(Disability News Service) Police forces are repeatedly targeting and assaulting disabled people involved in peaceful anti-fracking protests, campaigners have told Disability News Service (DNS).
DNS has seen video footage of a string of incidents in which disabled campaigners taking part in peaceful protests have been injured, manhandled or put at risk of injury by police officers.
It has also spoken to three disabled protesters, and two other eye-witnesses, who have all experienced or witnessed serious and repeated incidents of police brutality targeted at disabled people.
There are now fears that forces across the country that have policed anti-fracking protests are developing a tactics “template” that can be used to target disabled people taking part in other peaceful protests, such as those organised by the anti-cuts and climate change movements.
Some of the most recent and serious concerns relate to the actions of officers from Lancashire police in dealing with peaceful protests about the drilling activities of the energy company Cuadrilla near Preston New Road (PNR), on the edge of Blackpool.
Maria Allen, who is deaf and has arthritis, has been involved in the Preston New Road protest since it began in January 2017, and in the wider anti-fracking movement for four years.
She lives about 20 miles from the fracking site, in an area that is also licensed for fracking, and has family in Blackpool, while a cousin lives less than a mile from the site.
She told DNS: “I have been targeted by the police on so many occasions I have lost count.
“I have been shoved over, kicked, punched, pressure pointed [putting pressure on sensitive points in the body to cause pain].”
On one occasion she was picked up and thrown into a fence, she said. Another time she was knocked unconscious.
She said: “The favourite trick of some of the officers there is to sneak up behind me and grab or shove me without warning.
“Or they will issue instructions when they are stood behind me and they know I don’t know what they are saying [because she lip-reads], and then grab or shove me, using the excuse that I did not comply with their request to move.
“I have also been told by several officers that I am lying when I tell them that I am deaf.”
She described the police behaviour she had witnessed as “intimidating, aggressive, confrontational, violent, abusive, disproportionate, frightening”.
Allen said: “On numerous occasions I have also seen the police goading and harassing autistic protesters, following them, grabbing them and holding them, calling them names.
“Most of us have also been subjected to targeted arrests where we have been arrested on spurious grounds and been held for several hours in police cells. We have then been released without charge.
“The police do not only target disabled protesters at PNR; they target anyone they perceive as vulnerable.
“They also target our young people and women, particularly elderly women. They have even assaulted and deliberately frightened teenage children.”
She believes this targeting of disabled people and other protesters the police see as vulnerable is a deliberate policy, intended to “intimidate people and make them scared to protest”.
Allen, a single mother of four disabled sons, said: “After they have assaulted me it takes me a few days to get the courage up to go back.
“I believe they also do it to try to provoke a violent response from some of the non-disabled protesters.
“At PNR we are primarily a bunch of ordinary, local people. Our whole ethos is non-violent. We never fight back.
“Many of us are disabled or vulnerable and the police treat us as if we were football hooligans about to riot.
“Until I went to PNR I had always respected the police. The policing at PNR has destroyed any trust I had in our police force, and sadly it has made my children feel the same way, because they have seen the horrific bruising the police have left me with.”
Another disabled protester, Nick Sheldrick, who lives three miles from the fracking site and has a spinal cord injury, is also convinced that he has been targeted by police officers.
Since he began attending protests at PNR last year he has been tipped out of his wheelchair six times. He believes only one of these incidents was accidental.
The other five times he has been deliberately pushed in his chest, he said.
Sheldrick said: “I have told them that if they do that then I am going to go over in my chair.
“I have told the senior officers if they need me to go anywhere just ask me and I’ll move. They don’t need to pull me and touch me and drag me. But they do.
“They don’t give you time to move at all. As they are saying ‘move’ they are [already]pushing you.”
On one recent occasion he was shoved in the chest by one officer – after being dragged across the road by his shoulders by another officer – and fell backwards and hit his head on the pavement.
Because of the treatment he has received, he will no longer attend the protest site alone.
On another occasion last year, one officer left him with a bruise covering his thigh after trying to pin him down by putting a knee across his leg.
He said this was “the first indication that the police weren’t there for my protection.
“I’ve always had a really big respect for the police, I was a merchant navy officer, I’ve never been in trouble in my life.
