This post by David Cullen first appeared on the Open Democracy website.
On January 14th Dr. Steve Peers, a legal observer at the anti-fracking ‘protectors’ camp at Barton Moss, was filming three police officers arresting a protester. Video he took shows one of the officers realising they were being filmed, walking up to Steve and pushing him backwards onto the floor. Shortly afterwards another officer walked up to him and jostled him away from the arrest, pushing him down the road. This officer then started repeatedly asking if Steve had been drinking alcohol before aggressively asserting that he had and loudly claiming that Steve had admitted to doing so. Steve was then arrested for refusing to submit to breath test.
Steve does his legal observing with a video camera permanently mounted on a hard-hat that he wears, so it is inconceivable that the officer did not realise he was being filmed as he made this vindictive and wrongful arrest on a totally false charge. This is the strangest part of the whole incident: why was the police officer not concerned that this brazen abuse of power was being caught on camera? Did he really have such confidence in his impunity?
The anti-fracking camp runs along the verge of Barton Moss Road, which is used by trucks dropping off equipment at the iGas drilling site, often several times a day. Each time a truck arrives the protesters line up on the road, walking slowly in front of the trucks and their police escort. The iGas site is currently home to a test drilling rig, but the expectation is that if the results of the test drilling are positive, iGas will try to extract shale gas from the rock formations below Barton Moss using the controversial method of fracking. Fracking involves pumping water and chemicals into the rock at extremely high pressure in the hope that it will fracture and release the gas. It has been linked with earthquakes and water pollution. Shale gas is also a carbon intensive fossil fuel, a resource which needs to remain unexploited if we are to have a reasonable chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change.
The incident with Dr. Steve Peers is only one example of heavy-handed policing at Barton Moss. I might instead have described in detail the disabled man shoved into a ditch by police rushing to arrest a pregnant woman who was simply walking in the crowd; the legal observer who suffered a broken eye socket during a particularly violent arrest which was caught on camera; or the 15-year old girl on her first visit to the camp, who had been hoping to gather material for use in a school geography project, but instead was arrested while she was simply walking down Barton Moss Road. There are numerous other examples caught on video, and presumably many more which were not.
Taken separately, these events might be easy to dismiss as the excesses of individual officers. But taken together, it seems that something more systematic is going on. Indeed, the strategic behaviour of Greater Manchester Police (GMP) strongly suggests they are deploying a deliberate strategy of eliminating, disrupting or suppressing the protests against fracking at Barton Moss, under which officers know that excessive or violent behaviour will be overlooked or even tacitly condoned.
The road to Barton Moss
Fracking is a policy without a democratic mandate. The coalition government was formed with a promise to be ‘the greenest government ever’, and fracking was not included in either Liberal Democrat or Conservative manifestos at the last election. Despite this, fracking in the UK is now official government policy publically championed by the prime minister, who called for a “shale gas revolution”, and by other senior ministers, including the chancellor. A number of individuals within or close to government stand to make a considerable amount of money as a result of this policy change, including the chancellor’s father in law.
Local opinion is overwhelmingly opposed to fracking, but Salford Council have granted a license at Barton Moss. Peel Holdings, who own the land at Barton Moss, as well as large areas of Salford and the North West, have long been criticised for wielding undue influence over Salford Council. The council also indirectly own shares in iGas, the company who are drilling at the site, through the Greater Manchester Pension Fund.
This is the political context for the policing operation at Barton Moss, and GMP seem to have interpreted it as a license to suppress protest. While some of the police tactics fit into a general trend towards more repressive policing of protest in the UK, misuse of the law as a tool to suppress dissent is considerably more flagrant than has been seen elsewhere.
Policing by PR
On the 6th January, GMP raided the Barton Moss camp and searched it under section 43 of the Terrorism Act 2000. The raid was immediately press-released by GMP, who claimed they acted in response to a flare fired from the camp at a police helicopter. The story spread, gaining much wider press coverage than most stories about Barton Moss, but the search failed to produce any evidence related to the flare. During the search the police left sleeping bags and clothing outside tents in the rain and mud: potentially a serious risk to the wellbeing of people living outside in the middle of the wettest winter on record.
