I’d rather be a hobbit than an orc, by Hazel
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) cop 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.
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 meet 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 the red and yellow geodesic dome, complete with smoky woodstove. As we shake ourselves and stretch after half an 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 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-faced 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 bequest, 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 of 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, though 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 tents, huts, vans and caves 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 yell and scream, others sing. I feel like 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 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?”
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 its 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’ve been shown to 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 the very councils who are supposed to make planning decisions on our behalf is a wise or just 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?
First published on hazelhedge.wordpress.com