The Battle of Orgreave

Today marks the anniversary of the Battle of Orgreave, a pivotal event during the miner’s strike in Britain in 1984-5. On that day in 1984, miners who went to picket lorry drivers supplying coke to the steel industry were met by thousands of police officers drawn from all over the country, commanded by South Yorkshire police. The force included officers on horseback and the first units with short shields and truncheons ever used in Britain. Their official purpose, stated in the police’s tactical manual, was to “incapacitate” demonstrators.

On June 18 1984, after weeks of picketing, miners and supporters turned up at 8am outside the Orgreave coking plant to protest at the “scab” labour and coal lorries passing through the South Yorkshire site. After bricks and bottles were thrown at the “scab” vehicles, the police commander at Orgreave, assistant chief constable Anthony Clement, responded by sending in the mounted police. It was a serious overreaction and the miners’ mood quickly turned violent.

When the pickets countered with a second push, Clement ordered another mounted advance and demanded that the pickets disperse. They refused and Clement unleashed a third advance, backed up by short-shield snatch squads. Known as Police Support Units (PSUs), these were a new development on the British mainland. An aggressive, consciously offensive form of policing, they were developed out of the Toxteth and Brixton riots of 1981 and modelled on some of the colonial riot tactics used by the Hong Kong police force. As the mounted police cantered out, the PSUs followed in their wake, delivering baton beatings to the unarmed miners.

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Lesley Boulton from Sheffield Women Against Pit Closures was calling for an ambulance for an injured miner when attacked by a mounted policeman in riot gear with drawn truncheon.

2112Events did not end there. As a majority of miners headed off to Orgreave village, the police sweltered in the sun. Those miners still picketing the plant played football and goaded the police lines. As the hours passed, the police became increasingly frustrated. Now it was no longer about keeping Orgreave open; the police wanted it out with the miners.

Massively outnumbering the pickets, they started banging their shields with truncheons. Then came the PSUs. Then came the cavalry. Then came the charge. As miners fled the field, across railway lines and into the village, the police closed in. Miners were beaten on the field as they lay. But when the cavalry entered Orgreave village, they came under renewed attack. Clement ordered a mounted police canter through this small Yorkshire village. An out-of-control police force now charged pickets and onlookers alike on terraced, British streets. The full brutality of the police was only revealed later as prosecution after prosecution of “rioting” miners was thrown out. Instead, the South Yorkshire police force ended up with a huge compensation bill.

A classic example of the out-of-control behaviour of the police that day was captured in what has become an iconic image of the time (above) when Lesley Boulton narrowly escaped serious injury when a mounted police officer attempted an assault.

“I was attending to a man who was on the ground and seemed to have some chest injuries. I was standing trying to attract the attention of a police officer in the road to get him an ambulance. Because I thought, I don’t know how serious it was, but it warranted some medical attention.”

“As I stood up to attract this policeman’s attention, this officer on a police horse just bore down on me. Fortunately for me there was someone standing behind me who was also with the injured miner, who just yanked me out of the way.”

“John Harris, who was taking the pictures, was using a motor drive and I’ve seen not just the famous photograph but the subsequent picture which shows the baton going down very close to me. I felt it go past me. I was just missed by the skin of my teeth really.”

A fuller account which is well worth reading can be found here.

To many, Orgreave remains a symbol of resistance to Thatcherism’s attempt to crush not only the miners’ strike, but with it a culture and a community diametrically opposed to 1980s Conservatism. (The coking plant itself was later shut down and demolished.

…the strike was a “struggle for a livelihood, for jobs, and even for the identity of communities devastated by political decisions to close pits without thought for the lives affected. The poverty, deprivation and oppression were terrible. Yet the bravery of the men, women and children in those communities is almost forgotten, the struggle has all but been erased from memory.

Following the outcome of the inquiry into the Hillsborough disaster, pressure has been put on the Home Secretary Theresa May to order a Public Inquiry into the vicious and unruly policing of picketing miners, wrongful arrests and the subsequent falsification of police evidence, especially in light of the fact that the same police force, the South Yorkshire Police Force, was responsible for both and responded to both incidents in the same way.

The falsification of evidence was also aided by the media coverage of events, with the news media reporting and showing police responding to attacks by the miners, when in actual fact the reverse had been the case. The BBC subsequently apologised nearly a year later for their skewed news coverage, saying that somehow the video footage had got mixed up

Following the conclusion of the Hillsborough inquest, a jury ruled all 96 people who died at the stadium were unlawfully killed, mainly as a result of gross negligence by South Yorkshire Police officers. A redacted version of the Orgreave report shows that the same officers and solicitors linked to Hillsborough and the subsequent cover-up were involved in the aftermath of the Orgreave.

If the police hadn’t been allowed to get away with Orgreave, the cover-up at Hillsborough would never have happened, – Chris Kitchen, NUM General Secretary 

The IPCC is currently considering whether an unredacted version of the report  can be published. Of the report, shadow home secretary, Andy Burnham, said: “As I’ve always said, we won’t have the truth about Hillsborough until we have the full truth about Orgreave. Finally, this report provides proof of what has long been suspected – that underhand tactics were used first against South Yorkshire miners before being deployed to much more deadly effect against Liverpool supporters.”

Burnham added: “Like the people of Liverpool, the mining communities of South Yorkshire now need to be told the truth about their police force and the policing of the miners’ strike. On the back of these revelations, Theresa May must now order a disclosure process not just on Orgreave but on the policing of the miners’ strike.”

Shelia Coleman, spokesperson for the Hillsborough Justice Campaign, who believes the Hillsborough cover-up was sanctioned by the then Tory government because of how South Yorkshire Police managed the miners’ strike.

“Margaret Thatcher got off very lightly [over Hillsborough] and the government of the day got off undoubtedly.

“We are of the firm opinion that the cover-up came from the top, so that’s a very disappointing aspect.

“It’s always been our argument that it [the cover-up] was payback time, Margaret Thatcher’s way of thanking South Yorkshire Police for how they managed the miners’ strike.”

Men who were young at Orgreave are now approaching their 60s. Memories fade, evidence disappears and many who were there have not lived to see the truth come out. But this is not history, it is a vivid and open wound. Its impact lives on, both for the community, but in particular for those who were there. We owe it to them to deliver the truth and allow these wounds, finally, to heal.

 

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