CUSU Women’s Officer arrested

James Burton – Deputy News Editor 22 October 2009

CUSU Women’s Officer Natalie Szarek was arrested whilst taking part in a direct action campaign against climate change in Nottinghamshire last weekend.

Ms Szarek attended the Great Climate Swoop at Ratcliffe-on-Soar coal-fired power plant on the 17th and 18th of October. The event aimed “to close one of the UK’s biggest coal fired power stations” according to a post on the website of the Camp for Climate Action, one of the Swoop’s organisers.

The event was heavily policed, with Nottinghamshire police arresting fifty-seven people according to figures given by their Press Office, although The Cambridge Student (TCS) understands that this number does not include those subsequently de-arrested without being taken to the police’s custody suite. Activists were arrested under suspicion of conspiracy to commit aggravated trespass, committing aggravated trespass, and causing criminal damage.

A number of protesters and policemen were injured during the protests, which were attended by over 1000 people. One policeman was admitted to a Derby hospital with head injuries, but later discharged.

Ms Szarek was arrested outside the power plant on suspicion of the first two offences, and is currently on bail awaiting charge. She made it clear to TCS that her involvement in the Swoop had nothing to do with her role as a Cambridge University Students’ Union (CUSU) Sabbatical Officer, telling the paper via e-mail that “Attending the Climate Swoop this past weekend was something I did in my personal capacity, out of the belief that our society must, and can, effect the social change necessary to avert climate catastrophe.”

“I am not surprised that people, including many Cambridge students, are taking non-violent direct action against inaction on climate change: it is the proportionate response to the scale of the problem. I was deeply troubled by incidents of violent policing, but was inspired to see so many people work together to create a new and powerful social movement for climate justice.”

This is not the first time the Womens’ Officer has been arrested whilst taking part in direct action campaigns. Last December, she was convicted of aggravated trespass following her involvement in a protest at Stansted airport organised by Plane Stupid, and had to pay a fine and carry out fifty hours community service.

Ms Szarek confirmed she will “continue to be involved in Climate Camp.” She added that she is “really impressed with the work the Ethical Affairs Team are doing” to campaign against climate change.

CUSU President Tom Chigbo, commenting on behalf of the Student Union, said that “what CUSU officers do in their personal capacities is entirely up to them. In Easter 2009, JCR/MCR and faculty representatives at CUSU Council voted to affirm our support for the right of all students to engage in peaceful protest, without violent impediment. CUSU has no policy on the use of direct action in campaigning against climate change. However, the CUSU Go Greener Campaign offers students many opportunities to get involved in promoting sustainability and tackling climate change at college and University level.”

There is no CUSU policy to bar Sabbatical Officers from holding their positions if they have a criminal conviction. The constitution states that “any executive officer shall be removed from office only when a Motion of No Confidence in him or her is passed by a two thirds majority at a Meeting of Council and subsequently ratified by a majority vote at a Meeting of Council taking place not less than 14 days later.”

Although the Ratcliffe protests were hailed by the Camp as a success, with their website declaring “We did it”, the energy firm E.ON, which is responsible for running the plant, told the BBC that operations continued as normal.

A spokesman said: “There aren’t any winners or losers here. It was a less than peaceful protest. Protesters were hurt, policemen were hurt and the power station carried on producing energy regardless. I don’t think it added anything to the debate on the UK’s energy future.”

The BBC also quoted Natasha Blair, a member of the Camp for Climate Action, who said: “We’ve achieved what we came here to do – to show that coal has no future and there is a growing movement which is prepared to take action on climate change.”

Helen Hall, Press Officer for Nottinghamshire Police, said that “we can’t comment on the names of those arrested until they are charged. We will have to wait and see what happens in the coming week.”

James Burton – Deputy News Editor