So whilst it is a bit of a phoney war situation for the moment in Manchester, many questions still remain about the policing of the protests over the winter. Greater Manchester Police and Crime Commissioner Tony Lloyd commissioned an Independent Panel to investigate Greater Manchester Police’s operations, but whilst the report is apparently finished it has yet to see the light of day.
There are many questions that need answering. Why was it so violent, why were so many Protectors injured and why does GMP see noting wrong with one its officers arresting a man for drink driving whilst sober and on foot?
But five key points that we would like answers to are these.
Did the police have arrest quotas?
The police started making arrests almost as soon as the ‘slow walks’ down Barton Moss Lane in front of the Igas convoys started. It appeared to be pretty random who was actually nicked, but it didn’t take long for the Protectors to figure out that the number of people arrested was working out a a regular five a day. Officers were even overheard discussing that they needed “one more” or “two more” or however many it was. Usually these arrests occurred just after the ritual changeover from the black trousered ordinary plod to the blue trousered Tactical Assistance Unit half way down the lane.
As an arrest meant bail conditions being set which usually prevented a return to the Moss, with the prospect of remand if breached, the result was that soon most of the Protection Camp were in some sort of legal jeopardy. In the end the courts were very lenient with bail, with Protectors often released on open bail, even if arrested for breach of bail, but had they not been the tactic could have emptied the camp within a month.
Jibes to the police about whether they were getting their Five A Day though hid a rather worrying reality; that the police turned up every day to a peaceful protest with the intention of arresting five people regardless of whether or not there was a crime being committed.
Did the police know Barton Moss Lane was a private road?
Some people were arrested for Obstructing the Police, a crime for which conviction could depend on your exact choice of words when they collared you, but for the first twelve weeks of the campaign the usual charge was Obstruction of the Public Highway. This was a useful charge to hang on a bunch of impoverished eco-warriors as you can’t claim Legal Aid for your defence. Fortunately Simon Pook of Robert Lizar solicitors was willing to represent them on a pro-bono basis.
With a solicitor on hand though, that defence was rather easy. When you stood at the top of Barton Moss Lane one sign clearly said that it was a Private Road and, until it was loaded into a police van and taken away, another said it was a Public Footpath. How you can be arrested for obstructing a Public Highway on a Private Road was a question that was asked of the Police Liaison Officers every day. Their usual answer was that it was public if the public had access to it. This information was sometimes handed out on a piece of A4 onto which the FLOs had obviously typed up themselves.
The hard working Mr Pook said in open court fairly early on in the campaign that this claim was, in legal terms, bollocks and this was not challenged. Nevertheless the police continued to arrest people for obstructing the non-existent highway.
When GMP’s flush was eventually busted by Judge Khalid Qureshi in Manchester Magistrates Court in February the police went away for a few days to think about things before returning to arrest the protectors on the charge of Aggravated Trespass. This is an equally bogus charge as you can’t trespass on a Public Footpath, and it can’t be used if the work being disrupted in not ‘lawful’ – which Igas’s drilling may not have been – but at least you can claim Legal Aid to defend yourself.
Did the police ignore this warning about the legality of the arrests because they already knew Barton Moss Lane was not a Public Highway? Was it the case that Protectors were being arrested on a charge the police knew would not stand up in court in the hope they would not be able to defend themselves?
Was covert intelligence shared with Igas?
The police obviously co-ordinated their operation with Igas. This was only to be expected. Similarly the the police would have been keeping a close eye on the Protectors. This too was only to be expected. However it remains a question to what extent the police shared their intelligence with Igas.
A report on the Balcombe protests released by Sussex police failed to completely black out some interesting lines.
“Once the operation moved into August it was apparent that an appropriate range of intelligence sources were being harnessed, including where appropriate European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) compliant covert means.”
‘Covert means’ could include phone taps, bugging devices and undercover officers infiltrating the Protectors. Following the revelations that undercover officer Mark Kennedy infiltrated direct actions protest groups for years, and had a long term relationship with an activist, this news was not a surprise. The report also states though that this intelligence was shared with Cuadrilla Resources, the company drilling in Balcombe.
The question for Greater Manchester police then is not did they spy on the Protectors – we know they did and also know they won’t admit it – but was the product of covert intelligence gathering shared with a private company?
Did the police wage a propaganda war against the Protectors?
Throughout the protest Greater Manchester Police regularly complained that they were stuck in the middle of a dispute they wanted no part of. Their protests of neutrality though sound very hollow when compared to their actions, and their other public statements.