The section 43 power does not require a warrant, but is supposed to be used only when a police officer “reasonably suspects” a person might be a terrorist. There are numerous video cameras in the vicinity of the camp, including a thermal imaging camera on the helicopter itself, which should have been able to see the heat signature and path of the flare. After the search failed to find any evidence to link the camp to the flare, GMP were challenged to release any video evidence they have of the incident, but have not done so.
Even if GMP’s version of events is completely true, it is clear that they seized an opportunity to search the camp without a warrant and to generate negative press about the camp. It’s a matter of record that the police often use the press not to inform the public, but to pursue their own agenda, even if this involves misleading the public or spreading false information. The flare incident is reminiscent of police announcements of a “cache of weapons” discovered near the Climate Camp in Kingsnorth in 2008, or the oil slick on the A8 attributed to the Climate Camp in Edinburgh in 2010.
Whilst extensive coverage of the protests at Barton Moss can be found in the local press, particularly the Salford Star, a local community newspaper, the national press have undertaken only intermittent coverage. This makes ‘policing by PR’ all the more damaging.
Furthermore, complaints figures seem to have been organised to make them useful within this strategy of policing by PR. Solicitor Simon Pook, when complaining about an officer who did not intervene when a car stuck somebody at the camp, was issued with an incident number for the complaint that was dated several weeks previously. When he questioned this, he was told that all complaints relating to policing at the camp were grouped together as a single incident. This is probably the reason for the suspiciously low number of complaints against the police quoted in a press-released public statement by Peter Fahy, Chief Constable of GMP.
Unlawful bail conditions
The police abusing their power to unilaterally set bail conditions is a recurring feature of the policing of protest in the UK. This power is only supposed to be used in limited circumstances, for example where it is necessary to prevent a further crime being committed or to stop the arrestee absconding. Instead it seems that the police regard bail conditions as a way to gain an injunction without the hassle of having to make the legal case for one. They are used to intimidate or punish people exercising their right to protest, giving them nightly curfews or excluding them from entire geographic areas. This use of bail conditions by the UK police was specifically criticised by the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to peaceful protest in his 2013 report to the UN Human Rights Council.
Despite this warning, and disregarding existing case-law, GMP have routinely set excessive bail conditions for those arrested at Barton Moss, banning them from returning to the camp. This began with the first arrest in November 2013. Each subsequent arrest received near-identical bail conditions. Within days of the first arrest these bail conditions had been successfully challenged in the courts and replaced with unconditional bail. But GMP have ignored the fact that every time a court has scrutinised the bail conditions they have been overturned, continuing to hand out the same punitive bail conditions to all arrestees.
It isn’t possible to discern why GMP have continued to pursue a policy which contradicts existing case law, breaches human rights legislation and flies in the face of the recommendations of a UN Special Rapporteur. When I asked them what guidance was being used in setting bail conditions they would not give specifics. However, it seems likely that part of the intention was to intimidate, disrupt and interfere with people’s right to protest. It has also allowed GMP to quote inflated and misleading numbers of arrests in their public statements. At the time of writing more than one arrest in every ten was for breach of bail conditions: bail conditions which should never have been set in the first place.
While GMP have publicly complained about the cost of their policing operation at Barton Moss, citing the number of arrests, their public statements have not mentioned the cost to the taxpayer of the police work, detention, court time and lawyers generated by their refusal to comply with the rule of law when setting bail conditions.
Obstructing legal representation
Questions also remain over the offences used to charge people at Barton Moss. Until recently, all those arrested in connection with stopping or slowing the trucks on Barton Moss Lane were charged with obstruction of the highway. This seemed a little counter-intuitive, as the lane is a public footpath on a private road, not a public highway. GMP knew this: it formed part of their defence in a civil case brought against them by one of the protesters, and officers were also photographed in early January taking away footpath signs from the lane.
After the first arrest in November it was made clear within a matter of days that those charged with obstruction of the highway would use the defence that the lane was not a public highway, and could well be acquitted. Nonetheless, GMP continued to arrest and charge people with the same offence for the next three months. When the inevitable ruling came on 13th February that the lane was not a highway, this meant that around fifty individuals had been wrongfully arrested and had their cases dismissed.
