Anti-Cuts Protests – March 26, 2011

Cuts protesters claim police tricked them into mass arrest

March 28, 2011

Campaigners for the tax-avoidance protest group UK Uncut have claimed senior police officers “tricked” them into a mass arrest after a peaceful protest inside Fortnum & Mason’s in London on Saturday. Activists say they were given repeated assurances by a chief inspector from the Metropolitan police that they would be shown to safety after the protest, which she described as non-violent and sensible. However, when protesters left the luxury Piccadilly store on police instruction, they were kettled, handcuffed and taken into custody. Their claims are backed up by footage, obtained by the Guardian, showing that, rather than being asked to leave, the protesters inside the luxury food retailer were told they were being kept inside for their own safety.

In the video, shot by observers for the legal volunteer group Green & Black Cross, a police officer can be seen telling protesters they would be directed towards “the safest parts” once they had left the building. In all, 201 arrests were made during protests in London on Saturday, at which shops, banks and hotels were attacked by demonstrators who had broken away from the main, union-organised march down Whitehall to Hyde Park. A total of 149 people have been charged with offences, including 138 charged with aggravated trespass in connection with the Fortnum & Mason protest. The video also shows the officer agreeing with protesters that a breach of the peace had occurred outside the store, but not inside, and that Uncut protesters were being held inside so they did not become “wrapped up” in that disorder.

“As people leave, they’re going to be asked to go left,” she can be heard telling protesters. “They’re just going into a safe environment because there’s some disorder [outside] … so we’re trying to keep it sterile, safe, so people can get away to the tube station. “People here are non-violent. It’s sensible – we don’t want them getting involved in stuff that makes it difficult for them,” adds the police officer in the footage. Another officer also assured the protesters no one would be kettled if they left the building. A spokesman for the Metropolitan police said it would be inappropriate to discuss the matter while proceedings are active.

How the TUC’s day of innocent family fun was destroyed by evil, fascist media

March 27, 2011

They came in their thousands from across the land – babies, pensioners, Ed Miliband, both the people who still watch 10 O’Clock Live. Their aims were simple, their intentions pure. They were marching against INJUSTICE. They were yearning for a Better Britain. They were campaigning for a brighter, nobler, fairer world where: Britain’s economy can compete on almost equal terms with those of Albania and Burkina Faso. Media studies, golf course management and windsurfing technology students can watch Bully, Countdown and Fifteen to One, down 15 pints, a couple of special K and a pack of plant growth stimulant in the subsidised Mandela bar before retiring for a night’s gaming on their PS3s unencumbered by the fear of ever having to pay for their vital, economy-boosting education. All those selfish greedy bastards who work for a living can have more of their money taken by the government and spent on worthwhile causes like million-pound-a-throw bombs to drop on Libya, diversity outreach consultants and communitarian think tanks run by Will Hutton.

Guaranteed job security and ring-fenced pensions for the people whose vitally important job it is to collate hospital reports showing whether you are a) white British, b) white, Irish, c) white, Traveller c) black, Caribbean d) black, African, e) black, Other……. Britain’s international credit rating to be brought down to a more “fair” level, so as not to make the Greeks or the North Koreans feel jealous. Anyone who runs a successful business enterprise – eg evil Philip Green of the wicked consumerist Top Shop chain – to have their legs cut off and their eyes gouged out and all their money spent on iPad 2s for the unemployed. Was this really too much to ask? Apparently so. What these poor innocent protestors had reckoned without was the vile prejudice of the fascist news media. Instead of reporting on the really important things – smiling babies, families having family fun in a TUC-endorsed family atmosphere, the astonishing fact that they actually managed to rope in some Gurkhas – the  slavering hounds of the bourgeois running-dog lackey press and Goebbels-esque broadcast media decided instead to focus on the mildly inappropriate behaviour of a tiny minority. Shame on you, BBC! Shame on your Sky News! Shame on you, newspapers with your misleading pictures of masked figures accidentally pushing a table through the window of the Ritz hotel and policemen being carried off with (clearly faked) injuries!

