A mass police raid in the early hours of yesterday morning resulted in the arrests of 114 individuals in the grounds of a Sneinton school. Those arrested have been released on bail following questioning related to “suspicion of conspiracy to commit trespass and aggravated criminal damage”. The police are saying that those arrested were “planning a period of prolonged disruption to the safe running of Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station”. The Nottingham Evening Post, in it’s usual measured and objective style, is saying that there was a “plot to attack a power station”.
Whilst this kind of raid is unprecedented in size, it is nothing new in the world of direct action. There is even a precedent in environmental direct action in the region, with police arresting eight people for “conspiracy to cause a public nuisance” in relation to anti-M1 widening protests in 2007. After a year on bail, the 8 had the charges against them thrown out of court.
As is now usual for those accused of environmental direct action, several raids were made on the homes of those arrested and the Sumac Centre was raided. When raids were being made in the aftermath of a blockade of E.On’s offices last year, they used keys from the accuseds’ personal possessions and attempts to observe the police’s actions were met with refusal and intimidation. The police often use these raids to confiscate important personal belongings such as computers until the investigation is over – a punishment for the arrested irrespective of whether they are ever actually convicted.
The use of conspiracy charges is also a tactic increasingly employed by the police. We have already covered the SHAC trial, where animal rights activists were convicted of “Conspiracy to blackmail”. Earlier this year, those accused of large scale damage at Brighton arms company EDO had their charges changed from the ridiculous allegation of burglary to “conspiracy to cause criminal damage”, and there are numerous other cases where anti-war direct actions have led to conspiracy charges being brought. For the police, conspiracy charges are an excellent way of arresting first and then finding the evidence to selectively charge. When they can’t find anything through raids on homes, questioning and intimidation they still gain from having gathered a load of information on protesters, taken their personal details, fingerprints and DNA, and intimidated and harassed those individuals. Whilst defendants have the many months until their trial to worry about proving their innocence, often under ridiculous bail conditions, it is harder for them to get involved in campaigning.
Of course, the police are using the media to try to get convictions already, making claims that they have found “specialist equipment” that would lead them to suspect that those arrested were planning direct action against Ratcliffe. Given the nature of “specialist equipment” that was seized outside last year’s Camp for Climate Action in Kingsnorth (board games, crayons, bike tools) it would not be surprising if this turned out to be very flimsy evidence indeed, but the phrase “specialist equipment” has now been planted in the public imagination. E.On, as we might expect, are also trying to demonise the arrested. A spokesperson said of the alleged ‘plot’ “While we understand that everyone has a right to protest peacefully and lawfully, this was clearly neither of those things.” Whilst it is not clear that anyone was actually planning any direct action from what ‘evidence’ has been released so far, this is a little presumptuous. Even if there was an intended action against Ratcliffe, the only comparable incident, the 2007 direct action against the station, was not lawful but was peaceful. Activists walked onto the site and chained themselves to equipment. Indeed, the climate change movement has been characterised by non-violent direct action – chiefly blockades, office occupations and protests. But don’t worry about the evidence – E.On want to inject the spectre of violence to the precedings.
This mass pre-emptive arrest is a very worrying precedent indeed. Whilst it is still too early to say much about what was and wasn’t going on, the fact of the matter is that the police were able to find out about it and are using it as carte blanche to raid and interrogate. Whether they get any successful convictions or not is almost irrelevant. It sounds like a lot of activists are going to be taken out of action for the duration (which looks likely to be long) and the seeds of suspicion and recrimination will be sown. It is absolutely essential that everyone involved in direct action takes security culture seriously so that incidents like this cannot happen. Everyone needs to know why security is important, i.e. so that you don’t incriminate yourself and all your mates, and be sensible regarding how information is distributed.
In the meantime, we will need to keep a look out for the fallout of these arrests and support anyone who is charged. The cops have certainly not beaten climate change movement but we do need to rethink how we organise and act.