Operation Solstice: The Battle of the Beanfield
(Film/Video, Neil Goodwin, September 1996)
420 people were arrested on 1 June 1985 on their way to Stonehenge to hold the 11th People's Free Festival. Using video footage, the police radio log, photographs and personal testimony to recreate what became known as the BATTLE OF THE BEANFIELD, this documentary presents horrifying evidence of the illegal paramilitary tactics employed by police as they smashed up travellers' homes. (from £10.00)
'This portrait provides a good background to what was, at the time, the longest running civil case in British legal history when 24 people sued the police for damages.'
OBSERVER 3 November 1991
THE HOME FRONT
"Coaches 7 through to 15 appear to be the personnel carriers and the ones to concentrate on."
Extract: POLICE RADIO LOG (1/6/85 @ 13:30)
The absence of free spirit in the 21st Century regime of 'government controlled access' to Stonehenge has not escaped the notice of those caught up on 1st June 1985 in the infamous 'Battle of the Beanfield'. That's when the people behind Britain's annual cultural fair were tricked, rounded up and crushed by naked state power. This film lookes at the creative fusion that made the Stonehenge Festival and examines exactly what happened on that fateful day.
In May 1995, for the first time in ten years, horns and jubilant cheers greeted a summer sunrise above the national monument. The shroud of negativity that had made Stonehenge Europe's most contentious ancient site was lifted for a peaceful VE day mass trespass as revellers sang and danced admidst the 5000 year old temple. Hundreds of tourists marvelled at the colourful spectacle.
"We have gathered with the most peaceful of intentions to honour the brave men and women who fought and died to keep this island free from a totalitarian police state," Came the announcement.
"I know English Heritage must be having kittens," Said one security guard, as a naked woman walked past. "But I am going to enjoy every minute."
How different this was to the scenes of violence that marred the Solstice celebrations a decade earlier. It was on June 1 1985 that the police ambushed a convoy of 150 vehicles on its way to the 11th People's Free Festival at Stonehenge.
Using over 1000 officers from five constabularies, travellers and festival-goers were contained in a field on the Hampshire/Wiltshire border for several hours. At 7pm, having refused to negotiate an alternative festival site, the Operational Commander, Wiltshire's Assistant Cheif Constable Lionel Grundy, ordered his men to attack.
Some of the travellers fled into an adjacent field where they were hunted down like animals. The ensuingviolence was recorded by an ITN camera crew, headed by Kim Sabido. In an emotional piece-to-camera he described it as the worst police violence he had ever seen, and stressed: "The number of people who have been hit by policemen, who have been clubbed whilst holding babies in their arms in coaches around this field, is yet to be counted... There must surely be an enquiry after what has happened here today."
420 people were arrested and taken to holding cells throughout the south of England. Back at the Beanfield homes were systematically looted and smashed. Some were burnt-out. Seven dogs were destroyed by the RSPCA.
Those battered vehicles that could be salvaged from the police pound crawled back to Savernake Forest, the location from which the convoy had set out from hours earlier with music playing and flags waving. The owner, the Earl of Cardigan, who had witnessed a pregnant woman "the size of a zeppelin" being truncheoned on the Beanfield, was later asked by the police if they could "come in and finish the job".
The media mostly portrayed the convoy as a marauding army of crazed hippies. The BBC used extracts from the police video in their reports. A row of ordinary household implements were described as "weapons gathered up". On the ITN news desperate fleeing drivers were presented as wreckless potential murderers. Kim Sabido's commentary was replaced with a voice-over back at the studio.
In an interview conducted in 1991 for Channel 4's Critical Eye programme OPERATION SOLSTICE, Sabido confirmed that "some of the nastier, more controversial shots that were taken of the Battle of the Beanfield, like the woman being dragged out by her hair", had "disappeared" from the ITN library.
The media cover-up heightened the publics' outrage against the travelling lifestyle, and eased the way for a new "anti-hippie clause" to be added to the Public Order Act of 1986. This restricted to 12 the number of vehicles that could travel or park-up together. A new ban on processions meant that 2 or more people walking to Stonehenge could now be arrested.
