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The lush, cultivated foothills on the southside of Spain’s Sierra Nevada has been a cultural melting pot for centuries, if not millennia. The Romans, Berbers and Moors have all clearly left their mark. The town of Orgiva (a garrison town that marked the front line throughout the Civil War) is now renowned for its alternative 'hippy' scene. At least since Franco's death in the mid seventies, 'groovers' just wanting to get away from it all have been charmed by the area’s laid-back vibe... maan!
A whole bunch of horse-loving Israelis arrived in the eighties, squatting the now long-standing site/community of El Morreon. Soon after, sun seekers from Tally Valley in Wales spawned the tipi village community of Beneficio. On the southside of the Orgiva valley, a tiny hamlet called los Cigarrones (which had long since lost its original occupants) had been an alternative community of sorts since the late seventies. Then some English university types bought the place and started to renovate the buildings, and other 'back to the land' people began moving into the area. It was already a permaculture dream with lots of sunshine, and an incredible irrigation system put in place by the Arabs centuries before.
Things were fairly quiet until about 87/88 when 'new age' travellers, tired of Britain and its increasing repression of free festivals, raves and travellers, began parking up in the still green fields below Ciggy village. From the early nineties onwards it became a favourite stop-off for the travelling party crews (Total Resistance being regular visitors).
In 1996, flooding washed away a huge swath of land in Cigarrones, clearing the way for a much bigger gathering. On March 14th 1997 a huge sail depicting a jolly dragon was raised in Cigarrones and the now famous Dragon Festival was born. The hundred or so people present could never have imagined that by 2001 nearly 10,000 people would turn up and a few years later as many as 20,000.
It wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Although the majority of folk who'd bought land in Ciggy were open-minded traveller types, the idea of so many people turning up for a 'wild weekend' (which did sometimes go on for weeks) inevitably caused rifts in the community.
Police presence had been virtually non-existent in the early years but by 2002 the festival’s increasing size was causing alarm bells in the right-wing council’s offices. The mayor (a real Franco-ist) who'd seen the place as a 'zona conflictiva' since the Civil War, placed a prohibition order on the festy and called in police reinforcements. The authority’s aggressive stance effectively changed the mood of the event. The whole site was in fear of the police being increasingly violent, as they'd already raised guns and fired shots into the air. Gone was the festy's fluffy calmness. The hardcore crews chose to knuckle down and turn up the techno.
The Dragon was causing a national media stir, firstly because banning a fiesta in Andalucia was simply unheard of but mostly because, sadly, two people died at the event which only added fuel to the anti-side's rhetoric.
In 2003 the clampdown came. Two mounted divisions of Policia National (nasty boys in black with no ID numbers) and hundreds of Guardia Civil descended on the site. The impending Iraq war gave voice to the festival’s 'call for peace'. Every day for several weeks the whole site dressed in pink and sang their way to the police line to offer them tea and cakes. The fluffiness was spectacular, clearly making a mockery of police heavy handedness. On the eve of the festy (and ironically, also the eve of the Iraq invasion) the cops stepped aside: ''There was nothing they could do, we posed them no threat and were breaking no laws''. It was a monumental moment, and old guys from the village threw their hats in the air screaming “never since the death of Franco!” The 'hippies' had beaten the Spanish state and the festival was buzzing with a sense of empowerment.
But In January 2004 the local quarry family, nicknamed 'el falange' because of their fascist leanings (the falangists being fascist agitators dressed up as a political party) arrived to turn up the heat. Full of attitude they cruised up the river bed, intent on opening a new open cast quarry, which had been refused permission twice previously. They intended to supply materials for the area’s so-called EEC development projects and had been making threats to anyone they thought might oppose their plans.
The whole community was outraged and began a peaceful blockade of their operation. Immediately the authorities seized on the opportunity to 'take out' those they thought were Dragonfest 'ring leaders' from amongst the protesters. Out of the blue, the riot squad arrived. Four (carefully chosen) arrests were made and they were charged on three counts: obstruction of a legal works, criminal damage and assault. Two of the accused legged it never to be seen again, while the other two went in for the fight. After all, everyone knew the works were illegal; the criminal damage amounted to a digger’s tyre being let down (which another neighbour openly admitted to) and the only people who'd been assaulted were the accused. They were sure to win, weren’t they?
Er, no. After dragging the case on for several years the two 'faces' were found guilty on all counts and were given a two year suspended jail sentence and fined €2000, but hey, they had stopped the quarry and the Dragon raged on.
After years of dominance by huge sound systems and the whole dance culture thing, by 2005 the Dragon was getting confidently creative with more live stuff, theatre and a green space. It was a turning point and for the next few years the Dragon was on a proper roll. Gone was the purely hedonistic rave vibe and a more focused, conscious, even political dynamic was emerging.
