The Northern Gas Gala got underway on 27th November 2013 with forty or so people picketing a small private road called Barton Moss Lane in Salford.
The Lane is very much the edge of town. Next to Manchester City Airport, on one side is the Manchester, Salford and Stockport urban conglomeration. On the other it is countryside as far as Warrington. Historically it has the first canal in Britain, the Bridgewater, and also the last, the Manchester Ship Canal, and the railway that runs nearby was once used by Stephenson’s rocket. Now it was the front line of the new technology of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
Fracking is a form of unconventional oil that is currently the target of resistance from campaigners around the world. Their concerns are the air pollution, noise, gas flaring and large number of lorries associated with a fracking site, large amounts of water that needs to be brought in and large amounts of waste needing to be taken out. They fear underground bore holes can crack and methane can end up where it’s not wanted: in the atmosphere, in the ground water and in people.
This combination of local and global concerns makes the anti-fracking movement a diverse one and that was reflected by the crowd gathered on that first morning. The famous Manchester rain was absent, but the Greater Manchester Police and was present in force. A quarter of the mile down the lane the onshore oil and gas company Igas had built a secure compound in which they were preparing for a drilling operation to determine whether or not the area was suitable for fracking.
The police and the campaigners, who styled themselves the Protectors of Barton Moss, squared off. The police commander asked politely if the way could be cleared for lorries to get to the site, and he was politely told that opposition to the work would be non-violent, but also non-negotiable.
Rob Edwards from Glossop had become the first arrest of the campaign the previous day. A well built, former rugby player, he was also an experienced Greenpeace campaigner fully trained in non-violence who knew how to push ‘passive resistance’ to the limit. Adamant he did not want to be put in handcuffs, a dozen TAU officers pushed him face down on the floor and, using pressure points behind his ear, inflicted sufficient pain to get him to release his hands and let them cuff him. His bloodied face as he was loaded into the van became one of the first images of the campaign in the papers.
Two hours after the operation started the convoy of vehicles was safely in the Igas compound. That
Usually the pace of the walk was set by 82 year old Anne Power, a local Green Party candidate and formidable campaigner. She did not move fast enough for GMP and was regularly removed from the blockade ‘for her own safety’. As a result has Anne has probably now been arrested more often than any other octogenarian in Manchester.
Anne’s arrests did not endear GMP to the Protectors. Neither did an incident on Friday 13th December when police plunged into the crowd to make a seemingly random arrest, propelling a disabled Protector into a ditch in the process and breaking his leg.
However despite these incidents the daily ‘slow walks’, which continued through the worst weather of the winter, developed into a pattern and no matter how many, or how few, arrests were made, the convoys took about the same length of time to get down the Lane.
Then at the start of January everything changed.
The first the Protectors knew about it was when someone spotted a report on the Greater Manchester Police Facebook page of a flare being fired at a GMP helicopter landing at Manchester City airport. Nobody in camp saw anything and it was assumed this might have been a New Year’s Eve firework someone had let off a few days late from one of the nearby estates.
However the police immediately put out a statement saying the flare had been fired from the camp with the intent of bringing down the helicopter, with an ominous reference to the fatal crash in Glasgow the previous November. Two days later the camp was searched, but no evidence was found. Inquiries in the Brookhouse and Irlem estates, and an appeal to drivers on the busy A57 that passed the airport, failed to produce any other witnesses to the flare, but GMP continued to report that it had been deliberately fired at the helicopter by the campaigners.
The Protectors had good reason to be unhappy with GMP after this. Not only were they now being labelled as terrorists, but the search of the tents had resulted in all their bedding being soaked in the Manchester rain – not recommended if you are camping in sub-zero temperatures. However animosity towards the police was usually restricted to the pages of social media, and on the ‘slow walks’ the incident was generally regarded as a bad joke.
However the police continued to repeat the claim about the flare. They even presented new ‘evidence’, in the form of a comment on an un-moderated social media page, supposedly by someone from the campaign, apparently confirming the story. There was no way of proving who posted this comment, and the wording used strongly suggested it was not by the person whose name the poster used, but GMP cited this as further evidence of violence by what they called ‘a minority out to provoke the police’. Such statements were usually accompanied by estimates of the cost of the police daily being present on the Lane in numbers considerably greater than the Protectors.
On the same day as the alleged flare, another curious incident took place. Barton Moss Lane, which is
With most of the arrests made being for Obstruction of the Public Highway, this was a very important point. These charges would only stand if Barton Moss Lane was indeed a Public Highway. You can't claim legal aid for a defense against this charge, but fortunately local lawyer Simon Pook was will to defend impoverished protectors pro bono. The courts, which had been taking an increasingly dim view of GMP tactics, and which were regularly releasing campaigners on unconditional bail even if they had been arrested for breach of bail conditions, would be able to decide.
As January 2014 came to an end there was still no ruling, but Greater Manchester Police may have started to sense which way the legal wind was blowing. Although there were still plenty of complaints of police violence, arrested campaigners were sometimes just led away rather than wrestled to the floor and handcuffed and on 30th January the police stayed in their vans and let the Protectors walk the lorries down unescorted. As usual the convoy took two hours to get to the Igas site.
Then on Wednesday 12th February, Judge Khalid Qureshi, in Manchester Magistrates Court, ruled that the Lane was a Private Road and Public Footpath and not a Public Highway. By this time the number of people arrested was well over a hundred and the prospect was that most would now have their charges dropped. It looked like Greater Manchester Police had just arrested a hundred innocent people, and spent nearly a million pounds, policing a peaceful protest that could have been handled by a village bobby on his bike.
For two days after the ruling nothing happened. No convoy passed down the lane and no-one was arrested. Then the police returned with a violence seemingly fortified, and not mollified, by the collapse of their legal case. They started arresting the Protectors once more, hospitalising Vanda Gillett in the process.
Vanda had been pushed in the back by an officer, one of the many minor acts of provocation that now
An ambulance was called, but was not allowed down the lane for nearly half an hour. Supporters of the camp coming to the site after seeing the incident on Facebook found uniformed officers stopping them at the top of Barton Moss Lane and claiming the area was a ‘crime scene’. Vanda, a mother of five, eventually made it to hospital where she discovered she was no longer under arrest and that, although she had not had a fit, the violence of her arrest had trapped a nerve.
TRESPASS ON A PUBLIC FOOTPATH
The increase in the level of aggression by the TAU was not the only surprise for the campaign. The police were now making arrests for the crime of Aggravated Trespass. This offence, from the notorious 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill, has been widely used against environmental protesters in the past. However the bill clearly defined trespass as only being possible on land to which the public did not have access. As Judge Quereshi had clearly ruled Barton Moss Lane was a Public Footpath, this charge required the police to claim that the Igas lorries, or themselves, somehow had priority over pedestrians on the footpath, a feat of legal legerdemain that has no precedent.
So that is the current state of play at Barton Moss: the law seemingly on the side of the Protectors, the Law clearly siding with Igas, and the convoys still taking two hours to get down the Lane.
The number of people camping on Barton Moss is small, but they are only there because of the support from the local community. Greater Manchester Police meanwhile continue to act as if the campers are their personal enemies. Conspicuously absent during rallies and media visits, they often arrive just minutes later to carry out more seemingly random arrests. From the use of Aggravated Trespass on a Public Footpath, to the man arrested for drink driving whilst sober and on foot, they act seemingly independent of the law.
The very serious concern for the local campaigners is that violent protests will attract violent protesters. So far this has not happened, and the Protectors are still committed to peaceful civil disobedience. However this is despite, and not because of, the actions of Greater Manchester Police.