Author: Cyril Richert
This is the story of a large old tree that local people wanted to protect from felling. This is a story of a massive regeneration project lead by a Council with plans in total opposition with the consultation they held 8 years ago. This is the story of violent security guards hired by Wandsworth Council assaulting tree protectors. This is the story of Dmitri, Emma, Ella, Pip, Marcus, Bradley, Tina, Rachida, Glyn, Annie, Phoebe, Rollie and many others who tried their best to defend a large garden, with massive trees and wildlife to be bulldozed without proper dialogue.
This is the story of a local community fighting to preserve the environment that matters to them.
In autumn 2020, I met a thin man, with a grey, bushy beard, in Café Olé at the bottom of Falcon Lane. He talked passionately about the need to campaign against the Council’s plans to erase York Gardens. Dmitri had already made a movie to explain how many mature trees were planned to be cut down by the developers: 123 in the video, but they later realised it was in excess of 400! He was convinced that something needed to be done to avoid this terrible result.
He decided to set up a community group, called Save York Gardens. The activists are not part of Extinction Rebellion, but XR has supported them with the help of many Wandsworth residents.
He got in touch with Marcus, Bradley, Maria, Pip, Ella and many others and told them that something needed to be done, primarily to protect a 100-year-old black poplar tree.
Maria, Marcus, Bradley and the Black poplar
The protest began at dawn on Monday 22 February when three tree protectors, Maria, Marcus and Bradley climbed into a 100-year-old black poplar tree to save it from being cut, allegedly to lay down some electric cable (with the tree in place, the developers would have had to divert the cable, causing delay and cost to the project, the easy solution was to cut it).
The activists arrived overnight on Sunday 21. Maria came down two days later but the remaining two stayed in the tree despite numerous attempts to evict them. On Wednesday 3 March at 12pm, Marcus climbed down from the old black poplar tree he had been living in for 10 days, leaving his friend Bradley “in charge”.
Marcus said that security guards hired by Wandsworth Council and Taylor Wimpey employed dangerous methods to try to get protestors out of the tree. They used barking dogs and bright lights to keep people awake at night and removed their possessions including tarps and blankets that they used to cover themselves during the cold night of the end of Winter. They tried to pull on a climbing rope that they were attached to, which could have had catastrophic consequences. They tried to “starve them out” by blocking access to food and drink (before the MET police intervened to allow it again). Even after, security guards were trying to intimidate the local supporters by taking picture IDs of anyone giving food to them.
Emma, Rachida, Penny, Ros and many others
Early March, Emma, who lives about 900 yards away from York Gardens, near Battersea Bridge, saw a post from Dmitri on the social network Nextdoor. The message was simple: “If you want to do something, come!”. She decided to look and quickly joined the protesters.
That’s about the time when Rachida, who lives close to Latchmere road, stumbled upon the same post on Nextdoor. Coming back from the nursery in Battersea Square, a few yards away from York Gardens, where she dropped her son, she immediately decided to buy a veggie falafel and some dates and bring it to the tree protectors.
She met Penny, Ros and a few others who alternated to protect Bradley by watching the behaviour of a dozen of security guards patrolling around the tree, observing the methods used by the firm hired by Wandsworth Council and Taylor Wimpey.
A court hearing about an eviction order took place on Friday 12 March. Maria acted as a defendant while they were fortunately represented pro-bono by Barrister Paul Powlesland, founder of Lawyers for Nature.
Following the repossession order granted by the High Court, police climbers came immediately to remove the man camping in the tree. Emma recalls:
“It was very frightening. They had handcuffed him; they were restricting his feet. But Bradley was resisting and trying to climb up. He couldn’t use his hands and it was a real concern he could fall!”.
Maria and Emma grabbed the megaphone to praise his courage. But they were also begging him to come down without resisting and stop climbing up; the activists were fearing for his life and it was becoming extremely dangerous. After 18 days in the tree, Bradley was very weak and walked with difficulties when eventually he joined his supporters on the ground.
The developers ordered to start cutting the tree immediately after the man was removed from the tree.
In the meantime, Emma got in touch with Dame Judi Dench and Jason Flemyng. Dame Judi Dench signed the petition to save the black poplar and said:
“WHY cut a 100-year-old tree down when there is an alternative to go round it?? Are we not all aware now just how important trees are?? I find myself making appeals like this every day, surely we know better!”.
Jason Femyng came to deliver a food package to the tree protectors.
Tina, another supporter, managed to get the support of the long-term Battersea resident and singer-songwriter Sir Bob Geldof, who said in a statement that the council should “leave our tree alone”.
