I was proud to march “for the alternative” last Saturday. However, since the Iraq war protest, I know that no march, no matter how huge, is enough to change policy. And that’s why I left the main demo to join the UK Uncut action.
I wanted to be part of something more creative and less easy to ignore. I’d never been on a UK Uncut action before, but was inspired by what I’d heard. Not just because their demos are peaceful and fun; not just because they appeal to a universal sense of fairness and morality. I’ve also admired the way they secure the media’s attention, so that even the Daily Mail now questions why huge businesses are allowed to avoid tax when we’re told there isn’t enough money for vital public services.
I can now vouch for the fact that UK Uncut actions are friendly and empowering. No one individual takes charge. Everyone is trusted with mutual responsibility. This in itself feels radical, given our over-regulated, risk-averse culture.
People unfurled banners, chanted, read and listened to poetry while customers continued shopping. We discussed how Fortnum & Mason’s owner, Wittington Investments, is alleged to have avoided paying £10m a year in taxes – enough to pay for 500 nurses. When a container of sweets was accidentally knocked down, people tidied it up. We all made group decisions through consensus. We were in a shop, but no longer passive consumers.
The protest ended in circumstances that the Metropolitan Police will no doubt be forced to explain and justify. My friend needed the toilet, but at the door riot police stopped us, supposedly because it wasn’t “safe” outside – even though there were mothers with prams walking past. When finally we were allowed to leave, it was into a “kettle” of police in riot gear, who accused us of thousands of pounds’ worth of criminal damage (an accusation dropped once we were inside police cells). We were handcuffed and led away.
At the station, my outer clothes were removed, and so was my watch. I was put into an ugly 8ft by 10ft cell lit by a putrid yellow light, with no windows, the words “God Have Mercy” desperately scratched over the door. I am extremely short-sighted, but was not allowed to wear my glasses in case I used them to damage the cell or harm myself. Fingerprints, DNA and photographs were taken.
The cell was claustrophobically ugly. As the hours ticked by, the walls started to close in. I found myself acting out the prison clichés of doing stretches and press-ups to break the monotony and feel less physically trapped. When I was taken out for a wash, I relished seeing daylight through a distant window. No one could say how long I’d be there – just that they had the right to keep us for up to 36 hours and, with an extension, even longer.
At times I could faintly hear the voices of my friend and other protesters speaking to police officers. Someone started drumming a tattoo on the wall. I began singing, and found that the cell acoustics were fantastic. Spirituals and folk songs seemed most appropriate, and I hoped that other prisoners would hear me and feel less alone.
I was bailed 19 hours after being arrested. I was charged with aggravated trespass, as were 137 others. As one civil liberties lawyer has stated, it is unprecedented to arrest so many people for simply protesting peacefully in a building.
But I don’t regret participating. Thanks to UK Uncut, things are already changing. Last Tuesday, a public inquiry into corporate tax avoidance was launched, and the government is even discussing a blanket anti-avoidance law.
Perhaps that’s why they were so heavy-handed with us. The Establishment is scared of the power of this new, popular movement. Perhaps it all comes down to that Gandhi adage: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they attack you, then you win.”
Kirsten Downer is a freelance journalist and first-time UK Uncut protester.