(If you want to see this video on a mobile phone, you may have to watch it via the Vimeo app. N.B. I’ve mispelt the name of the company involved in this video’s title ~ the correct spelling is used in the text throughout this post. Sorry!)
Yesterday I caught the train up to Balcombe to see the roadside anti-fracking protest first-hand. Ten minutes walk South down the road the railway station sits on, I came across the first signs of unusual activity ~ a man standing in the road with a handful of bollards stretched across it. As roadblocks go, it was rather lame. However, it was enough to prevent motorists driving further down the road unless they wanted to run the gauntlet of police vans parked up a hundred yards further on. Despite the fanfare surrounding their apparently new role, there were no protest liaison officers on duty from Sussex Police.
West Sussex County Council closed the B2036 a short distance from the railway station. The man guarding the bollards prevented members of the public from driving any further. He allowed some vehicles through: police vehicles, lorries carrying the materials to repair the road and articulated lorries used by Cuadrilla to carry equipment to their experimental drill site here.
By the police vans, sat a ring of uniformed officers in the longish grass on the verge in a circle eating sandwiches and drinking fruit juice. A little further on, there was a similar group, save for the uniforms. Lunchtime had broken out! However, the Wealden tranquil was soon to be disturbed again, when the next site delivery came along.
The police formed a human shield around Cuadrilla’s vehicle and walked it up to the main gate. These heavily laden lorries are destroying the road surface of what is normally a relatively quiet countryside road from Balcombe to Cuckfield. That’s why it’s being resurfaced ~ Cuadrilla has offered to pay for it to be strengthened so that it can cope with the works traffic.
The protest was very much a series of family affairs. In between lorries, small children and their mothers made a “Love WATER” sign in the middle of the road from ivy, leaves and grass. A goatskin bagpiper floated tunes on the stifling summer air. People danced on the highway. Villagers came from both directions with supplies of food and water for those camping out beside the gates. Quite what the ex-Ghurkas guarding the industrial compound made of it all is anyone’s guess. They must know that they got residency rights as a result of public protests.
All in all, there were 16 arrests yesterday. 14 of those were before I arrived, when the large log blocking the site entrance was removed by the police. Apparently a fair few people preferred to keep it where they put it. Later on a Daily Mail journalist wondered around asking if anyone had a photograph of the forklift truck which removed it, so that he could establish whether it true that it was actually owned by ‘a local politician’. Later his paper published a surprisingly favourable account of the day’s proceedings (sorry, I can’t bring myself to link to that title, you’ll have to take my word for it) without mention of the forklift owner.
When the Daily Mail writes sympathetically about environmental activists, you have to ask yourself why? The answer lies in it’s editorial team knowing exactly where their readership is, both geographically and politically on each subject. In this case, the locals are overwhelmingly Conservative Party voters. However, although few of them were prepared to brave the police at the roadside protest, local surveys suggest that they are very strongly opposed to Cuadrilla’s plans to frack in their local (but private) woods. For them this isn’t political, it’s personal.
The two people I saw arrested yesterday committed the most trivial transgressions imaginable. At 2:40 in the video above a woman on the far side of a lorry from me apparently grabbed one of the compression straps holding the goods to the trailer. The lorry stopped straight away and she was arrested. Later on I heard the police officer who appeared to be in charge on the ground describe her action as “violent.” Other people said that she closed her hand around the strap for about a second. That is a new definition of the word “violent” for me! In the time honoured tradition of peaceful civil disobedience, she went limp and was carried away by four officers to a waiting police van (2:47).
At 3:12 in the video you can see a silver haired man take two steps forward and you can hear him raise his voice, declaring, “I want to talk to that man!” Although he seemed to be indicating in the direction of the company lorry driver, it is doubtful whether the latter could even hear him over his own vehicular noise. He was apprehended. A police officer told him to, “calm down,” and he did, immediately. He turned around and made to walk away from the lorry but was seized by two other officers and led away into a waiting police van.