After a day where the protesters were allowed to block trucks from accessing the drilling site, the police returned and delivered what appears to have been a dose of retributory violence. One woman was hospitalised after being apparently strangled and dragged through mud in handcuffs, and the police were witnessed hitting out, attacking photographers and preventing the access of legal observers. Arrests on that day and subsequently have been made for aggravated trespass, rather than obstruction of the highway. As the offense of aggravated trespass has been available to the police throughout, the question arises of why they persisted in arresting people for obstruction of the highway for three months when there was a good chance they would be acquitted.
Aggravated trespass carries a higher penalty and would almost certainly have been easier to prove given the situation at Barton Moss Lane, so why didn’t the police use it? One key difference between the two charges is that individuals accused of obstructing the highway are not eligible for legal aid to fight the charge. Without legal work being taken on pro bono by local solicitor Simon Pook and barrister Richard Brigden, it is likely that the wrongful arrests for obstructing the highway could have resulted in successful prosecutions, and that unlawful police bail conditions would almost certainly have been unchallenged, a miscarriage of justice effecting over sixty people.
If it seems unthinkable that GMP would arrest people for a certain offense in order to make it more difficult for them to access legal representation, note this. The solicitors firm representing most of the arrestees has had several clients report police behaviour intended to deny them their fundamental legal rights. On one occasion a defendant was simply told that their chosen solicitor’s firm were ‘too busy,’ and although a member of the firm was actually present in the same police station they were not consulted on the matter. On another occasion Simon Pook was prevented from visiting a client in hospital by a police officer who pushed him and told him to “fuck off”.
In the absence of a more plausible explanation, the obvious conclusion is that GMP deliberately set out to suppress the dissent at Barton Moss by arresting numerous individuals on a bogus charge where they were not eligible for legal aid and presenting them with unlawful bail conditions which interfered with their right to protest. Far from being “stuck in the middle” as claimed by Chief Constable Peter Fahy, GMP has treated the law as just another tool which should be utilised with maximum leverage to achieve the desired outcome – the suppression of dissent at Barton Moss.
Policing in the absence of democracy
Almost all of the elected representatives which are supposed to hold GMP to account are supportive of fracking at Barton Moss, and have so far failed to provide any meaningful oversight. The elected police commissioner for Greater Manchester, Tony Lloyd (who draws a salary of £100,000 and commands a staff of 40), was silent over the first 2 months of the protests and police violence, only issuing a mild statement of concern in early February. Following recent events he has set up an ‘independent panel’ to investigate the protests, but it remains to be seen whether the panel can seriously act as a check on the actions of GMP.
Although one local MP has voiced concerns about the policing operation, not a single Salford city councillor has made any public statement on the issue, nor has the elected mayor. Meanwhile, the prime minister has derided opponents of fracking, accusing them of “religious” irrationality.
The policing at Barton Moss needs to be understood in the light of this discrepancy between the support of elected representatives and the widespread opposition of local people. When those in power feel they are entitled to decide policy without consulting people who are likely to be affected, it is hardly surprising that any dissent by those people will be regarded as illegitimate. It is only a small step from there to enforcing contentious policy using violence, and deploying the law as a tool to suppress dissent.
Just as the most obvious explanation for the violence used by individual officers is that they believe they have tacit approval of their superiors and expect to be protected by them, the most obvious explanation for the tactics and strategy that GMP are pursuing is that they believe they have tacit approval and expect to be protected by their political masters. The indications are that police violence at Barton Moss has got worse over the last few weeks, rather than better. There are fears that if Peel Holdings are successful in their application for an eviction order for the camp, GMP may take the opportunity to be even more brutal.
Barton Moss is an advanced case of what policing looks like when those in power work on behalf of private and corporate interests, rather than the people they are supposed to be serving. We need to pay attention, because unless we engage in wholesale reform of our governing structures and the police, this is something we are going to be seeing a lot more of in the future.
David Cullen lives in Manchester. His day job is working as a researcher for an arms control NGO, but he is also involved in various other environmental and social justice campaigns.