Cathy Augustine, Co-vice Chair of the Labour Representation Committee, remembers the Battle of the Beanfield, 35 years after the largest mass arrest of civilians in English legal history
Today marks the anniversary of the Battle of the Beanfield on June 1st 1985. Although less well-known than other incidents of mass violence by police towards citizens, it deserves wider recognition and we should never forget this scale of vicious ferocity unleashed by the establishment against those who challenge – even unwittingly – the status quo. Over 500 travellers were arrested that day – the largest mass arrest of civilians in English legal history. Police tactics during the battle, excessive violence, covering of ID numbers, subsequent lies when reporting events, “loss” of police radio and video recordings and lack of action taken against the police involved, are all too familiar hallmarks of a politicised instrument of state enforcement.
The British New Age Travellers movement developed in the 1970s to create an alternative way of life, free from the confines of conventional norms, based on sustainability and minimising their impact on the environment. Travellers earned a living between organising and trading at free festivals and formed their own groups, similar to extended families. After a stay with CND demonstrators, one group of travellers came to be known as The Peace Convoy, so it’s tragically ironic that this group became the main target for police brutality in 1985.
A major annual event for the travellers was The People's Free Festival at Stonehenge. In 1984 the Department of the Environment passed management of Stonehenge and the surrounding land to English Heritage. By that time the festival had grown in size and popularity and the attendance figure for 1984 was estimated at 100,000. Following complaints from local residents and English Heritage, government departments worked with the police to prevent the 1985 festival.
Despite police restrictions, The Peace Convoy was making its way to Stonehenge on the morning of 1st June. It included around 140 vehicles – most of them buses and vans converted into family homes – and 600 men, women and children. To avoid police roadblocks, the convoy drove into an adjacent field, where travellers tried to negotiate with police. The response was to order the arrest of all 600 by force by officers in riot gear. With sinister echoes of the Peterloo massacre, pregnant women and those holding babies were hit by police with truncheons and when they tried to escape police threw truncheons, shields, fire-extinguishers and stones to stop them.
After the arrests, Peace Convoy members were transported throughout the Midlands and even to northern England to find enough available cells to detain them – with no concern given to keeping parents and children together.
Most independent eyewitness accounts – from journalists and photographers, some of whom we themselves arrested and charged – relate that the police used violent tactics against men, women and children, including pregnant women; and deliberately destroyed the vehicles used by the convoy as their homes. "There was glass breaking, people screaming, black smoke towering out of burning caravans and everywhere there seemed to be people being bashed and flattened and pulled by the hair. Men, women and children were led away, shivering, swearing, crying, bleeding, leaving their homes in pieces."
Twenty-four of the travellers later sued Wiltshire Police for wrongful arrest, assault and criminal damage to themselves and their property. It took six years for 21 of them to win a derisory £24,000 in damages towards their false imprisonment, damage to property and wrongful arrest. But the power of the state was again demonstrated as the judge declined to award their legal costs so the compensation went towards paying for their representation.
The Earl of Cardigan emerged as a key ally and witness in court for the travellers who had previously been camped on his land on their way to Stonehenge – and was labelled a class traitor by the Daily Telegraph a clear expression of the establishment view that the requirement for truth and justice only applies to the few, not the many. "Police rushed out on foot, from behind their barricades. Clutching drawn truncheons and riot shields, they ran round to the driver's door of each vehicle, slamming their truncheons into the bodywork to make a deafening noise, and shouting at every driver, 'get out, get out, hand over your keys, get out'" but giving travellers no time to react before police used riot sticks to break the vehicles' windscreens. He described seeing a heavily pregnant woman being "repeatedly clubbed on the head" by police, many of whom had their ID numbers covered up – an illegal tactic used by police in so many of these operations and on a daily basis by the CRS in Northern France when clearing refugee camps.
The Stonehenge Free Festival and The Peace Convoy represented a strong, successful and growing counter-culture that the state perceived as such a threat to the established order that police were unleashed on unarmed traveller families, destroying their homes. In one case, this cruelty extended to forcing a man in custody to turn around and watch the vehicle that was his home go up in flames. Police later said: "The Police operation had been planned for several months and lessons in rapid deployment learned from the miners' strike were implemented." Following the physical attack, legal attacks made the travellers' way of life increasingly difficult to sustain as a result of the Public Order Act 1986 and later the Criminal Justice Act 1994.
Despite repeated calls, an inquiry into the events of 1 June 1985 has never been launched. Gypsy and traveller communities have long experience of discriminatory policing It is long overdue to renew calls for justice for the survivors of the Battle of the Beanfield.
This is part of the same shameful thread that runs through local British history with key events including the Peasants’ Revolt, the betrayal and execution of Leveller leaders, crushing of Luddite protests, the Peterloo Massacre, the Swing Riots, transportation of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, Orgreave, Battle of the Beanfield, the aftermath of Hillsborough, the naked power of the state unleashed against the many - again and again and again. This is the naked face of state violence when the mask slips – or when the establishment decides it’s powerful enough to remove the mask and show the full ugliness of what lies underneath. We must never forget how the few seek to control us through the machinery they have set up to keep us “in our place” – when they perceive the threat to their economic power and state power is becoming too great, or likely to succeed.
We are being presented with yet another potential flashpoint as the current Tory government is forcing us back to work and lifting the C-19 lockdown, putting their economic interests before our health and safety. In stark contrast to the so-called opposition of the Labour Party under its new pro-establishment leadership that appears just as keen as the Tories to maintain the status quo, the response of the unions has been strong, organised and coordinated in order to protect the vast majority of the population. We are again facing what Engels described in 1845 as social murder: “Murder committed by the political and social elite where they knowingly permit conditions to exist where the poorest and most vulnerable in society are deprived of the necessity of life and are placed in a position in which they cannot reasonably be expected to live and will inevitably meet an early and unnatural death.”
And of course, such oppression is global, spread like a virus by the forces of imperial and colonial entitlement with countless brutal examples.
Current events across the US are a sharp reminder of oppression and discrimination of minority groups by a politicised police force. Deaths in custody are tragically by no means unique to American law enforcement. In 2018-19 The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) recorded a total of 276 deaths during or following police contact in England and Wales. The death of Cynthia Jarrett of a heart attack after a police search of her home in 1985 was the spark that lit Broadwater Farm and led to the uprising there. In August 2011, protests started in Tottenham, London, following the death of Mark Duggan, a local man who was shot dead by police, and spread across the country. There have been far too many more.
As a black woman said recently to the US government, at a mass gathering in protest of the state murder of George Floyd and so many other black people: “Don’t talk to us about looting – you are the looters. America looted black people. America looted the Native Americans when they first came here. So looting is what you do – we learned it from you. We learned violence from you.” This echoes the lyrics of the Wolfe Tones song “Joe McDonnell” that relates to British imperialist in Ireland over centuries while expressing a much wider relevance:
And you dare to call me a terrorist
While you looked down your gun
When I think of all the deeds that you had done
You had plundered many nations divided many lands
You had terrorised their peoples you ruled with an iron hand
And you brought this reign of terror to my land
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