Local elections brought a new 'socialist' (?) mayoress to power and she'd been quite vocal about 'embracing' the Dragonfest, however it was unanimously felt in the festival community that any interface with the 'mainstream' was not the way to go: it could only mean regulations and control. Whether the mayoress felt snubbed by this is not known but she certainly began to change tack.
2008 was massive! Across Europe, truly free gatherings of this scale had become a distant memory, so people everywhere were seeing the Dragon as a sort of last stand in a real anarchistic bring-what-you-like, do-what-you-like tradition. The truth is, it really was just that and the anti-festival mob were seething.
Over the years, a few members of the Ciggy neighbourhood had made their opposition to the festival very clear by filing complaints to the local council and gathering support from other villages close by. This polarity of opinion had not been missed by the authorities, particularly one xenophobic local cop who'd pathetically tried for years to rid the valley of this 'hippie scourge'. Divide and conquer tactics had been used in the past but a real working plan had not yet manifested, not until now!
The anti-festival mob formed a 'selective' Cigarrones neighbours’ association and began talking about tree planting projects. It was clear to the rest of the community that this council-backed greenwash had more to do with eradicating the Ciggy travellers site and stopping the festy than any genuine eco concern.
Early in 2009 the aforementioned 'nobby bobby' - our determined cop from hell - arrived on site with a huge digger, and support from the Guardia Civil (a military police force that should have died with Franco but mysteriously didn’t). They proceeded to dig huge craters two metres deep and just as wide, still feigning ‘ecology’ by planting tiny saplings in the bottom of a few of these enormous pits. Meanwhile the Ciggy association was asking 'selective' land owners for authorisation to plant trees on their land. Interestingly, the land owners who were not asked were all well known for their pro-festy stance. This was all starting to look rather contrived. The cops had by now dug more than two thousand huge holes all over the area making it impossible to park anywhere - so if there was to be a 2009 Dragonfest in Ciggy it could only really happen on the pro-festy folks land.
Two days before the spring equinox 2009, a prohibition order was stuck up at the local petrol station banning the Dragon Festival on health and safety grounds - and warning that anyone found organising the event would receive hefty fines. Yet party people were arriving in Ciggy all the time. Hundreds of young Spanish, mohicaned squatter types (as opposed to the day-glo weekenders of previous years) had reacted to the ''attack on our liberty'' by forming themselves into an 'orderless' column and marched, proud and smiling, past the dismayed-looking Guardia Civil. They were out to party on whatever space there was left without holes!! Within days, seven pro-festy land owners received paperwork telling them they had been found guilty on an 'administrative' charge (i.e. ignoring a local authority's ban) and had each been fined the unfathomable sum of thirty thousand and fifty euros and sixty one cents. Failure to pay would of course mean the seizure of any assets, like their land! What a stitch up you might say...
Those charged have taken their case to the Crown Court in Granada questioning what appears to be the local council's calculated strategy against the Dragon Festival. However, nothing was done to enforce the ban on the festival in 2009 so, in their defence, these land owners could have done little themselves to stop it even if they had wanted to.
During the long wet winter of 2009/2010, the landscape changed again - quite literally - as the Cigarrones riverbed flooded, heavily impacting the community as well as the festival. Large swathes of the riverbed were washed away, including the access track, cutting the site completely off for vehicles. Fortunately there were no casualties from the flood, but live-in vehicles and caravans were left buried deep in mud and many were scrapped. A lot of landowners and residents from Cigarrones were forced to move out, but some remain, having to use wheel barrows to bring in supplies as there is still no vehicular access.
So a festival at Cigarrones was out of the question in 2010, but in 2010-11, there was a similar gathering at Santa Fe near Granada (60km north of Orgiva and Cigarrones) at the same time of year the Dragon Festival used to be on – the spring equinox - called The Dragoff.
Meanwhile the legal defence for those fighting the heavy fines goes on. To date, benefit events and donations from supporters has paid off €3,000 of 'team dragon’s' €10,000 legal fees.*
The Dragon Festival cut its own path and will always be there as a forum for freedom and self expression. A few spirited people from Cigarrones cannot take sole responsibility for something so phenomenal and involved everybody who attended over the years. These people now desperately need your support.
* For more information and to help/donate see http://officialdragonfestival.blogspot.com
STOP PRESS - March 22nd 2011: One of the four accused Dragon 'organisers' – who can now be named as Skott Aulton – has won his case! He received the news after returning from the Dragoff Festival in Santa Fe, the Dragon replacement.
But despite this good news, the reality is that lawyers' fees still need to be paid and Skott winning his case is no indication that the the other three will follow suit because the evidence against each defendant is different. They still need vital financial support, so keep the donations coming in – see website.