Musician Sting and his wife Trudie Styler have also backed the campaigners and released a joint statement that said:
“We urge the council to rethink their decision. Of course, providing better housing for local people must be a priority but it is also important to do so whilst preserving the green spaces that are so valued by the local community. There surely must be another way to lay an electricity cable other than having to remove this 100-year-old tree that provides so much value to local children, for wildlife, our air quality, carbon storage and the beauty of nature within a developing urban space.”
Private security guards hired by the Council treated protesters like criminals
On Monday 15 March, the tension was palpable. Residents counted 18 security guards with dog handlers to patrol the plot while they were still cutting the old tree. In addition, MET police officers were watching.
Wandsworth Council and Taylor Wimpey chose to hire BML, a private security firm, and especially the K9 patrol, “highly trained guard dogs and expert handlers are an extremely effective deterrent against crime, trespass, theft or damage” according to the BML website.
And indeed, tree protectors and local residents were treated like criminals, that you can not only intimidate and threaten, but also punch and hit using the most reprehensible techniques such as the knee-on-neck, sadly famous since the death of George Floyd in the US last year.
A private footage shows that Dmitri was assaulted by three BML security guards, in front of the MET Police who refused to intervene. While he is already maintained still on the ground by one guard, several more join around him. One of the guards is pressing down on the protester’s chest while another one has placed his knee on the man’s neck and you can clearly hear Dmitri saying: “I can’t breathe”. Other protesters are shouting and screaming “Get off him” and “Take your knee off”.Dmitri was later taken to hospital as a precaution as he was in shock and shaking afterwards.
During this assault, brutal BML guards knocked over Pip, a young supporter who was drinking a coffee and another resident is seen on the ground holding her head after the violent charge as we can see on the video above.
The MET police did not intervene, they were just watching (“You shouldn’t be gathering because of Covid” one of them said, told us a resident). However, freedom of expression is protected by the Human Right Act and by the European Convention on Human Rights, no matter what the COVID restrictions says. Therefore, the police have got the duty to make sure that protests are safe.
When made aware of the way protesters had been treated, Battersea MP, Marsha de Cordova, said:
“Reports that people were chased, pushed to the ground and restrained, as well as verbally abused by security guards are totally unacceptable. I am extremely disappointed by the actions of the security company hired by Wandsworth Council, and have raised my concerns with them directly. My constituents have the right to peacefully protest the felling of a tree taking place to make way for a new housing development. They have my full support.”
When contacted about the events, especially about use of disproportionate force and knee-on-neck technique applied, BML denied evidence and responded (email 30/06/21):
“BML and/or any K9 or security unit conducted themselves lawfully and proportionately in relation to the protesters.
The police authority was present throughout the incident to which you refer; and there has been no suggestion by it of the use of violence at the level implied in your email.
What you describe as the “the knee-on-neck technique” was not deployed.”
Protecting the woodland
The 100-year-old black poplar had disappeared, but it was not the end. A month of grief and guilt followed, and the community group organised a vigil with some poetry, song and music.
Then Dmitri said: “What about the woodland? We’ve got to stand a create awareness”. His refusal to accept defeat energised the many supporters.
Campaigners started to build a makeshift campsite on York Gardens on April 18th and erected structures with pallets and tarpaulin to protest against the plan to cut the trees on the park.
Three days later, Emma was motivated to help the gang occupying the park:
“Tonight I’m going to camp in York Gardens. It’s not me, I’m 50-year-old, I have a young son, I don’t do camping. But I think I must do it to help them, Dmitri convinced me”.
She joined other protesters who were sleeping on the site. It was an unusually cold night for the season, she did not sleep more than 30 minutes, she said the day after.
More abuse and violence from the security guards
On Thursday 13 May at 10:30am Dmitri was facing another trial held remotely by the High Court. This time, with less than 48 hours to prepare a defence, he did not manage to get any representation. While campaigners claimed the occupation was legal under Section 6 of the Criminal Law Act 1997, which makes forced entry into the premises a criminal offence, Wandsworth Council and lawyers for the Winstanley and York Road regeneration project brought the legal action by issuing a claim form for the possession of property.
Ella is studying for her degree in Environmental Science – Planetary Health. With her friend Pippa, they have tried to help different campaigns across London. That’s how she got in touch with the group in York Gardens. They had slept in the camp part of the weeks (while also doing their exams!), with other friends.
