PHOTO: Frack Free Walkden

GMP officers at Barton Moss. PHOTO: Frack Free Walkden

Crown Prosecution Service expected to drop further cases as a result of judge’s ruling on ‘slow walking’ protest at Barton Moss anti-fracking camp

A District Court judge in Manchester has ruled that two protesters, John Wasilewski and David Cohen, who engaged in a ‘slow walk’ at Barton Moss anti-fracking camp in February 2014, were not guilty of aggravated trespass. A third defendant, Boris Roscin, was found guilty because he had knelt down in the road.

UPDATE 7 February 2016: The CPS has formally discontinued a further 20 similar cases and up to 20 more are currently under review.

Judge Nicholas Sanders says in his judgement:

Having reviewed the video evidence showing both incidents, I have to conclude that I cannot be sure that either Mr Wasilewski or Mr Cohen was pushing back in the manner described by PC Genge. More likely, both defendants wanted to maintain a slower walking pace than that which the Level 1 police cordon sought to impose upon them. Whilst this might have felt like resistance to the officer, I do not think that this was a deliberate or reckless attempt to ‘push back’ into the officer, but simply an unwillingness or inability to accept the faster speed.

The ‘Level 1 police cordon’ relates to the deployment of specialist public order police officers from GMP’s Tactical Aid Unit.

This verdict is an important victory for anti-fracking activists and the protest tactics they have adopted. Other defendants arrested for `slow walking’ are now likely to have had their own cases dropped as a result of this decision. However, the judge’s ruling also highlights a rather different picture of the Barton Moss protests than the one repeatedly pushed by Greater Manchester Police (GMP) – and largely endorsed by the ‘Independent Advisory Panel on the Policing of Protest’ set up by the city’s Police & Crime Commissioner and now Mayor,Tony Lloyd.

Greater Manchester Police has continued to push the narrative it began during the protests, focusing on alleged violence by protesters: negative portrayals of Barton Moss protesters appear in the secret recording of training delivered by a member of the North West Counter Terrorism Unit for public sector workers, published last year by Netpol. GMP has also rejecting allegations of brutal behaviour by its officers and the Police & Crime Commissioner’s Advisory Panel report, published in October 2014, had supported this, insisting that “claims of police violence” against Barton Moss protesters “have not been substantiated”. This was despite hundreds of arrests including the detention of children, pregnant and elderly protesters, the violent arrest of women and formal complaints of police misconduct.

The Panel also accepted without question GMP’s claim that “their attempts at negotiation were thwarted by on every occasion by an unwillingness to engage”.

Judge Sanders, however, notes “the degree of both general and specific compliance that each defendant showed to the requests and direction that they were given. A number of the authorities highlight the flexibility and readiness of protesters to cooperate with the authorities as a factor relevant to reasonableness of use” of the road for protesting. He adds that “one officer on the tannoy is heard to thank the protesters for their co-operation”.

The Advisory Panel’s report did acknowledge protesters’ complaints that “they did not have any clear idea of what tactics police would use, as one day they would facilitate a slow walk, while on other days the impression was given that they wanted to get the deliveries in as quickly as possible”.

However it rejected the the idea that GMP had acted as the “iGas private army”, calling this “an unfair categorisation”. In July 2014, after examining the evidence more closely, Judge Sanders seems to have disagreed: acquitting Barton Moss defendants, he accused Greater Manchester Police of exceeding its powers by intervening on IGas’ behalf during a civil trespass and of “acting as civil enforcement officers” for the company.

In this latest ruling, the same judge says that on the day Wasilewski, Cohen and Roscin were arrested, “without any warning (or indeed clear rationale) the police changed their tactics and sought to significantly increase the pace of the protestors.” He adds, “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.”

These apparent attempts by GMP officers to deliberately provoke arrests have backfired, but are precisely the kind of behaviour that led, in August 2014, to Manchester trade unionists to call for a review of GMP’s Tactical Aid Unit, questioning whether it was “fit for purpose.” As more court cases have considered the policing operation at Barton Moss, evidence against the conduct of this specialist unit at Barton Moss is likely to grow.

A copy of Judge Nicolas Sanders’ full ruling is available here [pdf_icon, 128 kB]