A Day at Preston New Road

I had been to the solidarity days held at weekends. I had enough to do what with work and family. Looking on facebook each day, the livestreams were there from Preston New Road in Lancashire, where Cuadrilla are building their frack pad. I didn’t actually need to go, I could see it all from home. I could see all the name calling, the bickering, the groups falling out with each other and slagging each other off, each one claiming to be the only ones doing anything to halt Cuadrilla while the others do “Jack Shit”. I just didn’t want to be part of that.

Then there was a change. On February 28th, I saw a livestream, where people were literally being dragged along the road by police out of the way of a lorry leaving the site, so they could not have a legal peaceful protest.I saw people I knew, for heavens sake struggling free and trying to outrun the police to get in front of the lorry. That’s the point that I re-connected and remembered why I am in this.

I had a day coming up when I could actually go there. I decided to go.

I started checking the livestreams regularly to see what level of threat there was from the police – I wasn’t planning on getting arrested. I found the best method of weighing up the situation was to ignore the constant commentary from the people filming where everything is described as ‘brutal’ and just watch. What I could see from the footage was that people gathered in the entrance in front of incoming and outgoing vehicles. They stayed there a short while, and the police surrounded them and pushed them out of the way. Sure, people resisted being pushed out of the way but there was no fighting back, so slowly they were moved out of the way, the vehicle went in/out and the police left.

I was comfortable with that level, I hadn’t seen police wading in with batons or dogs, people weren’t being randomly arrested just for being there, so I felt secure that I could go and find a level of protest that suited me on that day without being at too much real risk.

I have to admit though, it did weigh on my mind. I had very little sleep the night before.

In the morning I had a good breakfast to keep me going through the day, took a bottle of water, camera and left my smartphone at home – I had been ‘humming and haaing’ over this, but in the end it turned out I had no credit anyway, so it was pointless. I had made my mind up not to engage with police unless necessary, and I knew that if I did end up being arrested, ‘no comment’ was to be my only comment, other than to ask for Lizars solicitors, who are handling all the cases. I also knew I wouldn’t be left stranded, as I had seen previously that people were providing arrestee support.

So off I went. Most people, it seems, park at World of Water where there is a cafe and toilet facilities as well as a large car park, and this is where the solidarity days have been held in the past. They do have a large car park on the main road, and another one just behind that on rougher ground, so I wouldn’t be interfering with their business. The postcode is PR4 3PH for your sat nav. Its right next door to the garden centre that is covered with frack free signs. It is just down the road from the Cuadrilla site.

I knew I was getting close because there are anti fracking signs on the approach to the site itself, and then of course all the police vehicles are visible. I parked up and walked the 5 minutes or so along the (flat) road to the site.

So, to describe to scene – on one side of the road is a regular pavement and hedge bordering fields, and on the opposite side of the road is the Caudrilla construction site, with the site entrance. In the centre of the road is a traffic island.
Some people were gathered in the entrance, some remained on the pavement on the other side of the road, and some stayed on the traffic island holding banners. And of course you are free to come/go/move/stand where you want so you are free to find whatever level of protest you are comfortable with at any time. Lots of people have cameras. Nobody looks down on anyone for standing here or there – the point is, you are there.

(photo credit Ros Wills, facebook)

I decided to stand with the people in the entrance, and had a good look at the site and what was going on – and this is one thing – there is an awful lot of standing doing nothing. Some people occupied their time talking to the security guards, and some talking to the Police Liaison Officers (which I do not recommend, as they are there to gather information whilst engaging you in friendly chat)

After about an hour of standing around, the first couple of cars wanted to leave the site. They seem to come out in 2’s and 3’s to make things easier for Cuadrilla. First they park up behind the gate and have their wheels washed down – this is both to stop making the main road muddy/slippery, and because there is Japanese Knotweed on the site, which should not be spread elsewhere. This is the point where people get themselves prepared and standing where they feel comfortable to do so.

A pattern soon emerged, the police at this stage were not facilitating any slow walking of vehicles, so people in the entrance were tending to stand in front of the vehicle, or sit down on the floor in front of it. A security guard walked in front of each vehicle and told it when to stop just in front of protectors. Some people remained in the entrance but away to the side. Then the police would arrive, in 10’s or 20’s from their vans and read a script about giving us time to move out of the way or they would use force to move us. Of course this was difficult to make out because everyone was blowing whistles and singing, and it has previously been used as evidence in court that a defendant couldn’t hear any warnings given because of the noise from the crowd.

Of course, nobody moved out of the way, so the police then kettled everyone – surrounded them and pushed the crowd to one side out of the way. Some moved with this, and some resisted the pushing, peacefully. Anyone sitting on the ground was picked up and escorted out of the way. At one point I could feel a police officer trying to push me away but was unable to move me, so I remained in place until another came and helped escort me across the road to the pavement. Some people resisted more than others, it didn’t really make much difference. There was a lot of shouting going on at this time. people sitting down had linked arms and were harder to separate and move. As I was released onto the pavement, a group of grandmothers had arrived and were shouting at the police in frustration about what they were doing – removing our right to peaceful protest. One was saying that she cries each time she spoke about what was happening here and thinking of her grandchildren growing up on a gas field.

