It’s 35 Years Since the Battle of the Beanfield; Where Do We Go Now?

1.6.20

Police swarming around the last bus to be violently “decommissioned” at the Battle of Beanfield, on June 1, 1985.

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Today is the 35th anniversary of the Battle of the Beanfield; actually, a one-sided rout of heartbreaking brutality in a field in Wiltshire, when 1,400 police from six counties and the MoD violently “decommissioned” a convoy of 400 travellers trying to get to Stonehenge to establish what would have been the 12th annual Stonehenge Free Festival, a huge autonomous settlement, numbering tens of thousands of people, that occupied the fields by Stonehenge for the whole of the month of June, and that had become a target for violent suppression by Margaret Thatcher.

My book The Battle of the Beanfield, published to mark the 20th anniversary of the Battle of the Beanfield, is still in print, so please feel free to order a copy. Also available: Stonehenge: Celebration & Subversion, my counter-cultural history of Stonehenge.

Thatcher had spent 1984 crushing one group of citizens described as the “enemy within” — the miners — while also paving the way for the next “enemy within” to be crushed — the travellers, anarchists and environmental and anti-nuclear activists who made up the convoy attempting to get to Stonehenge when they were ambushed, and then crushed after they sought refuge in a bean field off the A303.

Elements of the convoy had been violently set upon by police in the summer of 1984, at Nostell Priory in Yorkshire, and in February 1985, activists and travellers who had established a settlement at RAF Molesworth in Cambridgeshire (the second proposed site for cruise missiles after Greenham Common in Berkshire, the site of the famous women’s peace camp) were evicted by the largest peacetime mobilisation of troops in modern British history, symbolically led by Thatcher’s right-hand man and defence secretary, Michael Heseltine.

The Battle of the Beanfield irrevocably changed the lives of many of those caught up in it  — and, for many, many others, it stands as a crucial example of how, although the UK likes to pretend that it is a liberal democracy, it can crush dissent when it feels like it, using shocking physical force, and can then clamp down further through the passing of illiberal laws, the intention being, eventually, to quell the very notion that citizens have any right to rebel in any meaningful manner against the established order.

Laws suppressing unlicensed gatherings and trespass followed the Beanfield in 1986 (the Public Order Act), and again in 1994 (the Criminal Justice Act), but although severe damage was done to the travelling community, dissent reemerged in ways that the government didn’t — and perhaps couldn’t —foresee, via the rave scene and the road protest movement, which led to dissent on quite a colossal scale.

Even after the Criminal Justice Act was passed in 1994, suppressing any kind of unlicensed gathering, dissent continued. The road protest movement — and its offshoot Reclaim the Streets — fed into the massive anti-globalisation movement, when protest went global, and it wasn’t until 2001, and the 9/11 attacks, that states picked up on an opportunity to stifle this growing anti-capitalist dissent and to accelerate the curtailment of civil liberties; efforts that have only been punctuated on a couple of occasions since, via the Occupy movement of 2011-12, and Extinction Rebellion.

That said, it is, I think, the steady erosion of combative political awareness that has caused the most damage to people’s willingness or ability to dissent in the last two decades, largely facilitated by a compliant media, and a concerted effort to seduce people into becoming vain and largely passive consumers — plus the effects of CCTV and the extraordinary surveillance potential of smartphones.

Thinking back to the times I visited the Stonehenge Free Festival, in 1983 and 1984, from the vantage point of being 57, looking back on being 22, is to revisit a time of extraordinary autonomy, when, in general, no one was watching us, or had any idea where we were. That wasn’t true for the convoy, of course, who were under surveillance for at least a year before the Battle of the Beanfield, but in general we lived with a kind of freedom that can only be imagined now if everyone threw away their smartphones and toppled every CCTV mast.

This year, of course, our memories of when we took advantage of informal precedent — in the absence of a written constitution — to gather freely and in significant numbers are up against a new menace, the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, which has, to date, killed at least 375,000 people worldwide despite lockdowns of varying degrees of severity being imposed around the world to try and prevent its spread, with at least ten percent of those deaths occurring in the UK.

Today, the 35th anniversary of the Battle of the Beanfield, probably won’t be mentioned in the mainstream media, which has never taken much interest in the violent events of June 1, 1985. In addition, newsrooms today will also be massively distracted by the supposed opening up of the country after ten weeks of lockdown, an ill-timed celebration of the return of “normality”, when the infection rate is still high, which has been designed more to protect the economy, and Dominic Cummings, than for any sound medical reasons.

