Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Balcombe fracking protests and perceptions of legitimacy

A lot has happened at the fracking protests in Balcombe since my last post, with the campaign growing exponentially, not only in size, but also in the media attention it has been getting. Since the protests began in late July, the camp outside the site entrance has become significantly bigger, spreading up the B2036 road towards Balcombe village, and protestors have now occupied the field adjacent to the site and set up tree houses. From 16-21st August, the campaign has also been joined by the national campaign group no dash for gas, who decided at the last minute to move their planned camp down to Balcombe in solidarity with the protests. This resulted in a 2000 strong march on Sunday 18th August, where campaigners formed a human chain around the site. Monday 19th August saw direct action in four different places: against firms associated with the drilling in London and Lichfield, the local MP’s constituency office (who is a supporter of fracking in Balcombe), and a blockade outside the main entrance to the site, which saw the Green MP for Brighton Caroline Lucas arrested for obstruction of the highway along with up to 30 others.

The response from the police has also significantly increased, with Sussex police having spent nearly £750,000 so far in policing the protests- the vast majority of costs being due to the increased police presence at the protests. Over the last few days at the protests, I have seen officers from at least 13 different forces across the country, including the Metropolitan Police, and from as far away as Wales and Devon & Cornwall. Despite these large numbers of police on duty (up to 300 on standby according to some BBC reports), the atmosphere tended to be fairly relaxed over the weekend, but there were scuffles when police began arresting people at the site blockade on Monday  and police have begun entering the site in riot gear, as seen in this photo circulated on Tuesday 20th august. 

 I suspect that we will see more protests at the Balcombe site in the coming days and weeks, and they may also spread elsewhere over time. However I think events of the last few days also illustrate interesting points that highlight some aspects about the nature of collective action protests and the psychological issues involved. My last post looked at protestors’ sense of collective identity, but possible differences in views of legitimacy are also important to consider when looking at events like these.

A previous post I wrote looked at how differing views of what was legitimate behaviour created distrust between the Police and those protesting against a march by the far-right in Brighton this summer, and I think there are also similar issues at play in the fracking protests. There has been a lot of debate in media interviews questioning the legitimacy of the protestors’ actions in trying to stop the drilling. For instance, Cuadrilla’s CEO (Frances Egan) told the BBC that direct action protests were “unacceptable”, condemning what he called "illegal operations" against the company and its staff, and the police have also spoken about their duty to uphold the ‘lawful’ activity of the company against ‘unlawful’ protests.

However, (and perhaps unsurprisingly) protestors have a different view of what is legitimate behaviour. They consider that their actions are justified in that they are acting to prevent environmental damage to the immediate locality (there are concerns that the local water supply will be contaminated by the waste products used in fracking), and to reduce what they see as a continued dependence on fossil fuels that will contribute to increased emissions of global warming gases such as methane and the long terms effects of climate change. This means that some protestors believe that it is sometimes necessary to break the law to raise awareness of (or even try to physically disrupt) what they consider to be environmentally damaging operations. Indeed, before her arrest, Caroline Lucas spoke to the BBC about why she considered it necessary to commit peaceful civil disobedience in this situation.

The ongoing controversy over the police use of pressure points further highlights this clash of views over legitimacy. The photo below catches the moment this technique was used on Caroline Lucas’s son as he was arrested and has caused a barrage of criticism in the mainstream and social media. The local Police Superintendent Lawrence Hobbs later defended the use of pressure points as a tactic to move non-compliant protestors, but some Twitter users have questioned its legality, and an on-line petition calling on Sussex police to stop using this tactic at the Balcombe protests had already gained nearly 5000 signatures before this incident occurred.

Many locals also feel a sense of grievance because of the process of how fracking began in Balcombe. For instance, coverage of the story in the most recent Private Eye highlights a lack of proper debate in the planning process that Cuadrilla went through, suggesting that had there been greater awareness of what the fracking process involved, then it would have not got planning permission to drill the site in the first place. Indeed, Caroline Lucas told the BBC radio 4’s Today programme on 20th August that 'we haven't had an honest debate about this'.

In a further twist, some protestors also believe that Cuadrilla are acting illegitimately in that they are committing long term environmental damage in the pursuit of short term financial gain. I recently saw an interesting stand-off by the site entrance last week, where protestors surrounded a representative of the landowners where the drilling is taking place, demanding that he be arrested for complicity in environmental crimes, meaning he had to be escorted away by police, as shown in the photo below.

Recent events at Balcombe have shown that views of what counts as legitimate behaviour often differ between opposing sides in such collective action protests. Furthermore, it is this clash of views that can often cause conflict between them, and protestors often become more united in the face of what they perceive to be illegitimate and indiscriminate police public order tactics (such as 'kettling' and charges)- something that has been found in previous studies of protests (Reicher, 1996; Drury & Reicher, 2000; Cocking, 2013). It is not always possible to reconcile such views completely, and in this current situation, Cuadrilla seem determined to continue its operations at the site, and campaigners are equally determined to stop them! However, I think it is important to recognize that ‘legitimacy’ can be a fluid concept, and worry that to simply write off the campaign as engaging in illegitimate or even ‘unlawful’ behaviour (as often stated by Cuadrilla and the police) risks becoming part of a general attempt to avoid debating relevant issues and to denigrate the protestors’ cause without engaging with the often principled reasons they may have for their actions.

Cocking C. (2013) Crowd flight during collective disorder- a momentary lapse of reason? Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling, 10: 219–236 

Drury, J., & Reicher, S. (2000). Collective action and psychological change: The emergence of new social identities. British Journal of Social Psychology, 39, 579–604.

Reicher, S. (1996). ‘The Battle of Westminster’: Developing the social identity model of crowd behaviour in order to explain the initiation and development of collective conflict. European Journal of Social Psychology, 26, 115-34.

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