Ella was in the camp and remembers:
“I have witnessed the thuggish behaviour used to gain access to land as there were intentional delays in giving us our notice about our court hearing (received on the Monday not Friday) which gave us very little time to make legal preparations. Despite bringing this to the judges’ attention it was largely dismissed as anything unlawful on their behalf but we were granted a one-day injunction.“
At 1:30am on the morning of the hearing, they were woken up to the sound of literally being caged in with crowd control barriers surrounding them, pre-empting the verdict of the court before the hearing had even happened and outnumbering protesters about 1 to 10. BML guards were patrolling in the camp with flash lights and placated several notice orders on the tree. The Court case had not even happened, as it was due for the morning.
For her it clearly demonstrates intimidation tactics and complete lack of consideration for a fair trial. They had not slept and were all exhausted before the hearing.
At 2pm that same day the judge decided against the protesters but with the hope that Wandsworth Council would undertake further consultations. No real consideration was given to the birds and bats recorded in the area (the same thing said one representative of the developers!) nor the fact that we were in the middle of the nesting season, which should have immediately halted the development.
Even before the court case was closed, chainsaws came into action to fell the trees, protesters still up on some of them! Ros, a journalist for The Guardian and Professor in Wandsworth, acted as one of the defendants during the High Court hearing. She said:
“It was with absolute horror that I emerged from this meeting to find that the trees were already being felled. There is a wildlife crime being committed by the felling of these trees. There are birds nesting at the moment, there are bats roosting, we have evidence of that. And that is against the legislation to protect wildlife. I wept when I saw that, I can’t believe it.”
They stopped after cutting about 6 trees and came back the day after, Friday 14th, to evict the remaining protesters and destroy their camp. By 4.30pm the job was done and 25 mature trees were in pieces.
There were lots of police officers and BML security guards everywhere, very threatening and intimidating anyone getting too close to the fenced zone in the community garden, she recalls.
Ella was trying to help Rachida removing the plants they were growing in the camp when she was grasped by several security officers and they tried to pull her away:
“I was physically assaulted by about 3 security guards while helping a resident carry her plants out of the camp before eviction, this was witnessed by at least half a dozen Metropolitan Police officers and yet no on stepped in.
To me this whole experience represents so much. Our throw away culture ‘build, build, build’, despite record highs of empty homes, so selfishly short sighted that it doesn’t require them to address the root of our problems but simply makes it sound okay on paper. There has consistently been massive hypocrisy and misinformation about the project, and no requirement for real transparency. It has shown me that the law doesn’t actually apply to everyone. Despite having so much power over decisions that will shape our futures they aren’t accountable for the devastating consequences this will have on our lives and yet supposedly we are the criminals.”
While trying to preserve nature and green space, the violence demonstrated by the security forces clearly shocked her. She later managed to climbed back up the trees, but left peacefully when firefighters came to remove protesters the day after.
A complacent Council dismissing the local community
In response to the criticism, the Council has always been telling the same story:
- Protesters are preventing the much needed 136 new council-owned social rent homes for local residents on low incomes [but they don’t say that in total their plan is to build 70% of the units as private accommodation and not much more social housing as will be replaced ~500 units]
- They are planting around 450 new trees on the estate and providing a new 2.5 Parks and open spaces in the London Borough of hectare public park [but they don’t say that they will be cutting 413 trees and reducing the size of the current York Gardens which is currently 3.68 hectares]
- Over the past three years they have planted more than 1,200 in streets and parks [Richmond has planted 571 over the past season 2020/21 only!]
- They look after more than 50,000 trees in streets and open spaces/670 hectares of parks and open space [but Merton looks after 867 hectares; Fulham looks after 231 hectares; Richmond looks after 2000 hectares, so does it mean they should care even less?]
Wandsworth Council has never expressed any concern on the violence that has been documented. Winstanley and York Road Regeneration Project team said they were going to investigate, but nothing more was heard.
Instead, the Council keeps claiming the wide support of a majority of residents:
“Demolition was supported by the majority of residents at the initial event and ongoing consultation and engagement has maintained this “.
They also claim that the Labour group supports the Council’s vision and welcome the scheme.
NB: The leader of the Council and the Regeneration team at Wandsworth Council have been contacted by email regarding this article but they have not responded yet at the time of publication.
To read more about the Winstanley/York Road redevelopment project, refer to our dossier, especially:
- Protesters are derailing Council’s plan for Winstanley & York Road estate redevelopment
- The full case against Winstanley & York Rd scheme: social cleansing and contempt for local residents
- Déjà vu: The Winstanley and York Road regeneration plans in trouble
Edit 1/07/2021: All pictures from Sabrina Merolla on Instagram @sabrinamero removed following her message saying that she previously refused to have her pictures used without being paid.
Edit 2/07/2021: Add response received from BML.