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Courtesy of UN Women UK

Reading and Leeds: are festivals really getting more violent?

Every year, disorder and arson are expected on the final night of both festivals – but what’s causing it?

21-year-old Chloe attended Reading this year. She was looking forward to it all – daubing her face with glitter, dancing in the rain, seeing the Arctic Monkeys.

She had fun all weekend, but the mood quickly soured on the final night. “People were throwing bottles of urine, creating tall bonfires. We saw people coming from the other side of camp with a gazebo to put on top as kindling,” she recalls. “Security told people to just stay awake just in case there were more fires, and didn’t really seem to be doing anything apart from a couple of them carrying fire extinguishers.”

Back in 1999, following Reading’s rapidly growing success and a surge in demand for tickets, Reading and Leeds’ current two-site format was introduced. Since then, the festivals have firmly established themselves as cornerstones of British culture and become a post-GCSE rite of passage for teens: a weekend of getting fingered and trying pills for the first time, far away from prying eyes of mum and dad. But in reality, it can seem as though it’s a bit less ‘carefree teenage utopia’ and a little more ‘Lord of the Flies’.

Videos and reports of violence – including tent burnings, needle spikings, and looting – have abounded on social media. Molly, 22, attended Leeds this year and witnessed the havoc firsthand. She tells Dazed that the journey back to their campsite on the final night was “like walking through a warzone, with deodorant bombs going off left, right and centre and tents in flames everywhere.” Nelly, 24, had a similar experience. “There were some younger people near us who were setting fire to their camping chairs and stuff,” she recalls. “You could see people chucking on deodorant cans, sealed bottles, and I think Elf bars as well, which caused these explosions.”

“I felt so unbelievably unsafe. I was so fuelled by panic that I thought myself or my campmates were going to be seriously injured – I went to sleep thinking that we were going to wake up with the tent melted onto our faces or bad, bad burns,” Molly adds. “Next time, I’d either buy a day ticket or would camp in the campsite furthest from the stages.”

When approached for comment, the organisers of the festival referred to statements given by local authorities. Thames Valley Police said that festival security had water pumps and swiftly extinguished the fires, while disorder in the campsite on Sunday afternoon also “dealt with within minutes”. Meanwhile, West Yorkshire Police stated that no reports were made regarding any serious disorder at Leeds festival during the final night, while “sporadic tent fires” were dealt with by fire marshals on site.

This is not a new phenomenon and both festivals have previously descended into chaos, as many have pointed out. Notably, toilets were burnt and police were attacked at Leeds festival in 2002, and there were “minor riots” at Reading in 2008. The main difference is that today, attendees are able to post videos of the carnage on social media, whereas ten years ago there was no easy way of documenting and sharing the chaos. But if these festivals usually end up marred by disorder, then why is nothing ever done to prevent it? What needs to change to make festivals safer, and why does this kind of behaviour happen in the first place?

Dr Hannah Bows, associate professor at Durham University, has extensively researched violence at music festivals. “Many festivals are the size of towns or cities – especially the large, commercialised festivals, bringing tens or hundreds of thousands of people together. The combination of large numbers of people, alcohol use. and perceptions that festivals are rule-free may increase the risk of incidents of antisocial or violent behaviour,” she explains.

“Festivals may unintentionally provide perpetrators with opportunities to assault, grope or engage in other inappropriate or violent behaviours via their design,” she continues. “For example, crowded spaces can offer some anonymity for perpetrators and camping areas are often located away from main festival sites and sometimes do not have a strong security presence.”

Evidently, this is a problem which supercedes Reading and Leeds. There were issues with overcrowding at Wireless this year, with people jumping over fences to get into the festival, and, of course, the Astroworld tragedy in November 2021, where a fatal crowd crush killed ten fans. Thankfully, overcrowding at Reading and Leeds wasn’t an issue – “Dave actually stopped performing at one point just to make sure someone in the crowd was OK, and I think Megan Thee Stallion did as well,” Nelly says – but lax security and poor management seems to be a common thread running between big music events recently, with crowd control often left to the artists and fans to sort out.

Of course, there’s a big difference between teenagers throwing bottles of piss at each other at Reading and Leeds, and structural failings with serious consequences like the incidents at Wireless and Astroworld. But equally, there is a difference between comparatively harmless piss-throwing and setting a tent ablaze with someone still inside it. Young people should be allowed to go a bit feral at festivals – it seems moralistic, patronising, and just a bit boring to tut at young people for doing something as benign as drinking a litre of Dark Fruits out of a traffic cone. However, festival organisers and management need to know when to step up and de-escalate conflicts – before things spiral and someone gets seriously hurt.