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  April 5, 2017

UK Police Intensifies Crackdown on Environmental Protests

Police observer group Netpol has documented an increasingly harsh crackdown on anti-fracking protesters in the UK, often in collusion with fracking companies
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SHARMINI PERIES: It's The Real News Network. I'm Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

Anti-fracking campaigners are facing increasingly more aggressive police tactics in the U.K. The network of police monitors known as Netpol, warn of an increase in more robust, and aggressive tactics by the police against anti-fracking protesters. This is particularly the case in Lancashire, in northwest England, at the gas company Cuadrilla, at their shale gas exploration site near Blackpool.

Netpol have posted a short clip that they say is video evidence of a recent assault by Lancashire police officers, on a Fylde Borough councilor. Let's have a look.

CROWD: (shouting)

MAN: ... Roger. Are you okay, mate?

MEN: (shouting)

MAN: Do need an ambulance, Roger?

MEN: (shouting)

MAN: No!

MAN: How dare you? How dare you?

MAN: ... trouble now.

CROWD: (shouting)

MAN: Did you push me? Did you push me?

CROWD: (shouting)

MAN: Excuse me, sir? Do you realize who that...?

SHARMINI PERIES: That was a Fylde Borough councilor that was knocked down. Netpol argues that such behavior from police are the inevitable product of the increasing discretionary powers of the police, along with their relationship with the fracking companies.

Well, let's find out what that is. Joining us today to discuss the aggressive policing towards anti-fracking campaigners is Kevin Blowe. Kevin is a coordinator with Netpol, and he is an activist in Newham, East London.

Thank you so much for joining us, Kevin.

KEVIN BLOWE: Thank you. Thank you for inviting me on.

SHARMINI PERIES: Kevin, give us a sense of, when you say, or Netpol say, it's robust and aggressive, we saw a little bit of that in that clip, but I imagine there's a lot more to it than we saw.

KEVIN BLOWE: Well, I think it's important to start off by saying that what's happening in Lancashire at the moment, is not the first time that there's been protests against fracking sites. And it's not the first time that an elected representative has been assaulted. I mean, back in 2013, a member of the British Parliament was arrested, and her son was very aggressively dealt with, on a demonstration in southern England.

I think the expectation was that, over the course of the two years that we've been working with the anti-fracking campaigners, and putting pressure on the police, they would've learned something. And that doesn't seem to be the case, with what's been happening up in Lancashire.

So, initially, the demonstrations were relatively peaceful. There weren't particularly significant numbers of arrests. And that changed, and it changed because, I think the police's attitude towards what they would consider to be a legitimate, or lawful protest, was standing on the other side of the road from the entrance to the camp, holding a placard and singing songs.

The moment the people were prepared -- quite without any sense of using any violence -- but were prepared to walk slowly in front of lorries, blockade the entrance, then the tactics changed, and they became considerably more aggressive. And there was a great deal of, the sense that people were far more likely to be arrested.

SHARMINI PERIES: Kevin, when you say this is a result of the more discretionary powers given to the police, besides the evidence on the picket lines, and on the protest lines that you are observing, is there any notice, or policy shifts that have taken place, in terms of direction to the police?

KEVIN BLOWE: Well, I mean, the police have already had... always had fairly wide discretionary powers. And what reins them in, is a sense of either that it's not... if the public won't accept the level of aggression that may be applied to a particular protest. Or, it's simply because the external pressure has built up so much to try and prevent them from doing something.

I mean, the laws that are in place that they can use to make arrests, and that they can use to restrict the protests have always been there. One of the things that's been really interesting about the police's response to the fracking movement, is the use of -– fairly creative use -– of legislation that was never intended to be used for protests. So, laws that were intended to prevent secondary picketing by trade unions, for instance, has been used against anti-fracking campaigners.

Our concern is, that other potential pieces of legislation that were never intended to be used to prevent somebody from going about exercising their legal right to freedom of assembly, are likely to be used against campaigners. In this particular instance because the fracking companies, and the fracking industry, has significant levels of political support from the government.

And so, powers that were intended, for instance, to deal with anti-social behavior, you know – often, young kids out on the streets -- have been used to exclude people from a particular area for up to 48 hours. And that's intended deliberately, we feel, to attempt to paralyze the political opposition that exists to the fracking industry.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. And is there a direct relationship between the police and the Cuadrilla Company, or between the police and the extraction companies here?

KEVIN BLOWE: Well, there has been some evidence. I mean, it's difficult to point to, because obviously so much of this happens without any degree of transparency at all. We certainly come across memoranda of understanding, between the police and the companies, about the way that they will conduct policing operations. And on the face of it, that kind of document is entirely legitimate. But, there has been evidence of collaboration around getting messages out to the media, for instance.

And what it's done, is helped to increase the level of suspicion of the campaigners, about what side the police are on. Whether they are genuinely neutrals in the middle, or whether they're simply there to act on behalf of the fracking companies.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. And on March 27th to April 10th, a group called, Reclaim the Power will engage, in what they call, a fortnight of action, against the fracking supply chain. What do they mean by it, and what kind of actions are being planned?

KEVIN BLOWE: Well, from what I've seen, there's been action against some of the suppliers for the fracking sites. So, for instance, cement companies, but also PR companies that work with the fracking industry, some of the financers. I mean, supply chain in that sense, means targeting the broader support that's available to the fracking industry.

Because my understanding, from speaking to the campaigners, is that they say the fracking industry is relatively new, and relatively weak, in the U.K. And financially, the companies involved in it are very small. And so, what they're doing is, they're essentially challenging those companies to deal with widespread protests all over the country.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. And I understand, that Netpol itself, have a larger campaign to call for the repeal of dispersal powers, that the police have under Section 35, of the Anti-social Behavior, Crime and Policing Act of 2014. Part of which I think you referred to earlier.

Can you explain to us what is the connection that these powers have with the targeting of anti-fracking campaigners?

KEVIN BLOWE: Okay. I'll try and explain it as simply as I can. The 2014 legislation was a mishmash of different changes in the law. But one of those was making it more simple for the police to be able to disperse people, to be able to use their power to force people to leave an area for a period of time, and if they return that they will be arrested.

Now, that legislation, or similar powers have existed for a number of years. I mean, they've been around for a decade, and they have always been controversial. But in the main, they have been reined in by certain safeguards. The police were required to talk to the local municipality about how those powers would be used. They were required to issue a notice in advance.

And what the 2014 Act did, is removed most of those safeguards. What it said was, is that if the police want to force you to leave an area, then they can do so just by ringing up and getting the authorization of senior office. The period when they can remove people has been extended from 24 to 48 hours.

And it's been used, by the police in different parts of the country, not only against anti-fracking campaigners, but also against a variety of other different protest movements. And it's something that we've been documenting for the last two years, because the power actually came into force in 2015.

It was used at an anti-fracking protest in Cheshire, which is also in the northwest of England. But it's been used against housing activists, it's been used against opponents of hunting in the U.K., it's been used against opposition to the far right.

What all of these things are, is the use of a power that is not against anti-social behavior. Anti-social behavior is something, which is significantly different. And we argue that the legitimate right to protest is never anti-social behavior.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Kevin Blowe, from the U.K., and he's a coordinator for Netpol. I thank you so much for joining us, and enlightening us about what's going on on the ground, and hope you keep us posted. Thank you for joining us today.

KEVIN BLOWE: Thanks for having me.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.




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