Free to protest? I can still be arrested if my placard reads: ‘Nick Clegg, oh dear’

March 28, 2011

It could have been worse: at least the police didn’t try to kettle half a million people. But as footage obtained by the Guardian from the great march on Saturday shows, the glorious tradition of impartial policing and respect for peaceful protest remain undimmed. The film shows senior police officers assuring members of UK Uncut who had peacefully occupied Fortnum & Mason that they would not be confused with the rioters outside, and would be allowed to go home if they left the store. They did so, and were penned, handcuffed, thrown into vans, dumped in police cells and, in some cases, left there for 24 hours. Isn’t all that supposed to have stopped? Haven’t we entered a new era of freedom in which the government, as it has long promised, now defends “the hard-won liberties that we in Britain hold so dear”? No.

In May 2010, after becoming deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg pledged that the government would “repeal all of the intrusive and unnecessary laws that inhibit your freedom” and “remove limits on the rights to peaceful protest.” The Queen’s speech firmed up the commitment by promising “the restoration of rights to non-violent protest”. So how did this grand vision become the limp rag of a bill now before parliament? The Protection of Freedoms Bill, currently in committee, is a change for the better. It limits the period of detention without charge for terrorist suspects; reforms the measures that allow police to stop and search anyone they please; regulates CCTV and council snooping; and prevents the police from holding the DNA records of innocent people indefinitely. All this is welcome, but it scarcely grazes the mountain of repressive legislation that has piled up since Margaret Thatcher was in power. It doesn’t even acknowledge the intrusive and unnecessary laws in the 1986 Public Order Act, the 1992 Trade Union Act, the 1994 Criminal Justice Act, the 1997 Protection from Harassment Act, the 2003 Antisocial Behaviour Act, the 2004 Civil Contingencies Act and the 2005 Serious Organised Crime and Police Act. In fact the new bill contains not a single clause restoring rights to non-violent protest.

Here are just two of the dozens of repressive measures these acts contain, which have been used repeatedly to criminalise peaceful protest. Neither, as far as I can see, has ever been mentioned by Clegg, Cameron or their ministers. When the Protection from Harassment Act was being debated, campaigners warned that a bill whose ostensible purpose was to protect women from stalkers was so loosely drafted that it could be used by the police however they wished. The warnings were ignored, and the first three people arrested under the act were not stalkers but peaceful protesters. The police used the law, among many such instances, against protesters outside the US intelligence base at Menwith Hill, who were deemed to have harassed American servicemen by holding up a placard reading “George W Bush? Oh dear!”; and against a protester in Hull, on the grounds that he had been “staring at a building”. Notoriously, the act was used to obtain an injunction against villagers in Oxfordshire, protesting against a plan by RWE npower to turn their beautiful lake into a fly ash dump. If they went anywhere near the lake, they would be prosecuted for harassing the burly men guarding the site.

But even that did not go far enough for Tony Blair’s illiberal government. Buried in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act was a clause redrafting the 1997 act specifically to catch protesters. Now if you seek “to persuade any person … not to do something that he is entitled or required to do” or “to do something that he is not under any obligation to do” you can be nicked for harassment. This, of course, is the purpose of most protest: to try to persuade people to change the way they act. Hundreds of peaceful demonstrators have now been stigmatised as stalkers. Still more pernicious, because the penalties are so severe, are the measures contained in sections 145-149 of the same Serious Organised Crime and Police Act. These are aimed at animal rights protesters, which might be why you have heard so little about them. Because some have used violence, intimidation and arson, hardly anyone seems prepared to defend the far greater number who support the same causes peacefully. The act prohibits “interference with contractual relationships so as to harm animal research organisations”. The definition of harm includes causing “loss or damage of any description”.

