The legacy of Barton Moss

 

Those slow walks in front of the trucks at Barton Moss were, in a small way, transformative. The campaign grew out of the sense of injustice at the way GMP were oppressing people’s protests about fracking. With its generosity, courage and commitment the community developed a set of strategies that changed the political landscape in Greater Manchester. 

Labelled in derogatory terms by the mainstream media as ‘professional protestors’- seemingly intended to perpetuate the narrative of them being self-serving and an enemy of the      

community - the local communities experience was of people engaged in politics out of conviction, something in stark contrast to the well salaried ‘professional politicians’ who failed to turn up and lost the trust and support of so many local people. The community that grew out of the protests at Barton Moss galvanised the wider community and went on to engage with various other campaigns.

 

The homelessness campaign saw many people from Barton Moss get involved. There are people from Barton Moss live streaming at homeless camp in Nottingham and others organising homeless camps on the streets and in occupied buildings in Manchester. Alongside this there are camps tackling climate change and fracking in North Wales, Cheshire, Central Lancashire, East Yorkshire, South Yorkshire and Fylde. There were actions at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, NHS demos and so much more. 

 

What the anti-fracking campaign at Barton Moss has done for the North is create a movement and set of strategies that have links to the Occupy movement. Occupy galvanised a whole new generation of activists and the anti-fracking campaign at Barton Moss has worked as an evolution of its ideas that have continued to spread. One protester who has seen this process right through explained the significance of the campaign at Barton Moss. “What the anti-fracking campaign at Barton Moss has done is brought everyone under one roof and to realise that we are all fighting for the same thing. No matter what campaign you are fighting for we are all fighting for a redistribution of resources. We all just want things to be dealt out more evenly. We have got homeless people that we have helped to get housing who are now fighting on other campaigns. There are people who we couldn’t get housed who have gone to anti-fracking sites and flourished. No matter what campaign we are working on it is always giving people the drive to go on and do something else.“[1]

There are many people who have been politicised by the campaign at Barton Moss and have gone on to other camps and other campaigns. One protestor from Liverpool, explained how the protest had changed his life: “It was the first time I’d ever been on a protest. I’d never even been to a local demonstration so Barton Moss did change my life. From what I learnt there it has taken me on to other things with campaigns all around the country. And from never having been on a protest before I have set up a protest camps at Upton in Cheshire and in East Yorkshire. I have spoken at public meetings in front of packed halls which six or seven months earlier was a million miles away in my life.”[2] But, whilst the protests at Barton Moss changed the activist community in Greater Manchester beyond recognition, the state’s relationship to these methods of protest remained the same.

 

Manchester’s Homeless Crisis

Between 2010 and 2015 Manchester saw a tenfold increase in street homelessness[3]. This sharp rise led to a number of protests by both homeless people and the wider population which culminated with the ‘Homeless Action March’ in April 2015.[4] One outcome of the protest was the formation of a homeless camp on public land outside the Town Hall. A number of activists that participated in the camp at Barton Moss were instrumental in its establishment and leant on their experiences from the anti-fracking campaign. Its main concern was raising awareness about the unprecedented rise in homelessness in Manchester, but Manchester City Council (MCC) quickly gained a possession order to evict the camp despite having a duty of care to re-house them. 

Residents of the camp simply moved their tents to another area of public land in the city center, but this resulted in another possession order and threat of eviction by MCC. Again, they moved their camp and again this was met with another possession order. This continued until July when MCC gained an injunction at Manchester Civil Justice Centre preventing anyone from setting up a camp on public land anywhere else in the city centre, specifically so that the homeless could not relocate to another visible site in the city centre area. This came after the Legal Aid Agency announced its refusal to provide legal support to the camps residents the day before the case was due to be heard in court on the grounds that it didn’t satisfy the merits test for public funding[5].

Following the verdict, solicitor Ben Taylor, who stood in at the last minute to represent the Manchester Homeless Camp on a pro bonobasis, expressed his concern about MCCs policy on homelessness, noting that: ”It is disappointing that Manchester City Council’s evidence today was that costs incurred in evicting camp sites generally was £100,000 as that money could have been properly spent providing accommodation for the homeless. If they had the situation would perhaps not be as dire as it is now.”

As part of the Governments austerity measures, £350 Million a year has been cut from its legal aid budget. In a statement released after the injunction was granted, Carita Thomas, legal aid lawyer and Justice Alliance member spoke in a personal capacity about the implications of the Legal Aid Agency refusing funding: “how can justice be done or seen to be done if only the council has the chance to properly prepare [its case]? Homeless camp residents should have funding for a lawyer, so they are on an equal footing with the council's lawyers in this complex case, especially as it raises public interest points that deserve a fair hearing for both sides.” 

 

The residents of the camp were already victims of austerity through cuts to the welfare system, high unemployment and unaffordable housing. Now they were victims of austerity cuts to legal aid.  Whilst an austerity approach to public services had caused so much pain for the residents of the camps, MCC had spent extravagant sums of money ensuring that the camps were removed from high profile public spaces.