“I’ve always thought the police were there to help and protect us, but that’s not what I’ve witnessed down there.”
He has also had one officer tell him he should go for a run and then laugh in his face. He lodged a complaint but it was unsuccessful after the officer claimed he had been directing his comment to a nearby group of protesters and not to Sheldrick.
Other complaints he has made to the force have all been rejected.
In one piece of film shot by a protester, reported by the Mirror and other publications last year, Sheldrick is seen apparently being pulled to the floor in his wheelchair by police officers as he attempts to block a delivery lorry.
One of the officers told him to stop being stupid and stand up, he said. “I was trying to explain to them I’ve got a spinal cord injury and my legs don’t work. They just wouldn’t listen.”
The publicity around that incident has not stopped officers targeting him.
He described the police tactics as “quite brutal” and says that watching officers grab protesters and push them into the hedge is “quite nasty, and sad to watch as well”.
He said he has also seen many incidents in which officers have grabbed young women and pulled their tops up to expose their breasts, which he said “looked deliberate”.
He said: “I think there are a lot of tactics going on to stop people going to the protests, to scare people away.”
And Sheldrick said he had seen similar tactics being used by police forces on other protests, as he has watched them live online.
One of the disabled people mentioned most often by protesters when asked about police targeting is Liz Beck, from nearby Manchester.
She told DNS that she had been thrown or fallen to the ground at least 30 times at Preston New Road, although she also broke her collarbone after an incident at the Horse Hill fracking site in Surrey, footage of which DNS has watched (pictured).
On every one of these occasions, Beck was carrying her walking-stick.
In one piece of footage shot by a protester at Preston New Road and also seen by DNS, Beck can be seen being pushed by a police officer and falling to the ground. The officer then picks her up and drags her across the floor.
On her return to Preston New Road after the Horse Hill incident, her arm was in a sling, but that was no protection.
“They would target it,” she said. “They would deliberately grab it and pull me by that arm.”
She added: “I have been pushed to the ground, I have been rugby tackled, I have been thrown to the ground, I have been slung round, thrown to the ground and [had an officer’s]knee in my back.”
Sometimes she falls because she has been pushed or shoved by police officers; on other occasions she has lost her balance while in a crowd being manoeuvred by officers.
She has also been pushed into hedges at the side of the road, and on one occasion was pushed from the road and then pushed again so she rolled down to the bottom of a steep bank.
She said: “They will either grab you or pinch you or pull you round. I’m unstable, so I go over.
“They seem to go for the weaker ones so other people will start getting angry, because everybody is peacefully protesting.
“They want people to be violent because then they know what to do, so when it’s peaceful they will make it violent.
“They want us to go away quietly, but we have done nothing wrong apart from protest.
“A lot of people were scared to come up because of the police… because of the way police are, but it just makes you more angry. It’s denying people’s right to peacefully protest.”
Miranda Cox is a member of the town council for Kirkham, a couple of miles from the Preston New Road fracking site.
She needed an operation after tearing cartilage in her knee at the beginning of last year after police contained a group of protesters and then pushed against them.
This year, she received a substantial cut to her arm after she was “lifted up and thrown” onto the road by a police officer.
She said: “We have had people knocked unconscious, broken shoulders, broken wrists.
“I have witnessed a number of incidents with people who are very obviously disabled people.”
These include repeated incidents involving Sheldrick, Allen and Beck.
She said: “I have seen Liz [Beck] knocked to the floor several times and I have seen another friend who uses a wheelchair [Sheldrick] tipped to the floor.
“I have spoken to another lady wheelchair-user who narrowly avoided being tipped.”
She said: “I can’t say for certain that those people are targeted but it does seem a bit bizarre to me that someone could be tipped six times from their chair if they are not targeted.
“Every occasion [Sheldrick] has been right next to me and I have seen what’s happened and there’s a clear manoeuvre that tips him forwards or backwards or sideways.
“I have asked if [targeting disabled people]was a tactic and they deny it.”
She is another who believes the targeting of those seen as more vulnerable is a deliberate ploy to undermine the morale and determination of protesters.
She said: “It is completely unsafe. The police will say the only reasons they are present at PNR is for our safety, but at the same minute you’re being rugby tackled to the floor or tipped out of your wheelchair.
