Friday, 24 January 2014

The “Battle” of Orgreave: the Peterloo of our times.

It started like any other June day and who was I to know that it would end with the death my hopes and aspirations for an organised working class for at least the next ten years.

At the time of the great miners dispute of 1984- 85 I was living in Sheffield.  I was there as a refugee from the worst effects of the early 80s recession in South Wales.  The miner’s strike had started and escalated around the March time of 1984 and already I had been involved in organising a number of benefit and support activities.  Coming from the mining area of South Wales and having two grandfathers who were miners I felt a strong sense of solidarity with the NUM, their members and the dispute.  I had also seen what the Thatcher Government had done to the steelworkers of Sheffield in 1980. I was under no doubt that the Tories being Tories were intent on ending the problem, as they saw it, of organised labour.
As I said the day started as any other June day.  My girlfriend at the time was working in Worksop which was in the Nottinghamshire coalfield area.  The news had gone round, god knows how in those pre internet, mobile phone and social media days, that there was to be a mass picket at the Orgreave plant on the outskirts of Sheffield on that day. I knew that a number of my colleagues from work were intending to attend the demonstration and that there were coach loads of miners coming from all over the country were coming as well. My intention was to drop my girlfriend off at work and then go to the demonstration.  At this point Nottinghamshire had not been turned into the fortress that it would later become with police road blocks on every road in and out of the county. Therefore the journey to Worksop was straightforward. As I was returning and nearing Sheffield  and the M1 I could see coaches of miners  pulling off the motorway  on to The Parkway road that led to Orgreave. At the time I had a blue Transit van that I used for my work.  I followed some distance behind the coaches toward the turn off for Orgreave. As the coaches took the turning in to Orgreave there was a strong police presence and as the coaches past by, the police moved like some blackened scaled lizard across to block the road.  As I tried to follow the coaches I was stopped by the police line.  I told them that I wanted to join the demonstration but was told in no uncertain terms to continue down the Parkway and that if I didn’t I would be arrested.

 I knew the area well and I thought as it is pointless trying to argue with the police to get through the police road block  I could take some of the back roads I knew around Catcliffe and get to Orgreave on foot across the fields.   However, when I got there it was obvious that the police had thought of that as well.  There were police everywhere and many with dogs and no matter which way I tried to get across the fields there were police there to turn me back.  From what I could see though there were police everywhere  with the pickets vastly outnumbered.  From what I saw that day the so called “Battle of Orgreave” was no battle at all but a straight forward planned ambush by the police on the miners with the distinct impression of teaching them a lesson.   I was still a tad young and naïve in those days and had been shocked in the first instance that the police had prevented me attending a demonstration. I was still stupid enough to believe that we lived in a free country where we were allowed to protest. Also that day I witnessed, and not for the last time during that year, what could only be described as wanton police violence toward the protestors.  From what I could tell these were not just the local South Yorkshire constabulary but police that had been drawn in from all over the country and with what looked like instructions to do a very specific job which they carried out with gusto.
I could see no purpose in me running around the Catcliffe fields so I returned to my van to drive home. As I drove home the heat of the summer’s day started to kick in.  I was confused, angry and shocked by what I had seen.  I remember pulling in to a lay by on the way home as my head was swimming with the emotions I had running through my head.  I had been stopped from attending what was a lawful and planned demonstration and threatened with arrest.  From what I had seen the miners arrived in good spirits but were then just led into a trap by the police where they were corralled, surrounded, charged with horses and then just beaten up.  Again not for the last time during this dispute I was torn apart by the deep injustice of what I had just seen. In my stupid naïve mind I was convinced that when the people of Britain found out about what had happened this day there would be a national outcry and the police would be disciplined for their behaviour, what a schmuck I was!!!

That evening in my flat I eagerly awaited the six o’clock news fully expecting the fair and trustworthy BBC to recount the horrors that I had seen that day.  I looked on in disgust and dismay as the news reports painted a picture of rioting out of control miners attacking the police who valiantly fought back in order to restore law and order to this mindless rabble.  The news reports left you in no doubt that if you had any sympathy for this bunch of mindless vandals led by that raving loon Scargill you too must be part of this “enemy within”.  Later it emerged that these news reports had run some of the footage in reverse, “inadvertently” as the BBC later claimed.  The worst thing was over the coming weeks and months so many people bought it.  Many people who maybe didn’t particularly think of themselves as Tory supporters but just “right thinking” or “sensible” just bought in to the lie, hook, line and sinker that these militant miners were out of control and that sensible Maggie was being reasonable. Not the reality that this vanguard of the working class were fighting for their jobs, their families and their communities and the right of ordinary working people to have some say in the way that this country is run.

Following that fateful day at Orgreave ninety-five picketers were charged with riot, unlawful assembly and similar offences. A number of these were put on trial in 1987, therefore having to  endure two years of stress and uncertainty, but the trials collapsed, all charges were dropped and a number of lawsuits were brought against the police for assault, unlawful arrest and malicious prosecution. South Yorkshire Police later agreed to pay £425,000 compensation and £100,000 in legal costs to 39 pickets in an out of court settlement. Nevertheless, no officers have ever been disciplined for misconduct. Michael Mansfield the noted QC described the evidence given by South Yorkshire Police as "the biggest frame-up ever".    
Some of the younger readers of this might say ah well this was in the past this would never happen now.  Move on old man the world is very different now.  I would love to say that were the case but beware the arrogance of youth. Working class history is never taught in our schools.  We are always told what great states people Churchill and Thatcher were, but the real great people of this country  are ordinary working people, they are the ones who really make this nation. Peterloo in Manchester in 1819  is an example of how this is not the first time working people have been charged by horses for standing up for their rights.  There are also lessons for us today to be learned from what happened that day in Orgreave.  A couple of years ago I was in London when the UK Uncut group peacefully occupied Fortnum and Masons and as if to prove that old adage “history repeats itself, first time as tragedy second time as farce” the police went in heavy handed and arrested a load of mainly youngsters for what appeared to be no other purpose than to intimidate them  and “teach them a lesson” about protesting in the future.  I was inspired by those young people  and again angry at the injustice that they suffered just for wanting to protest at injustice in the UK and to have their voices heard, is that so much to ask for??.  Those who were attacked at Orgreave are still awaiting truth and justice and  we should all continue to seek it.  Both Orgreave and Fortnum and Masons have lessons for us all.  As I said at the beginning of this piece for me the hope for an organised working class died that June day in Orgreave, but then, as has happened so often in my life, I was wrong.  It did take me a long time to recover my hwyl (look it up) but I did get it back eventually but as the inspiration I took from the occupation of Fortnum and Masons showed me we are never really defeated until we get to the point where we stop trying.

Don’t believe what I saw with my own eyes?  Looks like other people saw the same as well.

This is my truth, tell me yours.

1 comment:

  1. good article. I'm not shocked the BBC played their own version of events- they are still doing it today. the attack on working class people will continue as long as the elite, the rich and the corrupt are in power, one day hopefully, they wont be. never give up!