A Year at the Anti-fracking Camps

A Year at the Anti-fracking Camps

written by a member of DANCE

 

I’ve been wanting to share some reflections, thoughts and feelings from my experiences and our shared actions this year at the camps of Preston New Road and Kirby Misperton. It’s taken a while to find the space – a day off work with the flu is the perfect opportunity!

The year began for us in January with the Kirby Misperton group setting up a protection camp on farmers’ land 15 minutes walk from the prospective site of ‘high intensity hydraulic fracturing’. Despite the icy cold, days were bright, and during the time myself and another mach resident builder-type spent on site, there was an enthusiastic energy with many visitors coming to offer food, listen to talks, and engage with the building process, which culminated in some functional and beautiful pallet structures including a round house and solidly built kitchen.

There were beautiful moments of connection with nature here too; a gnarled and wizened grandmother Oak tree stands in the North-East corner of the field in an old hedgerow, powerfully holding the camp in a benevolent and protective rooting. The residents had established the space around this tree with a ring of straw bales and set up a small altar, praying and meditating for peace and protection, for the land and the people. Running throughout the camp and the interactions of workspace and protest was a vibrant current of solidarity with indigenous activists all over the world, and the welcoming of the sacred through the values and messages of creative banners felt an important and significant spiritual element.
Being at this camp as someone born and raised in the South of England, there was a healing aspect of solidarity between the traditionally divided tribes of this island; economically and geographically, through centuries of abuse of power, through human greed and avarice and ignorance, the wounds felt on both sides run deep. The parallels here with Standing Rock, and the beautiful and powerful gestures of forgiveness and recompense between first nations peoples and the military and government of the US, struck a deep and resonant chord. There feels a tremendous sense of possibility, as we stand together to protect and honour the things that unite us, on the deepest and most primal level, as human beings in the web of life – water, air, earth, fire. And the threat to democratic process, local community, and sustainable economies inherent within these projects also unites the resistance; trade unions, environmentalists, and political activists from across the traditional spectrum are coming together and standing up, moving beyond identity politics whilst embracing with sensitivity the diversity of human experience.

Evenings were cozy and convivial, and despite the cold many of the folks at the camp were huddled round the fire until the early hours of the morning singing old protest songs and sharing food, cigarettes, stories, warmth. Firewood and materials are donated daily by local supporters as well as those from further afield, with high levels of ingenuity and creativity displayed in the construction of devices such as the former tractor wheel axle, converted into a multi surface cooker top!

Fast forward to Preston New Road in March, and the very real prospect of pioneering caravans, hosting Cuadrilla employees and prospecting the fracking pad just off the A road between Preston and Blackpool. An international day of solidarity had been called for folks resisting fracking at a local tree nursery, with a gathering of speakers, musicians, traditional morris dancers and general colour and festivity, before an unplanned and unannounced march to the gates. Emotions were running high amongst the protestors, and for the front lines chanting and banner waving quickly spilled over into the aggressive lifting and removing of Herris fencing surrounding the entrance to the site. The familiar heart contraction and rushing sensations moving through my body as police officers and security guards started to push back at the group; confusion and mild anxiety alongside the contagiously spreading anger and firmness of resolve. Helpful conversations with companions quickly helped me to internally clarify what felt right in this moment; strategically there seemed little purpose in risking arrest and violent confrontation without affecting or impacting upon operations on the site.

Some small groups did start to run over and into the main compound to challenge bewildered security staff and celebrate breaking through the symbolic barriers, and certainly it feels easy in the heat of these moments to express cathartic responses. When I know the ‘rightness’ of the cause that I am here to represent, the story and image of sacred protection of the Earth and the needless destruction of this ill-considered industry, emotional and energetic triggers around ‘righteousness’ and warrior archetypes quickly take hold and it requires practice and spaciousness to discern: what is holding back for fear of personal repercussions or instinctual, conditioned reserve and fear of authority figures? When to push the boundaries of what feels safe and familiar for the purposes of ‘making a statement’, or genuinely resisting and contributing to a wider movement of dissent, and when to hold back through an intelligent appraisal of the present situation and it’s wider implications? It seems that from later legal results the gate removal and intrusion were unhelpful; Cuadrilla, through a suspect court hearing and dubious land-owner claims were granted an injunction that has meant anyone enter the site without prior permission can be legally fined upwards of £20,000 for trespass.

 

A wonderful film on the anti-fracking movement (with some DANCErs spottable in the background!)

