My arrest at Bell Pottinger
By Tara Clarke
“What’s someone young and pretty like you doing here?” a female detention officer questioned as she secured my handcuffs before taking me to my cell.
I had stopped answering questions or making any facial expressions at that point. The 6 of us had been isolated from each other and from the outside world for 18 hours, arrested in the afternoon and kept at Bishopsgate police station overnight for fear that we’d head straight out to commit another devious crime on another firm associated with the fracking industry.
Reclaim the Power in Balcombe, West Sussex was a place where conversations on fossil fuels and movement building brought people together from different backgrounds and provided a platform for people eager to learn and connect with like-minded people.
I heard the same resounding outcry as from discussions I had with colleagues after COP15 in Copenhagen: “We need to take more action! We need to face up to the power structures that govern our society!” Except these were not just with my college friends, these were with the concerned locals of Balcombe, with Disabled People Against Cuts and other anti-cuts campaigners linking the dangers of a fossil fuel dependent future on low income families with the climate crisis.
It was at Reclaim the Power where I joined a group of people who, like me, had been campaigning for years, finding their place in the climate and anti-cuts movement and growing ever more frustrated over the power the fossil fuel industry has over government policy and society.
Due to the professional media spin of well paid PR companies, it is not surprising that members of our society can’t understand why we are against the so-called “cheap, plentiful supply of domestic fuel” and “a greener source of energy because we won’t need coal anymore”.
It is us against a PR company who are paid millions to make sure people believe that a group of “hippies” and “professional rent-a-mob activists” are recklessly damaging the economy and future energy security of the UK. Having a budget of, eerr, nothing, our only asset was our bodies and our voices.
One of the well paid PR companies is called Bell Pottinger, operating from the 6th floor of an office block in central London. A group of us travelled to London from the camp to highlight the dangers of the PR company’s media spin and the powerful force making sure fracking goes ahead in the UK.
Being referred to as rent-a-mob professional activists is interesting when Caudrilla hire a PR company who specialise in covering up deeply controversial practices such as the Bashar Al-Assad regime in Syria and environmental destruction such as Trafigura’s toxic spill on the Ivory Coast (the list continues).
The rent-a-spindoctor company, however, presented its own toxic spill, when one of Caudrilla’s PR executive team relayed to a Greenpeace activist that everything he says to support fracking “is utter fucking bullshit“. The public have a right to know that the PR firm don’t even believe their own spin.
The aim of this action was not just to get arrested but to deliver a strong message to the commuters of London and the employees at Holborn Gate. The members of our group who were mobile, spoke to the public, protected the blockade and fed us messages of support and grapes.
Most notably were the updates of the successful action taking place at Caudrilla’s HQ in Birmingham while other members of the Reclaim the Power camp formed a human chain around the fracking rig at Balcombe. Inspired by the connected actions in Birmingham and Balcombe, we stayed until the very end.
I had a lot of time for reflection while sitting over my box of cold beans and powered tea between the police interview and being sentenced for aggravated trespass and criminal damage (believed to be at the value of £4) in the middle of the night.
However, at no point did I feel out of place, like I might have gone too far or lost the plot. I had joined 5 other women in taking much needed direct action, and like the 6 women who climbed the Shard, we were changing the norm of political direct action. When you enter ‘Bell Pottinger’ and ‘Caudrilla’ into the Google search engine, the first two pages consists of our pictures and actions against fracking. Not the greatest result for a PR firm.
I also feel very lucky that we were provided with the best legal advice and representation we could of gotten as a group of activists. The morning after our arrest, the police provided us with the conditions of our bail, stopping us from associating with each other, going back to Balcombe, communicating with fracking companies and their associates, travelling into London or possessing any adhesives.
Our barrister challenged these conditions in court (apart for the adhesives one which we decided to abide too as it was hilarious) and we were able to join our friends in Balcombe that evening to celebrate. This wouldn’t of been possible if it wasn’t for our access to legal aid, a fund that protects people such as protesters from going into financial difficulty after being arrested.
The government is looking to surpress this fund and block justice by silencing the people who are fighting against the cuts. These devastating cuts will not just affect people at demos, but also homeless and disabled people and people seeking asylum from their country were they faced torture. UKuncut are planning an action on October 5 to stop unnecessary cuts to legal aid.
This blog was meant to be a reflection on the action and the arrest, so to conclude, here are some thoughts:
Standing in an awkward position for 5 and 1/2 hours can get a bit uncomfortable and having just 3 songs to sing about Bell Pottinger was definitely not enough. It was an incredible bonding experience (excuse the pun) and a chance to test the seriousness we felt over the cause of our actions.
We had faced some negative responses by being called ‘fucking scum’ and a large suited man used his body weight to rip through our fragile blockade, injuring 2 protestors. This was compensated for by the large amount of support we received from the public.
Two local activists produced posters that were better than our own and joined the protest. People stopped to give us hob nobs and orange juice and thanked us. Being able to catch a glimpse of the person you were arrested with after spending the night alone is a cell has an incredible calming affect and that powdered tea is strangely addictive.
Would I do this again? Definitely. This whole ordeal has solidified the feelings I have about the strong links PR companies, the government and the police system have with the fossil fuel industry and the UK’s dash for gas is one clear example of this. We are at a critical moment right now, infrastructure that will secure the UK’s dependency on gas for the next 40 years is about to be built.
People, such as myself who have never been arrested before are accepting criminal records because they understand the urgency of this situation. We need to stop the dash for gas and if that means more boring stints in a prison cell then so be it. Will you join me?
This post first appeared on Tara’s blog