The blonde haired chap who briefly appears on the left of the video photographing with his phone (3:05) is the freelance journalist working for the Daily Mail: Stuart Woledge. Whilst the police were overdressed in their customary kit and the protesters were dressed down, Mr Woledge kept his tie on all day. Wearied by the heat, he found me retreated, as I sat in a chair by the table with communal food on it. “Don’t you feel a bit hot in that tie?” I asked in my friendliest tone. “It isn’t the tie that’s making me hot,” came the stiff reply. Despite him photographing people and asking their names, he wasn’t so keen on fielding such requests himself. Before you think I’m being hard on a man who won the cause a favourable report from an unlikely quarter, the Daily Fail was back on form today with an utterly disgraceful article on one of Frack-Off’s key campaigners, the estimable Marina Pepper. For some reason that so-called newspaper saw fit to publish side by side photographs of her 26 years apart, one when she was an 18 year old model and a recent shot which has been deliberately chosen to be as unflattering as possible. Now I’ve met Marina a couple of times and spent an evening in her company in Lewes; if you don’t know her, you can take it from me, I struggled to recognise her from the second photograph. This isn’t journalism. It’s unreconstructed bigotry against active women. Somewhere in that mindset is an explanation for why their people keep their ties tight when everyone else is stripping off.
The land around the drill site is privately owned by The Balcombe Estate and uncrossed by public rights of way. However, it is also unfenced. Entering this land to look around and do nothing more is not a criminal offence. It is a simple trespass. That’s not a police matter. At one point I took refuge from the sun in the shade of the woodland. You can see why (3:07). It is utterly beautiful. No wonder it is officially an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Although I was less than twenty feet away from the edge of the road and further away from the site’s gate than some of the protesters, a police officer ordered me out of the woods. “Why?” I asked him.
“Because I’m telling you to,” he replied. Very politely and calmly I said, “You have to give me a reason.” As if intending to prove that he had lost any sense of training, he replied, “No I don’t. Just do what you’re told.” I followed him out of the woods back to the road and then returned, within a minute or two, to the same spot in the woods. In my interval from the woods, I tweeted Sussex Police:
The answer that Officer CM577 should have given is, of course, “Yes, you’re right. I’m sorry, the heat has got to me a bit. I’m asking you to leave because my superior officer has asked me to come into these glorious woodlands to remove you but actually I can’t think of a legal justification… since you have only committed a simple trespass I have no right to oblige you to stop but since my boss told me to get you back to the highway, I’m going to make up a spurious reason and threaten you with arrest if you don’t comply, hey are you filming?” Luckily for CM577, I wasn’t filming but the police filmed us all the time, whether there was traffic to protest at or not so presumably they’ve got some time-stamped imagery of me going in and out of the woods. As if the tweet and my own report isn’t enough.
Since the police arrested people for the insignificant actions described above, I think I’ll make a complaint about CM577 and report back here later. Ironically, later on, one of his colleagues approved of me urinating in the woods so long as I did it further up the road than the police cars South of the site gate. His preference was for me to pee in the portaloos provided by Greenpeace but I couldn’t see the point in filling them up with piss. ‘Keep them for number twos’, I thought.
Presumably, the police were concerned that I might be setting off to case the joint or perhaps worse. The barricade around the future fracking site was pretty flimsy. It’s no Glastonbury festival fence. One allen key could take it down. However, the main gate sported a sign warning that firearms were in use in the woodlands and alsations patrolled inside the fence. Did I mention the Ghurkas were there too? All in all, that isn’t a great combination. Thinking on it, the risk of getting shot was probably pretty minimal because if it existed all the workers at the drill site would also risk getting shot. But the alsations and the Ghurkas, they are a more formidable challenge. One I’ll be leaving alone.
You know what I’m thinking? A mass trespass across The Balcombe Estate could be a useful campaign tool. Trespassers could converge on the drill site. If each person declares loud and clear, perhaps by wearing a sign and phoning up the police first to inform them of their intentions, that they will respect the site boundary and leave the alsations and the Ghurkas in peace, then the police should have no reason to remove them. Simple trespass in unfenced woodland just isn’t a police matter. Best of all, Sussex Police would be obliged to warn the Estate off using guns on the chosen day, to prevent there being serious accidents. As publicity photographs go, local villagers surrounding a site designed to ruin their locality is likely to be a strong image and play well in the national media.
This drill site is the front line in the war declared on the planet by the capitalists who control the commanding heights of the economy, the means of production, distribution and exchange. Cuadrilla has obtained massive tax breaks from our government so that it can rape this rare heritage of unspoilt Wealden majesty. If they are allowed to press ahead with this experimental project, Sussex is likely to see thousands of wells drilled county-wide. It is as if the Conservative Party knows it cannot win another general election. After all, they haven’t won one since 1992 and on some analyses UKIP seems likely to deprive them of a further 29 seats or so, by splitting their ‘natural’ majorities. In these circumstances, they don’t need to worry about looking after their natural constituencies in the heart of Sussex. They can afford to rape their beautiful land and risk poisoning their drinking water. We, the people of Sussex, cannot carry that cost.