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People are breaking lockdown to attend illegal raves across the UK

The raves have been condemned by established UK free party crews

  • Mixmag crew
  • 8 June 2020

It’s the early hours of May 25, just hours after Boris Johnson made a televised address defending his advisor Dominic Cummings and more than two months into lockdown, and the East London high street that we're walking down is almost completely empty.

We go past a train station with a flickering neon light, then turn left down a side street and walk alongside the railway track for a couple of hundred metres until we're standing outside an industrial yard where the thump of a hypnotic house bassline is drifting out into the warm summer night.

There’s nobody hanging around or queuing outside so I bang on the metal gate and after a brief argument over the £20 entry fee we're allowed to pass into a unit under one of the railway arches.

When we get in the air feels hot and wet and the scene seems both familiar and, after so many weeks of lockdown, completely alien at the same time.

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The room is dimly lit and around fifty people are dancing while the DJ spins bubbling, bass-heavy house records.

This small illegal rave is one of several that have started springing up across the country despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the legal measures restricting mass gatherings of people, which have been introduced in an effort to stop the spread of the disease.

Earlier in the month, on 16 May, West Mercia Police announced that they had shut down a rave in Shropshire that they estimated was attended by around 70 people.

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The same night that we attend the rave in East London, a group of people set up a soundsystem and held a party in the Kirkstall Valley Nature Reserve around two miles away from Leeds city centre – with local media estimating that 200 revellers attended.

During the same weekend, another group of people set up a soundsystem on Botany Bay, with one resident from the area estimating that 40 people attended the overnight party.

And in early June, two large raves took place in Merseyside as well as one in West Lothian, where ravers partied in an abandoned hospital before setting fire to it.

What appears to be the UK’s first socially-distanced free party was even given the go-ahead by police a few weekends ago.

While all of these raves made national news headlines (including the one we visited on May 25) – they are tiny by the standards of the UK free party scene.

They aren’t using large sound systems and have been condemned by many of the lager established party crews, who are continuing to hold off from throwing raves until the UK’s lockdown ends and the danger of virus transmission has been reduced.

The UK free party scene is rebellious, diverse and decentralised by its nature and includes a broad spectrum of musical styles and political stances.

The scene includes groups of hedonists, hippies, crusties, punks, anarchists, communists, and conspiracy theorists – all of which have little regard for the rules enforced by the police - but largely they have chosen to abide the guidance given on COVID-19.

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Dates which normally mark some of the UK's biggest annual illegal multi-rig parties have come and gone without events being held – out of respect for the ongoing effort to limit the spread of the virus.

These include the annual UK Tek, which was held last year on a windfarm in Scotland over the spring Bank Holiday.

Instead of organising illegal raves many of the UK’s free party crews have put their energies into online livestreams such as the Iso-Tek livestream, which was contributed to by Kaotik, Irritant and Jigsore, and the series of more than ten Quarantek livestreams, which has been put together by RedTek and Mad Forest Cru.

“The people putting on parties during lockdown are generally not part of the established UK free party scene,” said a member of one large free party crew that hasn’t been putting on parties, and who asked to remain anonymous.

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“Generally, these parties are being put on by groups of very young people who haven’t thought through the consequences of their actions or complete idiots who have access to small sound systems and want to make some fast money.

“The fact that there are no clubs open and none of the established free party crews are putting on parties means that there is a gap in the market.

“This is being exploited by irresponsible groups that would probably never usually see anyone turn up to their raves during normal times.

“Nobody would normally charge anyone £20 to get into an illegal rave – but in the current environment some people are desperate for a party – so if you haven’t got any scruples you can charge top dollar.”

Back in London at the party under the railway arches the makeshift dancefloor is heating up as ‘Jade’ by East End Dubs pulsates out of the soundsystem.

The air is wetter and smokier than when we first entered and we feel a million miles away from our normal lockdown routines.

Shadowy figures undulate and sweat as red, blue, and yellow lights play across their bodies and flicker on the room’s curved roof like galaxies.

People queuing at a bar made of plywood in the corner of the room are laughing, smoking, and nodding to the beat as they wait to pay for drinks and balloons of nitrous oxide.

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It’s easy to forget that we are in the heart of the capital city of a nation that has one of the world’s highest COVID-19 death rates.

In a joint statement sent to Mixmag two established free party crews, which asked to remain anonymous, said: “We absolutely condemn anyone doing free parties during the lockdown.

“Free parties are about defying bad laws: the laws of property keep some people homeless whilst others own multiple glittering palaces that they keep empty; they kick locals out of their social spaces and deny them places to create and enjoy their own culture.

“That’s why we do squat parties - to give each other a sense of our collective power and help defy bad laws.

“However, the lockdown isn’t a ‘bad law’ – it’s not even really a law.

“In reality, the government has not enforced a proper lockdown like other countries, and the elite - like Dominic Cummings - have completely ignored it.

“It’s been the working class who have actually done their best to keep the most vulnerable safe, and free parties - as a working class cultural movement - will absolutely hold the line too.”

As night slowly slides into morning I walk out of the dark warmth and hypnotic beats of the building underneath the railway arches and into the cool air of the yard outside. The party isn't due to finish until 10am but I'm ready to go.

A teenage boy wearing a white hoodie splits apart from a group of three other people chatting and smoking in the corner of the yard and comes up to us.

Grinning, he makes a joke about having to pay an extra ten pounds to be able to leave the party, then he unbolts the metal gate and lets us out – back into the quiet streets of lockdown London.

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