Tomb Raiders

Flyer from the ill-fated Grave Rave

Amid the corporate accounting scandals and a pitched national defense debate, Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Delaware) found the time on June 18 to introduce his own vital bill to Congress. The R.A.V.E. Act ("Reducing Americans' Vulnerability to Ecstasy," S.R. 2633) would prosecute party promoters, club managers, and landlords for the use of MDMA (or Ecstasy) on their watch or their property, with potential penalties of up to $250,000 and 20 years prison time. (See "Generation Ecstasy Comes Down," August 21, 2002.) It seems fair to say that Biden's bill was set in motion 10 years ago this weekend, when Grave Rave--a Halloween party thrown in Wisconsin by four promoters, including two from Minneapolis-- was busted.

It was, in fact, the biggest bust in American rave history, with 973 arrests and fines of $325 apiece. The organizers were fined $3,000 each. When roughly half the ravers refused to pay these penalties, however, the charges and fines were dropped. Still, whenever a Midwest rave promoter speaks of the security and insurance precautions they take at their parties, they inevitably mention Grave Rave, either by name or as "that huge bust in Wisconsin."

What's ironic is that MDMA was in abundant supply at the party yet went virtually unnoticed by the police. Fewer than 10 cans or bottles of alcohol were found, according to a statement released shortly after the bust by Milwaukee Police Chief Philip Arreola. Also seized: 44 marijuana pipes, 81 small cylinders of nitrous oxide, and assorted pills. MDMA, however, is not mentioned.

"Back then, Ecstasy wasn't even on the law-enforcement radar," says journalist and former rave promoter David J. Prince, a Chicago native who covered the bust for Urb magazine. According to several partygoers, the police overlooked thousands of dollars in Ecstasy and LSD. (The Milwaukee Police Department did not return City Pages' calls requesting comment.)

"When we went back to clean up after the bust, we must have found 10 grand worth of [Ecstasy] stuffed into the cracks of the walls," says Michael Vance, one of Grave's promoters. "I remember one guy walking out with an entire bottle of Ecstasy. The cops asked what it was, and he said, 'Vitamin C. It's chewable.' And the cops said, 'Oh, Okay.' They had no idea."


Within a couple of years of raves' introduction in England, the outlaw parties had made their way to Los Angeles and New York. "Raves had started in the Midwest not even a year before Grave," says Tommie Sunshine, a Chicago electro DJ and producer who was one of the early scene's most ardent participants. In that brief time span, though, Sunshine was one of many who caught the utopian bug.

"Back then," says Vance, "you'd have a Friday-night pre-party--the Grave pre-party was massive; there were about 300 or 400 people--then the rave on Saturday, and then there'd be an after-party on Sunday. You'd just party all weekend."

"At that point, we didn't even think it was a culture," says Sunshine. "It was just something we did: 'Oh, it's Saturday night, let's get in the car and drive to a rave in another town.'"

At that point, it was ravers who did most of the traveling; promoters mostly stayed home, throwing parties in their own towns. Grave, however, was different--a Milwaukee party thrown by out-of-towners, including Madison native Vance, West Bend's Robin Bott, and Minneapolis's Bobbie Reiss and DJ ESP Woody McBride.

"I had been playing around the Midwest," says McBride, "and there was sick mental energy going on in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois--very different from what was going on here. I had helped with some parties in Madison," McBride continues, "but I had never done a full-on illegal rave."

Up to that point, says Vance, the Milwaukee police had been tolerant of local parties. "I'd dealt with cops at [Madison parties] Rave-E's and Alice in Raveland---they were just making sure that nobody was drinking. At Alice, I was tripping my balls off when the sheriff showed up, and I came out and had my arm around one cop's shoulder, and they were cool. Grave Rave was even better organized than those parties, and I was sober, so I thought I could take care of any problems with the police."

"When we rolled up there from Chicago, the buzz on the street was that it was gonna get busted," says Tony Duffy, who oversaw the event's vendor kiosks. "But that was the norm. No one took it seriously or considered that it would really happen."

Grave Rave took place in a warehouse located next to a brewery in Milwaukee's Third Ward, and was divided into a main dancing area and a chill-out room. Somewhat prophetically, the warehouse also housed a scale model of a jailhouse for department training. "It freaked me out when I saw it, but a couple weeks after the bust it was really funny," says Vance.  

The promoters rented the building, claiming they were shooting a music video there and throwing a wrap party afterward. In keeping with the Halloween theme, they built a haunted-house façade, which occupied one of the warehouse's corners, surrounded by dead leaves and a white picket fence that Vance had found discarded in a Madison field. Two spigots jutting out from the façade poured Gatorade and Kool-Aid, and volunteers handed out Halloween candy from the false door.

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."

"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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