Police actions at the Balcombe anti-fracking protests on Monday will have done little to reassure protesters that Sussex police has any interest in genuinely facilitating protest, or in ensuring the safety of protesters. 29 arrests were made, including that of MP Caroline Lucas, as police cleared protesters from the gates of the Cuadrilla site.
Police faced fierce criticism as images and video have emerged showing that the police used significant force in restraining protesters, including the use of pressure points as a pain compliance tactic. Defending the operation, the police have said their operation was justified by the intimidation of Cuadrilla staff by protesters on-site. Through twitter, Sussex police stated that restrictions on the protest had been imposed to ‘prevent further reports of intimidation by site staff’, but have not disclosed what intimidation they claim has occurred.
Using pressure points to move protestors is recognised nationally as one of the safest options where people suffer a momentary discomfort.
— Sussex Police (@sussex_police) August 19, 2013
Pain compliance tactics are frequently used by police to restrain and control. One such technique involves applying pressure through a thumb against a point just behind the ear. It causes significant pain, allowing police to more easily move or control an individual. While Sussex police have defended the use of pressure points generally, they have not given reasons as to why pain compliance tactics were used against individuals who were posing no risk to themselves or others.
We understand that 3 officers arresting one person may look excessive – but this is to ensure that control is achieved with minimum force
— Sussex Police (@sussex_police) August 19, 2013
Sussex police have also struggled to defend the use of excessive force against an arrestee after it was shown that a police officer (who was not wearing shoulder numbers) appeared to kneel on a man’s head as he lay still on the ground. The man was reported to have suffered visible facial injuries as a result.
Sussex police used force to move and arrest protesters who had failed to comply with conditions on protest the police had decided to imposed under s14 of the Public Order Act. It was these conditions that criminalised protest at or near to the Cuadrilla site. Netpol considers that the use of these conditions was in itself excessive, and that Sussex police restricted protest in a way that was neither necessary nor proportionate. Section 14 conditions should be used only in exceptional situations where;
(a)it may result in serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community, or
(b)the purpose of the persons organising it is the intimidation of others with a view to compelling them not to do an act they have a right to do, or to do an act they have a right not to do,
Since it did not appear to us that any of these conditions were met, Netpol asked Sussex police what, on this occasion, their justification for imposing section 14 conditions was.
— Netpol (@policemonitor) August 20, 2013
@policemonitor To ensure access to the site in case of emergency and to prevent further reports of intimidation by site staff.
— Sussex Police (@sussex_police) August 20, 2013
Sussex police make no mention of any likelihood of serious violence or serious damage to property. The suggestion that blocking a gate might disrupt emergency access cannot really amount to a serious disruption of the life of the community. Sussex police seem therefore to be justifying the use of these conditions by alleging that site staff, protected by the veteran Gurkhas who are providing security at the plant, have been intimidated by the anti-fracking protesters.
Considering the nature of protests at Balcombe, this seems a remarkable claim, and Netpol has not seen any evidence to support the allegation. Nevertheless, on the basis of this 20 people were arrested for breaching a condition not to protest on a 600m stretch of road running outside the Cuadrilla plant. They have had their names published on the Sussex police website, and face prosecution. Some, as stated above, have had to endure painful restraint techniques. All had to spend hours in a police cell. This does not appear to us to be the facilitation of peaceful protest.
Sussex police claim they have introduced Police Liaison Officers (PLOs) to ensure a proportionate police response in protest situations, but this strategy appears not to have succeeded on Monday. PLOs were introduced after Her Majesties Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) identified a lack of consideration for protest rights across the UK. They stated in a 2010 report that;
It has become clear that a number of police forces in England and Wales approach peaceful protest in terms of “is the protest lawful or unlawful”. That is an incorrect starting point…the right guaranteed by ECHR art 11 is the right to ‘peaceful assembly’ not ‘lawful assembly’. The correct starting point is the presumption in favour of facilitating peaceful assembly.
Sussex police may also have flouted guidelines issued by Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), an organisation in which the UK government participates;
Participants in public assemblies have as much a claim to use such sites for a reasonable period as anyone else. Indeed, public protest, and freedom of assembly in general, should be regarded as equally legitimate uses of public space as the more routine purposes for which public space is used (such as commercial activity or for pedestrian and vehicular traffic).
Temporary disruption of vehicular or pedestrian traffic is not, of itself, a reason to impose restrictions on an assembly…Given the need for tolerance in a democratic society, a high threshold will need to be overcome before it can be established that a public assembly will unreasonably infringe upon the rights and freedoms of others.
The fracking of southern England is a hot political issue, and one that has drawn direct comment from David Cameron. It is big business, and is being promoted at the highest level of international diplomacy, including G8 summits. Sussex police will be under immense governmental pressure to prioritise the facilitation of Cuadrilla’s drilling, not the rights of potentially disruptive protesters. Given the events on Monday, the claims of Sussex police to be neutral, aiming only to ‘balance’ competing rights, appear less than convincing.