The Battle of Barton Moss

Twice a day and four days a week, between 20 and 100 people walked along the footpath on Barton Moss Road in front of lorries as they entered and left the IGas drilling site. They came from all walks of life, brought together by their fear of what fracking would do to their community. Their actions were proven to be legal in court and yet GMP continued to try to criminalise them. This section looks at how the actions of Greater Manchester Police politicised people from the local community and drew networks and organisations into the campaign with a sophisticated set of skills and expertise that enabled its successes.

What happened at Barton Moss didn’t just make fracking visible to the general public, it also made the mechanisms of the state visible. It is only when we experience oppression and injustice that we truly understand what it is. At Barton Moss people experienced the oppressive nature of state, at the hand of GMP, and realised that it was working against the people and for the benefit of large corporations, with the aim to suppress their opinions. This turned out to be transformative. The actions that proved to be the catalyst for this were the daily walks in front of the IGas convoys, occupying the footpath and interrupting IGas’s trucks as they tried to enter the drilling site.

The policing of the anti-fracking protests has been compared to the miner’s strike[1] but the difference at Barton Moss was that the economic power lay with those who were protesting. These daily battles along Barton Moss Road, for many, revealed the states relationship to big business and that GMPs role at Barton Moss was to ensure that fracking could be profitable even if its own actions were unlawful. These slow walks exposed the attempts of GMP to criminalise the protest and forced it into making more and more mistakes as it tried to facilitate the fracking industry. They revealed gaps in the legal system that were being used to enforce the fracking industry at any cost. Exposing these gaps in this way not only changed people’s relationship with the state, it created a set of strategies that the campaign was able to exploit. When GMP desperately tried to criminalise the actions of the protestors slow walking the IGas trucks into the drilling site it had no law to suit its own intentions. What was significant in these moments is that you didn’t need a political education to understand what was happening. Anyone taking part or witnessing these events knew what was going on. They could feel it; they could see it and they could hear it. Each time an arrest on a new charge for the slow walks ended up in court the charges were proven to be unlawful. The absurdity, the brutality and the injustice that people experienced changed that community by revealing the way GMP was being used against them[2].

There were arrests for various offences from Aggravated Trespass to Obstructing a Highway but GMP did could not find a charge that would stick against this method of protest, and yet still it continued to make arrests. Over a six months period these increasingly desperate acts to criminalise the actions of the Barton Moss protestors made it clear to anyone involved that the criminal justice system was being used to serve the interests of IGas. Despite these intentions this actually helped unite the people involved in the protests and galvanised support from other groups such as The Greater Manchester Association of Trade Councils (GMATUC). Their public letter to Tony Lloyd, the Greater Manchester Crime and Police Commissioner, slated GMP over ‘horrendous’ policing at Barton Moss and spoke of protests being "criminalised in an attempt to silence dissent". The letter goes on to say that "There are citizens in our county who…now find it impossible to trust any man or woman wearing the GMP badge"[3]. Moreover, GMP’s attempts to criminalise the protests had limited success: during the campaign there were 120 protestors arrested at Barton Moss and only 33 have been found guilty. Almost all the guilty verdicts are for charges separate from those associated with the slow walks such as charges for the other methods of direct action.[4] Unfortunately, to date, GMP and the CPS have refused requests for the final figures on arrests[5].

 

Political Policing

 

The first charges for the slow walks were for Obstruction of the Highway. These cases collapsed following a hearing on 12th February 2014 at Manchester and Salford Magistrates’ Court, when District Judge Qureshi ruled that the land in question was not a public highway. Later charges of obstructing a police officer were dismissed on the grounds that the arrests and the force used to ‘push’ protesters down the road were unlawful. The third commonly used charge was aggravated trespass. The first of these, which was used as a test case, had similar results when both defendants were acquitted of the charge. In his report on the case, District Judge Sanders said the protestors were: ‘Entitled to demonstrate, were entitled to walk along Barton Moss Road, had been generally compliant with the police, and their actions were specifically directed towards the object of their protest and not the wider public.”[6]  

The judge also went on to express how the nature of the policing had directly led to the arrests. “Without any warning (or indeed clear rationale) the police changed their tactics and sought to significantly increase the pace of the protestors.  Neither of the defendants wished to progress at this faster pace and resisted attempts to make them walk faster. In both cases, but separated by time, they had the misfortune to find themselves in front of PC Genge who interpreted this resistance as deliberate pushing back.“[7]

