Image: Kristian Buus ©
Simon Roscoe Blevins swears softly, compulsively, and often. The criminal justice system is “shit”, he says. Fracking? It’s “fucked”.
He’s a man familiar with both. Last year, he was one of four protestors jailed for stopping a convoy of lorries going to a fracking site in Lancashire. His expletive-laden jibes aren’t borne of aggression, so much as a deep-rooted frustration about the politics of shale gas extraction in the UK.
“With Downing Street saying ‘Let’s industrialise in the desolate North’, it’s like, ‘Fuck you!’” he says.
It’s a reference to a comment from Lord Howell of Guildford, former Secretary of State for Energy and George Osborne’s father-in-law, who in 2013 argued that the area around Blackpool was the perfect place to start fracking due to an absence of beauty spots. I confess I’d forgotten about it: six years feels like a long time ago.
Blevins laughs. “It’s still pretty fresh up there.”
That’s true for him, but also for the prisoners he met during his six-week stay in Preston Prison, where he found unexpected support – and a sense of common cause – from the largely Lancastrian inmates.
“Fracking has been a pretty big thing [so] they all knew about it and…were very supportive,” he says.
“They’ve been incarcerated by a system that’s fucking them over. So if someone’s proactively doing something to put two fingers up at that system, there’s immediately a sense of camaraderie.”
Sitting by a fire in his cosy cooperative house-share in Sheffield, Blevins reflects on his transition from unknown protester to the face of fracking opposition in the UK. He is a reluctant spokesperson.
“You’ve come here to talk to me about this but I don’t think I’m the best person to talk to. I think there are much more interesting people to talk to.”
“This is just a disclaimer I like to give: I don’t really know jack shit about all this.”
It becomes evident that is a harsh self-assessment. He knows a lot about the mechanics of protesting, and has thought deeply about his personal reasons for taking direct action.
Blevins was one of four people arrested after a mammoth act of direct action delayed for 99 hours a convoy of lorries heading for Cuadrilla’s fracking site on Preston New Road in Lancashire.
Alongside Richard Loizou, Richard Roberts, and Julian Brock — who came to be known as the Frack Free Four — Blevins boarded a lorry for around 73 of those hours. When he eventually came down, he was arrested and charged with a public nuisance offence.
Two months later, a judge sentenced three of the lorry surfers to custodial sentences of between 15 and 16 months. They were the first environmental protestors to be sent to jail in decades. The Court of Appeals overturned the sentences three weeks later, ruling them “manifestly excessive”.
Image: Simon Roscoe Blevins on top of a lorry heading for Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road fracking site. Credit: Rob McEwen ©
Despite becoming a reluctant figurehead for anti-fracking campaigns, Blevins emphasises that the movement was initiated and continues to be driven by local people who simply don’t want fracking in their community.
“We [the Frack Free Four] have all been interviewed and we’ve been saying yes to it because it’s important to get attention around environmentalism. But it’s another white middle class male voice dominating the space,” he says.
“There are much more important voices to be heard.”
Nonetheless, over the course of a few hours, Blevins eloquently explains his personal journey from lorry roof, through prison, to learning to use the platform that being one of the Frack Free Four has given him.
It was the knowledge that his experience could raise awareness of fracking that kept Blevins going while the chaos of the UK’s criminal justice system unfolded around him, he says.
“Knowing how much everything was kicking off outside, that’s what made it worthwhile when we were in prison. It catalysed all this stuff, so there’s a purpose for it. But if we were sat there for something we regretted, or there was nothing coming out of it, that would have been a very different experience.”
“From my perspective, I enjoyed it. It was an adventure. Going to jail was fine. It wasn’t an issue at all. But for most people that’s not the case. Jail is fucking bollocks. It’s shit.”
Knowing he had his house, job, and friends to return to when he came out made him aware his prison experience wasn’t typical. But he’s also aware how stressful it was for those close to him, tirelessly working the phones and social media to keep attention on the case.
The need to do so became ever more apparent as, in Blevins’ view, the faults of the UK’s justice system came to the fore. He believes that without this relentless effort, the failures of a system that concentrates power with a single judge and criminalises legitimate protest would not have been effectively highlighted.
A group of academics at the University of Sussex, writing shortly after Blevins’ sentence was overturned, agree that the unusually harsh process experienced by the Frack Free Four was part of a wider trend of criminalising environmental protest in the UK.
“The trend is visible in developments like the granting of injunctions to pre-empt protest and protect profits; government efforts to associate opponents of fracking with political extremism and domestic terrorism; the increasingly militarised policing of protesters; and harsher punishments and compensation payments given to environmental defenders charged with minor crimes such as aggravated trespassing,” they wrote in The Ecologist.
Read more of DeSmog’s reporting on anti-fracking campaigns
At the time of Blevins’ sentencing, Francis Egan, Cuadrilla’s Chief Executive, said in a statement:
“We have always respected the right to peaceful and lawful protest.”
“However we will continue to condemn unlawful, irresponsible and reckless behaviour that at best inconveniences and costs law abiding local business and commuters and at worst puts them at risk of harm.”
