How will a young Police Officer respond to his first real taste of public disorder?
'FRACK OFF!' it read. Bold and brash in urgent yellow on a black background. A scruffy, dreadlocked man thrust the sign towards Constable Hughes, spitting the words in to the young officer's face on a wave of stale tobacco and black coffee. The crowd was quite small at the moment, maybe fifty people at most. But it swelled with every minute that passed, increasing in energy and conviction as it did. Hughes took a few steps back.
"This has nothing on the Iraq war protests" scoffed Sgt. Reed. "The dogs saw plenty of action that day son". He thumbed the handcuffs and pepper spray on his utility belt, sneering defiantly as he surveyed the row of protesters now pressing against the temporary barriers that lined the entrance to the site compound. Reed turned and walked off to rejoin his colleagues amassing near the vans and patrol cars. They joked as they donned their stab vests and helmets.
This was Tom Hughes' first protest. His first potential for 'public disorder' since he'd joined the ranks, after graduating three months previously. He wasn't one of those who'd always wanted to be an officer though. For some he'd gone through training with, it was a lifelong ambition. They'd studied criminology at uni, become Community Support officers (or 'Chimps' as some of his colleagues referred to them) and knew the operational handbook back to front. Tom however, like most of his friends, wasn't so sure. His education at a moderately priced public school had given him the confidence and rounding one would expect, but he lacked focus and passion. The expectation of A levels and university was met, and with indifference and student debt, he'd graduated with a 2.2 in English Literature three years ago. After a gap year (which largely involved getting off his face in South East Asia), he'd returned to Cardiff with a deep tan, a feeling of anticlimax and several thousand pounds more debt. It hadn't taken long for his parents to start chipping away and before he knew it, he was paying them rent whilst despising the fact he was still living with them and was working in the local pub. Something had to be done.
He'd procrastinated with the online application over the course of a month or so, struggling to describe a situation where he'd 'challenged someone’s behaviour that was discriminatory or inappropriate'. By the time he'd finished filling out the Equal Opportunities form and hit the 'submit' button, he'd convinced himself that a call to interview from South Wales Police probably wasn't on the cards. Six months and several interviews later though, Tom found himself sat with ten other young men and women in a drafty porta cabin in Swansea, listening to a portly middle-aged man with impossibly shiny shoes and a drinker's nose boom proudly about how ‘they were not to take lightly their responsibility as the next cohort selected to become Her Majesty's Officers of the Law'. He'd enjoyed the practical elements of his training and had looked forward to his first patrol. But he felt unable to fully embrace his new role and was slightly embarrassed about being in a position that required him to take himself so seriously.
Constable Hughes estimated two hundred people now plugged the entrance road to the site. A nervous energy was palpable and the atmosphere inside the compound felt less jovial than it had initially been. Several camera crews had arrived, one with a cherry picker which now hovered above the site's hoarding, alternating it's focus between the eighteen officers inside and the baying, chanting throng outside. So far, no one had tried to get beyond the barriers, but the tide of the crowd rocked them to and fro as it flowed in and out against them.
Constable James Stirling stood alongside Hughes roughly twenty feet from the barriers, both with hands thrust in the gap between their stab vests and their jackets. Despite both being of muscular build and above average in height, their age (they were both in their mid twenties) and inexperience meant the pair lacked authority, and they tried to make up for it with posture and gesture as they stood facing sternly straight ahead. The illusion of authority had obsessed Hughes throughout his training and the more he thought about it and tried to convey it, the less convincing he seemed. You either had it or you didn’t he’d concluded.
"The drilling rig should be here soon". Stirling looked at his watch and back to the crowd as he spoke, quickly returning his hand to the warmth of his breast. "Yeah, shouldn't be long now” Replied Hughes. “Are there any more backup coming?" He was trying to sound nonchalant in order to not betray his genuine concern about the growing numbers.
"I think there's an escort vehicle but other than that, it's just us lot I'm afraid. Don't worry though mate. Once the rig's arrived and they've got something to shout at, they'll soon get bored and go home to burn some incense. Or have a joint. Or sign an online petition to ban the use of… deodorant or something'. Hughes chuckled nervously. "Yeah, you're probably right" he muttered.