Many arrests for the slow walks have been deemed unlawful and solicitor Simon Pook, of Robert Lizar’s who represented many of the protestors arrested at Barton Moss on a pro bono basis, has called for a public inquiry into the policing. "Since November 2013, Richard Brigden and I advised the Court on the nature of Barton Moss Road. GMP continued to act without lawful authority for a number of months… We cannot permit, in an established democracy, police forces arresting and detaining citizens with the knowledge that their actions are themselves unlawful. Such a position only undermines confidence in the police and justice system."[8]

The sense that GMP had been serving the interests of IGas has been further exposed by the release of a Memorandum of Understanding[9] between GMP, Salford City Council and IGas. It states that GMPs purpose was to “facilitate peaceful protest” and that “Police Officers must only use the minimum amount of lawful force”, questionable given the video evidence and the number of dropped charges. It also sets out that IGas will “Lead on all media communication, both proactive and reactive.” Simon Pook explains how the Memorandum of Understanding between IGas, Salford City Council and GMP shows that when GMP placed press releases in to the public domain they mislead the public. “As they stated, GMP has to balance the right of the protesters and the rights of the community and workers. When in practice GMP appears to have given IGas direct access to their gold and silver command and IGas had the lead role in regards to press.”[10]

The nature of the policing at Barton Moss seems to have followed on from the policing of the Anti-fracking protests at Cuadrillas exploratory drilling well at Balcombe in 2013. A review by Hertfordshire Constabulary and Essex Police found that the operation at Balcombe was flawed in several ways. With many of the charges from the protests at Balcombe being dropped in court the report states that the "absence of initial clear charging guidelines and standards may have unnecessarily added to the investigative process” and that they would “have also prevented the complications experienced in court. ”The report also claims that following a briefing between Sussex Constabulary and Cuadrilla the companies’ response “became a significant political/economic issue related to subsequent involvement at a more senior political level". The report then goes on to criticise the relationship between Cuadrilla and Sussex police as needing to be “more transparent and less open to subsequent influence”.[11]

The claims of ‘political policing’ at Barton Moss were due, in part, to the unnecessary high levels of policing and at times the brutality of the policing. It was also from the manner in which the police facilitated IGas in its business with police escorts to and from Barton Moss Road, stopping rush hour traffic to enable them to arrive in the area earlier. But significantly it is also due to the unlawful charges on which protestors were arrested with such a low proportion of the arrests resulting with a conviction. The average conviction rate in the UK for public order offences stands at 93%, yet the conviction rate for arrests during the Barton Moss protests are only 29%.[12]

A report by Centre for the Study of Crime, Criminalisation and Social Exclusion, Liverpool John Moores University and Centre for URBan Research (CURB), University of York examines in great detail the contradictions between the results of the police operation at Barton Moss and the stated intention for it by Greater Manchester Police: “Given the low conviction rates, arrest under Operation Geraldton did not appear to have been carried out with a view to securing convictions. Rather, mass arrest and blanket bail served to create a de facto protest exclusion zone around the fracking site – an action that would otherwise have no basis in law as well as being a clear violation of the protesters’ right to freedom of assembly under Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights.”[13]

The report goes on to challenge the lawfulness of the arrests and questions the motives and the tactics of the police operations giving support to the belief held by many during the protests that the state was attempting to silence dissent and facilitate business. “The dubious legality under which arrests were carried out, evidenced by the readiness of the courts to challenge their legal basis, raises important questions about the extent to which the policing operation was driven by interests other than public order and crime prevention. It is clear from the above analysis that mass arrest was a central component of Operation Geraldton. The tactic served to physically clear protesters from the site, to deter others from attending the camp and to reinforce the construction of protesters as violent criminals and thereby legitimize the intensity of the policing operation.”[14]

  

What started as a campaign about fracking gained publicity because of the policing and with this public support for the campaign grew quickly. At the start of the campaign local opinion seemed to support fracking. BBC North West tonight ran a poll in December 2013 of which 34% said they were opposed to fracking[15]. Then, in March 2014, local newspaper Manchester Evening News conducted a poll of which 73% said they were opposed to fracking[16]. Though they were conducted by two different media organisations, one can assume with some confidence that there was a significant shift in public opinion. This put pressure on local politicians to oppose any future applications for fracking. 