 

Our next visit came around in June, when a group from D.A.N.C.E gathered to support and collaborate with Reclaim the Power, an anarchist grass roots activist network establishing a camp at the same tree nursery for a month of ‘rolling resistance’ to the beginnings of equipment arriving on site at Preston. Joyful, warm and sunny memories of evenings spent in meditation, conversation, shared meals from the amazing ‘Veggies’ food stall, and powerful radical history lessons through song and story from the ‘Three Acres and a Cow’ crew. And an inspiring and intelligent practical framework for inclusive relational practices, effective consensus decision making process, and creative action visioning groups. We joined for the first day of mass action around food sovereignty at the gates, a rich and heady experience of both the frustration of witnessing lorries scooting past after brief delays from human bodies gradually dispersed by police, and the joy and solidarity of music, dancing, children, artistic creativity, wonderful vegetarian food, general tomfoolery and uplifting speeches given by hugely diverse groups ranging from grandparents to green party MP’s. Days like this really lift the long-term camp members and undoubtedly slow down proceedings for the lorries and general logistics.

Getting to know the site at PNR – in a bizarre and reckless planning decision, Cuadrilla have set out the frack pad directly adjacent to a massive water-works piping station, and even during the first few months of ‘exploratory’ drilling reports were coming in of disruptions to local water supply, most likely as a results of redirection and underground works connected with the fracking site. Despite having vast tracts of land available to establish the infrastructure, drilling equipment had already malfunctioned, been damaged or broken in the process of installation, and several vehicles were involved in accidents/near misses at the gates due to reckless driving (no doubt encouraged by the speed at which many of the lorries are piling in!). Being directly turned off a major A-road, traffic passing the main gates is heavy, and there is a constant tension between fracking equipment vehicles, protestors, and public vehicles passing through. Protest groups I witnessed were careful to ensure the best possible flow, and in particular to maintain a single open lane for emergency vehicles to pass. However on one occasion, I witnessed protestors compromising (after hearing reports of fracking lorries en route) by opening one of the lanes, having been promised by the police that an ambulance needed to get past; cynically, the police then waved the traffic through as far as the next Cuadrilla vehicle needed to access the site, without any sign of an ambulance whatsoever. Anger, mistrust and confrontation inevitably grow through incidents such as these. And thus the cycle of aggression back and forth, between protestors and local residents towards individuals representing ‘the authorities’ grows, sometimes to an unreasonable and unhelpful (though completely understandable) extent.

A weekend on the camp with R.T.P. is intentionally directed towards a concrete action; having joined an affinity group, participants are responsible not only for ensuring the smooth flowing of camp life, collectively, and through consensus, but also for attending planning meetings, training sessions, and hopefully culminating in effective and strategic intervention. These affinity groups vary widely and cater for a huge diversity of creative responses, ranging from low-risk and playful, to spiky and confrontational. My group involved a number of heroic and exhilarating rugby-type scenarios for dealing with and responding to police/security aggression, and physically preparing ourselves for inevitable confrontation. For me there was a deep and full blooded aliveness that pervaded our time together, the sense of purpose and urgency heightened by the risk to our own liberty and physical safety, and the growing conviction and soulful connection to our commitment to protecting water, and honouring life.
After a night of wired adrenalin and contemplative early morning sunlight, we began to walk to the gate, nerves racing and hearts pumping, carrying banners and singing as many songs as we could gather in the moment to steady and galvanise. Such a beautiful scene as various groups converged at the gate; a well known protest band had set up their instruments (at 6.30am!), and were playing their hearts out; some of our dear D.A.N.C.E. friends were blowing bubbles dressed as clowns to soothe the atmosphere and de-escalate tension; and the remainder of our crew had dressed up as ‘Where’s Wally’ Wallies – generally frivolity and anarchic chaos reigning supreme. Finally the decoy arrived, and the cyclists carrying the ‘fake gear’ raced past the front of the gates, drawing a number of the security guards into a comedy tussle. With that, our moment arrived – a blur of tools emerging from the hedgerow behind our custom positioned banners, followed by running, carrying, protecting bodies, as they fell to the ground before the gates and locked-in to our blockading equipment, forcing through and emerging into the perfect spot, after what felt like hours of boots flying and muscular grabbing around vulnerable skulls and flesh. Success! And following the euphoria of knowing the gates would be closed for at least the rest of the morning from one side, the dozens of activists and supporters gathered and continued to blockade the other, by lying down in the road, linking arms en masse, singing and resisting and feeling strong enough to fight back and protect the land, as human beings joined perhaps just for that morning, by the possibility of our collective voices finally being heard.

A couple of months later, and a smaller group of us from D.A.N.C.E. find ourselves back at the site in Yorkshire, this time to support the camp prior to expected vehicle deliveries, and to join with a larger flock of ‘spiritual activists’ gathering for a weekend with monastic teachers from Thich Nhat Hanh’s ‘Plum Village’ Sangha’. Around 100 folks camping and staying nearby, briging a quietude and compassionate presence that at times felt exquisite, at others felt somewhat awkward, but infinitely enriching and beneficial in connecting with deeper underlying motives and possibilities for collaboration. Later in the summer, and the mellowing of Lammas after the fire of Solstice; beautiful sunsets and fruitful abundance on the trees; an eternal cyclical dance framing the intensity of concern felt by many of the long term local residents, who could see their democratic rights being trampled, and were ready for lorries to begin rolling in the next week. It was moving and powerful to attune, with the meditative and enquiring compassion of the monastic holding, to the depth of feeling and shared pain, particularly of those who had given so much and cared so deeply for the land of their families and ancestors. Heartened by the presence of many caring hearts and souls, a group of us went down to the gates first thing next morning, to see if any action was to begin; we were turned away and forced to leave, for although the public footpath to the site hadn’t been officially closed yet, Ineos/Third Energy were keen to have as little observation and public presence as possible. Forming a circle for prayer this time, and directing all of our songs, poems, spontaneous utterances to the healing of this threatened part of the Earth, it’s waters and the seeming madness of a frack pad ludicrously rammed full of equipment and vehicles in preparation for an unnecessary and dangerous operation.

