Police admit they were unprepared for demonstrations in Balcombe

Sussex Police admit they were unprepared for demonstrations in Balcombe

There are over 400 groups now fighting to stop unconventional energy around the UK. Each group has its own identity primarily based on location or campaign-type and although they all share a determined aim, each is an entirely autonomous group that acts to its own agenda and style. Some groups tackle the problems through legal means, others through outreach and others still, through non-violent direct action. Peaceful protests to stop fracking have taken place all over the UK since 2011, and the police have consistently come under fire, accused of protecting the interests of the frackers, whilst using force and intimidation tactics to quash peaceful protest.

While the government and fracking industry are failing to stop the anti-fracking movement from spreading information and growing in number; the police continue to struggle with handling protestors and flunk at facilitating peaceful protest. Those with an interest in pursuing fracking in the UK have participated in tactics of intimidation, false-arrest, bullying, harassment, sexual assault, and legal wrangles; with the police on the front line facing the protesters.

A disabled man is pushed aside my Greater Manchester Police at Barton Moss in December 2013.

A disabled man is pushed aside my Greater Manchester Police at Barton Moss in December 2013.

The policing has been misapplied and mismanaged. It seems anyone questioning the safety and worth of fracking is on a list somewhere, of suspicious individuals. From public meetings in quiet church halls that are given an unwarranted police presence, to full on assaults at peaceful protests; residents are being made to feel like criminals and are having their lives turned upside down.

This week, academics from York and Liverpool John Moores Universities called for a public inquiry to investigate the relationship between police and the fracking firm IGas, the proportionality of police tactics and the tactical use of bail to restrict the right to protest. [1] The academics attended protests at one of the most well known ‘Community Protection Camps’ at Barton Moss (Salford) and interviewed those taking part after an apparent mismatch between the way police were characterising the protests to the media, and reports from local people that they were peaceful.  Criminologist, Dr William Jackson and Dr Joanna Gilmor assessed accusations of sexualised violence to target female protesters, as well as many other police failings.

For those involved in peaceful demonstrations and non-violent direct action, the police seem happy to make arrests just to get the accused tangled in court battles; rarely resulting in charges being made. 59% of the Barton Moss protest arrest cases dealt with so far have seen the accused cleared of any wrongdoing. [2] The arrests and legal process consume a lot of police and court time, money and energy. Is this an appropriate and lawful use of public resources?

Peaceful Protest and the Law

In January, a test case against two anti-fracking `slow walk’ campaigners arrested for walking in front of lorries outside the IGas exploratory gas site at Barton Moss in 2014, resulted in a ‘not guilty’ verdict at Manchester Magistrates Court. [3] This could mean that all future similar ‘aggravated trespass’ cases could now be dropped. In acquitting the pair, District Judge Nicholas Sanders said, “They were entitled to demonstrate, were entitled to walk along Barton Moss Road”. The Judge concluded that, “Their culpability, such as it was, was not to walk at the speed which had been imposed upon protesters by the police without warning or explanation.”

Police accused of brutality as fracking protester is left ‘battered and bruised’ at Barton Moss, Salford.

In a document published in 2008 by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary (HMIC), a chapter titled “Facilitating Peaceful Protest – Framework For Police Decision-Making” [4], identified a number of issues regarding the inappropriate use of police powers, particularly concerning the human rights obligations of the police under ECHR Article 11 – the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. The document states that during a peaceful protest, Police have a duty to:

1. refrain from preventing, hindering or applying unreasonable indirect restrictions upon the right to peaceful assembly (negative duty).

2. take reasonable measures to protect peaceful public processions and assemblies (positive duty).

It further states that, “An obstruction of the highway which is a lawful exercise of the right to peaceful assembly under ECHR Article 11 is unlikely to be unreasonable.”

When the police clearly have no grounds for arresting ‘slow-walking’ peaceful protestors, why are they constantly being arrested for ‘Obstruction of the Highway’?

What are the consequences for campaigners?

Campaigners working locally have seen their communities and groups divided and torn apart [5] with continued pressure from online trolls and real-world trouble-makers [6], all the while intimidated by a disproportionate police presence and the stress of being under constant surveillance. Recognisable, persistent or troublesome campaigners feel targeted and unsupported.

Police photographer and FIT officers at No More Austerity protest, June 2014. PHOTO: from the Netpol Flickr Pool

Police photographer and FIT officers at No More Austerity protest, June 2014. PHOTO: from the Netpol Flickr Pool

Surrey resident, Lorraine Dale, was at a protest on Horse Hill, near Horley (Surrey), last week and said, “My son Martin and I have campaigned against fracking for a few years now and recently had strange vehicles parked outside our house and other incidents that are causing us concern. On a Friday a couple of weeks ago a mint green car was parked outside for at least a couple of hours and the driver, who remained in his seat, was holding his phone up horizontally and appeared to be either taking photos or filming my house and me. Then on the following Monday a red Mercedes van with blacked out windows was parked in the same position outside my house, this had 4 men this time and for at least 2 hours it stayed there with the engine running.”

