Netpol is an organisation that monitors public order, protest and community policing, particularly those that they regard as excessive, discriminatory or threatening to civil rights.  They released a report yesterday – Protecting the Planet is Not a Crime – in which they detail police tactics in dealing with protests at potential fracking sites.  It makes for very uncomfortable reading.

It brings to mind the dark days of the miner’s strikes where police were often accused of behaviour that was over-zealous at best, and in some cases criminally violent.  You only have to watch the accompanying video released by Netpol ‘A Chilling Effect on Freedom to Protest’ to see echoes of Orgreave and other picket lines.

Indeed the police are even using obscure bits of trade union legislation to arrest peaceful protesters, along with other entirely inappropriate techniques for shutting down what are peaceful protests by concerned locals.

Crackdown

In view of these parallels it’s sad to see the GMB union calling for a crackdown on peaceful demonstration in a recent press release.  Given that the Times Newspaper also called for the police to respond more ‘robustly’ to the protests, it’s jarring to see a trade union effectively aligning themselves with the views of a Murdoch mouthpiece.

The report focusses on several active protest sites, but more fully on fracking company Cuadrilla’s now infamous Preston New Road (PNR) site where police have been shown apparently indiscriminately attacking protesters.

High profile figures such as politicians and celebrities have also been given similar treatment when they arrive to show support, and the elderly, infirm and disabled are given no quarter.  Videos of police turning protesters out of wheelchairs and knocking those walking with the aid of a stick to the ground have already gone viral on YouTube.

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There was also widespread regional and national media coverage of police officers ‘kettling’ and then forcibly moving a great-grandmother, Jackie Brooks, who with her husband Jim had been serving tea and home made cake to protesters outside the Kirby Misperton site in North Yorkshire.

The protests range from simple sit-ins, public speakers and witnesses and slow walking in front of delivery lorries up to more sophisticated actions such as building forts out of wooden pallets and protesters locking themselves to fences, machinery, truck and concrete blocks.  But the over-riding culture is one of non-violence and peaceful protest which stands out in stark relief against the response from the police.

Haphazard And Bizarre

Despite claims by the fracking companies and the police that agitators are coming in from outside the communities, these are mainly ordinary local people concerned about their environment, their health and that of their families.  Many of them have probably never been to a demonstration before, yet they are being treated like hardened activists in scenes that wouldn’t have been out of place on Greenham Common in the 1980s.

The report also paints a picture of police actions as being haphazard, ill-conceived and poorly co-ordinated.  On some sites certain types of demonstration, such as slow walking, are initially tolerated within set boundaries.  But then the police apparently change their minds or are not properly briefed and these behaviours are jumped on.

One day there is a zero tolerance attitude from attending officers and the next they seem to be much more relaxed.  Netpol and free speech lawyers have suggested that this may even be a deliberate strategy to remain inconsistent in their response to ‘wrong foot’ inexperienced people who turn up to show solidarity with protesters.  If people don’t know from one day to the next what’s tolerated and what’s not, they’re less likely to want to be involved in what could be a possible confrontation.

Even minor infractions are reportedly being blown out of all proportion such as a secondary school teacher who was arrested for obstruction of the highway while playing his violin outside a site entrance, and a lady being pulled over in her car for the bizarre offence of tooting her horn “in a manner causing alarm, distress or annoyance”.  An incident surely reminiscent of the classic Not the Nine ‘O’ Clock News ‘PC Savage’ Sketch.

Other techniques the report details are so-called ‘distraction arrests’ where people are detained for no real reason only to be released soon afterwards with no charge.  The principle seems to be that these incidents are intended to draw protesters away from key points to allow deliveries etc onto the sites.

Legitimate Protest

The report lists actions that are on the whole perfectly legal forms of legitimate protest under laws governing freedom of assembly, being characterised by officers as aggressive or subversive to justify responses that are completely disproportionate.  Police have also been accused of deliberately provoking protesters in order to validate their heavy handed responses and the exclusion of people from the sites.

There are also examples given of the authorities seeking to tar fracking protesters with the same brush as that used for extreme animal rights activists or even terrorists.   Indeed it’s been reported by the campaigning group CAGE UK that counter terrorism profiles have been developed under the government’s ‘Prevent Strategy’ originally intended to deal with Islamic extremist activity.

Legal Action

The fracking companies themselves have purportedly been pushing these sorts of agendas themselves, making unsubstantiated claims about attacks on employees and taking out court injunctions and even direct law suits against protesters.  UK Oil and Gas (UKOG) made legal threats against individual demonstrators which were resisted by Netpol legal advisers working on a pro-bono basis.  Despite threats of serious repercussions, the case was eventually dropped by UKOG.

