Anti-fracking protesters have experienced violence and intimidation from police officers, leading to physical injuries, trauma and a breakdown of trust, a new study reveals.
Campaigners told researchers they were shoved, pushed, dragged and physically restrained by officers, sometimes on a daily basis.
There were differences in the way male and female protesters were treated by officers, the authors concluded. They heard allegations that women protesters were groped and their clothing was pulled to reveal their breasts.
“These tactics have been understood by protesters as an exercise of power and have left women feeling violated and frightened.”
Disabled and older protesters were also subjected to violent policing, the study found.
Reports of inflammatory and antagonistic behaviour by officers towards protesters was particularly pronounced at Cuadrilla’s fracking site at Preston New Road, the study concluded.
It called for an investigation into policing at this site.
The authors, academics at Liverpool John Moores University, the University of York, and the School of Advanced Study, University of London, examined policing of protests over the past three years at seven protest sites. They interviewed 31 campaigners about their experiences.
The work built on earlier research into policing at the Barton Moss protests in 2013-2014.
“Deep sense of injustice and powerlessness”
The authors concluded that policing was having a chilling effect on protests with some people deterred from participating.
There was also “a deep sense of injustice and at times powerlessness to challenge the human rights violations that protesters have experienced.”
The researchers said:
“Some of these violent incidents have led to protesters reporting physical injuries, including severe bruising, broken bones and chronic pain.
“In addition to physical violence, protesters also cite the use of inflammatory and antagonistic behaviour, including verbal harassment and goading from police officers.”
This resulted in a series of brutalising effects including trauma resulting from fear, pain, distrust and anger, the
“The trauma protesters experienced as a result of this violence has had a chilling effect on the willingness of some campaigners to continue to participate in protests.”
They concluded that anti-fracking protests since 2016 had been “overwhelmingly peaceful”. While protesters sought to raise awareness about the shale gas industry and disrupt its operations, there was a shared commitment to peaceful protest, the authors said.
They found no evidence from the past six years to support the inclusion of anti-fracking groups in prevention of terrorism documents alongside organisations that posed a threat to national security.
“Disproportionate police response”
They also concluded that based on the experience of protesters since 2016, the police response had been “disproportionate” and had the effect of “undermining the right to protest”.
“At all sites, the nature and size of the policing operations appeared incongruous to the peaceful character of the fracking sites and camps, and the relatively small and largely local composition of the protesters involved.
“The quantity of police personnel deployed during these operations was understood as one contributory factor to the general hostile and antagonistic atmosphere experienced during daily protests.”
The study also accused police of redefining “acceptable protest”.
“It appears that protests are not considered ‘peaceful’ if they include any action that may involve breaking the law, no matter how peacefully.”
The National Police Chiefs’ Council is consulting on revised guidance on policing protests. Its lead on shale, gas and oil exploration, DCC Terry Woods said:
“The police service always welcome feedback concerning policing operations and we will always consider carefully issues raised with us.
“However, I feel there has been a missed opportunity to make this a more meaningful piece of research by not consulting the police for their side of the story, and limiting the research to the opinions of a small number of people with what appears to be a similar point of view.
“Nevertheless, the police service will continue to work tirelessly to engage with all interested parties and to balance the rights of all those protesting.”
DrillOrDrop also asked Lancashire Police to comment on the specific criticism of its force in the report. We will update this article with any response.
Kevin Blowe, coordinator of Netpol, the police monitoring organisation, said:
“This essential new report completely validates everything Netpol has been saying for five years about the oppressive policing of anti-fracking protests
“Netpol fully supports the report’s call for an independent investigation into Lancashire Police’s operation at Cuadrilla’s site at Preston New Road. The consistent complaints of “physical injuries and inflammatory and antagonistic behaviour towards protesters” demand urgent external scrutiny.”
Protesters’ experience of policing at anti-fracking protests in England, 2016-2019. A National Study by Joanna Gilmore, Will Jackson, Helen Monk and Damien Short