Sleepy port that joined front line in trade war

James Cusick reports from a town in shock over police tactics against i ts protest
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The Independent Online
The leaflet lying on the sergeant's desk inside Brightlingsea's modern police station proudly proclaims its friendliness. "People who come to our town whether for sea, shopping or sightseeing usually come again and again," it says.

Immediately outside is the front line of a five-day battle that has bemused the sergeant, turned the sleepy image of the town upside down and left local residents wondering if the law of the land has deserted them.

At the end of last week, the daughters of a leading animal rights campaigner who lives near the Essex port, learnt that Brightlingsea was about to join Shoreham, Swansea and King's Lynn as the ports exporting livestock to the continent.

Francesca D'Silva and her sister Maria Wilby quickly printed leaflet, thought up a name (Brightlingsea Against Live Exports - Bale) and called the townsfolk to a meeting in the community hall. "We didn't know how many would turn up," said Francesca. Morethan a thousand did. The meeting was angry. It resolved to fight the lorries that were about to bring sheep through Brightlingsea.

By Monday night, 500 demonstrators, a mixture of mostly residents, topped up with experienced hunt saboteurs and some of the fall-out campaigners from the M11 link-road protest, blocked the thin road next to the police station that leads to the wharf. Inless than half an hour, they turned back the first of what was supposed to be four lorry-loads of sheep scheduled for a Danish ship at the wharf, destination Belgium.

On Tuesday, bad weather prevented attempts to sail and exporters stayed away. On Wednesday morning, police tactics changed. The battle of Brightlingsea had begun.

Another meeting, again in the community centre, filled the main hall, the lobby, and spilled outside. It gathered the combat stories of the day's events. About 1,500 people listened and applauded their own solidarity.

The town's mayor, Ric Morgan, demanded that the police explain their violence. A roving microphone was handed round. Sue Wheeler, a Bale organiser, shouted: "I wish the riot squads could see us sitting here shoulder to shoulder." The hall shouted, cheered, and applauded.

Messages were read out: one from a girl with cerebral palsy who had spent all day writing a letter offering support. Some in the crowd cried, held each other. There was laughter when one of the town's great and good said students where phoning Mums and Dads, warning them not to get into trouble. Another shouted : "The police, the police took sides. And they were out of control."

The small maritime heritage community - inhabited since the Saxons, Danes and Normans first gathered on the Essex shoreline - has been shocked by the battle of Brightlingsea.

One of the town's oldest residents said: "There was a riot today, and it was the police rioting. I want to complain, who do I see?"

In the small pub opposite the police station, a side room has become the post-battle analysis HQ. Tony Urquart, in green Barbour, smart hat and carrying a sort of make-shift loudhailer, admitted: "I've never been on any demonstration before, never. But what we saw out there was frightening."

He had just come in from the main Wednesday morning confrontation between 250 Essex police officers and 500 demonstrators. Complaints of police punching, stamping, throwing sitting protesters over walls, elbowing, all have been documented in more than 200 complaints sent to the police.

Monday night's brief scent of victory, when one lorry was halted, had gone by yesterday. Changed police tactics, which Brightlingsea people still do not quite believe, have seen officers swap traffic uniforms for full-helmeted, batonned riot gear. On Monday they were Pc Plods. Yesterday morning, they had become Robocops.

Geoffrey Markham, assistant chief constable in charge of the police operation, admitted he had "few options". If the vehicles passed, he said, without police escort, "there will be a riot". There were hints of despair as he reminded himself this was day three. The export contract has six months to run.

A resident's view, page 18

The full story, page 25