Monthly Archives: January 2014

I’d rather be a hobbit than an orc

Being at the Barton Moss Protection Camp is like being at sea. There are tides, surges, waves and ripples. Calm periods and storms. There’s always the risk of losing a friend overboard. On Monday I was one of those lost to sea, lost to the GMP.

GMP = Greater Manchester Police. It was actually a Tactical Aid Unit (TAU) officer who arrested me – I now know that the TAU have blue tucked-in trousers rather than the straight black slacks of the local police uniform, and they’re much meaner.

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Solidarity Sunday is all calm waters. Several hundred people mass in a muddy carpark, some tumbling out of coaches after long journeys, from Sussex and Somerset and Scotland, to cheers from the earlier arrivals. Another, smaller, group meets at a local pub. We all walk towards the rally at the end of Barton Moss lane, in high spirits despite rain. The lack of police is notable. There’s no one here to facilitate our protest. At first we take over two lanes of the four-lane dual carriageway, the A57. Then we spill into three lanes. Then we realise there’s nothing to stop us blocking the road entirely – no cops, no road cones – and we stroll into the fourth lane. Some of the cars we’re holding up are filled with beaming people giving us thumbs up and honking their solidarity. Others, grim faced, rev and try to push through our ranks. I’ve never been on a march or procession where pedestrians take over a major road without any police presence. One woman is hit, but not seriously hurt, by a van.

At the rally there are welcomes to the protectors from far-off towns and camps. Messages from supporters in Greece, in Afghanistan. Then songs. Then we head along the lane to camp. Someone’s brought along a gigantic pan of spicy soup. An abundance of other food has been donated. This and the cardboard signs – “I am a local”, “I’m a local and I don’t want fracking” – give the lie to media attempts to divide local residents from those who’ve travelled to protect the Moss.

Most of the day trippers melt away home as afternoon turns to early dusk, but some of us stay on. There’s a party atmosphere around the campfire; drums compete with songs and for a few moments I’m dancing in the road. Later I join a meditation for global peace, in a red and yellow geodesic dome warmed by a smoky woodstove. As we shake ourselves and stretch after a half hour’s silence, a shout goes up and it’s the evening iGas shift change and protectors move into the road to slow the convoy of workers as they leave the fracking site. Now there are police.

There’s singing and chanting – “I’d rather be a hobbit than an orc” – and dancing in the narrow lane, in the flickering light of campfire flames. It’s pretty tribal. There’s us, the colourful rowdy tribe, and the iGas workers, stony and grey in their cars, cut off from us, thinking what? Resigned to the slow crawl down the lane? Angry? Regretting taking this job? Hating us? I’d like to ask them but the police are separating us from them. The police are asking us to move, and we’re moving, but haphazardly, not with the purposeful slow march of mornings. There’s more of us than there are of them, unusually. A woman, small, with long brown hair, is dancing near me. She dances towards the cars, and then away, back towards me. But she’s not moving fast enough and she’s grabbed by a policeman and then she’s being dragged and then – uproar. I can’t see what’s happening but there’s shouting and anguished sounds and then she’s in the back of a police van and the tribe is outraged. They hurt her, people are saying. The police smashed her face and she’s bleeding, they say.

There’s a calmness even in the eye of the storm, even as the joy and exuberance of the evening turns bitter. A woman suggests we move out of the road and let the workers past, and we do. Then we escort the police van up the lane and some people are yelling at the police and others are walking a silent vigil. I return to the geo dome and make a nest of sleeping bags in a nook beside a shrine to the camp’s recently destroyed trees and treehouse (destroyed at police behest, for reasons not quite clear). I keep all of my clothes on, including my hat. I’m sharing the space with four others – one sleeping on an old sofa, one on a camp-bed, one upright on a dining chair and one in a coffin (a real coffin).

In the morning there’s time for tea and biscuits munched as I walk up the lane to the junction with the A57. It’s a drier day and there are perhaps twenty of us waiting for the lorry convoy. All in good humour. The police arrive, and then the trucks. There’s a short stand-off; a local man attempts to establish with some kind of superior officer (red lapels) what exactly is construed as a “reasonable pace”. It seems we’re to be allowed to walk “at a reasonable pace” but no definition of reasonable is forthcoming. The local man demonstrates the pace at which he intends to walk and it looks to me as though Red-Lapels concurs that such a pace would be both reasonable and legal.