A row of police officers lined the pavement to stop anyone from going back onto the road – for our own safety, apparently. Some, especially the younger ones, seemed unable to look us in the eyes and stared at the ground or looked away , especially when faced with elderly women visibly upset about the risks posed to their grandchildren’s health.

There was one lady with a mirror, holding it in front of each police officer so they could look at themselves and what they were doing (making sure the sun was behind her and not dazzling them). Many could not look.

There were lots of shouts of bullying and brutality – how I experienced it though, was as a really emotional episode. Many of the older women on the pavement now had tears in their eyes. Some were visibly upset but were holding it back. There were two reasons for this – one that we were not allowed any form of protest, but the main thing I heard over and over again, was the sheer numbers of police who were there to make sure that the frack pad got built, that they were there to make sure it went ahead, after it being turned down by all the local councils, that the police were acting to force this industry upon them after it being rejected by their democratic process.

It was the same with incoming vehicles, we didn’t know they were coming until 10-20 police officers arrived at the entrance and kettled us, pushing us to the side out of the way so they could drive in unhindered.

Gradually we all lifted our spirits and carried on. The low point of the day was when a delivery lorry wanted to leave in the afternoon. A few local people were annoyed about the lack of facilitated protest by the police, who were refusing to allow a slow walk of vehicles leaving site. So they spent time talking to the commander and negotiated a 15 minute deal, which it appeared, because it had been agreed by the police, was then the only permitted protest. What this boiled down to was in reality, that we stood around waiting whist the lorry driver switched off the engine and he made a phone call and ate a packet of crisps and the vehicle behind him had its tyres washed down (which was what would have happened anyway – its what had happened every time they had left the site)

As far as the police were concerned, they had facilitated a protest, as agreed.
As far as the ‘negotiators’ were concerned, they had got a 15 minute delay on the lorry leaving.
As far as the rest of us were concerned we had just stood waiting for the other vehicles in the convoy to have their tyres washed, which was exactly the same as every other time they had left the site.

The police commander didn’t know how to handle the situation, and was visibly confused and hesitating about what to do.
We were then told to move out of the way, and of course, the ‘negotiators’ did so, and the rest of us were told by police that we had to move out of the way as well.

Two groups of people sat down and linked arms, the rest of us stood around them and resisted being pushed out of the way. When we got kettled to the side, the people sitting on the floor wouldn’t move and had to be forced apart. At this point, once each person was separated, they were moved into the kettle with the rest of us.

Two still refused to move and were carried off and arrested – one 18 year old girl was dragged along the floor to the side as she refused to stand up.

There was much screaming and shouting, it appeared that as she had been handcuffed, a chunk of her hair had been caught in the handcuffs and was being yanked out. The arresting officer again seemed completely confused and at a loss about what to do, and actually called out asking if anyone had a knife to cut it with! This tipped a lot of people over the edge and everyone seemed to be crying or screaming. I didn’t see how her hair was released in the end, but it was, and the girl was put into a van and taken away.

After that, even the sun lost it’s warmth, and we just felt cold. A few more cars went in and out, and it all fell into the same pattern, of being told to move, then pushed to the side while it drove in or out. But there was a bunch of new people who had arrived at that point, mostly local and older people, I was recognized as not having been seen there before and they made a point of talking to me and thanking me for being there. The delivery manager from the site left, and we took that as a sign that no more deliveries were expected, and it was time for me to leave.

I don’t know what, if anything I achieved in way of delaying or costing Cuadrilla time. But that’s not the whole point of going. Being there for the day was a way of saying that I am not happy about this, that this is not being done in my name. I am glad that I went. The policing was shoddy but at least predictable and I was glad that there were several places that a person could occupy to suit their own level of confidence.
My main observation about the policing is that with them stopping any form of peaceful protest, they are stepping in between the company and the protectors. The focus is then all about argument between the police and the public. It ceases to be about Cuadrilla. If a slow walk or other protest was allowed, then the focus remains on the fracking company. I don’t understand why the police want to put themselves into this position of destroying public confidence in them. They aren’t – or shouldn’t be – the reason that people are gathered there.

I am glad I was there at least to show solidarity with those who are there every day, and I know my presence was appreciated by the regular local people. I would have felt the same if our places had been reversed.

The 15 minute ‘agreement’ has been a flash-point for argument online for some time, and I had indeed ‘seen with my own eyes’ both sides of the argument, which is what I had intended.
a) it did provide a level of safety for a few people who would never otherwise have stood in the entrance, it did make them feel able to overcome their fears and enabled to stand there with a banner in front of a gate with a lorry on the other side. It did have a purpose. We do need more new people, and they have to find ways to overcome their own personal barriers.
b) it was the one point in the day where it genuinely put the rest of us at risk, for being outside of that ‘agreement’ that we were never part of.

I don’t know what the answer is to this, its a tricky one for sure, but I do encourage people to go and experience what it is about if they are curious. Don’t just take others’ online opinions to be the only opinion. Just be wary of that flash-point, and be aware.