GMP put out a series of Press Releases during the campaign with a common theme of a “hard core of trouble makers” and “locals intimidated by protesters“. The BBC filmed an interview with a woman, her identity not being revealed, who apparently backed up these claims.
This was posted on Facebook on 23 January 2014 and is typical.
Chief Superintendent Mark Roberts said, “At the start of this protest the majority of protesters were peaceful and law abiding but over the past couple of weeks local residents and officers have seen a distinct change to this. It now seems that the majority of people who are arriving at the site are not there to protest against fracking but are there to disrupt and intimidate the local community and to antagonise police. We have seen offences of assaults, damage, harassment of residents and workers, a flare fired at the police helicopter and threats to kill.
“I attended a residents’ meeting last week and people there were close to tears and have had enough of this daily disruption to their lives. Locals, who initially supported the protesters, out walking their dogs and driving down Barton Moss Road have been approached by protesters in balaclavas and have been questioned by them which has been extremely intimidating. We have seen a huge increase in the calls to police from that area and this is continuing.
“Officers are verbally abused on a daily basis, one has even been spat at and another officer required stitches to his hand after trying to get a protester down from a fence. The police are there to do a job and that job is to facilitate peaceful protest and to balance the needs of all parties, the residents who live there, businesses who operate from there and the protesters themselves. It is not up to GMP who operates on this land and who has access to it – we are simply there to police it to ensure that everyone remains safe. We are increasingly seeing protesters trying to jump in front of HGVs or jump down from trees on top of moving lorries – it is only a matter of time before someone is seriously injured if they continue to act in a reckless manner.
“We are working very closely with many partner agencies to try and resolve this emerging threat and issue to try and reassure the local residents who feel intimidated in their own homes from people who have travelled from all parts of the country to set up camp in Barton Moss.
It can’t be denied that when the convoys were blocked on Barton Moss Lane they often disrupted the traffic on the busy A57 or, despite the massive local support which kept the Protectors alive through the winter, there was a significant number of people who disliked the Protectors because of what they represented. An officer did cut his hand on a fence (whilst making an illegal arrest) and the police were regular accused (with some justification) of being fascists on a daily basis. But nothing else in this statement appears to be true.
Did the police actually believe the Protectors were threatening local people or trying to leap, Emily Davidson style, from trees into the path of lorries, or was this just propaganda, invented to attempt to discredit the anti-fracking cause?
Did the police invent the story of a flare being fired at a GMP helicopter?
Of the allegations made by Roberts, far and away the most serious was that the Protectors had tried to shoot down a GMP helicopter. The allegation, which first appeared on the GMP Facebook page, was that a police helicopter coming in to land at the nearby Manchester City Airport in the early hours of Saturday 5th January had a flare fired at it from the camp with the intention of bringing it down. This claim, which brought memories of the fatal crash of another police helicopter in Glasgow the previous November.
In the aftermath of the allegation the police descended on the camp in force to conduct a search of all the tents. The weather being typically inclement, this resulted in all the bedding in the camp being soaked by the Manchester rain. Local support, and a donation from ethical cosmetics company Lush, prevented anyone dying of hypothermia.
No evidence of anything sinister was found in the camp. Nor was there any trace of the flare on the airport’s cameras, the helicopter’s cameras (which were apparently turned off), the state-of-the-art cameras on the Igas site, the ones on the nearby Barton Moss Secure Children’s Home nor the cameras on the M62 which, we subsequently found out in court, were able to monitor the movement of individual Protectors around the camp. No witnesses could be found in the nearby Irlam and Brookhouse Estates, no-one driving down the A57 saw anything and neither did anyone on the camp itself.
The only other evidence ever presented on the flare was a post on the activist website Indymedia. This is an unmoderated website on which anyone can post anything, under any name. A post credited to ‘Rachel Thompson’ appeared to confirm that someone in the camp had indeed fired something. The real Rachel Thompson denied posting this, and the language used – referring to ‘protester’ and ‘the protest’ rather than ‘Protector’ and ‘the campaign’ also suggested it wasn’t her.
As things stand the only evidence that anything at all was fired into the air are the public statements of Greater Manchester Police. Even the officers who allegedly saw the flare have never been named and have never made any public or on-the-record statement. However this did not stop GMP mentioning the incident in almost every public statement they made about Barton Moss, such as the one by Mark Roberts above.
All of which raises the biggest question of all about the policing of Barton Moss; did the police invent the story of a potentially fatal attack on their own helicopter in order the discredit the campaign and justify repressive policing?
We are waiting for the answers.