“I think their tactics are to get the industry wagons through the gates at any cost and they justify it by saying it’s for our safety, but it’s not. It’s a very dangerous game they are playing.”
Cox and another local councillor, along with residents and protesters, formally withdrew from monthly meetings with the police last month when they realised the force was “not even paying lip service” to their complaints.
None of the complaints that she and others have lodged with the force – to her knowledge – have been upheld.
She believes – as do fellow protesters – that police forces across the country are now using the anti-fracking protests as a means of training officers, developing a template to use on other protests.
She said: “We have conversations like this all the time. When I look at patterns of police behaviour at different anti-fracking sites, they seem to follow a similar sort of pattern.
“You can almost predict what is going to happen.”
Another piece of footage shot by protesters, and reported by the Independent last year, shows a disabled member of the Green party, 85-year-old Anne Power, being dragged across a road by police officers while protesting peacefully outside another fracking site, at Little Plumpton, also in Lancashire.
DNS has also spoken to Nina Tailor, from Gathering Place Films (GPF), which has been filming anti-fracking protests around the country for more than five years.
She said she has grown increasingly surprised by the police behaviour GPF has observed at anti-fracking protests across the country, including the way officers appear to be targeting disabled and older protesters, and women.
DNS has seen some of the footage she has shot and collected from protesters for a film GPF is making, Frack It and See, about fracking in the UK.
Kevin Blowe, coordinator for the Network for Police Monitoring (NETPOL), believes the police are targeting protesters perceived as vulnerable, including disabled people.
He believes this is happening partly to “scare people away” but also to try to provoke a reaction from other protesters, so the police then have an excuse to arrest them.
He said: “It’s surprising how many people who have disabilities and who have been prepared to step up seem to be the ones who end up being targeted.
“There does seem to be a pattern of people with disabilities being amongst those who are targeted. People on the ground… are saying it’s deliberate.”
NETPOL, which monitors and resists excessive, intimidating or violent policing, is now hoping to encourage some of those protesters who have been injured – including disabled people – to launch legal actions against the police.
Blowe is convinced that police forces are rolling out the tactics from one anti-fracking protest to the next, usually starting with the intention of “facilitating” the protest but soon descending into a “zero tolerance” approach to any form of disruption, even though the protests are peaceful.
NETPOL will be publishing a series of short films about anti-fracking protests, with one on police targeting of protesters published online today.
He said: “Police have been able to get away with things that would horrify most people [because of the rural locations of the anti-fracking protests]… because largely these things are going unreported, partly because it’s not happening in front of all the cameras in central London.”
He is surprised there has not yet been a fatality in any of the anti-fracking protests, and he added: “I know there have been some near misses.”
The danger, he said, is that with disabled people being targeted “you have got to worry that at some point something really terrible is going to happen”.
The evidence of protesters from Preston New Road, and other anti-fracking protests, are backed up by two reports.
Last year, in Protecting the Planet is not a Crime, NETPOL described seeing evidence – particularly from Lancashire – “of police officers pushing people into hedges, knocking campaigners unconscious, violently dragging older people across the road and shoving others into speeding traffic”.
The report added: “We had also heard about the targeting of disabled protesters (including repeatedly tipping a wheelchair user from his chair) and officers using painful pressure point restraint techniques.”
And in March 2016, academics at Liverpool John Moores University and the University of York looked at the policing of the Barton Moss anti-fracking protest camp in their report Keep Moving!
They told how protesters described “the provocative targeting of some of the camp’s more ‘vulnerable’ members, including young, elderly and disabled protesters, and women”, which they were told appeared to stem from “a more systemic tactical approach”.
DNS put a series of questions to Lancashire police shortly after 5.30pm on Monday – including whether it accepted that it had been targeting disabled protesters, and whether it had guidance for dealing with disabled people at protests – but the force had failed to answer the questions by noon today (Thursday).
But a force spokesman said in a statement: “Our intention is to ensure a consistent and coordinated policing response and ensure a balance between the rights of people to lawfully protest, together with the rights of the wider public, including local businesses, to go about their lawful activities.
“We aim to prevent, where possible, crime and disorder, but if it does occur we will provide an effective, lawful and proportionate response.”