What really happened in Trafalgar Square

March 27, 2011

“We’re fucked,” says the young man in the hoodie, staring out through the police cordon of Trafalgar Square, towards parliament. “Who’s going to listen to us now?” It’s midnight on 26 March, a day that saw almost half a million students, trades unionists, parents, children and concerned citizens from all over Britain demonstrate against the government’s austerity programme. All day, street fights across London between anti-cuts protestors and the police have turned this city into a little warzone. Barricades burned in Piccadilly as militant groups escalated the vandalism; the shopfronts of major banks and tax-avoiding companies have been smashed and daubed with graffiti, and Oxford Street was occupied and turned into a mass street party. Now, night is falling on the Trafalgar kettle, and the square stinks of cordite, emptied kidneys and anxiety. We’ve been here for three hours, and it’s freezing; we burn placards and share cigarettes to maintain an illusion of warmth.

Commander Bob Broadhurst, who was in charge of the Metropolitan Police operation on the day, later states that the clashes in Trafalgar square began because “for some reason one of [the protestors] made an attack on the Olympic clock.” That is not what happened. Instead, I witness the attempted snatch arrest of a 23 year-old man who they suspect of damaging the shop front of a major chain bank earlier in the day. It starts when a handful of police officers moved through the quiet crowd, past circles of young people sharing snacks, smoking, playing guitars and chatting. They move in to grab the young man, but his friends scrambled to prevent the arrest being made, dragging him away from the police by his legs. Batons are drawn; a scuffle breaks out, and that scuffle becomes a fight, and then suddenly hundreds of armoured riot police are swarming in, seemingly from nowhere, sweeping up the steps of the National Gallery, beating back protesters as they go. Things escalate very quickly. In the space of a minute and a half, the police find themselves surrounded on both sides by enraged young people who had gathered for a peaceful sit-in at the end of the largest workers’ protest in a generation. The riot line advances on both sides, forcing protesters back into the square; police officers are bellowing and laying into the demonstrators with their shields.

Both sides begin to panic. Some of them start to throw sticks, and as the police surge forward, shouting and raising their weapons, others band together to charge the lines with heavy pieces of metal railing, which hit several protestors on their way past. Next to me, young people are raising their hands and screaming “don’t hit us!”; some are yelling at the armoured police – “shame on you! Your job’s next!” I find myself in front of the riot line, taking a blow to the head and a kick to the shin; I am dragged to my feet by a girl with blue hair who squeezes my arm and then raises a union flag defiantly at the cops. “We are peaceful, what are you?” chant the protestors. I’m chanting it too, my head ringing with pain and rage and adrenaline; a boy with dreadlocks puts an arm around me. “Don’t scream at them,” he says. “We’re peaceful, so let’s not provoke.” A clear-eyed young man called Martin throws himself between the kids and the cops, his hands raised, telling us all to calm down, stand firm,stop throwing things and link arms; the police grab him, mistaking him for a rabble-rouser and toss him violently back into the line. The cops seal off the square. Those of us behind the lines are kettled, trapped in the sterile zone, shoved back towards Nelson’s column as flares are lit and the fires begin to go out.

It would be naive to suggest that small numbers of people did not come to London today intent on breaking windows should the opportunity arise. It would be equally naive to suggest that no other groups had action plans that involved rather more than munching houmous in Hyde park and listening to some speeches. Few of those plans, however, come to fruition: however the papers choose to report the events of 26 March, there is no organised minority kicking things in for the hell of it. Instead, a few passionate, peaceful protest groups attempt to carry out direct action plans, plans that quickly become overwhelmed by crowds of angry, unaffiliated young people and a handful of genuinely violent agitators. Those young people are from all over the country, and when the word goes out at 2pm that something was happening in Oxford Street, they headed down in their thousands. By the time the twenty-foot-high Trojan Horse arrives at Oxford Circus in the early afternoon, a full-blown rave is under way, coherent politics subsumed by the sheer defiant energy of the crowd. Chants about saving public services and education quickly merge into a thunderous, wordless cheer, erupting every time the traffic light countdowns flash towards. “Five-Four-Three-Two-One…” hollers the crowd, as bank branches are shut down, paint bombs thrown at the police, and small scuffles break out. When UK Uncut’s well-publicised secret occupation plan kicks into action at 3.30pm, the numbers and the energy quickly become overwhelming. As we follow the high-profile direct action group’s red umbrella down Regent Street, we learn that the target is Fortnum and Mason’s – the “Royal grocer’s”, as the news are now insisting on calling it, as though the stunt were a yobbish personal assault on the Queen’s marmalade. The crowd is too big to stop, and protesters stream into the store, rushing past the police who are too late to barricade the doors.

