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Battle of Orgreave

From Academic Kids

The Battle of Orgreave is the name given to a confrontation between police and picketing miners at a British Steel coking plant in Orgreave, South Yorkshire, in 1984, during the UK miners' strike. In 2001 it was the subject of a historical reenactment.

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) organised a mass picket of Orgreave for June 18, 1984, with the intention of blockading the plant, and ideally forcing its temporary closure. Aware of the plans by means of MI5 infiltration, the police organised counter-measures.

The NUM was represented by 5-6000 pickets from across the UK. The police numbered 4-8000 depending on the source, and were deployed from ten counties. Of that number, a small amount had been trained in new riot tactics following the Toxteth and Brixton riots, while most had little or no experience in dealing with such events. There were between 40-50 mounted police, and 58 police dogs. There were no women officers and only a handful of female picketers.

Unlike most of the strikes of the time, where picketers were kept well away from their intended positions, the strikers were escorted to a field to the north of the Orgreave plant. The field was flanked by police on all sides except the south, where the Sheffield to Worksop railway line runs. Opinion is divided as to whether this was a deliberate arrangement.

Initially the strike played out like most others, and the strikers played football for a while. But as more numbers arrived on both sides, tensions began to rise. There was some stone-throwing from the miners' side which persuaded the commander of the police presence, Assistant Chief Constable Anthony Clement, to deploy a cordon of long-shielded police in front of his standard officers - a fairly standard practice in such encounters. The first casualty was PC Akers, who was hit in the face by a brick at about 8am, and taken to hospital.

At much the same time, the lorries arrived to fetch the coke. This was the cue for the "push", in which the miners jostled the police in an attempt to break the lines - usual picketing practice. After only 38 seconds, Clement ordered the mounted police forwards. This resulted in a retreat by the striking miners, and the horses stopped about 30 yards ahead of the police line before withdrawing. This confrontation allowed a space for the lorries to pass, and escalated the tension on the field.

A second push was followed by a second mounted response, but this time the whole police line advanced the 30 yards. Increased stone throwing heightened the tension and the miners were warned that if they did not retreat 100 yards, short shield squads would be deployed.

Short shield squads (police in riot gear, with batons and short shields) were a new development and would represent an offensive rather than defensive approach to riot control. This would be new to the UK if employed, and had previously been considered an unacceptable tactic.

When the miners didn't move back, a third mounted advance was initiated, with the short shield squads in pursuit. The result of this third advance was general panic amongst the strikers, and an increasing amount of hand to hand fighting between the two sides.

Having repelled the picket line, the police withdrew again to their original positions. The miners moved forwards again, this time with more stone-throwing.

At 9:25, the fully laden lorries began to leave the plant. This was the cue for another push by the strikers. This push was less friendly than the previous one, and again, the miners were pushed back.

Following a show of defiance by NUM leader Arthur Scargill, who walked in front of the police lines for a few moments, there was a lull in the proceedings, and most of the picketers headed to Orgreave village for refreshments. Those that were left sunbathed. The police on the other hand were hot in their uniforms, and a breakdown in logistics had left many without a drink for several hours. However, many police (including the long shields) were stood down during the lull.

What happened next is the subject of some debate. The police claim that a lorry tyre was rolled to within 20 yards of their line, and that stones started to be thrown again. Another account blamed an argument between miners and police. Given that the confrontation was not dying down, and that the likes of water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets were not available, the only option open to the police (short of grinning and bearing it) was further charges. The shielded police were quickly returned to duty, and they drummed on their shields to raise the tension.

This advance was more substantial than before, and left the now outnumbered pickets with no option but to cross the railway line. While most made the bridge, others had to scramble down the embankment and across the rails.

Some miners tried to fight back but were arrested, and fighting escalated to the point where miners were being beaten with truncheons. The police soon reached the bridge, taking and holding the field side. Here they were bombarded by missiles, with the miners utilising a nearby scrap-yard. A car was dragged from the yard, put across the road and set alight.

The option now for the police was either to withdraw into the field and risk another push by the miners, or to advance into the village and chase off the hostile strikers. After three short range charges (during which Arthur Scargill was one of the injured), an advance was ordered. The miners were forced into the village with a new police line forming outside 31 Highfield Lane.

But stone-throwing continued, and so about 20 mounted police were ordered to advance. This finally resulted in the dispersal of the crowds, although several police officers ran in pursuit and reportedly attacked some of the fleeing miners.

More stoning resulted in a further charge down Rotherham Lane, during which a photographer who was helping an injured miner narrowly missed a baton strike, with the incident being one of many caught on camera.

Finally, the police withdrew back to the bridge, and despite continued stoning they held their line. The remaining miners built barricades from scrap, but by mid-afternoon the stone-throwing had stopped.

Official reports state that during the course of the confrontation, 93 arrests were made, with 51 picketers and 72 policemen injured. Injuries on the miners' side were probably higher though, due to the fact that injured miners seeking medical attention risked arrest.

Television coverage of the event showed the police in a favourable light, although it was later revealed that several sequences had been shown out of order.

However, the subsequent failure to try picketers for rioting, and allegations of police brutality both on the field and in custody, tarnished the later impression of the way the police handled the encounter.

In 2001, conceptual artist Jeremy Deller organised a reenactment of the event with assistance of the arts production company Artangel and reenactment logistics company EventPlan. The event took place on June 17, 2001, and was filmed by film director Mike Figgis for a Channel 4 documentary. The reenactment featured 800 people including 280 local residents, and a number of people (police and picketers) from the original encounter. Only the railway crossing was omitted from the reenactment, on safety grounds.


External links

Jeremy Deller, The Battle of Orgreave (http://www.artangel.org.uk/pages/past/01/01_deller.htm)

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