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Police violence at anti-fracking protests is about order, not law

Frack the police: a protester is taken down at Barton Moss. Lynne Cameron/PA

In November 2013 at Barton Moss on the outskirts of Salford, IGas, a company specialising in onshore extraction of oil and gas, began exploratory drilling to test for coal bed methane and shale gas. The possibility of extracting the latter via hydraulic fracturing, better known as “fracking”, quickly became the focus of a local campaign.

A protest camp was built at the site of the well and remained in place throughout the IGas operation, ending in April 2014. Its residents, referring to themselves in many cases as “protectors” rather than protesters, aimed to disrupt the IGas operation by slow-marching trucks in and out of the site. This elicited a tough response from Greater Manchester Police (GMP), who have met the protest with a substantial police presence at almost every march and an increasing number of Tactical Aid Unit officers.

There have been more than 200 arrests to date – including the detention of children and both pregnant and elderly protesters and the violent arrest of women – alongside many additional reports of police misconduct related to GMP’s management of the protest.

GMP’s aim has been to balance the rights of protesters with those of IGas; the chief constable has publicly expressed his frustration at being “stuck in the middle”. However, those involved in the protests have described violent and intimidating policing tactics that have led many to question the police’s independence.

The use of violence in the policing of protest is nothing new in itself. What is both novel and disturbing is GMP officers’ apparent lack of restraint even in the face of live streaming by camp residents and others involved in the marches, as well as close media attention.

The GMP’s tactics have been met with concern by legal observers, journalists, campaign groups and local residents but have continued unabated. In recent weeks the number of arrests and the reports of police brutality have increased, leading the solicitor representing most of those arrested to state that the Tactical Aid UU officers appear “out of control”.

While the various reports and videos shared online of police violence at Barton Moss suggest there has been a departure from “normal” policing, it is necessary to consider protest policing here and elsewhere in relation to the general function of police.

Keeping the peace

Liberal concepts of policing and the idea of “law and order” suggest that the police are identical with the law, both in terms of upholding it and in the regulation of their own conduct. But the history of policing (along with the contemporary experience of populations stigmatised by class, gender and race) tells us that police practices are designed to conform to and prioritise not law, but order.

Of course, this is not to suggest that appeals to the law aren’t central to the public representation of police and policing operations. At Barton Moss, GMP have continually reiterated their commitment to legal regulation in relation to complaints, while at the same time challenging protesters’ claims of police violence – as well as blaming protesters for provoking and antagonising officers.

It should not be surprising that police violence is often directed at populations who are viewed as a threat to order. That which we usually think of as “out of control” policing looks very different if we consider the role an “in control” police force plays in a capitalist society.

From this perspective, protest policing needs to be seen as a pacification project in which the suppression of a specific protest is not the sole objective. GMP’s response is clearly meant to ensure that IGas gets its shipment of trucks on a daily basis, and that the exploratory drilling at Barton Moss continues. But such brazen police violence in the face of media attention (social media or otherwise) sends a clear signal to those on the peripheries of the opposition – in the local community in Salford or those concerned about fracking around the country – that any protest against the operation of fracking is both illegitimate and dangerous.

In the words of one of the protesters, the “violence, brutality, bullying and general intimidation” used by GMP have “created a climate of fear such that the British people feel unsafe to come forth and air their views”. Police violence, helped by its framing in a largely sympathetic media, enforces the compliance of protest movements and fuels the public’s fear of protesters.

In confronting the exploitation of natural resources (and highlighting the dangers involved therein) through direct action, fracking protesters are stepping outside of the incredibly narrow official understanding of legitimate “peaceful” (read: non-disruptive) protest and disrupting the wider social order, in which capitalism, sustained through a dependence on fossil fuels, is sealed off from any real alternatives.

The camp itself at Barton Moss is a clear sign of “disorder”, symbolising an opposition to state-corporate collusion in the economic exploitation of the natural environment.

Broadly speaking, most representations of police violence reduce it to the work of “bad apples”, acknowledging only that individual officers may have over-stepped the mark. The institutional and systemic violence that is, and has always been, at the core of the police project remains obscured.

Anti-fracking protests are an attempt to confront what Rob Nixon calls the slow violence of environmental damage; this attempt is in turn being countered by the violence of the state. We need to confront police violence with a broader critical approach to understanding both the destructive and productive effects of the structural and systematic violence through which the current social order is secured.

Protests that challenge the current social order and try to disrupt it will always be dealt with in this violent way. Calls for police restraint, or for accountability through official channels, will continue to fall on deaf ears. As David Cameron has said, “We’re going all out for shale.”

A conference in Liverpool on May 16 – How Violent is Britain?– will examine this issue in detail. This is part of a series of articles on this theme on The Conversation.

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