As a result, it is not safe to think about gathering freely right now, but I do hope that, in the imminent future, we work out ways in which we can begin to protest safely, with masks and social distancing, as this government — the barbaric inheritors of Thatcher’s brutal intolerance — is literally getting away with murder right now, without concerted opposition either in Parliament, which has largely been shut down, replaced by daily press conferences in which dissent can be easily suppressed or ignored, or on the streets.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here, or here for the US, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.55), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from seven years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of the documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, The Complete Guantánamo Files, the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

15 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, marking 35 years since the Battle of the Beanfield, when, in a field in Wiltshire, 1,400 police, on the instructions of Margaret Thatcher, violently crushed a convoy of men, women and children trying to get to Stonehenge to establish what would have been the 12th annual Stonehenge Free Festival.

    The Battle of the Beanfield remains one of the most indefensible episodes of state violence in our lifetimes, and, while it didn’t crush dissent, it paved the way for sustained efforts to do so on the part of successive governments. 35 years on, I ask how we should respond to this sad anniversary.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Please check out the talk I gave about the Beanfield on the main stage of the Virtual Stonehenge Free Festival, which is running all month on Facebook. I also read out an excerpt from the book, and played a couple of songs by my band The Four Fathers, accompanied by my son Tyler, aka beatboxer The Wiz-RD, before Tyler finished our session with some of his own beatbox songs and some amazing freestyling!
    https://www.facebook.com/events/256019149152617/permalink/258433392244526/

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    There’a a good Guardian Long Read today by Dan Hancox – ‘The power of crowds’, looking at our need to gather vs. limits on our ability to do so, via the privatisation of public space, for example, and, currently, of course, the coronavirus. The significance of the 1994 Criminal Justice Act is also spelled out clearly.
    See: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2020/jun/02/the-power-of-crowds

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Richard Matz wrote:

    A ‘Butterfly on a Wheel’ moment for me personally that was the beginning of the end of festivals as social & political demonstrations. No coincidence that the miners were betrayed and defeated in the same year. I remain ‘The Enemy Within’ of everything that has transpired since these two calamities.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Well said, Richard. Good to hear from you.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Steve Fox wrote:

    “..the steady erosion of combative political awareness that has caused the most damage to people’s willingness or ability to dissent in the last two decades, largely facilitated by a compliant media, and a concerted effort to seduce people into becoming vain and largely passive consumers…” perfectly sums up the way I have been feeling for a long time. Thank you.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, Steve. Glad to have nailed it. Thanks.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Damien Morrison wrote:

    Just watched a good talk on YouTube about the rebirth of the travelers your talking in it too .. Very good it was

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    🙂 Damien! I’m glad to see it’s had so many views! https://youtu.be/y0DrYi-1_cI

  10. Andy Worthington says...

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    I’ve been really enjoying the rolling people videos on YouTube I think because the housing situation here is so dire the only alternative is to either leave the UK or build modifie an old bus caravan or wagon but then there’s the dilemma where to park??

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    I know someone who lived in a vehicle in a car park attached to some stables in Bermondsey, Damien. I think there must be other options like that.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    As a warm-up for our performance on the main stage of the Virtual Stonehenge Free Festival, Tyler and I sound-checked by performing ‘Rebel Soldier’, an old folk song that I gave the reggae treatment while living in Brixton in the 1980s, and recorded with The Four Fathers in 2015 for our first album, ‘Love and War’: https://www.facebook.com/events/309910330006686/permalink/312280409769678/

  14. Andy says...

    Andy, you bring back important memories of how radically life changed under Thatcher and how we have become so supine leaving aside the council tax riots in Trafalgar Sq that hastened Thatchers departure. I shared a house with someone who was at the battle of the bean field in 1985. She told me that in the middle of the battle which they were always going to lose, a huge group of them decided to strip naked and walk up the hill towards police lines, and at the top of the hill they all turned round and bent over mooning the police…then walked quietly away leaving the police temporarily disarmed!

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Andy. That’s a great anecdote, but isn’t it sad how people have become so suppressed? A few years ago, I saw footage from around the time of the Criminal Justice Act of protestors rattling the gates of 10 Downing Street so hard that I thought they were going to break. That example, of course, is one where armed police are now present, making such an action impossible, because you’d either get shot, or arrested and then prosecuted as domestic terrorist. Maybe that’s the main problem, that the surveillance culture, armed police and economic realities – rents so high and the welfare system so bad that people have to cling on to jobs, however bad they are – is all conspiring to keeping people quiet, although that still doesn’t completely explain the loss of the kind of attitude your anecdote captures.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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