This week Sheffield police entered private property against an owner’s expressed wishes, without a warrant, and arrested two people who were standing under a tree, with the property owner’s permission. Why? Because a multinational company, Amey, wished to maximize its profits by felling that perfectly healthy tree. And they were not even the first to be arrested during this vital police operation. Two days before the police had arrested seven people, including a Green Party councilor, who had found the council so unreceptive to discussion that her only avenue for effective complaint was civil disobedience.
You might now ask what the law was under which these people were arrested. It was an anti-union law (against obstructing lawful work) from the Thatcher/Major era, which has (now) been eagerly embraced by the Labour council. You might also ask, as residents and protestors did, how it could possibly be legal to make these arrests of people who were merely standing on private property. The answer they were given was that the police could enter private property because of their suspicion that a crime was being committed. This crime, of course, was obstructing the profit-seeking of a multinational corporation (“lawful work”), employed by the council under a contract that none of the councilors have ever seen in its entirety.
Somehow, in the face of all that is happening in the world—austerity, the rise of the racist hate crime, and the gutting of our NHS and education systems—the Sheffield Labour council has decided its highest priority must be the destruction of healthy, mature, beloved trees to help a multinational company turn a bigger profit. Worse yet, they have somehow convinced the South Yorkshire Police—who surely have many better things to do—that they too should prioritise this, sending in massive police presences to arrest peaceable protestors, even on private property. And this despite public pronouncements by the police commissioner against this sort of operation: “South Yorkshire Police must ensure that in future, officers are not put in a position where they can be drawn into an operation of this kind and appear to be part of it.”
This destruction of our city’s trees is utterly senseless—the tiny “replacements” being offered are in no way a replacement for giant, mature trees, and the contract (we’ve been told) contains money for alternative engineering solutions where trees are damaging pavements. The damage to our environment from the current approach is irreversible.
But the damage to our democratic institutions, and our trust in public servants is equally devastating. Both the council and the police are revealing themselves as authoritarian enforcers for the sake of corporate profit, rather than protectors of the public good.
My 11-year old son has now had to add to his view of the world that the police might come onto someone’s private property to arrest them, just so that a company might make some money by destroying their tree. This is not the Sheffield I have known and loved for 21 years.