Illegal law and police brutality at Barton Moss

I have been shown the video at It’s just over 4 minutes, and was taken by an anti-fracking protestor. If you want to have a miserable day, watch it. If it had happened in Crimea or China it might have been shown on British television, preceded by that warning about how ‘there are some distressing scenes’. But it happened at Barton Moss, just outside Manchester in England, and will probably get no television coverage at all.

It would be hard to deny that the woman was being subjected to police brutality. Whether or not you approve of fracking there is an issue here about freedom to protest. We British think of ourselves as a free society and are usually pretty quick to condemn other countries when they suppress dissent. Does the brutal policing of the fracking site tell us that we are too complacent? Are we fantasising about being more civilised than we are?

The Government’s perspective

Government: Fracking is necessary. People have a right to protest, but not to stop it happening. The Government decide because the Government have been elected. The protesters haven’t. Time to frack. If protestors get in the way, the police will have to get them out of the way. How the police get them out of the way is a matter for police procedure. Of course the Government are also responsible for police procedures, but nobody expects government ministers to micromanage what every police officer does.

Me: Regardless of whether fracking is right or wrong, what those policemen did was wrong. It was either legal or illegal. If legal, the Government are responsible. To allow it is to decree it acceptable. In that case they can hardly complain about foreign governments trampling on human rights. On the other hand, if what happened was illegal, why are the police not being prosecuted? The Government are responsible for the system’s failure to prosecute them. In either case the Government are responsible.

Government: If we bend over backwards that much to defend individual rights nothing will ever get done. The priority is to get on with the fracking, and a woman who gets in the way can hardly expect red carpet treatment. Even if the police exceeded their powers, they had to do something.

Me: We have an electoral system which in theory is supposed to be democratic. Democracies depend on public debate in which people are free to express disagreement. Given the nature of the mass media, public debate doesn’t happen unless interesting photos are provided. That woman was performing the kind of act on which democracy depends. She was an enemy not of democratically elected government but of a government determined to suppress legitimate opposition.

The police’s perspective

Police: We do not have to reflect on whether fracking should be performed; it is enough to know that the Government have decided in favour. Our job is to make sure that the fracking takes place according to the law. It is also our job to make sure protestors abide by the law. However there is a difference. Our orders come from the Government. We need to produce the results the Government wants. Whether we please the protestors is less important; in fact, given the nature of our work it’s understandable if most police are unsympathetic to protestors in general. Life would be simpler without them.

Me: Life would be simpler without them because life would be simpler for the law-enforcement agencies if there was no freedom or democracy. The brutality was unnecessary. Other people in paid employment have to suppress their feelings about customers they dislike. You should be trained to do likewise.

Police: We have to uphold the law, and if you wishy-washy liberals had had as much experience of protests as we have, you would understand that if we had been nice and gentle with them they would have carried on getting in the way.

Me: Do you really think the amount of brutality you exercised was within the law? When other people do things like that, arresting them for assault is your bread and butter. How can you claim to be upholding the law when the video makes it quite clear that you yourselves were breaking it? Even if the protestors had been breaking the law, which they weren’t, you can’t uphold the law by breaking it.

The interaction between the two

Overall, then, it seems that the Government turn a blind eye to police brutality if it suits their agenda – which is to get on with fracking quickly. Meanwhile the police understand all too well the difference between their legal obligation not to be brutal and the Government’s real requirement, that protests should be minimised.

There is a parallel between the two perspectives. Both Government and police have a vested interest, understood in terms of their perspective on the situation. Both also have emotional responses to it. For the police, defending the status quo is what their job is all about, so hostility to protestors comes naturally and can be intense. Their perspective is that the Government’s decisions should be carried out. Whether the Government has made the right decisions is not central to their perspective because it is not something the police have to decide.

The Government’s perspective is more wide-ranging. They decided in favour of fracking after weighing up the pros and cons. Locals will object to the noise and disruption, but energy has to come from somewhere. Nevertheless their perspective remains limited. The pros and cons consist of scientific, technical and economic data. What to do with those data depends on one’s values, one’s judgement about what human life is for. The case for fracking is typical of the Government’s unwillingness to question the values they have inherited. The ‘need’ for shale gas depends on statistics which presume the ‘need’ to keep increasing the amount we produce and consume. If we decided to reduce our producing and consuming, we wouldn’t need that shale gas. It would also help the environment. It is the limits to the Government’s perspective which makes them unable to understand what the protestors are saying.

The Government also have their emotions. This is perhaps the most tragic part of the story. We have grown used politicians being driven by constant competition against rival parties. Top of the agenda is to win the next election. If fracking proves disastrous in 2017, it may be somebody else’s problem. Fracking policy, like other policies, largely depends on how to outwit the opposition.

If there is any truth in this analysis, one thing is absolutely clear: we need protestors. That woman did not calculate her own personal self-interest. Whether or not you agree with her, she sacrificed her own well-being for what she believed was the well-being of the planet and human society. If only government ministers were so altruistic, we would be better governed.

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