This characterisation of the Frack Free Four’s actions as “reckless” behaviour rather than an act of conscience continues to frustrate Blevins, who was unimpressed that the Frack Free Four were not allowed to explain the motivation for their actions as part of their defence.
He says he identifies with the ‘Stansted 15’ activists, who stopped the takeoff of an immigration removal flight. The judge in their case also ordered that they were not allowed to use a human rights defence in their case. But, ultimately, none of that group went to jail after the judge ruled that they were motivated by “genuine reasons”.
Not so, in Blevins’ case. He says:
“It’s a load of rubbish, isn’t it? It’s taking it completely out of context. It’s as if we did it for the fun of it, with the intention of disrupting traffic.”
That points to a deeper problem with the UK’s justice system, he argues, and in particular with the power afforded to individual judges.
In this case, that ‘one person’ was Judge Robert Altham, whose family it was later revealed have ties to the energy industry and fracking, and whose judgement was quickly overturned for being too harsh.
“There’s just one typically old white man at the top who considers what you can say and what you can’t say, what is permitted as evidence and what isn’t permitted as evidence, what lines of defence you can run and what lines of defence you can’t run.”
“What it comes down to it, it’s just one person, the judge, who wields so much power.”
Image: Supporters gather outside the Courts of Appeal on the day the Frack Free Four had thier custodial sentences quashed.
Given his time in jail, does he think harsher sentences for protestors are an effective deterrent? Absolutely not.
He recalls thinking in prison, “They want to send us here to demoralise us, to make this be a punishment, for this to be a deterrent. Well, fuck them, let’s make it the opposite. Let’s make this a really positive experience. Let’s make this something that makes us stronger. Let’s come out fighting. Let’s come out even more determined.
“That’s the opposite of what they want, so that’s what we’re going to aim for.”
He thinks the media attention resulting from jail sentences and arrests can be used effectively by protest groups.
It’s a strategy that Extinction Rebellion, a new group that aims to raise awareness of the “climate crisis”, is using to good effect. Blevins is keen to point out some important differences between his tactics and those of the ‘rebels’ aiming to get arrested, however.
“It’s civil disobedience, it’s not direct action — the difference being that Extinction Rebellion are using this arrest and disruption to gain attention to demand politicians take action. But their actions in itself aren’t having a direct impact on that … Whereas the direct action at PNR, the impact of that is that it’s costing Cuadrilla money.”
The two-year long resistance at Preston New Road has certainly cost the company dearly. The Frack Free Four’s actions alone cost Cuadrilla approximately £50,000, according to the prosecuting lawyer in their case.
But, nonetheless, Cuadrilla are still there fracking.
That parallel existence of a vibrant protest community and the relentless, albeit gradual, progress of the thing they’re there to stop, is something that sticks with Blevins.
“The camp is exciting. There’s lots of really interesting people to chat to. And it’s amazing how quickly you can do stuff in a camp environment compared to sat at home.”
“But there was a strange contrast between all these people coming together and feeling really optimistic, and at the same time you’ve got a fracking site next door. So there’s this strange contrast of really good and exciting, and really shit.”
But Blevins argues that even if Cuadrilla was to pack up tomorrow, it couldn’t really be considered a victory.
“There are still people who have gone through those years of stress and years of fighting.”
“This one place might go away, but there’s still the trauma and scarring of this community and of that land. That’s still there. That lives on.”
That’s why he’s determined fracking should be stopped nationwide. The only way that can happen, he believes, is through England following Ireland’s example and implementing a ban. And he believes that probably means a party other than the Conservatives — the only party not to support outlawing fracking — getting into power:
“No-one wants to have to be protesting. Everyone has things they’d rather be doing.”
“But given how set the Tories are on it, they’re not going to [implement a ban], despite the fact that a lot of backbenchers don’t want it either. So, long term, it’s going to be stopped by a ban, but that’s not going to happen until there’s a change in government.”
“And for that new government to make that the first thing they do, there’s got to be pressure on them.”
For Blevins, that means continuing to campaign closer to home in Sheffield. He says he hasn’t been back to Preston New Road since the days after his release because “there’s quite a lot on my plate here”, in Yorkshire and the Midlands.
“There are five potential fracking sites within 20 miles of Sheffield,” he says. “I’m working part-time now, which is great, because I’ve decided I want to put more time into anti-fracking campaigning.”
It also allows time for the other thing he realised he so valued while in prison — unconditional support.
“I recognise now through that whole process how supported we were, and how much difference that made. I didn’t really realise that before.”
“In hindsight, there was a lot of organisation and coordination and a support network. And I think that’s the most beautiful thing, the way it brought lots of people together at that point.”
“So now I’m trying to prioritise having some flexible time to be there when someone needs support, because before I was always so busy doing this, that, and the other. Now I’m trying to make sure I’m in a better position to support and be an ally to other people as well.”
Deciding to make those changes wasn’t hard for him, he says, thanks to his experience:
“A bit of time off in prison is very good for reflection.”