Many people believe that the Stonehenge festival was used as an excuse for "trashing" a thriving lifestyle. For thousands of young people a bedsit on wheels was seen as a viable alternative to scratching a living in a decayed inner-city. According to Maureen Lodge, who had taken to the road during the recession of the late 1970's, and who, like scores of other women, was stripped-searched in a police garage after the Beanfield:
"The real reason was the threat to the State. The number of people who were living on buses had been doubling every year for 4 years. It was anarchy in action, and it was seen to be working by so many people that they wanted to be a part of it too".
In the years prior to the Beanfield many travellers took part in protests against the introduction of cruise missile bases onto common land. In campaigns similar to the road and live-export protests of today, travellers and concerned middle-class residents stood side-by-side blockading the entrances to US airforce bases such as Greenham Common and Molesworth.
The Peace Convoy was born; a mobile political force that upset Thatcher's vision of a free market economy. Having finally beaten the National Union of Mineworkers, the most militant and vociferous of the trade union movement, in the Spring of 1985, attention turned to the next "enemy within".
The first hint of trouble came at a festival at Nostell Priory, West Yorkshire in 1984. Riot police, fresh from disturbances at the Orgreave coking plant, ransacked travellers' homes and mass arrested 360 people. At the same time English Heritage began compiling a list of names for a civil injunction that would form the legal basis for a Stonehenge festival ban the following year.
According to Nick Davies, an Observer journalist who was threatened with arrest on the Beanfield: "The whole of the Wiltshire Establishment had sat down to decide what to do about the Convoy.
This involved various landowners, the County Council, the police and their solicitors. There wasn't really a law that would enable them to keep the Convoy out, so they came up with the civil injunctions to justify all that then happened."
The Beanfield was the first in a series of large-scale police operations, caried out over the Solstice period, designed to make the travelling lifestyle untennable. In 1986, the year Margaret Thatcher promised "ways to make life difficult for such things as hippie convoys", Operation Daybreak saw the highly publicised eviction of travellers from Stoney Cross on the edge of the New Forest. On this occasion a temporary softly-softly approach by the police extended to the handing out of pie, chips and tea to incredulous travellers who had been expecting another beating.
In 1988, the Solstice sunrise at Stonehenge was greeted with the extraordinary sight of hundreds of riot police batton-charging sun-worshipers off the National Trust land adjacent to the monument, while a Druidic ceremony carried on regardless beside the stones.
"We have reached a situation where the police have to be in charge always, all the time, of everthing," Says Don Aitken, a volunteer with the Travellers Aid Trust and co-founder of the Windsor Festival in the 1970's. "Anyone who doesn't do what the police wants them to do has to be made to do it. Whatever resources it takes to do this are forthcoming."
Each public order situation around Stonehenge has been exploited to create a climate of hostility towards the travellers, and legislation has been gradually introduced and tightened to criminalise, by definition, the travelling lifestyle.
In 1994 the Criminal Justice Act (CJA) abolished the 1968 Caravan Sites Act, which was set up to ensure official sites for nomadic people in the wake of over 100 gypsie deaths at the hands of vigilantees in the 1960's. In response to this drastic disappearance of traditional sites, some travellers have attempted to buy their own land, only to be denied planning permission in 90% of cases.
For the first time in British legal history tresspass has been made a criminal offence, thereby extending police powers to move travellers on. The number of vehicles that can now park-up together has now been limited to six. Failure to comply with any section of the law will result in travellers' homes being impounded and destroyed at the owner's expense.
"Fifty years ago, if it had been Hitler who had won the Second World War," Says Cookie, a traveller from Norfolk. "The Criminal [In]Justice Act would have become law in occupied Britain six months later."
This very real connection between the CJA and the Nazis persecution of the gypsies was not lost on the 200 people gathered at Stonhenge on VE Day. As they ringed the monument to observe the 3 minutes of silence, their anti-CJA banners dispelled the comfortable myth that tyranny had finally been banished from Europe 50 years hence.
Ten years after women and children were ambushed and beaten-up by police officers in a quiet corner of the Wiltshire countryside, the uneasy feeling that it could so easily happen again will haunt the Beanfield anniversary. The reality, however, is that for someone somewhere a minor Beanfield, either at the hands of the police or vigilantees, happens every day.
For the victims of this covert war there has never been a peace from which to safely commemorate "battles" like the Beanfield. This summer, as the latest and most devious measures to eradicate the nomadic way of life are fully implemented, it must seem to them like the war has just begun.
NEIL GOODWIN, (C) Copyright - publish at will