I had an interesting visit to the direct action protests against fracking in the Sussex village of Balcombe this week. As I arrived at the site, police were trying to clear an old fire engine which protestors had used to block the entrance to the site. It took nearly 6 hours to move because people were locked on inside and some were also glued to the entrance gate. In response to these protests Sussex Police have so far employed large numbers of officers from all over the county, including at least 3 Inspectors from 2 Public order details (‘KB’ and ‘KL’), Police Liaison Officers, Evidence Gatherers, and a Tactical Advisor (who advises at public order events). Therefore, press speculation that up to 90 Police are on duty each day seems fairly close to the mark to me, and this will be a significant financial drain on their resources.
One thing I found interesting was the general collective unity of the protests, with locals from Balcombe standing shoulder to shoulder with seasoned environmental activists from further afield. They have also attracted high profile support (including human rights activist Bianca Jagger and Nathalie Hynde (the daughter of Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde and the Kinks’ Ray Davies), and the protests on 1/8/13 saw fracking campaigners from Lancashire coming down to show solidarity. This illustrates quite well how such protests can attract a diverse range of protestors from different social, cultural and economic backgrounds, but how they can also come together psychologically through their involvement, developing broader identities and perspectives.
This reminds me of the research I did for my PhD into the protests against the Newbury bypass in the 1990′s (covered in a previous blog post), where protestors rejected Press accusations of nimbyism (‘not in my back yard’), believing that the environment for all is at risk if environmentally damaging projects go ahead unopposed. This means that protestors in such campaigns often feel they are acting in everyone’s interest, and suggestions that they would not be concerned if it was happening somewhere else are somewhat misplaced. For, while protestors may start off campaigning against a specific scheme in their locality, research in this area (Cocking & Drury, 2004; Drury et al, 2003; 2005) has found that they can often experience a process of psychological change, which means they become involved in campaigns about broader environmental and/or social justice issues afterwards.
I also saw little overt hostility towards the Police from protestors (despite forceful arrest tactics being used at times), and they would often try to invoke a shared common identity with the Police (e.g. ‘we all live on the same planet’) and appeal to them stop protecting what they saw as environmentally damaging practices. There was even one local protestor who claimed to be an ex Police sergeant and called upon the other police to stop what they were doing. I’m not sure how successful such this strategy will be given the relative strength of occupational identity that the police probably have (and the consequences for their career if they refused to obey orders!), but during the Newbury bypass campaign, protestors had some success in appealing to the private security guards to stop working on the project. This was because the security tended to have a weaker group identity (as most were on short term contracts, and faced unemployment once the protests ended), and dozens resigned, with 3 even joining the protests!
We shall see how this protests develops, but so far it seems to be growing in numbers, and I suspect that the announcement that drilling has now begun (as of 2/8/13) may encourage increased popular protest in the Sussex countryside and possibly elsewhere.
For more information, see the protestors’ website - http://frack-off.org.uk/, or the latest BBC news. I also did an interview with BBC Radio Sussex about the psychological processes involved in such protests and their effectiveness (coverage starts about 1hr 39 mins with an interview with a local protestor, and then with me at about 1hr 41 into the programme).
Cocking, C. & Drury, J. (2004) Generalization of efficacy as a function of collective action and inter-group relations: Involvement in an anti-roads struggle. Journal of Applied Social Psychology 34 (2) 417-444