The Shale Gas Forum changed venue at the last minute to avoid protests. Protected by police and soldiers in a London barracks, it was still hounded at its gates by a large, noisy and lively crowd, and one protestor managed to defy all the security and sat in on a keynote speech by Cuadrilla boss Francis Egan before being ejected.
Originally, the industry conference was planned to take place at a Kensington hotel, surrounded by the unfeasibly vacuously overpriced designer outlets of Sloane Street.
The opportunity to schmooze for the day, and network with industry leaders, MPs, and even a Treasury tax man, comes at a snip – only £1000 per delegate. In the bumph for the conference, organisers were coy even about the original location, but alluding to the next round of government onshore licensing, and the coming 2015 General Election, they state without apparent irony, that the conference is an opportunity to address how the UK can take first steps towards the commercialisation of fracking “in this changing climate”.
The changing climate was of course one of the main concerns of campaigners outside the conference, with speeches from Vivienne Westwood, Vanessa Vine, and Ewa Jasiewicz among others.
Meanwhile, inside, the delegates were more interested in analysing the ‘investment climate’, ‘gearing up for exploration in the Bowlands area’ (an area of outstanding natural beauty east of lancaster http://www.forestofbowland.com/), and ‘driving a change in public perception’.
After some speeches and music outside the Kensington hotel, the carnival protest took to tubes, buses and bikes to reconvene at Old Street, where they briefly reclaimed the streets on the short procession to the hurriedly re-arranged venue.
I was surprised at the lack of police on the streets, but once we’d arrived at the barracks, I realised they’d known it was a short journey which would probably keep moving, and that once there, that they had the event well secured and the protestors under keen surveillance.
The Finsbury Barracks houses the City of London Militia and is part of the Honorouble Artillery Company which is registered as a charity, but which boasts of acquiring a fine selection of silver over the past 200 years, hiring out facilities including the huge grounds (“a significant source of revenue”), and hosting a museum “for members only”. It’s not very clear what the extent of their charity is – the website boasts that one of their members raised £500 for the British Legion – I’m sure there must be more than that!
The place is also a hotbed of freemasonry – its “Fitzroy Lodge” enjoys a close relationship with the Grand Lodge, and is a leading lodge in the the Circuit of Service Lodges. There is also a Special Constabulary (no doubt with its own special handshakes) ‘attached’ to the City of London police.
There’s a strong transatlantic affiliation with the “Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company” in Massachusetts, who claim to be the oldest ‘chartered’ military organisation, and to have ‘helped develop new friendships with emerging democracies in Eastern Europe’.
So, behind the iron gates, its courtyard guarded by private security, police, and some soldiers, under the chandeliers of the ancient stain-glass windowed banqueting hall, the oil industry plotted the rape and pillage of our areas of natural beauty, the management of public perception, and the maximisation of profits with the aid of changing tax laws.
Meanwhile outside, at the Bunhill Row entrance, and opposite at the City Road gates, aided by the Rhythms of Resistance samba band, and a powerful sound system on a campaign bus, music and speeches filled the air.
There were representatives of the Balcombe villagers, and people from Barton Moss, with banners demanding the release of ‘Vanda’ who after being injured in her violent arrest by police has found herself in prison. Her solicitor, after reviewing film of her arrest, has called for the United Nations to bring the UK Government to account over this and other similar incidents.
The protestors were watched by both Forward Intelligence Team officers, and also by officers from the National Domestic Extremist Unit, including Officer Skivvens, who lurked outside the local lap-dancing club for much of the afternoon.
Police Liaison Officers worked their intelligence gathering techniques trying to engage protestors in conversation throughout the afternoon. Some of the wiser activists refused to interact.
A few delegates and suppliers entered and exited the gates, and each time TSG officers cleared the access. I left around 6 when there were still a couple of dozen people there. During the course of the afternoon, the protest overall must have been several hundred strong, and was attended by some mainstream media.
For me, the afternoon was a fine example of Orwellian dystopia, as masonic friends arranged military protection for the people trying to minimise their taxes and destroy the planet for profit, while the concerned activists outside are labelled extremist, as they battle against violent force and imprisonment.