The man under arrest on suspicion of kidnapping and murdering Sarah Everard is a serving officer in the Diplomatic Protection squad of the Metropolitan Police. But police went ahead and intervened at the women’s vigil in Clapham Common last week, wading in heavy-handedly, trampling on tribute flowers, and forcibly arresting women attending the memorial. Despite widespread condemnation, the head of the force, Commissioner Cressida Dick, has refused to resign.

It may have been shocking for the public to witness such spectacles of police violence, but as part of the anti-fracking movement in Lancashire, police violence, sexually inappropriate conduct and harassment has been extensive within fracking protest. Abuses by police forces during protests across the country are well documented in academic literature (Gilmore et al 2016; 2018).

During the Barton Moss protests against shale gas extraction in the area, Maria, a protestor reported:

“One day we could actually just peacefully and calmly be walking down the road and be allowed to walk down the road, and other times we’ll just be shoved, pushed and beaten, and we just never know what kind of day it’s going to be.”

Research carried out on anti-fracking protests shows that women have clearly been targeted by police and private security forces, and the Greater Manchester Police (GMP) is accused of sexualised violence. The Keep Moving report (Gilmore et al, 2016) on Barton Moss anti-fracking protest policing and Operation Geraldton, quoted a woman protestor talking about gendered violence:

“A lot of the time it is women on the front line, but not only that we’ve noticed officers specifically target women for violence, they’ve inappropriately touched them, groped them. I’ve been inappropriately touched. Every single woman on the front line has had some kind of inappropriate physical contact with an officer…sometimes their hands will just go up way too high. Somebody had their breast groped.”

‘Jane’, a protestor from Barton Moss, shared her experiences of sexual assault by a police officer during a protest:

“One day there was this police officer, and he was moving me by, like, putting his hands around my waist. And then he just put his hand…I was wearing, like, quite a flimsy skirt, and he put his hand right under, and he put his fingers inside where, like, well I wasn’t wearing under-crackers. And I just screamed. I literally screamed, and I turned around, and I took a photo of him. And I shouted what he did as well…But that wasn’t an isolated incident for the Moss. That happened all the time.”

The report – Gendering Pacification: Policing Women at Anti-Fracking Protests – and its authors (Gilmore et all 2019) writes that “…a form of gendered policing – the use of sexual intimidation, harassment and violence – was understood to be the most effective way to pacify women involved in the protest,” which is corroborated by many women’s experiences up and down the country at anti-fracking and environmental protests.

The authors continued: “The policing at Barton Moss was experienced as a systematic abuse of power and an attempt to curtail the rights of women to protest. Here, police power plays on the productivity and effectivity of sexual violence – long tested as the most efficient way to control women and to unsettle their occupation of public space.”

Kevin Blowe, Campaigns Coordinator for the Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol) spoke to Real Media on “policing being a deeply conservative and very macho culture”. Blowe’s work at Netpol is highly respected and he has closely watched and recorded police behaviours around anti-fracking protests. He continued:

“Public order policing, in particular, encourages officers to see everyone as a threat rather than having any empathy with protesters as people simply demanding their voices are heard. 

“Women on the frontline of opposition to fracking have experienced especially violent and confrontational police tactics and in some instances, such as at Barton Moss, groping and other behaviour that is sexual assault. These tactics are designed to intimidate, to make women reluctant to come back and keep protesting. As the oil and gas industry has discovered too, however, you underestimate women anti-fracking campaigners at your peril.”

Real Media spoke with Miranda Cox, a former councillor and anti-fracking protestor, about her experiences at Preston New Road, Lancashire, close to Cuadrilla’s controversial fracking site:

As a woman who has been physically and emotionally abused by Lancashire Police during the anti-fracking protests, I am not at all surprised by the appalling Sarah Everard case and subsequent violence perpetrated upon women at the vigil.

 “In 2017, I had my own brutal awakening to this dark side of policing. There was so much aggression directed at us all, men and women, young and old. But in the context of recent events, I’m focusing upon police violence towards women. I have several personal experiences, but I also witnessed so many more.

“I was thrown to the ground twice, once thrown violently towards traffic and another time I received an injury that later required surgery. The cuts and torn ligaments have healed but the emotional scars have not. I am not alone.

“In the three years we maintained our peaceful protests and vigils at the gates of the fracking site, I lost count of the times police dragged women by their clothing, exposing breasts and underwear. I lost count of the times we were shoved, or dragged, knuckles pushed into our ribs, wrists grabbed and twisted. Some of the bruising I saw was horrendous. I lost count of the times we were followed along the road by vans of jeering police, hitting the insides of the vans mimicking the way riot police hit their shields.

“I have been dragged by my scarf restricting breathing, others have been violently grabbed, legs knocked from under them, kicked as they lay on the ground. I think all of us experienced our breasts being pushed and groins pressed into our backs. Quite apart from the physical violence, they deployed intimidatory techniques and ignored aggression and threats from men outside of the protest directed at women.

“Unless we had video evidence of these assaults we were never taken seriously. All our formal complaints were dismissed. In fact, I know one of my complaints was dismissed and the officer in question misrepresented events in his statement.

“We tried all the official avenues. We even met with the Police and Crime Commissioner. We felt we were treated with contempt because we were protesting. We were protecting our homes and our families, doing what any caring parent would.

“The emotional scars are severe. Many of us suffer PTSD symptoms including panic attacks, poor sleep, anxiety at the sight of police vehicles and police uniform. Only this morning, I have cried recalling these experiences and I have been left shaking by the sight of a police car parked outside the supermarket. It’s been very difficult to express the level of shock and betrayal I feel from the police.

“Before I protested, I had no real feelings about them. As a white, older woman, I had had little reason to engage with them.

“What happened to me between 2017 and late 2019 haunts me daily. What’s worse is it need not have been this way. We attempted to redress the brutality frequently, attending liaison meetings to raise concerns and highlight the fact we were peaceful. We presented collar numbers of police we felt over stepped their role or were exhibiting signs of dangerous burnout. But these efforts were fruitless.

“I am left believing that the Lancashire Constabulary treated us so badly because they didn’t view us a residents or women: they de-humanised us and they destroyed trust.

The outrage over the policing standards at the vigil for Sarah Everard has timed neatly with the introduction of a prohibitive bill against protest that is currently being debated in the House of Commons. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, will hand the police even more powers to restrict the right to protest and impose heavy sentences on those who cause disruption. As the feminist group Sisters Uncut stated, The police abuse the powers that they already have – and yet the government plans to give them more powers in the Bill. This is dangerous. This will lead to even more state violence against women. This Bill must be stopped.”

Real Media spoke to Professor Damien Short from the Human Rights Consortium, on his thoughts over the new Bill. Professor Short said:

“The Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill is yet another assault on our democratic (and human) right to peaceful protest, seemingly on the whim of Priti Patel and her dislike of those trying to save humanity from itself.

“In denouncing Extinction Rebellion’s protests as “a shameful attack on our way of life, our economy and the livelihoods of the hard-working majority” she demonstrated a woeful lack of appreciation of the urgency of the climate situation and now a disdain for our fundamental rights and freedoms. Furthermore, given the experiences of policing at anti/fracking protests, which a number of academic studies have investigated in detail, if this Bill passes I have no doubt we will see more police brutality at peaceful protests, especially towards women.”

The right to protest is a fundamental tenet of our human rights, not a grab-back from a government that already wields too much power and authoritarianism. The new policing Bill should be abandoned before our society risks further descent into a fascist state.

18th March 2021 ©Claire Stephenson 

Photo (Miranda Cox at Preston New Road): courtesy Kristian Buus