After the policing of the Barton Moss anti-fracking protests in Salford was widely condemned by campaigners, academic reports and Netpol*, a new follow-up Netpol report, published today, gives more evidence of how "increasingly confrontational and violent tactics police tactics" are continuing to permeate peaceful demonstrations.
Focusing in particular on the Lancashire anti-fracking campaigns where, last week, three councillors and nine residents were found guilty of 'wilful obstruction of the highway', the Netpol report is scathing of the State undermining the right to protest.
Even in the intro to the thirty page report - titled Protecting the Planet is Not a Crime - Keith Taylor, an MEP for South East England, points out that public support for fracking is less than 20%, yet "oil and gas firms are taking out authoritarian injunctions against protesters and the Government is riding roughshod over local democracy...
"...our fundamental right to protest is being eroded by ever more oppressive policing which I have witnessed first-hand" he adds "The industry and its backers in the
Conservative Government are looking increasingly desperate as they attempt to
impose fracking on a population that is loudly and resolutely saying 'No'.
"People are taking to the streets because their legitimate concerns about the destructive environmental and climate impact of unconventional fossil fuel exploration are being ignored" he explains "This report reveals that in the face of growing public opposition, political pressure is being brought to bear on police forces to act as the increasingly heavy-handed enforcers in a debate the Government and industry are losing..."
The report cites evidence, particularly from Preston New Road in Lancashire, of "police officers pushing people into hedges, knocking campaigners unconscious, violently dragging older people across the road and shoving others into speeding traffic. We had also heard about the targeting of disabled protesters (including repeatedly tipping a wheelchair user from his chair) and officers using painful pressure point restraint techniques."
One particularly bizarre charge for 'obstruction of the highway' was a secondary school teacher who was arrested while playing his violin outside the site entrance...
Netpol also reveals via a Freedom of Information request that police officers had filed 165 'Use of Force' reports related to Preston New Road protests and "confirmed that batons had been drawn or used twice against non-violent protests..."
Meanwhile the report accuses police of "ignoring violent and unlawful actions by private security employed by the shale gas company Cuadrilla...Police tactics appear deliberately intent on making it as difficult as possible for local people to effectively oppose the activities of the onshore oil and gas industry..."
The report notes the intent to label campaigners as 'outsiders' and 'militant extremists' which also happened at Barton Moss, until Salford protesters began carrying banners stating 'I am local'. It also notes the insistence by campaigners that the "police are making strategic decisions based solely on the demands of the fracking industry..."
Yet, it adds, "Police and Crime Commissioners have a responsibility to hold their local forces to account and ensure the police are answerable to the communities they serve. This is even more important in communities where oil or gas exploration has been emphatically rejected, because it raises fundamental issues about how the police maintain public consent for strategic decisions that are seen as aiding an unwanted industry."
Serious concerns about police actions at Preston New Road means, the report concludes, that "there is now an overwhelming case for an external review of the way its policing operation has been conducted..."
However it cites a previous report into the Barton Moss protests by former Greater Manchester Police Commissioner, Tony Lloyd, as "horribly mishandled"...
"Any review of strategic and operational tactics and decisions in Lancashire must demonstrate that it is genuinely independent and must also show it is willing to talk to the one important group that were ignored at Barton Moss the campaigners themselves."
Netpol also insists that it is vital that the National Police Chiefs Council "undertakes its long promised review of guidance on the policing of anti-fracking protests..."
While the Lancashire protests and police activity are highlighted in the report, it also looks at North Yorkshire, Surrey, Sussex and Derbyshire and comes to more or less the same conclusions about the behaviour of the police and fracking companies... that "UK policing has sought in 2017 to neutralise the political impact of anti-fracking protests..."
Yet, as MEP Keith Taylor concludes in his Foreword, "An authoritarian crackdown on British citizens' rights to protest will not squash fracking opposition. We must continue to stand in solidarity with local communities, activists, and protesters on the frontline..."
How important is this report? Two years ago, Salford was on the front line of fracking protests the fracking industry has moved on to other areas, but it has stated that it will be back in the city in the near future...
Commenting on the Netpol report, a spokesperson for Frack Free Lancashire said: We are fighting a David versus Goliath battle against an invasive industry and yet the current policing model has created a skewed narrative that it is protesters versus the police. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, we need the police to protect our hard-won civil right to protest, but this is simply not happening.
Instead we face inconsistent and oppressive policing, from forces from all around the country, which use legislation intended for industrial disputes to criminalise citizens who have explored all other legitimate means of protest and have seen fracking imposed upon them in spite of a democratic decision to forbid it.
We once again call upon our MP, Mark Menzies, to recognise the importance of this issue for all of the community that he represents and to ask some serious questions in parliament.
To read the full Netpol report: Protecting the Planet is Not a Crime click here
* Netpol 'is a collective of activists, campaigners, lawyers and researchers, working together to challenge disproportionate policing of protests and of communities. We are funded by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust to engage with local and national
anti-fracking campaign groups to assist in the development of a national collective voice on the policing of protests against fracking'.
For a background see previous related Salford Star articles...
Green Party co-leader, Jonathan Bartley, dragged off by police from a protest outside a fracking site in Ryedale click here
Fury as Government Overturns Fracking Democracy click here
Barton Moss Independent Policing Report 'Not Credible' Says Solicitor click here
Barton Moss Anti-Fracking Court Cases Collapse With Not Guilty Verdicts click here