Occupy campaigners angry at police arrests

Protesters outside the police station after squatters were removed from the Railton Hotel, Lancaster and arrrested.
Protesters outside the police station after squatters were removed from the Railton Hotel, Lancaster and arrrested.

PROTESTERS who occupied a disused hotel in Lancaster say they could make a formal police complaint after four were arrested.

Around 100 activists - under the Occupy Lancaster banner - took over the former Railton Hotel in Station Road on Sunday with plans to tidy up the property and garden with a view to it being opened up as community space.

However, up to 50 police later surrounded the property, forced entry and arrested three men and a woman.

They were released without charge after 20 hours in custody.

Supporters camped outside the police station overnight to protest against the arrests, and later celebrated outside the Railton Hotel following the group’s release.

One of the arrested protesters, 48-year-old David Fleet, said the group - dubbed the ‘Lancaster Four’ - will be looking into the possibility of making a complaint against the police after being arrested on suspicion of criminal damage.

“They said we had caused damage to a window, but they then changed that to damaging the door lock,” he said.

“But the door was open when people first arrived, it wasn’t locked.

“We are looking into a complaint quite seriously.”

Mr Fleet, who was also involved in the occupation of Dalton Square before Christmas, said the group had been trying to create a new community space for local people.

“We were cleaning up the building and garden to open it up as a big community centre,” he said.

“We are not going to go away. We are serious about bringing a sense of community to Lancaster.

“Things have got to change for the better.

“People have been telling us that they support what we are doing; the public support has been immense.”

A police spokesman said: “Police were called to the Railton Hotel in Station Road at about 4pm, where they found a group of protesters had barricaded themselves inside the building.

“We suspected that criminal offences had been committed, namely criminal damage to the property, and therefore arrests were made.”

However, the group claimed they had displayed notices saying they were legally occupying a disused building under squatting law.

Footage of what the activists said was the police action was posted online and more than 125,000 people worldwide watched a video posted on You Tube.

The Railton Hotel has been derelict for a decade, and despite the owner - who is believed to live in Ireland - being granted planning permission to develop the site in 2006, it remains untouched.

Police guarded the hotel premises around the clock following the arrests, until it was finally secured by a workman on Monday afternoon.

A statement from Occupy Lancaster said they felt they had acted legally and were concerned by the actions of the police.

“There is absolutely no evidence of forced entry,” they said. “Our intentions were good: to renovate the property, and open it for public meetings, arts and crafts events, music and youth activities, the creation of a community garden/allotment space, and, to help replace the many services lost or threatened by government cuts.

“We imagined an, albeit temporary, cultural hub at the heart of Lancaster, run by the community for the community: something of which we could all be proud.”

The group said local PCSOs and officers had initially been good-humoured, in keeping with their previously supportive role during the occupation of Dalton Square.

“Occupy is a peaceful, non-violent and inclusive movement which campaigns on issues of social and economic justice,” the group said.

“It saddens us to see the police being ordered to use what we consider to be disproportionate force against peaceful protesters.”

Green councillors joined the support for the group, along with the Quakers and Lancaster and Morecambe Trades Union Council.

“The Railton Hotel has been left derelict by an absentee landlord for many years,” said Castle ward councillor Tracey Kennedy.

“At the very least, members of the Occupy group have highlighted this important issue.”

Coun Tim Hamilton-Cox said he plans to write to the police about the “disproportionate policing.”

Lancaster and Morecambe Trades Union Council said: “We declare our support for the Occupy movement in its challenge to the unequal distribution and control of the world’s resources.

“We congratulate Lancaster Occupy movement in their valiant attempt to reclaim the abandoned Railton Hotel, in order to create a much needed community centre and community vegetable gardens.

“We condemn the heavy handed police raid on the Railton Hotel squat occupation and are concerned that this police operation may have been outside the law.”