Netpol have since set up an activist’s legal action fund to protect against similar intimidatory actions by other companies.  This didn’t stop another company INEOS from taking out a sweeping injunction at the end of July after offering evidence of what they described as ‘militant activism’ directed against other companies.  Netpol describe this as a declaration of war against protesters by one of the largest and most aggressive fracking companies in the UK.

Mediation

Netpol have sought to mediate between protesters and local police forces, particularly in Preston New Road where they delivered a petition to Lancashire Police Chief Constable Andy Rhodes, along with a request to meet with him to discuss a way forward.  The action of delivering the petition was later described by the senior officer in charge, Superintendent Richard Robertshaw, as “aggressive”.

The Chief constable has so far refused to meet with protesters and simply referred the matter back to Superintendent Robertshaw who continues to oversee operations with apparently no concern for the issues raised with his boss.

Perhaps most shockingly, Netpol describe an apparently partisan position by police at some protest sites, on one occasion colluding with Cuadrilla to allow an early hours delivery in direct contravention of planning rules.  On other occasions they are alleged to have turned a blind eye to security guards violently attacking protesters with video footage apparently showing two activists locked together being punched by a site manager while police officers failed to intervene.

Accountability

Even local elected representatives are not spared by the police with Fylde Borough councillor Roger Lloyd and other local councillors who had been assaulted and injured by officers giving a statement to the website ‘Drill Or Drop’.  They claimed the police were trying to deliberately provoke the protesters with Councillor Lloyd speculating :

if they can provoke violence they can put an exclusion zone around the site.

Kirkham Town councillor Miranda Cox said :

I think they want an excuse to escalate policing.  They are not facilitating peaceful protest

Despite its legal duty to protect the right to freedom of assembly, Lancashire Police has repeatedly failed to respond to campaigners requests for greater transparency about the way local anti-fracking protests are policed.  Lancashire’s Police and Crime Commissioner Clive Grunshaw, who was elected to hold the Chief Constable and the force to account and ensure the police are answerable to the communities they serve, has been  wholly unsympathetic towards the many complaints made by local campaigners.  The apparent lack of accountability at all levels is shameful.

Police Agenda

With so many similar incidents detailed in Netpol’s report, which itself is a follow up to a similar document in 2016, it’s difficult not to draw the conclusion that the police have their own agenda when dealing with these peaceful protests and it’s not one that has the interests of the local community at heart.  It certainly does not appear to include one of the chief responsibilities of a civil police service, that of protecting the right of freedom of assembly and peaceful protest in a supposed democracy.

This raises questions about the role of the police in such circumstances.  Are they there to protect the local people, in this case ordinary residents, many of them elderly and completely law-abiding, or are they there to look after the interests of the drilling companies?  The answer should be that they are there to do both, but reading Netpol’s report this would seem questionable.

It could very easily be argued that having had these fracking sites imposed on local communities by central government, in many cases against the wishes of elected local councillors and representatives, those responsible are seeking to close down protest and have instructed the police to do this in any way possible.

This opens up other questions about civic accountability, free speech and the right to peaceful protest.  If these civil liberties are to be dispensed with simply as an expedience to protect an unpopular government edict, what can we expect next?

Our police services do a difficult job in challenging circumstances and I’ve always been the first to defend them when appropriate.  It seems even more poignant in these cases where many ordinary officers, probably residents of the area themselves, are being placed in a situation where they have to defend the interest of companies working directly against those of their own communities.

Resentment and Distrust

Police chiefs need to remember that it’s local council tax payers that fund their departments, and they should be defending their interests first and foremost, not those of massive companies simply looking for a fast buck, regardless of the damage they do to the environment.

Much has already been reported about the huge financial costs of policing these protests, costs that are borne by the tax payer, not by the fracking companies themselves.  But there are other costs that can’t be quantified with a calculator. 

As Netpol themselves say :

Policing operations that cause a long-term legacy of resentment and distrust create a ‘new normalcy’ that will last long after protests are over. Police and Crime Commissioners need to recognise that concerns about the public confidence costs of policing protests are just as important as the financial costs

On 9 October, the Green Party’s Keith Taylor MEP visited the site during which time police had reinstated their willingness to allow protesters to block the entrance for 20 minutes. However, as Taylor said after witnessing the treatment of Jackie Brooks :

if local residents are beginning to question whether officers are working to protect them or just the interests of the oil and gas industry, the notion of consent has broken down – and trust must be repaired

When the frackers have done their work and left these communities broken, polluted and divided, who will be picking up the pieces and helping those traumatised and disillusioned with local accountability to rebuild confidence? I very much doubt the oil and gas companies will be bothered, and if this report is to be believed, neither will local law enforcement agencies.

Netpol are calling for an urgent and full independent review into policing at all fracking sites.  Their report suggests that this is already well overdue.  As Martin Luther-King once said :

We who in engage in non-violent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive

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