Monday, January 17, 2011


After beating a conspiracy charge, illegal party organisers Desert Storm are unstoppable, says Mark White. Network 23

It was the morning after a very successful day, and James wanted some breakfast. Nottingham Sound System Desert Storm had played their brand of jack-hammer techno at a Reclaim the Streets anti-car Party/Demonstration in Bristol, and the streets had been, well, reclaimed. Traffic was stopped for hours, people danced, advertising hoardings were decorated with slogans, and a protest was made. If a few motorists had been inconvenienced, then that's what it was all about.

But now it was time to eat. James and his girlfriend Liz, who was seven months pregnant, left the house where they'd stayed after the demo. As they did so, a police car pulled up beside them and asked if they could move the Desert Storm truck. James drove it five feet he says. Then the Police appeared from nowhere: about five cars and vans. They were both charged with conspiracy to cause a public nuisance.

"That could mean anything," says James, a few months later. "If you're talking about throwing a beer can across a crowded park, that's conspiracy to cause a public nuisance." He's right. It's one of those catch-all charges that reveals more about the intentions of those bringing the charge than about any criminal act. But although it sounds innocuous, it carries a potential sentence of life imprisonment. In past decades, the charge has regularly been laid against political activists, and more recently against those in the sound-system scene.

Dozens of techno sound systems have proliferated around Britain since the start of the Nineties. They operate on the fringes, defying assimilation into the mainstream of what they see as an increasingly commercial dance scene. They like travelling, illegal parties, the thrill of the chase. Their life is not about playing at their local venue week-in, week-out, to club people in a fashion uniform. It's about living the scene seven days a week, 24 hours a day; about free raves in fields and warehouses, whatever the odds, whatever the law says. It is, they insist, the antidote to the ideologically-barren leisure prursuit that clubbing has become.

The first sound-system to hit the headlines was Spiral Tribe, after they took part in the 25,000 strong Castlemorton rave in 1992. Castlemorton was Britain's largest ever illegal party, and partly inspired by the anti-rave section of the Criminal Justice Act (CJA). The existing public order laws- conspiracy to cause a public nuisance- were used to try 13 defendants, including some of the Spiral Tribe, for their role in 'organising' Castlemorton. The case collapsed - a victim of poor police preparation - and all the defendants were acquitted.

In 1995, a number of sound systems got together and decided to put on an event codenamed 'The Mother' - on a scale of Castlemorton, a calculated snub to the newly enacted CJA. Police carried out dawn raids and arrested a number of people, including members of anti-CJA campaigning bodies United Systems and Advance Party. Yet again they were charged with conspiracy to cause a public nuisance. The event never happened and, eventually, the cases were dropped.

Today, Desert Storm are Britain's best-known and most fearless renegade sound system. They began in Glasgow in 1991. After the CJA and four arduous missions to Bosnia with aid convoys during the Balkan war, they became politicised. Since then they have become regulars at Reclaim the Streets protests and on the European Teknival open-air circuit.

Keith, founder of Desert Storm and still one of the main movers, lives in Nottingham's Forest Fields district. It's not the prettiest street in the world but, in terms of musical counter culture, it's one of the most important: three different sound systems live within a stone's throw of each other.

In his kitchen, Keith leans against the cooker, musing on the situation for sound systems in the years following the CJA. "Once they drew the line, they were going to try to destroy us," he says. "We're still here three years later and we're showing them that we're not going to take their shit. They can pass as many shady laws as they like and it won't stop us."

But although police action may not have subdued Desert Storm - they were confident enough to appear at a Nottingham Reclaim the Streets demo shortly after the arrests - it has slowed them down. Their lorry has been confiscated, along with a large amount of their technical gear. Benefit gigs are keeping them afloat.

James arrives, looking as pleased as anything. Liz had their baby boy, Oliver, a few days earlier. And James has more good news. He has just been told that the charges against him have been dropped. "It's good to enter fatherhood clean apart from the last charge [driving without insurance,]" he smiles.

So why was the charge brought in the first place? "They've had something shoved in their face and they don't like it," he suggests. "They want to find the people responsible and they can't." His solicitor, Lydia Dagostino of civil liberties lawyers Bindman and Partners, confirms that it is "quite common" for such a legal approach to be taken in protest cases. "They're using their powers to the limit," she suggests. "It places protesters in a difficult situation. They don't have their equipment for months on end and the charges are then dropped."

But why Desert Storm? Why now? Keith has an explanation: "I think society is nervous of our lot. We've got more to offer than a nine-to-five job." He stops considering whether he is paranoid of whether they really are out to get him.

Many people involved with outlaw sound systems have made the jump of awareness from dance culture to environmental politics. A scene which was simply about dancing has taken on, or has been pushed into adopting, a radical agenda, and events like Reclaim the Streets offer a convenient forum for the expression of anti-establishment feeling, however vague and unfocused. "It's a lot more than just going along and playing music, argues Kerry, another key part of Desert Storm. "The CJA pushed us out of the fields and onto the streets. They said we couldn't have parties any more, but we've come back."

Desert Storm member D says that the links with the anti-car protest run deeper that the common love of a good party, although he acknowledges the contradiction in protesting about pollution and using a truck and portable generators. "Even though we are doing that," he says, "we are making a point about it. We know that there are other ways to power cars, such as electric power, but we never get told about those because of the billions tied up in the petroleum industry."

There is a line of cactuses in Keith's kitchen window. A cactus can take root in almost any environment, and once it has done so it can survive for years with little support. Desert Storm aren't half as prickly, but they'll be just as hard to get rid of. "They'll not stop us", Keith grins. "No chance." They may be determined but they are not unrealistic. " I don't think that we are public enemy number one," says D. "We are a public enemy but that comes down to the law. The whole party scene is a public enemy, everyone in it."
Contact for Desert Storm