Francis Beckett

Last night I watched the third striking firefighter of the day being hit and hurt by a strikebreaker driving fast straight at him.  I was inches away as a fire engine mowed down a picket, and it was a very frightening moment.

It was at Southwark Fire station, where a dozen or so fire engines were due to b

e brought back after the strike ended at 6 pm. I went because, last time, the right wing tabloids got very excited about what they claimed was obstruction of fire engines by pickets. I thought the stories were invented, and wanted to be a witness to whatever happened. I was, and it wasn;t what I expected.

There was a huge police presence – a helicopter overhead, probably 100 officers – and they organised the picketing relentlessly.  Eight pickets were to be allowed; the rest of the demonstrators were to be penned in diagonally across the road, so that they could not get anywhere near the fire engines as they entered the small street leading to the place where they are parked.  It was pretty frustrating for the striking firefighters, but they accepted it with remarkable good humour – I didn’t hear any complaints, even privately.

The fire engines kept us waiting for a couple of hours, perhaps hoping the firefighters would go home, but they didn’t. At last they started coming.  The firefighters stayed well away, corralled behind police lines, and the eight permitted pickets stood in front of the fire engines so they stopped, while the pickets went up and shouted through closed windows to impassive faces, many of them covered in balaclavas.

The first two fire engines stopped before they hit the pickets, and waited for the two minutes or so the police allowed the eight.  The third didn’t stop.  It just kept coming.  As the pickets ran backwards, fast, the great, heavy red fire engine seemed to pick up speed.  I was a few feet from Ian Leahair when it hit him.  At the same moment, the police came running in, realising something unexpected was happening, and it hit one of them, too.

Then, at last, it stopped. The driver’s heavy, fleshy, immobile face looked down at the confused mass of police officers, some of them trying to rescue the two fallen men, others screaming at the driver to reverse so they could get Ian out.  His legs and half his body were underneath the fire engine and his face was twisted with pain, and for a terrible moment I thought the huge vehicle’s wheels had run over him.  So they would have done, if he’d been an inch or two to the left.

It seemed ages, though it was probably only a few seconds, before the driver finally started to reverse his vehicle.  Ian was pulled put and helped to the side of the road, where he sat, in shock and pain, for a long time before being helped to paramedics.

I’ve never seen any vehicle, let alone a fire engine, deliberately driven at people. The driver cannot have been afraid – there were eight pickets and at least 50 police officers in his clear view.

After that, the police handled all new arrivals very differently.  They decided that they were not going to stop the picketing because a driver had endangered the pickets.  So they stopped the fire engines themselves, gave the pickets their couple of minutes, then cleared the way for the engines.

And that is how the police, who had started the night thinking they were protecting strikebreakers from pickets, ended up protecting pickets from strikebreakers. 

This isn’t one of those disputes where strikers see the police as the enemy.  Even when they were being corralled into somewhere they don’t want to be, none of the firefighters seemed to blame the police. 

As I left, I walked along the road behind three young firefighters I didn’t know.  I saw them knock on the windows of all the police vans they passed, and thank the occupants.  Sometimes a joke was exchanged, other times just a cheery greeting.