A police crackdown on a long-running peaceful protest in South Yorkshire led to the arrest of two protesters on Monday 23 June. The “Freedom Riders”, Tony Nuttall, 65, and George Arthur, 64, have since been charged with fare evasion and obstructing a police officer.
The Freedom Ride protests started in April following the decision by South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive (SYPTE)’s decision to make cuts to concessionary travel to make up a £234,000 budget shortfall. Free train travel for pensioners and disabled people was axed completely, with bus concessionary fares pushed back to 9.30am on weekdays.
South Yorkshire’s elderly and disabled people decided to fight back, organising weekly mass protests in which a group of activists travel on a train together without tickets.
In mid-May the protests, which had begun to attract around 150 activists, achieved a partial success with the restoration of free all-day bus and train travel for disabled people and half-price train travel for pensioners.
Consistent in their demands, the Freedom Riders refused to end their campaign and the protests continued, attracting significant police attention in recent weeks. Initially attempting to prevent the campaigners boarding the train by blocking access to platforms at Barnsley (resulting in a lively static protest nearby), police have gradually stepped up their operation in an attempt to put a stop to the campaign.
The 23 June protest had started as normal, with Barnsley and Sheffield protesters joining together for their weekly ride to Meadowhall. Waiting for them on the platform at Meadowhall, however, was a large group of police officers, so the group decided to stay on the train and return to Sheffield, joined by the police, who boarded the train. Upon arriving at Sheffield, the train doors were locked and only the police allowed to exit, who promptly formed a cordon around the train. The protesters were then released from the train into a sort of loose “kettle”, being kept on the platform. Several pieces of footage taken by protesters and shared on social media show police shoving elderly activists and violently arresting Tony Nuttall. A reporter from the Sheffield Star was ordered by police to delete film taken on his phone as it was taken on private property without permission, then threatened with arrest under anti-terrorism legislation. According to those attending, two people were taken to hospital, including a blind protester who was pushed over another protester in a wheelchair. The latest video, shared on the Facebook page of the local Unite Community branch, of which both arrested protesters are members, shows George Arthur politely engaging with a rail worker, immediately prior to his own forceful arrest.
Undeterred, the Freedom Ride campaign is planning further action — a demonstration has been organised for 9.15am on 7 July outside Sheffield Magistrates Court, to coincide with Tony and George’s appearance.