“I reported both incidents to the police and, although I gave them registration numbers of both vehicles, they were only concerned with the van as it appeared it had false registration plates. They didn’t seem at all interested in the fact that we had been stalked on the previous Friday and we don’t feel any more safer now for reporting the incident.”

Organisers and attendees of academic debates are not immune either. When Canterbury Christ Church University hosted a debate on fracking, the police asked to see a list of attendees. [7] Ian Driver, a Green party councillor in Thanet, said he was astounded when he learnt of the police request. “It’s deplorable. This was a public debate. It was not a meeting planning any actions, protests or demonstrations. It was simply a public discussion about a controversial issue,” he said.

Caroline Lucas MP was arrested during demonstrations at Balcombe

Caroline Lucas MP was arrested during demonstrations at Balcombe

Far too often, those who peacefully protest by ‘slow walking’ trucks, or simply organise public meetings, have experienced brutal reactions by police amidst scenes more like a Hollywood apocalyptic saga, than leafy lanes and farm land. Brighton MP Caroline Lucas was amongst more than 100 people that were arrested during the demonstrations at Balcombe against the test-drilling carried out by energy company Cuadrilla. [8]

Secrets and Spies

A Freedom of Information request revealed a report by Hertfordshire Constabulary and Essex Police, which recommended that Sussex Police at Balcombe should have been more open with the public when faced with demonstrations and ensured the chain of command was clear to all. [9] The report called for a review of prosecution strategies in order to avoid unnecessary arrests. It seems everything is being thrown at this growing movement to prevent it from daring to share concerns, truths and questions, or express any objection to shale gas and oil.

Baroness Jones discovered the Met Police had recorded her actions on a database of “domestic extremists”.

Baroness Jones discovered the Met Police had recorded her actions on a database of “domestic extremists”.

In 2014, London Assembly member and Green Party peer Jenny Jones discovered the Met Police had recorded her actions on a database of “domestic extremists”. [10] Documents obtained under a Freedom of Information request by the politician show that officers had been tracking her political movements since 2001. But Baroness Jones found she was not the only elected politician being spied upon for regularly taking part in demonstrations and attending public meetings on issues she feels passionate about. A Green party councillor in Kent was spied on for two years for peacefully and legally protesting about live animal exports. [11] His file even included details of organising a public meeting in support of equal marriage. Baroness Jones called it, “a complete waste of police time and resources”. [12] The Network for Police Monitoring (NETPOL), say it is not only opposed to spying on politicians – it opposes spying on all activists and campaigners. [13]

What side are the police on?

This week there were signs that perhaps the police have had enough of protecting the fracking industry. In Cheshire, John Dwyer, Police and Crime Commissioner, accused fracking company IGas of irresponsible behaviour and risking serious injury; adding that he believes IGas should foot the £200,000 policing bill for the eviction of a ‘Community Protection Camp’ at Upton. [14] The Police Commissioner said, “I find it incredible that a company that describes itself as a responsible operator, with the highest standards of health, safety, and environmental protection, would have allowed the bailiff’s action to proceed and risk serious injury to all involved whilst at the same time deciding not to proceed with its interests at the site. It is unfortunate that your company has acted so irresponsibly and failed to understand local community concerns and risks.”

Could this be an indication that the police could finally be learning from their mistakes, and that perhaps we are approaching a turning point where it concerns fracking? The police have clearly acted horrendously and police/protestor relations have hit an all time low. If they continue to mishandle the policing of peaceful protest and violate human rights in this shocking way, this will without doubt lead to greater numbers of impacted residents taking a stand to resist both fracking and the police in their communities.

Talk Fracking

References:

1. http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/feb/23/fracking-police-sexualised-violence-barton-moss-protest

2. http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/most-barton-moss-protesters-cleared-7339995

3. http://www.salfordstar.com/article.asp?id=3101

4. http://library.college.police.uk/docs/hmic/adapting-to-protest-british-model.pdf

5. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/property/green/10935448/Balcombe-a-village-divided-by-oil-saved-by-solar-power.html

6. http://www.blackpoolgazette.co.uk/news/community/community-news/campaigners-anger-at-theft-of-frack-sign-1-7175110_

7. http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/dec/15/police-university-list-fracking-debate

8. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-23753750

9. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-sussex-27902053

10. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-27872451

11. http://www.thanetgazette.co.uk/Green-councillor-spied-Met-years/story-20020225-detail/story.html

12. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jun/16/domestic-extremist-metropolitan-police-spying-elected-politician

13. https://netpol.org/2014/06/26/oppose-all-police-surveillance-on-political-activism/

14. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/jan/12/anti-fracking-protesters-dig-in-as-eviction-battle-starts-in-upton-cheshire