Tomb Raiders

Sifting through the bones of an infamous Halloween rave bust

The real doors opened to the public at 10:00 p.m. "The music was crazy," remembers Tommie Sunshine, who traveled from Chicago with 12 people. "Very hard European techno. We were pogo-ing to it. There was a station where kids were doing graffiti. Then they moved the station, and it turned into a body-painting thing, like a Grateful Dead show. It got very psychedelic very fast."

Soon the room was swarming with nearly 1,000 dancers. "There would have probably been more like 3,000 people there had the police not shut down all the map points simultaneously," guesses Tony Duffy, referring to the locations where party directions were handed out. Grave's map points were blocked around 1:00 a.m.; by the time word of this traveled to the party, the police had already arrived.

"When I heard the cops were there, I went to the door, and bam!, full-on riot gear," says Vance. "There were 50 or 60 cops, with shotguns, like they were expecting us to shoot back. I was shocked. One of them planted the butt of his shotgun against my chest, shoved me up against the wall, and said, 'Get the fuck out of my way.' They were there to make a statement."

Flyer from the ill-fated Grave Rave
Flyer from the ill-fated Grave Rave

"It was pretty scary," says McBride. "Everyone was defiant at first. There was confrontation straight away. I wanted to bolt, but I was responsible for the sound system."

The police proceeded to zip-cuff all the ravers, sit everybody on the floor, and demand quiet. "You can't keep 900 kids on drugs quiet," says Sunshine. "We had to endure them arresting us, but they had to endure someone muttering 'doughnuts' and cracking everybody up every few minutes. You had a bunch of kids running around with their bodies painted, unable to look anyone in the eye when you talked to them. They must have thought it was some kind of pagan ritual."

Sending the men to one side of the room and women to the other, the police set up a processing station in the middle. It took between two and three hours for processing to begin. "It was a waiting game," says Duffy. "It didn't seem like they'd thought about what they were going to do, outside of busting the party."

"They were so unorganized, it was like getting arrested in Mayberry," agrees Sunshine. "The first thing I saw the police do once they'd busted the place was to bring in a big coffee table, a giant coffeemaker, plug it in, and start brewing coffee."

Eventually, the event's four organizers went to the county jailhouse, as well as "a drag queen with a half-pound of marijuana stuffed in his bra," says Vance. "The police were convinced I was the party's ringleader and put me in solitary, but we all had equal participation. They took our belts but didn't search our pockets. There were all kinds of drugs in the cell; one guy was smoking crack on the toilet. We had a couple hits of Ecstasy with us, so we did those--just, like, sitting on the hard, cold bench and enjoying it a whole lot." The promoters were released the following Monday. By that time, news of the bust--the largest single arrest in the city's history--had reached the media, triggering a public outcry against the parties.

A different outcry occurred later that week when 400 of the arrestees met at the University of Wisconsin campus in Milwaukee, where Waukesha civil rights lawyer William Pangman spoke. "I received a whole lot of phone calls," Pangman, now a talk-radio host, recalls. "I think people were looking to see who could fight city hall."

The people at the meeting resolved not to pay their fines; within days, the charges were dropped. Pangman filed a class-action suit against the City of Milwaukee, citing police mistreatment and sexual harassment. The suit fell through, though, when few of the ravers agreed to commit themselves to it. "We understood that only a handful would go the distance," says Pangman. "They were young people who wanted to move on with their lives, and a lawsuit just drags on mercilessly."


The repercussions of Grave Rave were immediate. Many parties then in the works were canceled, including a large-scale New Year's event. At the same time, "The bust gave the scene a countercultural credence," as David J. Prince puts it. "It forced promoters to be that much more creative--and better."

"It only seemed to make the scene more interesting," agrees Woody McBride. "It was free advertising. Promoters became a little bit more legitimate, which is a good thing."

"Some of the momentum went out of the scene because the older people said, 'Fuck it, I'm going to bars,'" says Michael Vance.

The Grave bust's longest-lasting legacy is the anti-rave movement that has now worked its way all the way to the Senate, where notions of "countercultural credibility" presumably hold less sway. Yet in Vance's estimation, such pressures may actually serve to galvanize the scene. "I think one good thing about the bust was that it weeded out the onlookers," he says. "You had to really want to be a part of it."

Many in Milwaukee still do. On October 11, 2002, 10 years after the bust, Trounce Records promoted the charity rave Regroup (canned goods were collected)--the city's first such event since Grave. The Milwaukee police, thoroughly familiar by now with Ecstasy, made visits at 10:30 p.m. and 3:00 a.m. No arrests were made.

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