Once inside, squeezing each other in shock at their own daring, everyone does a bit of excited chanting and then down for a polite impromptu picnic. Placards are erected by the famously opulent coffee counters, and tape wound around displays of expensive truffles imprecating the holding company to pay all its taxes. Tax avoidance is the ostensible reason for this occupation; the class factor remains unspoken, but deeply felt. The posh sweets, however, remain untouched, as do all the other luxury goodies in the store, as protestors share prepacked crisps and squash and decide that it’d be rude to smoke indoors. When someone accidentally-on-purpose knocks over a display of chocolate bunny rabbits, priced at fifteen pounds each, two girls sternly advise them to clear up the mess without delay. “It’s just unnecessary.” Refined middle-aged couples who had been having quiet cream teas in Fortnum’s downstairs restaurant stare blinkingly at the occupiers, who are organising themselves into a non-hierarchial consensus-building team. “I oppose the cuts, I’m a socialist, but I think this type of thing is too much,” says property manager Kat, 32. “There are old ladies upstairs. And I just came in to buy some fresh marshmallows, and now I can’t.” Outside the building, the crowd is going wild. Some scale the building and scrawl slogans onto the brickwork; others turn their attention to the bank branches across the road.

I leave Fortnum’s and make my way down Piccadilly under a leaden sky, past the ruined fronts of Lloyds and Santander, to Picadilly Circus, where the riots – and make no mistake, these are now riots – have momentarily descended into an eerie standoff. The police raise their batons; the crowd yells abuse at them. Noone is chanting about government cuts anymore: instead, they are chanting about police violence. “No justice, no peace, fuck the police!’ yells a middle-aged man in a wheelchair. I scramble onto some railings for safety as a cohort of riot police move into the crowd, find themselves surrounded and are beaten back by thrown sticks. Someone yells that a police officer is being stretchered to safety. Flares and crackers are let off; red smoke trails in the air. “A riot,” said martin Luther King Jr, “is the language of the unheard.” There are an awful lot of unheard voices in this country. What differentiates the rioters in Picadilly and Oxford Circus from the rally attendees in Hyde Park is not the fact that the latter are “real” protestors and the former merely “anarchists” (still an unthinking synonym for “hooligans” in the language of the press). The difference is that many unions and affiliated citizens still hold out hope that if they behave civilly, this government will do likewise.

Why Fortnum & Mason?

March Fortnum & Mason is owned by Wittington Investments. Wittington Investments has a 54% stake in Associated British Foods (ABF), a multinational food corporation with revenues of some £10bn/year. Some time between 2005 and 2008, ABF set up a holding company in Luxembourg. It then sent large sums of money – interest free – from ABF PLC and Primark (Ireland), also owned by ABF, into this holding account, from which it was sent straight back, this time with interest charges. According to tax experts, this has meant ABF’s annual tax avoidance amounts to at least £10m through offsetting interest payments on profits. Although Wittington is ultimately linked backed to the Weston Family Trust, which has charitable status, ABF is not a charity in any sense. The Weston Family Trust naturally support the pro-corporate, pro-privatisation policies being promoted by the coalition government and are major backers of the Tory Party.

This is just one example of the many super rich individuals and profitable big businesses going out of their way to minimise their tax bills. Some £25bn every year is thought to be lost to the public purse by wealthy tax avoiders. This money needs to be recouped to help save our essential public services. All in this together? £15,000 hamper to take to the Henley Regatta anyone? F&M perfectly symbolises the vast inequalities in wealth that exist in this country, showing just how wrong George Osborne is when he says ‘we are all in this together’.

