South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive cut free travel for pensioners and disabled people from 31 March this year, saying the changes brought the area's concessionary travel 'in line with bus and rail schemes across much of England'.
Sixty-five year old Tony Nutall was one of those who joined the 'Freedom Riders Group', whose members modelled their protests on the American civil rights protesters and campaign to get free travel for the elderly restored in South Yorkshire.
Tony, a former Health Service Manager, can be seen here with other protesters in April, about to embark on their 'Freedom Ride 5' from Sheffield to Penistone via Barnsley back in April.
In a partial U-turn, South Yorkshire restored free travel for the disabled last month and pensioners were given 'half-price rail fares' at certain times, but the campaign by the 'Barnsley Retirees Action Group' with ‘freedom rides’ in which protesters travelled without paying their fare, continued. On Monday, accompanied by police, up to 60 travelled from Barnsley station to Sheffield, with some refusing to buy a ticket. On the station platform a group of 45 protesters were 'kettled' by police while staging an impromptu demonstration.
It was in this demonstration that :
* a blind woman was injured when she fell over a wheelchair and other protesters said they suffered cuts and bruises as a result of being “manhandled” in clashes with British Transport Police and members of Northern Rail’s rail response team.
* two people using sticks were reportedly knocked over and a man was ‘almost knocked out of his wheelchair.'
* a journalist from the local paper was allegedly threatened with arrest under the 'Terrorism Act' and made to delete footage because he did not have permission to film at the station.
* Tony was pounced on by police, bent over double and his arms twisted behind his back with one woman, shocked by their heavy-handedness, shouting: "What are you doing? He’s an old man, leave him alone."
* a number of station staff were also said to have been hurt during the incident in which they claimed to have been physically and verbally abused by the demonstrators.
* Tony along with fellow protester, sixty-four year old George Arthur, 64, a former primary teacher, was arrested and charged with 'obstructing a police officer.'
* police chiefs have said that they were investigating the incident.
After the event Tony said : “This sort of thuggish behaviour is not acceptable, especially when used against older and disabled people who cannot defend themselves. It was a cowardly attack. I was trying to link arms with people and five officers grabbed hold of me from behind and forced my head down. They marched me back and forth with my head bowed down and put me on the floor. I was handcuffed and taken to a police station. It was a peaceful protest by people who are hardly likely to use violence against blokes who look like they have been brought in from the local nightclub.”
Tony said campaigners would not stop until concessionary travel was reintroduced under the old terms : “The fight goes on. We are determined and we think we are in the right.”
Tony and George have been bailed to appear at Sheffield Magistrates' Court on 7 July.