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38 Years After Orgreave, Protest Is Still Under Attack

On this day in 1984, striking miners were attacked by a paramilitary police operation at Orgreave. They faced no accountability – and almost four decades later, little has changed.

(Photofusion / Rex / Shutterstock)

Each year, the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign marks the anniversary of the police riot at the Orgreave coking plant just outside Sheffield. 18 June 1984 was a pivotal moment in our trade union history. It was also a turning point in how protest is policed, and how the state will stop at nothing to crush dissent in order to advance its political ideology.

This year, the TUC has called for a mass protest in London against the cost of living crisis. On the 38th anniversary of that day at Orgreave, it’s important to remember exactly why the struggle for the truth and justice about the state’s actions against striking miners is relevant now more than ever.

For anyone with an interest in the policing of protest, you can go back four decades to look at how such an aggressive model has been developed, used and is now legislated for. An excellent place to start is with a new book, Charged: How the Police Try to Suppress Protest written by activist, author and filmmaker Morag Livingstone and criminal defence lawyer Matt Foot.

The Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign has repeatedly called for an inquiry into the state-directed police violence during the 1984/85 miners’ strike. We have never shied away from demanding the truth be recognised: that Orgreave was planned by the government of the day and that the police were directed by the state; that a narrative was agreed by the government and the police and was advanced by the media; and the police fabricated evidence and presented it at trial. Livingstone and Foot’s book not only evidences all of this, but shows meticulously that Orgreave was not the first protest to experience these actions. The way that protest has been policed since has benefitted from the lack of accountability faced by the government back then. It has given the police the confidence to act with utter impunity, because they have never had to account for their actions.

Charged takes us through a horrifying journey of political policing from Warrington to Orgreave and Wapping in the 1980s, the Poll Tax, Criminal Justice Bill, and the anti-racist protest at Welling in the 1990s, the Student Protests, G8, and G20 protests of the first decade of this century, right up to the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, Extinction Rebellion, and the brutal acts at the Sarah Everard vigil last year. This book answers many questions for protestors who attended these demonstrations, and especially for anyone new to protest.

Even if you do not attend protests in person, the book is a must-read to properly understand the true historical context of these events through the forensic examination of papers and documents. Crucially, it includes accounts from eyewitnesses at the time, mostly those whom the mainstream media deliberately chose to ignore and the state chose to silence, and, in some cases, attempted to criminalise. For those of us who attended protests covered in the book, it also provides vindication and clarity over many issues of which we have been accused.

During the 1985 trial of the first fifteen miners indicted with riot and unlawful assembly on 18 June 1984—ninety-five miners in total were charged, and the remaining eighty awaited their trials—the existence of a ‘secret’ police manual came to light, drawn up by the Association of Chief Police Officers. What came to be known in the Orgreave trial as the ‘ACPO Manual’ was classified and had not been brought before Parliament. However, its existence and content were known and approved by the Home Secretary, Willie Whitelaw, and other senior civil servants. Not only was the public unaware of it—so were the majority of sitting MPs and rank-and-file police officers.

The manual was drawn up in 1983 following the unrest and ‘riots’ in cities across the UK two years prior, and it gave the green light to paramilitary policing and tactics. It was first utilised at the printing dispute in Warrington in 1983, where the police ordered the media present to turn off their lights before the police unleashed extreme violence and snatch squads, and even drove their vehicles into striking workers and protestors. A public inquiry was called for into the actions of the police, but it was refused.

If Warrington was the testing ground, then 18 June 1984 at Orgreave was the manual in full throttle. This time, the level of violence was scaled up, with the senior police not only deploying officers on horseback to charge the crowd, but also dog handlers and, for the very first time, a fearsome squad of officers with short shields and batons to pick off any miner unlucky enough not to be able to make their escape. It was accepted by officers giving evidence during the 1985 trial that all these tactics were used to ‘terrify’ the striking miners; officers even said they had been told by their seniors that simply being present was grounds for arrest. Lawyers who attended the aftermath of that day in police stations witnessed the horrific injuries sustained by some and commented at the time that it was a miracle that no one died as a result of the policing tactics used.

The Orgreave trial collapsed as a result of the prosecution recognising they could no longer maintain that there was any case to answer, and subsequently all miners charged had their cases dropped. But what failed to follow, just like at Warrington, was any accountability for the actions of the police. Once again, senior police officers had confidence not only that they could repeat their actions, but that they did so with the full support of those in (the know of) the leadership of the Tory government of the day. What Charged does so well is evidence the involvement of that government from the very start: the establishment of a secret committee, often chaired by Thatcher herself; the level of detail that this committee demanded being briefed on; the sharing of intelligence; and the interference in local justice, including the repeated requests for more miners to be charged.

The book competently and compellingly goes through the expansion of tactics to include kettling and the repeated acts of mass arrests and the over-charging those arrested, and police evidence failing to stand up to scrutiny in the criminal courts.

The other common denominator, so prevalent during the miners’ strike and since, is the role of the mainstream media. The attacks on the miners, along with the lies about Liverpool fans at Hillsborough and the printers at Wapping, are being repeated to whip up hate against Black Lives Matters protestors and Extinction Rebellion. The vicious attacks on the RMT union this week ahead of the strike action planned for later this month is not done in isolation but is inextricably linked with the false narrative Johnson’s government is trying its best to get the public to believe.

Any striking miner from 1984/85 will tell you that by striking for their jobs and community, they were also standing up against what the Thatcher government would legislate for—namely, the Britain we have today, including the cost of living crisis, where private energy and transport companies are escalating our bills beyond our income, the rise of in-work poverty through low wages and zero hours contracts, and the lack of any social security in a benefits system that seeks to sanction those in need. The government will try to silence anyone who wants to raise their voice against any of this with a whole load of new legislation. This will give state spies complete freedom to infiltrate any group that they see as a threat, plus immunity against prosecution for any criminal acts they may commit whilst undercover, and new, extensive, and authoritarian laws against protest which can only be described as fascist.

As the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign has always maintained, our struggle for justice is not simply an act to right the wrongs of the past. We have always maintained, as do Livingstone and Foot, that if there had been an inquiry into Orgreave then the police and government would not be able to justify their actions against protestors today. When you read Charged, you will see ours is one of many struggles, past and present. This Saturday, whether you are marching at the TUC Rally in London or at our Orgreave Rally in Sheffield, remember that now is the time we recognise our strength in solidarity, and stand together.