The lorries did begin to roll over the next few weeks… and so a few of us, having heard this call from the residents for support and solidarity, returned later in the autumn, this time ready to face more police/security and fast moving vehicles to block the gates. Lots of cooking, walking, repairing and maintaining structures after a period of heavy rain, deep cold and LOTS of mud, and a somewhat beleaguered resident community still nonetheless ready to step up and stand on the front lines. A group of 10 of us formed around an afternoon of ‘Work that Reconnects’ activities, based on Joanna Macy’s insights, practicing in ways informed by Buddhist teachings and focussed on empowering and resourcing human hearts in defence of life. We planned and chatted with the more militant wing of the activist crowd, and after a risqué and highly charged evening checking different access routes to the site, were roused to action, following the group announcement that Greg Clarke was to publically and formally authorise extraction from the site, the very next morning.

However, numbers dwindled the next morning – the results of more police and security activity – and our DANCE crew found ourselves needing to rethink and regather quickly, before again beginning the long walk to gate front. The first lorry arrived soon after we got there – and this time, one of our strategies to unfurl and play with a giant silver inflatable cube beach ball (which has to be seen to be believed!) was quickly quashed by stern officers who didn’t see the funny side. As it became clear that our best method, avoiding simply being quickly removed from the site by ‘necessary force’ (a recent legal adaptation from ‘reasonable force, in order to deal with protestors blockading), was to slow walk the lorries, we started to trudge up the hill. The next lorry came equally quickly, and we found ourselves quickly scattered and neutralised by the folks in yellow, shunted off to the side of the road. After another quick bit of team talking, we gathered again, this time discussing different approaches – linking arms, staggering to small groups – only to find that the police had chatted with one of the locals, and were actually willing to allow us to slow walk the lorries. It was another beautiful moment, our group of 10 linking arms and walking slowly, meditatively, taking it in turns to lead songs and chants and gathering more media, supporters, local residents, to the side, for around 20 minutes, until the police eventually began to bundle us off once more. Returning to the gate and again riding the optimistic vibes, a land rover containing containing one of the chief executive types attempted to enter the site, only to find themselves blocked and chanted at by stalwart bodies. The vehicle stopped, scoped the scene, and moved on – possibly to find an alternative entrance – but nonetheless slowed and inconvenienced by the protestor presence. We managed one more slow walk, this time more orchestrated and again allotted a specific time frame, before folks began to head home, some buoyed by the meditative and supportive presence, others simply continuing the grim work of standing their ground in caravans and vehicles close to the gate as the rain started lashing in. Amazing and inspiring to see the continual shows of kindness and generosity the protest generates; pots of soup, tea, bread and biscuits arriving in vans and bicycles from local and further afield groups. Despite the brutal weather gathering externally, we went our separate ways for the long journey home with a collective sense of achievement and resilience.

Some afterthoughts on these actions came following media responses. Someone posted on facebook an article published in the Daily Mail website; showing our group slow walking, and framed by quotes on the ‘admirable work’ of the police constabulary in ‘facilitating rightful, legal protest’. I felt a slowly emerging but gut wrenching sense of anger and frustration, that those actions in some ways could be manipulated into reinforcing the establishment status quo, and further stacking the odds in favour of the powerful elite who own the media and are invested in neutralising effective protest.

But the latest news to emerge is as encouraging as it can be; Ineos and Third Energy have just announced that they are removing equipment from the site whilst their operation is being scrutinised by government bodies for its ‘financial credibility’, until the Autumn. The amount of cost accrued to these companies, both in terms of security and policing, and time lost to infrastructure establishment due to blockading, is in the millions, and inevitably for companies that are already suspect as subsidiaries and offshore accounts for ethically bankrupt corporations including Barclays Bank, results in failure to return on the share holders short term profit expectations. This has been proven on multiple occasions, in Barton Moss, at Balkham, and now at Kirby Misperton, where the camp is in the process of tatting down in celebration and success. Engaging with direct action and standing for the sacredness of the Earth really works! And in the actions of creatively resisting and collaborating, we draw together as community around what really matters to us, a process that has the potential to deepen and enrich our soulful connections to the earth and to all of life, as well as to stand in protection and defiance, as sacred human beings, at a time of deep need, and deep potential.

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