Earlier this month, in what is termed a ‘major U-turn’, the UK’s Conservative government stopped fracking in England with immediate effect. The decision coincided with the launch of a report by a team of academics who have been studying anti-fracking demonstrations for three years.
‘Protesters’ experiences of policing at anti-fracking protests in England, 2016–2019: a national study’, co-written by Professor Damien Short, co-director of the Human Rights Consortium at the School of Advanced Study, and colleagues from Liverpool John Moores University and the University of York, raises serious questions about police policy and practice and the right to protest in the UK.
The researchers studied seven fracking sites in England since 2016, and conducted in-depth interviews with 31 campaigners. The key points from the resulting report, which is based on interim findings from a longitudinal study, are detailed below, and the full version is available here.
- Anti-fracking protests in England since 2016 have been overwhelmingly peaceful. Many protesters have sought to disrupt and delay the activities of the fracking industry whilst also raising public awareness of the apparent harms associated with fracking, but there is a shared commitment to peaceful protest.
- Anti-fracking protests have involved a diverse group of participants. Protests have most often involved a combination of local residents and more experienced campaigners. Those involved come from a range of political backgrounds and have very different levels of previous experience as protesters. The motivations for becoming involved in anti-fracking protests are multiple and varied but most often focus on the local, national and global impacts of fracking.
- Police leaders have sought to redefine what constitutes acceptable protests in this context. The categorisation of acceptable protest has been reflected in protesters’ experiences of operational policing at sites around England since 2016. This has compounded the existing restrictions on what it is possible for protesters to do in their attempts to mount a peaceful opposition to fracking.
- At fracking sites around England there has been a failure by police to establish relationships based on trust. There is a general perception among protesters that protest groups are not seen by police as partners with whom meaningful negotiation and cooperation is either possible or desirable. For many protesters, the scale and nature of policing operations has meant that meaningful and constructive relationships based on trust and rapport with police have not been possible.
- Police communication strategies appear to have been focused primarily on justifying police operations and influencing the relationships between protest groups and local residents. This has led many protesters to withdraw from any formal communication process. In addition, the perceived role of Police Liaison Officers as intelligence gatherers has been key to the decision of many protesters to withdraw.
- The experiences of protesters suggest that the police response to anti-fracking protests since 2016 has been disproportionate and has had the effect of undermining the right to protest. Protesters have reported experiences of violence, intimidation and aggression from police officers at multiple fracking sites across the country. This is most prevalent during intense and extended protest situations and has exacerbated the breakdown in trust between protesters and police.
- The use of civil injunctions is having a chilling effect on the right to protest. The terms contained within these injunctions have meant that many supporters of anti-fracking protests are unclear about what is prohibited. The use of injunctions by private companies has been encouraged by the police, raising serious concerns about the commitment to the facilitation of peaceful protest.
The report’s authors
Dr Joanna Gilmore is a lecturer in law at the University of York researching public order policing, human rights and community-based responses to police misconduct. She is a founding member of the Northern Police Monitoring Project.
Dr Will Jackson is a senior lecturer in criminology at Liverpool John Moores University. His research is focused on the policing of protest with a specific focus on the experiences of those involved in environmental protest.
Dr Helen Monk is a senior lecturer in criminology at Liverpool John Moores University. Her research is focused on the policing of women and women’s experiences of social movements. She is the co-director of the Centre for the Study of Crime, Criminalisation and Social Exclusion.
Dr Damien Short is professor of human rights and environmental justice at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. His recent work has covered the social and environmental impacts of unconventional resource planning applications, exploration, extraction and production. He is the editor in chief of The International Journal of Human Rights.