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Lies, Violence and Spurious Arrests in Sheffield

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Pensioner being removed, despite feet trapped under barrier.

Things are turning very ugly very fast in the battle to destroy the healthy trees of Sheffield. Last week we learned from BBC Radio that “new tactics” would be used against Sheffield’s tree protectors. These tactics have so far turned out to include violence, spurious arrests, and what seems to be deliberate misinformation about the injunction that has been issued against certain forms of protest.

We had some hint that things were entering a dangerous new phase before Christmas. Around 3.00–5.00 in the morning, arborists with headlamps and handsaws hacked off branches of trees on Kenwood Road, leaving them in a massive, road-blocking pile, surrounded by tape but with absolutely no warning signs for cars (I myself witnessed several near-collisions between 6.00 and 8.30, during rush hour). Eventually barriers were partially erected and a chipper came. Tree campaigners attempted to delay the felling of the still very saveable trees. One settled himself on the branches within the partial barriers, and more eventually joined him. Police came, laughing and talking to the arborists. A chipper pulled up in front of the branch pile. We fully expected someone to tell those amongst the branches to leave. This did not happen. Instead, without warning, the crew started pulling the branches that people were holding into the chipper. The police did nothing about this whatsoever. Most left, but one campaigner remained and hung onto the branch. The arborists went on trying to pull this branch into the chipper, eventually swinging it and slamming the campaigner onto his back. Still, the police did nothing. The campaigner was badly bruised but fortunately otherwise unharmed. (If you’d like to see a video of this incident, go here.)

We all had a restorative holiday for a couple of weeks over Christmas. But since the return of the tree-fellers last week, things have turned considerably worse. The police arrived with an apparent new attitude, and new eagerness to make arrests of peaceful protesters. This was surprising, as South Yorkshire Police commissioner Alan Billings had said police would no longer be arresting peaceful tree protesters.

And yet the week before last, a peaceful protester was arrested for obstructing the highway and assault. The spurious assault charge was instantly dropped, and we fully expect the obstruction charge to be dropped too — since reportedly CCTV shows that the highway was not in fact obstructed (cars were driving past). Last week a protester was arrested and carried off by six police officers for alleged criminal damage to a barrier. But my understanding is that they have not been charged. One campaigner remarked, “It turns out that if someone uses your head to bend a fence it isn’t your fault.”

Last week was when the ominous declaration of a “new approach” was made. And with it came other developments: a propaganda video; and large signs printed with a fictitious version of the injunction. Justice Males, who issued the injunction, has been utterly explicit that pre-existing barriers like walls cannot be used as part of the delineation of a safety zone (the area that protesters are forbidden to be in). He writes:

The council’s case is that an area consisting of three sides of plastic barriers together with a natural boundary such as a wall or a garden hedge comprises a safety zone within the definition contained in the order…I would accept that, as a matter of ordinary language and before considering the definition in the order, the council’s approach is correct…However, the order adopts a particular definition of “safety zone” and it is this which must be applied in the present case…

The definition in the present case includes the following elements. First, the barriers are to be ‘erected’. An existing feature such as a wall or a hedge is not erected. Second, the barriers are to be erected ‘on the public highway’. A wall which is private property is not on or part of the highway, even if it forms a boundary to the highway. Third, an area consisting of plastic barriers forming three sides and a wall forming the fourth side is not ‘delineated’ by barriers which have been erected, but by a combination of erected barriers and an existing feature. Fourth, the barriers must be ‘erected … around a tree’. That suggests a complete ring of such barriers.”

Here’s what the signs posted last week say.

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These signs make false claims both about the safety zones (saying they extend to pre-existing barriers) and also about liability to arrest (the injunction is a civil not a criminal matter).

The new approach has included shocking new violence against peaceful protesters. Local mum Jules Holroyd describes the scene she found when out for a walk with her baby on Meersbrook Park Road, where she witnessed peaceful protesters who were not breaking the injunction being forcibly removed:

“I was near to three people who were being removed. ‘Forcibly removing’ doesn’t capture the reality of what they did: prise fingers off railings, bending thumbs back (one resident shouted that it felt as if they were breaking his fingers); grabbing and bending the arms of the two women who had linked arms; pushing and squashing a man who yelled he was being crushed; dragging an elderly resident by the arms. There were at least 10 security mobbing a group of 3 protesters, two of whom I think were pensioners. It was awful to see people being treated this way, and the police looking on, impassive to the pleas of the protesters that they intervene and protect their right to peaceful protest. The onlooking neighbours were shouting to ‘leave them alone’, and the overwhelming sentiment expressed by the many onlookers was that Amey and these security crew were not wanted here. It’s upsetting to think that anyone might be treated in this way just for peacefully standing up for something they care about.”

Here is a video showing a scene much like the one that Holroyd describes, and also clearly explaining the actual wording of the injunction.

The council and Amey seem to be lying, in writing, about the content of the injunction that places restrictions on tree protests. The hired security are using gratuitous violence on people who are not breaking the injunction. The police seem to be standing by and allowing this to take place. Worse yet, they are arresting people on questionable charges — an action which serves not the public but the private corporation wreaking havoc on the streets of Sheffield

As the events in Sheffield have unfolded over the last two years, it keeps seeming that surely this madness has to stop. And yet it just keeps escalating.

For more information on the trees crisis, go here.

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Written by

Jennifer Saul is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield.

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