Protest – does legal mean ineffective?

In August 2014, I drove from Bristol to Blackpool with a group of anti-fracking activists to take part in the Reclaim the Power anti- fracking demonstration in Blackpool. The day was fine and breezy. We marched along the sea front with our banners, chanting our opposition to fracking. Activists from Lancashire lay down in the shape of the words No Fracking (or the equivalent) and were photographed from on high. It was fun. It was an expression of solidarity. It was a good day out.

But later, talking it over with a friend I began to wonder exactly what we had achieved. The demonstration had been routed along a wide newly constructed promenade whose massive concrete structure was clearly aimed at providing defence against storm tides and rising sea levels. All the holiday makers and day trippers were thronging the amusement arcades and cafés way across the street. Very few of the general public out that day were even, I would imagine, aware of the protest. It all felt very safe. I saw hardly any police. But they probably realised that this approved route involved little risk of damage or public involvement.

This is a good example of the limitation on effective protest created by the imposition of legality. A recent article on Open Democracy UK points out that our laws give the police the power to determine the legality or otherwise of any particular act of protest. A refusal to conform to the rules of “acceptable” protest and engage in direct action such as occupying land in danger of being fracked or locking on to trucks supplying sites puts activists in danger of being labelled “domestic extremists “. This is a dilemma many opponents of fracking have to, and will continue to have to, grapple with.

In recognition of the importance of using multiple forms of protest, that didn’t involve alerting the police first, teams from Reclaim the Power took direct action at thirteen sites connected with fracking the next day, Monday morning. These included Blackpool Chamber of Commerce and the then Department for Energy and Climate Change where activists chained themselves to railings outside. In contrast to the demo, these attracted considerable press attention. At least one activist was later arrested and eventually fined for taking part in these actions.

Fracking is a symptom of the sickness of our way of life where maintenance of the status quo involves investment in and profiteering from ecocidal practices. If the law is being used to neutralise people’s dissent from these practices then the only option may be to act outside of the law


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