It was all very low key though as everyone tromped down the road to reach the stones.
Now, was it necessary to have all of this organisation? Of course not. People can easily sort themselves out to watch the sun rise at a historic monument. You don't need loos or food, just a little time and freedom. A sensation of overkill was felt when we saw van loads of coppers sitting around wasting their time. This is very frustrating - the State is maintaining control of New Travellers by providing them with limited access to Stonehenge on this day. The Travellers aren't allowed to stop or stay at all and soon enough they'll be suffering police action via eviction elsewhere in the country. But at least we were all there for this special moment. At least the numerous New Travellers who arrived were allowed on this sacred site. It doesn't mean the fight is over, but from this position we can move on, we can fight for more freedom to be, to travel and to roam, to celebrate according to our wishes, rather than those of the State. We can visit Stonehenge on solstice morning which is fantastic, but we musn't forget the past or allow the State to con us into thinking they are not still controlling this freedom.
James, Friday 22nd June 2001
Zoë James is a lecturer at the University of Plymouth and carries out research into the policing of New Travellers.
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