 

It was after this injunction in July that a group of homeless people set up The Ark at the edge of the city centre on Oxford Road, on a patch of unused pavement that the homeless have used for shelter for many years. It is a highly visible site and by the end of August, Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) and MCC threatened legal action against inhabitants, if The Ark wasn't taken down. MMU was keen to see it removed before its students returned to begin the academic year in September 2015. The precise conflict, however, was about ownership of the pavement area that the Ark sat on. A disused stretch of land, The Ark had been built on property belonging to MMU, but a small section of it also belonged to MCC.

 

Keen to remove the Ark, MMU and MCC put in a possession claim and in September they were granted possession orders for the removal of The Ark and the eviction of its residents. MCC asserted their case on the grounds that the homeless people who had set up camp were using the space to ‘protest’ against their policies and were in breach of the injunction from July. Court papers were issued charging two individuals with breaching the injunction that had forbidden occupying tents to protest against MCC’s homeless policies.  The offence carried a maximum prison sentence of 2 years and/or a £5,000 fine. The charge was laid despite residents of the camp repeatedly stating that the camp was there to provide a safe refuge for the street homeless of the city[6] and not as a protest.

Justin Mundin, a Community Safety Manager employed by MCC, made an affidavit[7] in support of the case against the camp. In it he pointed out that: “various messages of protest have been written on these signs regarding cuts made by the council to its homelessness budget. The signs also display message about the injunction in place and asks people reading the signs to think about whether the injunction is, ‘right or wrong’. Lastly the signs display a message stating that, ‘Homelessness is created by the Government and does not need to exist in Manchester’. The signs also display messages about money the council has wasted and asks people to stop for a chat with people at the camp.” In his affidavit he made it clear that he had told residents they could potentially “be sent to prison”. This message that it is ok to be homeless so long as you don’t complain was reinforced when he highlighted the presence of other homeless people not resident at The Ark: “there are believed to be other persons also rough sleeping on the other side of the road… although these persons are not considered to be in breach of the injunction as they have not at any point been involved with the ongoing protest camps, or indicated any element of protest.”

After numerous attempts to evict The Ark, MMU and MCC won a possession order at the fifth hearing of the case in court. The order didn’t come without criticism with one Judge slamming MCC, arguing that it was "wholly inappropriate to seek to commit people to prison in the absence of an allegation of a breach"[8]. And another dismissing MMU for "serious failures to comply with the rules, practice directions and court orders."[9] Indeed, the attempts made by MCC and MMU to remove The Ark became so desperate and so aggressive it became clear that their motives were not about land ownership, but to ensure this visible evidence of their failure to deal with homelessness was removed from public sight.

 

The Ark’s residents were forcibly evicted, and the shelter destroyed by a security team employed by MMU. This happened despite opposition by the local community who could only watch in shock while the camp was ripped apart with Greater Manchester Police in attendance to ensure the eviction ‘passed without incident’. Following the eviction residents of The Ark released a statement[10] describing the “unannounced act of brutal social cleansing executed by the corporate ‘security’ forces of MMU and MCC.”  The following testimony of one resident indicates the speed and force with which they were removed:  “We were forced from homes and safety in the space of 30 minutes, and had our possessions and property unlawfully confiscated, damaged and destroyed… MMU informed us of procedures to retrieve what remained of our things. We followed them, with no reply. MMU withheld tents, food, water, clothing, first aid and fire protection from us overnight. It is only by the persistent efforts of Laura, an MMU alumni, that a van arrived yesterday with the damaged remnants of the eviction. Whatever wasn’t in the van had been skipped, including everything listed above. We were told to call the MMU switchboard to find out if there was any way of getting them back… After several calls, we were informed we had to speak with MMU’s solicitors.”

 

The landowners at Barton Moss, Peel Holdings, also made numerous attempts to have the anti-fracking camp evicted in an attempt to stifle dissent through the criminal legal system. But this proved ineffective. In contrast to many camps, such as The Ark and the Occupy camps in 2011, the anti-fracking activists of Barton Moss were able to avoid eviction, maintaining the camp until the drilling was abandoned. At that point, as the site was cleared and the drill removed, the protesters could celebrate their victory with sense of optimism for the future. Though this optimism was short lived, as the experiences at the homeless camps proved less fruitful, a comparison of the two campaigns can highlight some of the reasons for the successes at Barton Moss

 

At Barton Moss, the activists occupied a space with not only the tents that made up their camp, as is the norm in almost all such protests, but with their bodies. By simply exercising their legal right to walk along a public footpath, the protesters occupied the space in front of the supply vehicles entering the drilling site, obstructing and delaying their arrival. But this was no blockade; no human wall or chain was formed. To be sure, slow-walking was supplemented by numerous other methods of direct action. These included blocking the entrance to the drilling site with wind turbines, ‘lock-on’ techniques, whereby protesters glue, lock, or chain themselves to immobile objects that included steel pipes, fences, a red bus, IGas trucks, and a coffin. But in the end, it was the most mundane of techniques, walking along a public footpath - an everyday activity that anyone could participate in - that appeared to have best disrupted IGas’ exploratory drilling. The genius of this tactic, in hindsight, was in its immunity to GMP’s preferred means of suppression: arrest, eviction and prosecution. But occupying a physical and legal space beyond criminalisation, the protesters of Barton Moss, unlike those of the Homeless campaigns, were free of the state’s attempts to control dissent through the manipulations of law enforcement.