We’ve barely set off before there’s two arrests. It happens quickly, there’s a yell, a surge, a sudden wave of fear and anger and pushing and stumbling and then we’re calm and walking again – slowly, but at a reasonable pace – just two members of the tribe down. Our original police escort is joined by additional cops, and now – but not then – I understand that these are TAU. Tucked-in trousers, flat hats and tough-guy attitude. They push us, harry us, try to hurry us. We’re moving faster than last time I did this walk. I’m calmer than last time though, no longer surprised by the pushing and goading and unwelcome touching from the police. I’m answering them “I am still moving forwards… yes, I am still walking… please don’t push me… take your hands off my back… I can’t walk any faster there’s someone in front of me… you said – one of you said – we can walk at a reasonable pace and that’s what I’m doing…”. I’m asked by an officer to “walk through” the person in front of me. I laugh at the absurdity of this order. Then that thing happens when you know they’ve set their sights… and I’m grabbed from behind and neatly pulled backwards through the police line and I forget to yell or let anyone know that I’ve gone.

I’m accused, arrested, for walking too slowly. They call it “obstruction”. I don’t struggle and yet I’m handcuffed, then searched, locked in a tiny cell in a police van, driven to a police station, searched again. My photograph, fingerprints, palm prints, DNA are taken. I consent – if I don’t consent, they’ll take prints and mouth swab by force, I’m told. Too late I wonder whether I should’ve refused. If I’m found innocent, will these be destroyed? I ask the operative. He says I can apply to have the DNA destroyed, although hardly anyone does because most people don’t ask and aren’t informed that they have this right. He’s not sure about the prints. I’m still innocent (“until proven guilty”, right?) and yet everything from this stage on is a petty battle, from being allowed to keep my boots and coat to getting lunch and, more seriously, gaining access to the solicitor I’ve requested. I’m only allowed to keep the boots because they’ve run out of plimsolls in my size. Turns out they want the boots because the cleaners are getting sick of the mud we countryside protectors bring in. The cells are cold. It’s worth hanging on to as much clothing as you can, or asking for replacements if they take yours away. My cardigan is confiscated, in case I try to hang myself by its woolly cord. Likewise, bootlaces. They try to take my nose ring but at that I balk, and win.

My cell’s surprisingly large, and clean. It’s bigger, in fact, than many of the places I’ve lived in. That makes me smile. I’ve managed to keep my notebook, pen and book. With these, a copy of PACE (the Police and Criminal Evidence Act codes of practice) collected at the custody desk, and a thin mattress to use as a yoga mat, I know I can entertain myself for at least 24 hours. There’s a loo but no toilet roll. Water for washing but not for drinking. PACE tells me I can request a drink every two hours. Once I’ve got a cup I’ve also got a vessel for washing. This is fine.

Some people kick their cell doors and shout and scream, others sing. I feel as though I’m in a film. I read PACE. Later there’s an attempt to fob me off with a duty solicitor. I’ve got my bust card and I know not to acquiesce. Through a port-hole in my ceiling I watch the sky darken. Time passes quickly. I keep asking to talk to the solicitor I’ve requested. Eventually a cheerful woman in normal clothes, no uniform, lets me out of the cell and tells me I’m going home. I think, for a moment, that she means I’m being released without charge, but when I get to the front desk the custody sergeant who checked me in rustles my charge sheet and the cheerful woman reads it out.

Aren’t I supposed to have talked to my solicitor before I get charged?”

Consternation.

Yes, I am. A number is called, a phone thrust across the desk. I speak to the solicitor in public, in the reception area of the police station. I know this isn’t right, this should be a private conversation. We try, the solicitor and I, to get me released on unconditional bail but the sergeant’s not having it. I’m given a map of the areas around Barton Moss where I’m not supposed to go. I refuse to accept the map, the conditions, the bail. I’m innocent, why should my freedom of movement be curtailed? I ask for my Custody Record. The sergeant says I have to apply for that. PACE says otherwise. I get my Record and it’s peppered with errors. I leave my bail map on the station floor.

I have no idea where I am, how I’m going to get back to camp, where my belongings are, whether I’ll be arrested again when I get there. I’m shown to the exit by the cheerful plain-clothes woman. I press a button, step outside into a cold dark rainy Manchester night, and I’m greeted with hugs, cheers, tea, soup, donuts. The Barton Moss Protectors are here on arrestee support duty. The warmth I’m enveloped in brings tears to my eyes. I don’t know most of these people but they’re family now and I don’t need to worry about where I’m going, how I’ll get there or what will happen to me when I do. Everything is taken care of and I’m safe.