Notes

[1] In an article for Salford Star on February 6th 2014 Simon Pook of Robert Lizar Solicitors compared the policing of the protests at Barton Moss to the policing of the Miners Strike. "The last time I saw this sort of behaviour was in the Miners Strike of the 1980s where we saw identical police tactics being used, pushing at miners, brutalising peaceful protest…I am very, very concerned…" Solicitor Accuses Greater Manchester Police Of Political Policing At Barton Moss. Salfordstar.com. N.p., 2014. Web. 15 July 2014.

[2] There were many brutal, absurd and unjust arrests at Barton Moss. These included the arrest of a Lawful Observer for drink driving whilst he was filming the arrest of another protestor on January 14th2014 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3gxI4ToNKGQ); the brutal arrest of Legal Observer Kris O'Donnel on January 20th2014 whilst he tried to speak to an officer about a traffic offence (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9HWy4BegZqw) and the brutal arrest of Vanda Gillet who was injured during the arrest and refused medical attention for over an hour on February 15th2014 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AwU2zapAfJ8)

[3] Haworth, Susan. Policing Of Protest, Human Rights And Justice. 1st ed. Greater Manchester: Greater Manchester Association of Trades Councils, 2014. Web. 7 Aug. 2014 - https://netpol.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/GMATUC-to-GMPCC-July-2014.pdf

[4] There were many forms of direct action during the protests at Barton Moss. As well as the slow walks there were various ‘lock-on’s’ where protestors glued, locked or chained themselves to various things including steel pipes, fences, a red bus, a coffin and IGas trucks. The creativity of the protestors was sensational, on one occasion they managed to block the entrance to the drilling site with a 50ft blade from a wind turbine. Whilst these methods had a significant impact during the protest, they often served as retaliation to the brutality of some of the policing, it is important to distinguish between these methods of direct action and the slow walks

[5] The team behind the ‘Keep Moving!’ Report on the Policing of the Barton Moss Community Protection Camp have made numerous Freedom of Information Act requests for the final figures on arrests at Barton Moss. GMP and CPS have continued to refuse the teams requests for this information and they have an ongoing case with the Information Commissioner (IC) who is compelling the CPS to provide the information. At the end of April the CPS agreed to respond to their request (on threat of court action) but at the time of writing they were yet to hear from them or the IC.

[6] District Judge Sanders,. Report Of Regina V Boris Roscin, John Wasilewski & David Cohen. Manchester: The Manchester Magistrates’ Court, 2016. Print

[7] District Judge Sanders,. Report Of Regina V Boris Roscin, John Wasilewski & David Cohen. Manchester: The Manchester Magistrates’ Court, 2016. Print

[8] Taken from telephone interview on September 24th 2014 with Simon Pook of Robert Lizar Solicitors

[9] Greater Manchester Police,. Memorandum Of Understanding Between Greater Manchester Police, Greater Manchester Fire And Rescue Service, North West Ambulance Service, Salford City Council, Association Of Greater Manchester Authorities, Highways Agency, Igas, Peel Holdings/Estates And Manchester Barton Aerodrome.. Greater Manchester: Greater Manchester Police, 2014. Print.

[10] Taken from telephone interview on September 24th 014 with Simon Pook of Robert Lizar Solicitors

[11] DCC Adams,. Peer Group Review of Operation Mansell Anti Fracking protest Sussex Police. Hertfordshire: Hertfordshire Constabulary/Essex Police, 2014. Print

[12] Gilmore, J., Jackson, W. & Monk, H. (2016)‘Keep Moving!’: Report on the Policing of the Barton Moss Community Protection Camp.Liverpool John Moores University

[13] Gilmore, J., Jackson, W. & Monk, H. (2016)‘Keep Moving!’: Report on the Policing of the Barton Moss Community Protection Camp.Liverpool John Moores University

[14] Gilmore, J., Jackson, W. & Monk, H. (2016)‘Keep Moving!’: Report on the Policing of the Barton Moss Community Protection Camp.Liverpool John Moores University

[15] "BBC Survey Suggests Support For Fracking In North West - BBC News". BBC News. N.p., 2014. Web. 13 June 2014 - http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-25157239

[16] Thompson, Dan. "Three Quarters Of Mancunians Oppose Fracking, An M.E.N Survey Finds". men. N.p., 2014. Web. 13 June 2014 - http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/three-quarters-mancunians-oppose-fracking-6778067