In this guest post. Stephen Kingston, editor of The Salford Star, reports on the implications of the acquittal of two anti-fracking campaigners arrested for walking in front of lorries outside the IGas exploratory gas site at Barton Moss.
A test case against two anti-fracking `slow walk’ protectors arrested at Barton Moss in 2014 by Greater Manchester Police, has resulted in a not guilty verdict at Manchester Magistrates Court, meaning that all future similar aggravated trespass cases could be dropped.
In acquitting the pair, District Judge Nicholas Sanders said:
“They were entitled to demonstrate, were entitled to walk along Barton Moss Road”.
“Their culpability, such as it was, was not to walk at the speed which had been imposed upon protesters by the police without warning or explanation.”
However the infamous `doughnut’ protest, in which a protector knelt down on Barton Moss Road, resulted in a guilty verdict.
The day was 18th February 2014, when protectors witnessed some of the worst policing of the Barton Moss anti-fracking protests at the IGas exploratory drilling site in Irlam.
It was designated as a half term Children’s Day at the Barton Moss Community Protection Camp with crafts, balloons and games. But once the daily slow walk had begun, aimed at delaying lorries exiting the IGas site, things turned decidedly ugly.
About ten minutes into the walk the regular officers who had been policing the peaceful protest were replaced by the Greater Manchester Police Tactical Aid Unit (TAU), which seemed determined to cause alarm and distress by forcing people to `walk’ at a ridiculously fast pace, creating a stampede situation.
Carmen Shiels, who lives in Irlam and had come down to Barton Moss Lane to see what was happening, couldn’t believe what she was witnessing. She told The Salford Star:
“I’m a local resident, a peaceful person, I’ve never demonstrated before in my life, I’m not a politically aware person, just easy going, believe the Government, believe people, but do you know what? I am staggered with what I’ve seen. It breaks my heart.”
“I came down, watched it go past, stood on the side and just cried, watching the police just pushing people down this footpath”.
Many of those who didn’t want to conform to the TAU `race’ down Barton Moss Lane, were plucked out of the line and arrested.
Last week, almost two years on from the day, three of those arrested on 18th February 2014 finally had their cases heard at Manchester Magistrates Court. And District Judge Sanders agreed with the protectors’ version of events, having reviewed the evidence, and found two of them not guilty of aggravated trespass in what is being seen as a test case for future hearings.
The Salford Star has now obtained the full transcript of the verdict, which makes shocking reading and an indictment of the Greater Manchester Police behaviour.
We begin with the case against John Wasilewski and David Cohen, who were both arrested for, basically walking down Barton Moss Road, a public highway. It’s worth quoting in full the judge’s summing up.
“Having reviewed the evidence, it is clear that both were initially compliant with the police request to start moving in front of the police line and were making steady progress along Barton Moss Road until (through no fault of theirs) progress stalled.
“Without any warning (or indeed clear rationale) the police changed their tactics and sought to significantly increase the pace of the protesters. Neither Mr Cohen nor Mr Wasilewski wished to progress at this faster pace and resisted attempts to make them walk faster. In both cases, but separated by time, they had the misfortune to find themselves in front of PC Genge who interpreted this resistance as deliberate pushing back.
“It would appear that he gave each of them some warning although I cannot be sure how clear that was in amongst the noise of the demonstration, and he subsequently pulled each defendant through the line to be arrested for the offence of aggravated trespass.
“At no time did either defendant stop in the road, or do anything particularly different that other demonstrators present that day. The slow walk had been tolerated and managed by the authorities on a number of other occasions both that day and over the preceding weeks and months. It is clear to me that, on this occasion, the pace set by the Level 1 officers [TAU] was substantially different to that which was normally acceptable to the authorities, and indeed which had been acceptable during the earlier part of the walk.
“The video shows that the lorries had been making slow but steady progress down Barton Moss Road towards the A57 behind the cordon. In all the surrounding circumstances, I cannot be sure on balance that the actions of either Mr Cohen or Mr Wasilewski that day were unreasonable. They were entitled to demonstrate, were entitled to walk along Barton Moss Road, had been generally compliant with the police, and their actions were specifically directed towards the object of their protest and not the wider public.
“Their culpability, such as it was, was not to walk at the speed which had been imposed upon protesters by the police without warning or explanation at some point during the walk from the drilling site to the A57. The prosecution has not proved to me, so that I am sure, that in these circumstances the actions of either of these two defendants interfered unreasonably with the lawful use of Barton Moss Road by other members of the public for passage along it when balanced with the undoubted rights which the protesters had to demonstrate on that path. In the circumstances, Mr Cohen and Mr Wasilewski are entitled to be acquitted of this charge…”
Commenting on the verdict, Simon Pook, of Robert Lizar Solicitors, which instructed Richard Brigden of GCN to represent the defendants, said the state had “sought to criminalise a legitimate form of protest”. He said:
“I welcome the Court judgment that slow walking had been accepted by Greater Manchester Police on a number of previous occasions, and, as such, it did not amount to a criminal offence of aggravated trespass. The Barton Moss protectors said from day one that their slow walk was part of a lawful and peaceful protest.
“It is essential that the right to lawful protest is defended, particularly when the agents of the state act in a contradictory and inconsistent manner.
“As a result of the inconsistent approach the state sought to criminalise a legitimate form of protest.
“Policing of protest must be consistent and people must be able to freely exercise their rights under the European Convention of Human Rights, namely Article 10 and 11”.
“It is accepted that their rights must be balanced against the rights of others. It appears to me the balancing exercise does not extend to inconsistent policing strategy.”
Meanwhile, at the Magistrates Court last week, Boris Roscin, was found guilty of aggravated trespass, following his infamous `doughnut‘ protest.
Basically, he knelt down in front of the approaching police lines with a plate full of doughnuts and a sign reading `What will you tell your grandkids?’ He was arrested on the spot.
In his ruling, District Judge Sanders noted:
“PC O’Connell warned Mr. Roscin that he was committing an offence, but that warning was ignored and Mr. Roscin repeatedly told the Officer that he did not recognise the Officer’s authority”.
“When told that he was committing an offence and that he would be arrested he said, `I do not understand and I do not consent to being kidnapped’.
“Taking all the factors into account and when conducting the balancing exercise that is required, I am satisfied so that I am sure that his actions in kneeling down on the highway and private road in front of vehicles was an unreasonable use of the highway and that at that point Mr Roscin became a trespasser on the land.”
“Furthermore, I am satisfied to the criminal standard that in doing so he intended to disrupt and/or obstruct the lawful activity taking place on that land. In the circumstances, I find him guilty of the offence of aggravated trespass.”
The repercussions of these three test cases for those who were arrested at Barton Moss are massive.
It appears that all those who were arrested for `slow walking’ will now have their cases dropped, while those who were involved in lock-ons will still have to face trials.
The Salford Star understands that the vast majority of arrests at Barton Moss happened while people were exercising their democratic right to protest and walk down a public highway.