Photographer appeals against conviction for obstruction at anti-fracking protest

BY RUTH HAYHURST ON MAY 15, 2017
A photo-journalist who spent about five minutes at an anti-fracking protest in Bolton is to appeal against a conviction for obstructing the highway.

Peter Yankowski Walker, from Oldham, said he was arrested after taking photographs of a lorry which was the subject of a slow-walking protest in Bolton.

He estimated that he was in front of the lorry for about three seconds and did not intend to stop it moving.

But he was found guilty today at Manchester Magistrates Court after district judge Paul Carr said police video evidence was “quite compelling”.

Outside the court, Mr Yankowski Walker, who has a masters degree in international photo journalism, said he was “shell-shocked” by the verdict.

“I have opinions on fracking but at that time I was being a journalist”.

The court heard he had no criminal record. But Mr Yankowski Walker told DrillOrDrop the police had presented to preliminary hearings of his case the record of someone else, who had been in prison and had convictions for assaulting a police officer and driving offences.

Mr Yankowski Walker said he had been held in custody for 11 hours and was not offered a caution because the police thought he had criminal convictions.

The court saw police video footage which showed Mr Yankowski Walker’s arrest at about 11am on 8 February 2017. This was about five minutes after the photographer arrived at the protest near the depot belonging to A E Yates. The company is the main construction contractor at Cuadrilla’s shale gas site at Preston New Road near Blackpool and has been the focus of multiple protests.

Vincent Yip, prosecuting, said for the previous two hours a group of anti-fracking protesters had “slow-walked” a large articulated lorry from the depot through an industrial estate and on to a main road at De Haviland Way. There, the police had decided it was no longer safe for the protest to continue and the lorry was stationary.

Sergeant Alex Metcalfe, the officer in charge, told the court he gave instructions to the protesters that they should leave the road. He said he initially thought Mr Yankowski Walker could have been a press photographer but he could also have been a protester. He said:

“We attempted to move the protesters and keep them at the side of the road. Officers signalled to the lorry pull out and then the defendant [Mr Yankowski Walker] pulled in front of the lorry to prevent its progress.”

Richard Brigden, defending, put it to Sergeant Metcalfe:

“Nobody said to the protesters or Mr [Yankowski] Walker that the lorry is about to move now”.

The sergeant relied:

“No one specifically”.

Mr Brigden suggested to another officer, PC Simon Findlow, that the lorry had moved towards Mr Yankowski Walker. PC Findlow replied:

“He stopped it from moving”.

A third officer, PC Amy Abram, said Mr Yankowski Walker ran up to the lorry and jumped up to the cab. Mr Brigden said this was not supported by the video.

Giving evidence, Mr Yankowski Walker said he had photographed 300-400 anti-fracking protests and had never been arrested. His pictures had appeared in newspapers, online and in magazines, including a Big Issue front cover.

Asked by Mr Brigden if he deliberately tried to stop the lorry, he replied:

“No. That would have been irrational.”

Mr Brigden asked:

“What caused you to move into contact with the lorry?”

Mr Yankowski Walker replied

“It was moving into me.”

He said he didn’t hear the warning or see a signal to the lorry driver to pull out.

“I was taking photographs of the cab and then all of a sudden it [the lorry] took off and it took me with it.

“The whole incident lasted about three seconds. I was making an assessment about what was the safe thing to do.”

Asked why he didn’t go back to the curb, he replied:

“It would not have been possible because the lorry was turning towards me. If I had gone that way I would have gone under the wheels”.

Mr Yip asked the judge to “infer the intentions” of Mr Yankowski Walker. Mr Brigden said his client had not intended to obstruct the lorry and the obstruction was minimal. He may have made a mistake in coming into close contact with lorry, Mr Brigden said. “But in this country we don’t convict people for making a mistake”.

District judge Carr said there were discrepancies in the police evidence but they were not material. He said:

“The video evidence is quite compelling. He [Mr Yankowski Walker] was walking with the camera with the intention of obstructing the lorry. It was more than de minimis. He is guilty of the offence.”

The district judge conditionally discharged Mr Yankowski Walker for a year and ordered him to pay £150 costs and £20 victim surcharge.

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