AWE Aldermaston has one of those double-fence jobbies you may remember from the Great Escape. You know, the kind short Scottish men who’ve spent too much time in the cooler with Steve McQueen get shot trying to climb. There’s a good four or five metres between them, and so the Boilerhouse Gate was actually two sets of imposing iron doors. Luckily for my nerves, Scary Machine Gun Guy was well behind the second set.
The police had continued to be the kind of enforcers that might appear in some naïve utopian fantasy. Still not quite able to believe their luck, the blockaders maintained their effortless decommissioning of the gate(s). At some point, though, the row of blockaders nearest the AWE realised that a potential opportunity lay right behind them: the gates, both sets, were still open. Now, beyond THEM was a host of cops and security, including Scary Machine Gun Guy, and beyong THEM was a large sign which read: “TERRORIST THREAT LEVEL: HEIGHTENED.” It was no welcome mat. Nevertheless, the chance to become a nuicance was right there, and between them they reached a near-instant consensus and dashed over the invisible line into MoD territory.
The police within the weapons factory reacted swiftly, lining up just beyond the second threshhold, effectively becoming a blockade all of their own. The five activists, though, were comfortably inside the perimeter, and were starting to enjoy themselves. Songs were hollered, dances were pranced, but the line of cops stood firm, allowing themselves none of the affability of the officers with us, still out on the public, civvy highway. Neither, though, did they antagonise or threaten. In the best tradition of NVDA, they simply blocked the way.
Eventually, and probably having been told that they’d be forcably ejected, the protesters just lay down where they were. In the scenario of success, the authorities would conceed defeat by simply closing the gates, whereupon the group would probably move to another, less secure gate (depending on what the cellularly-connected ‘gate support’ people were reporting). Here, though, they couldn’t shut the gate even if they wanted to, thanks to our brave tresspassers.
And so the first arrests were made. A special unit appeared and started cutting through the tubing that protected our comrades’ bonds. It took a while and made a fair amount of noise, but I could make out that the tension had dissapated, leaving room for smiles and banter. Cut free of each other, the arrestees were lifted into the base to be processed before being transported to Newbuy Police Station.
Having cleared the gateways of people, the police were free to close them officially, which they did. Of course, they often wait for the blockaders to relocate and just open them right back up, so we stayed put. The intel from the other gates was that they were all shut anyway, so there wasn’t much call for our human-wall services. With the gates closed, though, our blockaders technically weren’t doing much disrupting.
I got talking to a policeman. I told him how impressed I was with the police and how reasonable they were being. He told me that their briefing had included the instruction to engage with the protesters, listen to their arguments and stories and, generally, be human beings. (This was in contrast to previous actions, the protesters told me later, where the official policy had been to avoid engaging with the activists at all, other than to arrest them.)
I enjoyed chatting to the guy, feeling that there was goodwill though circumstances had put us on opposing teams that day. Just then there was some commotion on the road and my new pal darted away. One of the other supporters stepped up beside me, the one who’d correctly predicted that we’d have our expectations confounded. “Here we go,” he said. “It’s been cozy up ’til now, but things can change. Things can change very quickly.”
On the road in front of the gate there was a swarm. A few policemen held back to cover the gate itself, but most had spilled onto the road, and traffic in both directions was at a stand-still. I swung my camera onto the scene, holding my tripod over my head to get the highest angle I could. The group of linked blockaders nearest the road had apparently taken things up a level and moved onto the road itself, lying down and blocking it completely. The queues of traffic already stretched to the horizons.
The police were talking to the protesters urgently, but quietly, and their trademark leather notebooks saw a lot of action. For a while nothing really changed and it seemed like an impass. A van driver got out and stode threatenly towards the blockade, no doubt late on his errand, but was talked back into his van by a firm, controlled copper. Eventually, I heard policeman promise the road-blockers that they would be arrested, and soon after they were back in front of the gate. The traffic started moving again, cups of tea recommenced flowing, but nothing on the arrest front.
Things started to get interesting when the ‘cutting team’ (as I shall call them) returned and erected a large, sturdy and yet portable fence around those who’d been promised arrest. It was the kind of thing I expect could spring out the back of a Martian rover, instantly configuring itself into a green house in preparation for the first primate visitors. There was some fervent chatting at the cutting team’s van, though, and before the structure could be completed they dismantled it again, packed it away and left. After a while, a policeman addressed the road-blockers, telling them that as they were no longer blocking the highway, they wouldn’t be arrested after all. However, if they blocked it again, the whole rigmarole would be replayed.
It turned out that the two forces involved in today’s policing were on a no-arrest policy along with their talk-and-listen-to-them policy. It was a move of such astonishing good sense that it had some of the seasoned blockaders flummoxed. “They’re playing us at our own game,” one noted, smiling. Another pointed out, with disappointment, that it prevented those who wished to have their cases heard in court from doing so. I’m new to all this, and I’d kept my ears pricked all through the trip for clues as to the minutiae of motivation, goals and expected outcomes of the exercise. This was extremely telling. Later, I chatted to a lovely lady called Barbara who I’d met at my NVDA training the week before. She told about her previous arrests, and how she’d refused to comply with court directions or pay fines, but that she’d won the respect of more than one judge in her commitment to have her view (that she commited no crime, but was preventing the crime of WMD proliferation) preserved in official literature.
So in a way the friendliness of the police, while easing my nerves, was a frustration to the endeavour. Which goes to show how effective non-violent action can be. It’s just, like the fellow said, that the police have cottoned on. Things, indeed, can change.