 

Revitalising Social Movements

 

To this day, activists who were present at Barton Moss are occupying empty buildings to support the homeless community in Manchester. And not only that, their residents are gaining a social and political education with various informal networks emerging that support the homeless with health, subsistence and welfare. The legacy of Barton Moss is spreading with people coming through the homeless camps and squats politicized and setting up their own camps. 

 

One homeless activist who had been squatting for two years at the time of the interview and had been homeless for 5 years, didn’t want to get involved in the activist squats when he was first invited. “I wasn’t ready to step in to this world of activism” he said, “but I wanted to be involved and was very passionate that young people, vulnerable people, the poorest of the poor were the ones who always ended up sitting on the street.”[11] Then, after his friend, who was also homeless, was violently murdered everything changed. Following this he attended the March for Homelessness in Manchester and felt he had to do something. “I lost it” he said, “I held up the trams on Mosely street in protest. The police tried to move us on, but I was like ‘no way, we are safe here, we’re not moving’. That was where it started.” 

 

After this he then squatted a building with two homeless activists, who had been involved in the camp at Barton Moss. After they had made the building safe, they opened it up to the homeless. He learnt a lot from this, “I learnt all the legal parts, what were our rights and how to do it. I knew how to make them liveable, water, electricity, security. Then when we brought people to the squats it was all about autonomy and inclusiveness, and I loved that, that is exactly what I am about.” 

 

In one building alone they provided shelter for over 60 people over a three-month period. But this wasn’t just about squatting, this meant something more. “For me there is no point just squatting, we are doing this to support homeless people. For me there is no point doing this if that’s not the case, if you choose to do this and you don’t do it for that reason, why don’t you just get a job, it’s not a way of life. It should be a stop gap between coming off the street and getting help.” After these initial squats he went on to set up squats himself, again to help people living on the street, and continues to be politically engaged and challenging local politicians.  

 

Those moments in front of the trucks at Barton Moss felt like an opening. A space where people from all walks of life had found themselves because of their fear for what fracking might do to their environment; and yet in this space peaceful protesters were treated by the state as a danger to society, a menace, a virus to be cured. It was a space from which people could clearly see the mechanisms of the state and its relationship to industry; A space where the motives of its institutions had never seemed clearer and yet a space where the response of the people, both everyday and transformative, changed everything. In this space the conditions were perfect for this virus to spread and impossible for it to be treated. This is no doubt due to the legal expertise that was made available and the courage, generosity and commitment of the protestors. But it was only truly effective because so many could engage in such an effective manner.

 

In over fifteen years of documenting social movements I have never experienced a campaign achieve so much. The impact it had on the wider community was incredible and needs to be learnt from. It drew many people in from all walks of life and everyone who slow walked those trucks into the IGas site knew they had achieved something and usually came back for more. Whether it was their resistance to the oppressive force of GMP or the impact they were having on the fracking industry, each slow walk felt like a battle won. When GMP forced protestors to walk at irrational and unsafe speed, rather than being intimidated the community grew in courage, commitment and size. 

 

So many people feel disillusioned by the political process and demonstrating against injustices can seem passive. What happened at Barton Moss felt like a more meaningful form of protest that gave a real sense of achievement to each and every protestor and revealed much about the state through its policing of the protest. It was this that politicised the wider community.

 

Some of the significant aspects of what happened at Barton Moss happened by chance. If Barton Moss Road had not been a public footpath the arrests may have been proved lawful. But whilst the sophistication of the protests at Barton Moss were impressive, a lot of this was still reactionary. Looking to the future, social movements must look for these gaps in the system and develop strategies that expose the intentions of the state and its attempts to impose its will upon people on dubious moral grounds. This is already happening in some ways but the more ingenious the planning, the more enlightening the protest will be. 

 

Campaigning on a single issue such as fracking will not change everything but methods such as these can. They are already spreading, with Nanas in Blackpool claiming victories against fracking and Focus E15 Mothers in East London fighting for social housing. If more campaigns learn from these tactics, we may start to see some real changes.

Notes

[1]Taken from telephone interview on January 20th 2015 with a protester who stayed on the camp at Barton Moss and is a Greater Manchester resident

[2]Taken from telephone interview on January 19th 2015 with a protester who stayed on the camp at Barton Moss and is from Liverpool

[3]www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-

news/charity-boss-blasts-council-figures-10564361

[4]www.salfordstar.com/article.asp?id=2698

[5]http://salfordstar.com/article.asp?id=2856

[6]www.facebook.com/thearkmcr

[7]https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B6SaWooJh0pVam81RkhMMThDcFE/view?pref=2&pli=1

[8]www.salfordstar.com/article.asp?id=2938

[9]www.salfordstar.com/article.asp?id=2938

[10]https://www.facebook.com/endhomelessnessmcr/posts/170723183272722

[11]Taken from interview on March 12th2018 with a protester who set up squats with an activist from Barton Moss