Democracy and the Frack Free Three

Following the harsh sentences passed down to three anti-fracking activists in September, Green councillor Gina Dowding looks at the drive to suppress non-violent direct action and its consequences for our democracy.

Fracking in progress
Fracking in progress
Gina Dowding

The anti-fracking community and the wider movement for environmental justice is in a state of shock after custodial sentences were handed out to three men for taking part in peaceful direct action in the summer of 2017. Richard Roberts, Roscoe Blevins and Richard Loizou, along with a fourth protester, Julian Brock, took part in a joint ‘truck surfing’ protest, a fairly commonly-used tactic for slowing down the fracking industry by climbing onto and remaining on top of trucks delivering equipment – and in their case, staying for a total of 72 hours.

But the sense of sheer unfairness of such harsh prison sentences of between 15 and 16 months has gone way beyond those opposed to fracking. There is a growing community questioning whether government and the industry in their desperation to force the shale gas industry into UK are part of a ‘collusion between law enforcement authorities and private companies’concerns raised by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Association and Assembly in his report in 2016 on anti-fracking protests. 

The Frack Free Three were charged with public nuisance – an offence not used against environmental protesters for decades.

Over the last year shale gas companies are increasingly resorting to ‘Project Fear’ tactics including ‘the injunction’. In July, Cuadrilla, the fracking company that was recently granted permission to begin extraction of shale gas, took a leaf out of the corporates’ ‘how to overcome resistance book’ by applying for an injunction against ‘persons unknown’ to try to prevent further direct around their sites or that of suppliers.

They are generating a not totally-unfounded fear that non-violent direct action (NVDA) may result not just in a criminal record and a fine (and now even a prison sentence for a first offence), but could, if the company chooses to pursue people in the civil courts, see people have claims made against them for far higher sums on account of loss of earnings to the corporate's business. 

So what are the implications for responsible citizens who want to express legitimate outrage as government policy and global corporations take over our public spaces, threaten pubic safety and climate chaos and overturn locally-made democratic decisions in favour of the profits of big business?

These added considerations weren’t present when I took part for the first time in my life in a ‘lock on’ with a similar aim of preventing suppliers entering the Preston New Road site in Lancashire just days before the men now in prison jumped on trucks. I didn’t take the decision lightly to lay with my arm in a metal pipe along with 12 others until cut out. This resulted in arrest, and five months later a guilty verdict in court with a 12-month conditional discharge for the offence of ‘willful obstruction of the public highway’ (we were all found not guilty of ‘preventing people going about their lawful business... or using their tools’ under the Trade Union Act originally designed to prevent secondary picketing).

We must not be cowed by the aggressive efforts of the oil and gas industry to get away with ‘Project Fear’. NVDA must not be removed from our toolbox of tactics as part of a wider strategy to achieve a recalibration of the balance of power essential for a greener democracy; it is a muscle that needs to be flexed to keep it working. RisingUp.Org is one group now giving urgency to the cause of legitimizing and normalizing civil disobedience.

It is good to see Trade Union leaders join the call for a judicial review of the absurdly harsh sentences given to the Frack Free Three – our brothers, our sons – and an inquiry into the wider attacks on the right to protest and freedom of assembly.

As an elected Green councillor I am proud to belong to a party whose policies are underpinned by an unwavering commitment to the shared values of social and environmental justice and the empowerment of communities. Rightly we continue to develop and fine-tune policies to embody our vision of a democracy that serves the needs of human well-being and those of our fellow creatures and the planet.

While pursuing our goals of getting more Greens elected I am proud to see Greens participate in and stand in solidarity with those using civil disobedience to bring about that change.