The cameraman in the cherry picker suddenly swung to face out in to the approach road and the low grumble of a diesel engine could be heard briefly before the chants turned to shouts and screams and drowned it out. People turned and surged away from the barriers towards the cumbersome vehicle as it gradually pulled in to sight, splurging black fumes from its exhaust defiantly in to the air. "Stirling. Hughes. Time to move" barked Sgt. Reed over his shoulder as he and five other officers ran towards the barriers. They unclipped them, dragged them to either side of the road and forcefully parted the crowd to get to the escort vehicle that crawled towards them from the other side of the mass. Hughes and Stirling rushed to join their colleagues as the pack closed in behind them, swallowing the six men and women to its churning core. Hughes raised his arms up and outwards to clear a path through. As he did so, he brushed the breast of a woman through her green duffle coat. “Pervert pig!” she screeched in to his ear as she clawed at his arm “Back!” yelled Stirling as he muscled in close behind. The woman swung at him with an open hand, cuffing him on the forearm. He bore his shoulder in to her sternum. “Get Back!” he yelled again. The noise of the crowd was deafening and disorientating. Hughes fixed his eye on the rig’s exhaust to guide him and continued to force his way through. A man dressed as the grim reaper leaped in front of him, driving a plastic scythe down at his feet. “Move, now!” the officer yelled. The man stayed fixed to the spot. Hughes’ heart was racing. He was suddenly and acutely aware of just how much hatred was being directed towards him. So much raw emotion and frustration.
He was pretty sure he agreed with these people about risks of fracking. About the unknowns, the long-term environmental effects and the need to focus on renewable energy and sustainable living for the future of the planet. He wasn’t a bad person. He wasn’t here because he wanted to be. It was his job. A job he’d trained long and hard for and for all the right reasons. Most of these losers probably didn’t even have jobs. He was just here to keep people safe. To keep order. It was the oil and gas companies and the politicians with vested interests and five-year blinkers that were the ones to blame for this. The injustice was infuriating.
The Grim reaper still wouldn’t budge and an intense anger welled inside Hughes. “MOVE, NOW!”. He reached for his nightstick, flicking it downwards to extend it fully and then raised it offensively above his shoulder. “NOW!”. The man stood defiant and twisted his face towards Hughes’, sticking out his tongue as he did. Without hesitation, Hughes brought the steel down cold and hard on the crown of his head. The hideous mask spun from the man’s face and he slumped instantly downwards to the tarmac and lay still and crumpled at the officer’s feet. The woman in the green duffle coat shrieked and dropped to her knees at the man’s limp body. “What the hell have you done Hughes!?”. Stirling grabbed his shoulder, spinning him round to face him as he did. Hughes stood stunned for a moment. “We need to get out of here”. They scrambled desperately back towards the compound as those surrounding them rushed to the assistance of the man on the ground. The site manager uncoupled a bolt and swung the chain-link gates open to let the two panting officers in, quickly closing and bolting it behind them.
Sgt. Reed and the others had now reached the escort vehicle and were doing their best to guide it through as they tried to shield their faces from the eggs which smashed against its windscreen and splattered over their helmets and uniforms. A number of people had managed to clamber on to the sides of the rig, hanging on with one arm and punching the air with the other as they chanted like football hooligans. Two female officers frantically clutched at their flailing legs in an attempt to drag them off.
The rig and escort had finally made it to the gates of the compound. Three more officers had reached the convey and had successfully managed to remove the climbers. “Now!” boomed Reed. Hughes, Stirling and the site manager flung the gates open and beckoned the vehicles in. The remaining officers now flanked the rig down both sides, preventing anyone from squeezing between it and the fence to get in to the compound as the rig rolled slowly inside. The gates folded in behind it, rattling shut once the last officers had slipped in. Hughes slammed the bolt across just as the mob flooded in behind in close pursuit. He and Stirling stood for a moment, cold and expressionless, staring blankly into each other’s clean-shaven faces. The ubiquitous cherry picker craned its neck in towards the compound, hanging ominously above with its camera trained unwaveringly on the two young men. Suddenly though, it swung away again and out towards the approach road. Tom Hughes looked up, squinting in the autumn sunlight. Faintly in the distance the pulsing wail of an ambulance siren could be heard.