Unite Community members today turned out in force at a celebration rally on 8 December in Sheffield after charges against two members arrested during rail cuts protests were earlier abandoned by the Crown Prosecution Service.
In March, Barnsley Freedom Riders began opposing plans by South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive (SYPTE) to scrap free train travel for 268,000 disabled people and pensioners.
When it was agreed to start weekly Freedom Rides, whereby people refused to pay when boarding trains, it wasn’t long before police and security guards at Barnsley confronted campaigners. Like the American 1960s Freedom Riders who challenged racial segregation on buses the protestors sang US Civil Rights songs. Lobbying of local councillors and MPs followed.
A partial victory was achieved whereby free train travel for disabled people and their carers was reinstated, whilst OAPs could travel half price. If the authorities felt though that its ‘divide and rule’ policy would derail the campaign they underestimated the determination of everyone involved to win back all basic travel rights.
However when Freedom Riders travelled to Sheffield on Monday 23 June they were prevented from leaving the station. Things then went from bad to worse. Attempting to hold a peaceful rally, elderly and disabled people were confronted by large numbers of Northern Rail staff and the British Transport Police who acted like thugs, adopting a highly aggressive violent approach. Especially when they manhandled and arrested Tony Nuttall and George Arthur, Unite Community members aged 65 and 64 respectively.
Previously the police may have got away with it. This time modern technology came to the rescue when a video, which the police later unsuccessfully tried to confiscate under anti-terrorism legislation, of their actions went viral and was followed by widespread condemnation. Nevertheless, the CPS still proceeded to charge both men with obstructing a police officer and George with fare evasion.
Once again the authorities had miscalculated. At court in July, Unite Community and over 200 supporters backed the pair. Speaking invitations flooded in. There have been lobbies of SYPTE. The freedom rides will restart in January if pensioners’ free travel is not reinstated.
Tony and George will be able to participate in the freedom rides after the charges were dropped before reaching court. They faced being imprisoned for a month and a £1,000 fine. Both men received free legal support from Unite to fight their cases. They may now be able to pursue a civil case.
Speaking to over 100 people outside Sheffield Magistrates Court on 8 December, Tony Nuttall said, “I am delighted for myself and the campaign as it is a step towards getting back free train travel for older people. It is also a victory for the right to protest and highlights how the link-up between community campaigns and Unite works to everyone’s advantage.”
Utilising the right to protest, the crowd later marched to the British Transport Police base on Sheffield station but an attempt to get an apology failed as there was no one there, the phones didn’t work and the doors were locked!
“We will continue backing the Freedom Riders in their struggle to reinstate free train travel for pensioners,” said Joe Rollin, Unite Community co-ordinator.