As Reclaim the Power’s month of ‘Rolling Resistance‘ solidarity actions in support of Lancashire anti-fracking groups entered its second week on 10 July, Netpol was able to witness first-hand the policing of protests at Preston New Road and to talk to local campaigners about their experiences.
The week began with the arrival of public order officers from Cumbria, Merseyside and North Wales, as Lancashire Police used ‘mutual aid‘ arrangements for the first time to bolster its presence at the Cuadrilla fracking site. Following the previous week’s aggression by police and security, campaigners were understandably nervous.
Over two months after an open letter was handed in at Kirkham Police station with hundreds of signatures, however, the Chief Constable still refuses to respond to local people’s demand for a public event to hear their concerns about the policing operation at Preston New Road.
Disappointingly, the Lancashire Police and Crime Commissioner, Labour’s Clive Grunshaw, who is supposedly responsible for holding his force to account, has instead weighed in to justify the mutual aid decision by falsely describing Reclaim the Power, in a media interview , as “professional protesters” and insisting that any aggression was “not coming from the police officers”.
Grunshaw went on to claim that people “coming in from outside” were responsible for actions “beyond the activity that local protesters… would normally behave”.
This ignores the evidence Netpol has previously highlighted again and again, that local campaigners have been furious about oppressive policing at Preston New Road for months – long before the arrival of Reclaim the Power.
His comments set the scene for reports we heard later in the week of officers using their batons for the first time. Netpol has put in a Freedom of Information request to Lancashire Police asking for ‘use of force data’ since the start of July.
However, the most alarming incident last Monday, when two lorries were successfully halted by protesters, once again involved Cuadrilla’s private security. A vehicle driven by one of its guards struck a protester as it left at speed from the shale gas company’s site.
Fortunately, the protester Ashley Robinson escaped with bruising but he insists the security guard drove at him deliberately. Police seemed reluctant, however, to intervene, even though the vehicle initially failed to stop. Demonstrators were assured at the time that officers would speak to the driver, but Lancashire Police later announced – before undertaking any further investigation – that no further action was necessary and the driver had been “taking evasive action to try and avoid” the protester.
We now understand that Robinson reported the incident as a crime but that officers refused to take a statement from him when he attended Blackpool police station at their request.
Along with other examples we have already highlighted showing aggressive policing towards any minor disruption by protesters, we also heard more stories last week of what is seen locally as deliberate malice towards prominent campaigners.
Two well-known opponents of fracking have had their shotgun licences taken from them by the police after they were arrested for the minor offence of obstructing the highway. Neither has been arrested before, have faced trial yet or have been found guilty of any offence.
Lancashire Police’s own guidelines make clear that only those sentenced to three months or more in prison are prohibited from the legitimate possession and use of firearms. This has not stopped armed officers turning up – at midnight – at the home of one of the two campaigners to remove his shotgun, which he has now been forced to sell.
This same apparently vindictive attitude by Lancashire Police has spread to dealings with the media and to independent legal monitoring of the policing operation.
We witnessed one Green and Black Cross legal observer who was forced to submit to a bag search before entering a cordoned “sterile area” on Preston New Road last Tuesday. Police had closed the road and created the cordon to allow a specialist protester removal team to cut away heavy tubing that three demonstrators were locked on to.
As legal observers are not participants in protests, it was unclear what the police expected to find and the officer demanding the potentially unlawful search was, when challenged, unable to explain what he was looking for. It seemed like nothing more than an attempt to intimidate.
A journalist, meanwhile, who had been given permission by an inspector to film inside the same cordon, told Netpol that after almost three hours and just as police were about to cut away the last two protesters, a senior officer suddenly told him to stop filming “because we don’t want you to see the tactics we are using”.
Luckily, a legal observer was present and suggested the journalist asked what powers the officer was relying upon. She was unable to answer and backed down. However, the timing was evidently intended to deliberately disrupt the filming of an arrest.
Incidents like these reinforce the accusation from local campaigners that Lancashire Police is seeking to avoid independent scrutiny of its operation.
Nevertheless, national attention on events in Lancashire is growing. Last week the Green Party co-leader Jonathan Bartley attended to express his support for the right to protest and more media interest is expected in the coming weeks.
However, the recent appointment of a senior Lancashire officer to review national guidance on the policing of anti-fracking protests means there remains a genuine risk that Preston New Road becomes the blueprint for how forces respond to opposition to fracking in other parts of the country.