The next day, back in the real world, messages of support from family and friends flood in. Both of my sisters – beautiful, kind, non-political women – say they back me absolutely: “Fracking is evil,” says one, and the other writes “My eyes are now wide open. Stand united and keep on fighting this worthy cause, and Thankyou from all of us who can’t be there to support you.”

News reaches my mum at work: “Everyone in the office very impressed with your arrest”, she reports.

Ordinary people don’t want pollution, poisoned water that we have no disposal plan for, chemical-laced earth, toxic gases seeping into homes, earthquakes and climate change. The UK public is not impressed by rhetoric from politicians who have only their own interests at heart, and no compunction about lying to the electorate they’re meant to serve. No one – except the corporate boss set to make a killing by killing our land – thinks that bribing councils is a just or wise move.

Are we really winning this fight against fracking, and swinging public opinion our way, because we “wear exciting clothes”, as Owen Paterson claimed today in the Telegraph? Or might it be because we’re right… and it’s really fracking obvious that we’re right?

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Sunday Stroll in Salford (Barton Moss)

I thought we’d be lucky to get 50 people out to demonstrate about an environmental issue on a cold January day in Salford. About a thousand turn up. “They’re… normal people” I overhear someone mutter. Old, young, Salford families, Greens, union members, members of co-operatives, local residents, anti-fracking groups from other areas, environmentalists, grannies, kids, cyclists, musicians, health workers. A reasonable cross section of the 99%.

Plenty of creativity and humour has gone into the placards and banners we wave, as we walk a mile or so from the rendezvous point to Barton Moss. One lane of the A57 had been closed for us and we stream along it in festive mood, a procession more than a march, buoyed up by a strong sense of solidarity and community. Roughly 80% of passing cars beep in support of our Frack Off and Not for Shale messages – despite having been held up in a traffic jam on our account. One placard – “I’d rather be a hobbit than an orc” – rings very true for me. This and “Welcome to the desolate North… Now Frack Off!” are perfect rejoinders to nonsense peddled by pro-fracking politicians.

At a rally just up the lane from the Protectors’ Camp, we hear from members and supporters of the camp, including:

  • Local union reps, who say that profiteering by a minority at the expense of the majority is what we’re fighting here at Barton Moss – it’s bigger than environmental issues and its bigger than Salford, and we all need to work together;
  • A Campaign Against Climate Change speaker, pointing to the need to create climate-friendly jobs which will set up communities for a viable, sustainable future;
  • Vanessa Vine of Balcombe – a Sussex village which faced down the frackers in 2013 – who reminds us of the global nature of this struggle, and the brutality being faced by protesters and protectors in Canada and Romania;
  • Ewa Jasiewicz, of No Dash for Gas and Fuel Poverty Action, pointing out that investment in renewables now is the only way out of the fuel poverty trap of the moment, where the Big 6 energy companies are in a position to charge extortionate rates, filling their own pockets while risking the lives of the poor and turning a blind eye to climate change.

The crowds amble into Barton Moss Road as the rally comes to a close. Hundreds of us, strolling slowly on a Sunday afternoon along the lane where, on weekday mornings, police harrass and arrest protectors for walking at a similar pace ahead of the fracking trucks. There’s almost no visible policing today. Today, the police don’t feel the need to outnumber us 10:1 and shove us along the road “for our own safety”. Is it because they don’t want to show the ugly side of policing – the side which is about protecting corporate profits rather than people – to so many of their neighbours and peers, who are genuinely here to protect? If only a tenth this many people could turn up every day…

Past the camp we go, to the gates of the fracking site. There’s music, and dancing, and meetings between like-minded people. Someone’s cooked up a hearty soup and there’s a campfire to warm cold knees beside. This is what solidarity looks like. And we need more of this kind of thing!

A perfect summing-up from Carmen, of Occupy Manchester:

“Today one thousand people agreed that there is no social license for fracking – not locally or nationally or globally. We stand united for a frack-free planet [and for] investment in renewable energy, for all future generations and the planet Earth.”

Barton Moss Protection Camp, Barton Moss Road, Just off A57 next to Airport, Eccles M30 7RL

Barton Moss Protection Camp: Facebook 

Twitter: @BartonMoss

Frack Free Greater Manchester: website

Northern Gas Gala

Frack Off: website (great for background info)

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