**WARNING: This post only makes passing reference to the Internet and social media in the context of politics and history**
With the summer solstice occurring earlier this week I wanted to write a post about the 25th anniversary of the Battle of the Beanfield that happened earlier this month.
This is all the more important given the complete lack of coverage the anniversary has received in the mainstream media and the fact that the legacy of what happened on the day can still be felt and in fact set the tone for the type of society in which we now live.
On the 1st June 1985 a convoy of people living on the road and summer festival party goers were making preparations to head to Stonehenge in time to set up the annual Stonehenge Free Festival ahead of the solstice.
As they headed off the road was blocked by Wiltshire Police who tipped three tons of gravel in the way, forcing the convoy into a field of beans.
What unfolded was possibly the worst incident of policy brutality seen in recent times, as some of the shots from the documentary Operation Solstice below shows.
The events of that afternoon was so atrocious that ITN’s Kim Sabido who as at the scene recorded a piece to camera in which he reported:
“What I have seen in the last thirty minutes here in this field has been some of the most brutal police treatment of people that I’ve witnessed in my entire career as a journalist. 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 today.”
Unfortunately Kim’s voice-over was removed on the evening new bulletin along with the worst footage of police violence. The raw footage also went “missing” shortly after broadcast.
This wasn’t a one off either. The Observer’s photographer Ben Gibson was arrested on charges of “obstruction” and removed from the site while freelance photographer Tim Malyon was simply chased from the scene by police.
The negatives of the images Gibson managed to shoot were also “lost” in an office move.
I am still shocked by the events of 25 years ago. Partly by the raw violence of the Police, but also by the reminder of the lengths that the State, working with the government, will go to in order to destroy the lives of marginal groups.
Because let’s get this straight.
This wasn’t just random or opportunistic violence against ‘hippies’. The actions of that afternoon systematically destroyed people’s homes, their livelihood and chances of continuing their existence on they were released from prison or hospital.
The strategy was also to prevent the media from reporting what was happening and silence or smear anyone who dared to speak out against the State’s actions.
Lord Cardigan, who owned land nearby, testified in a court case against the Police brought by 21 travellers for wrongful arrest, criminal damage and assault.
Following his appearance as witness, the UK’s press ran smear stories against him as an unreliable witness – The Times calling him “barking mad”.
Although he took legal action against The Times, The Telegraph, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and the Daily Mirror for their attacks on him, and received written apologies and damages from each it was too little too late – especially in an age when the media permanence of Google and linking didn’t exist.
In the end, the defendants won their case but the judge refused to award costs meaning that their victory was Pyrrhic: all defendants had to use their compensation to pay back the court costs.
Now isn’t the time to go into the wider socio-political issues of why the British State and government felt threatened by the alternative ways of life during the late 1970s and 1980s (although a snapshot of events is evoked in a first-hand account here) but what happened in that Beanfield in Wiltshire echoes through the intervening years to resonate in 2010.
Unlike the highly visible and predicted violence and media tactics of the police at the G20 this was a concerted and successful effort to target – or more accurately, “decommission”, to use the police description – a way of life of a significant proportion of the UK’s population.
To drag this issue back to the Internet in a way that isn’t crass or trivialises the enormity of events, a reasonable question is would the state have attempted such a tactic knowing it couldn’t control the creation and distribution of media content in a way seen during the G20?
In short: probably. Despite the notion that citizen journalism can hold power and authority to account the reality is that the exposure of abuses of power depend fundamentally on whether the use of power is deemed an abuse. Or more simply whether what happens is seen as justice, rather than injustice.
Writing candidly, Doctorow argues that the transparency wrought by social media
“on its own is nothing more than spectacle: it’s just another season of Big Brother in which all the contestants are revealed, over and over again, as thugs.”
Worse, the ability we now have to shine a spotlight onto the dark corners of power and authority compounds the situation in which we find ourselves.
“Transparency on its own,” concludes Doctorow “robs as much hope as it delivers, because transparency without justice is a perennial reminder that the game is rigged and that those in power govern for power’s sake, not for justice.”