Travel from the West End of London to the East End or down to the estates in Peckham and Brixton and it is plain to see that we are not all in this together even at the best of times. £82bn is being slashed from public spending. These cuts will directly hit the poorest hardest – to pay for a crisis that had nothing to do with libraries or social care, and everything to do with a reckless banking system. Now take a wander around places like Fortnum & Mason and consider the effects of the cuts on the people who can afford to shop there. George Osborne plans to get rid of the 50p tax rate in order to make the lives of the super-rich even easier., 2011

UK Uncut are right in protesting – but it would have been better not to do so on Saturday

March 28, 2011

I’ve blogged about the enormous success of Saturday’s TUC rally. What about UK Uncut’s actions? As I’ve said many times before, I do not speak for UK Uncut, have never been on a UK Uncut event and have no responsibility for their actions – although it seems that on occasion they have used my work, as is anyone free to do. I approve of peaceful protest in a democracy. That includes the right to enter property when invited to do so (and storers, banks and threes do invite people onto their premises). I never condone violence. I do not condone damage to private property. And I never will. UK Uncut chose to hold an event on Saturday. Let me be honest: I wish they hadn’t. I think that there was a sufficient event on Saturday to get all the attention that was needed: The TUC march was the main event.

Nothing else was needed on Saturday. I think UK Uncut did not need to hold an event on the same day. By doing so they, unfortunately, provided opportunity for those seeking to be violent to use them as cover. That was a mistake. Those people seeking to be violent would have been out on Saturday anyway, I believe. But UK Uncut’s peaceful style of protest did not need any such association. That this has happened is to be regretted. Since the risk was foreseeable I think it was a mistake to hold the events on Saturday.

Is it wrong for UK Uncut to protest? No, of course, not. Let me give a simple example: Overall the Budget forecasts (table c.3) tax increases in revenue between 2010-11 and 2015-16 of £170 billion – up 32.4% in the period. But corporation tax goes up by just 28.8%. I will return to the data later, but if the increase in corporation tax simply matched income tax more than £5 billion extra would be collected over the next few years. And that’s not the whole story by far: corporation tax should rise significantly in this period because economic recovery is forecast and CT is a heavily cyclical tax. It’s clear that we’re not all in this together. Protest about that is legitimate, in itself. Was Fortnum’s the right target? I have no clue. I have never looked at its accounts. I am not sure whether there is a tax issue with Associated British Foods and I was unaware of the link between the two. I have certainly not advised on any such issue.

But I think that misses the point because let’s not pretend that this issue is just about tax. UK Uncut are protesting about what is behind the decision to cut corporation tax and to provide benefits for one section of society, who are already the most privileged, over  all other groups, who will suffer as a consequence. The protest is  about letting large corporations with the capacity to pay off tax. The protest is about  promoting the market  at cost to society. The protest is about  the choice to not tackle the tax gap  which even the government now estimate  at well over £40 billion a year.  I, of course, think it’s somewhat larger. The protest is about  choosing to leave money with the tax evaders and the cheats when pensioners, the young, the sick, the disabled, students, the poor, the unemployed, public servants  and  their dependents all suffer. The protest is therefore about making the wrong choice. I still think any event on Saturday by UK Uncut was  a mistake.

But let us not for a moment confuse those in UK Uncut who are rightly saying that the government has made the wrong choice in an imaginative, thoughtful, peaceful, and even humorous fashion should be confused in any way with those who chose to undertake violence. They are not in any way related as the most basic understanding of their different political philosophies will make obvious. And let me close  with a final thought.  John Christensen and I carried a tax Justice Network banner on the march.  Shortly before it began a man wearing military style fatigues approach us, attacking us saying in typical libertarian fashion that all taxation was theft and must therefore be abolished. He had no place on that march. It was clear he had no sympathy with  the protest. Why then was he there? Was he alone in wearing such an outfit which was so out of keeping with the day and expressing such sentiments that were so at keeping with the march, or was he there for another purpose? I wonder.

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