On Saturday I attended the highly successful #march26 March for the Alternative, and I was almost outside Fortnum & Mason when the TSG riot police blocked Piccadilly off entirely. I knew that protesters from UK Uncut had occupied the store but it was still a shock to see the sheer volume of police removing what I ‘d understood to be a sitdown protest with considerable prejudice. One of them has shared her experience, and it makes a great deal more sense now:
UK Uncut conducted itself with this peaceful etiquette throughout the three-hour occupation of Fortnum & Mason, a shop they said they had chosen because a related company allegedly avoided £40m in taxes.
Despite being detained in the store, Joan Higgins, 61, from Liverpool, described the protester’s theatrical show as “the perfect accompaniment to my tea and scones”. The exit was slightly less polite.
Police officers inside the building thanked protesters for their cooperation and promised that they could leave together without interrogation. Outside, however, riot police pushed those who exited into a small area where they were unlinked by force, photographed, arrested and led away. The protesters, who spent the night in police stations around London, believed they had been duped. Or communication between police inside and the force outside the shop had completely broken down. The riot police told me that protesters were being arrested for “aggravated trespassing” and that the customers unable to leave the shop were “scared half-to-death”. A spokeswoman for Fortnum & Mason said: “The damage is minimal. We have cleared up after the disruption and are now helping our neighbours on Piccadilly do the same. The store is open for business as usual.”
My partner and I were walking right behind the building on Jermyn Street to bypass the trouble, when a bank of TSG started marching down the street in our general direction. Clearly an order had been given by someone to secure the entire area with as much menace as possible, without any interest in differentiating between Black Bloc anarchists (who were causing significant trouble, and had done throughout the day) and anyone else. Laurie Penny said of the situation at Fortnum & Mason:
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.
The younger generation in particular, who reached puberty just in time to see a huge, peaceful march in 2003 change absolutely nothing, can’t be expected to have any such confidence. We can hardly blame a cohort that has been roundly sold out, priced out, ignored, and now shoved onto the dole as the Chancellor announces yet another tax break for bankers, for such skepticism. If they do not believe the government cares one jot about what young or working-class people really think, it may be because any evidence of such concern is sorely lacking.
She has a point. The increase in radical behaviour on the streets can easily be tracked back (in large measure) to New Labour’s betrayal over Iraq. The power of the signal which Blair sent out in his refusal to acknowledge the will of over 2 million people who protested entirely peacefully can’t be understated, and Penny is right when she notes that a significant number of young people have understood it; peaceful protest changes nothing. Having said that, I haven’t heard a single account of the protest at Fortnum & Mason to suggest it was marred by violence (when other local premises had been attacked), and she continues:
A large number of young people in Britain have become radicalised in a hurry, and not all of their energies are properly directed, explaining in part the confusion on the streets yesterday. Among their number, however, are many principled, determined and peaceful groups working to affect change and build resistance in any way they can.
One of these groups is UK Uncut. I return to Fortnum’s in time to see dozens of key members of the group herded in front of the store and let out one by one, to be photographed, handcuffed and arrested. With the handful of real, random agitators easy to identify as they tear through the streets of Mayfair, the met has chosen instead to concentrate its energies on UK Uncut – the most successful, high-profile and democratic anti-cuts group in Britain.
UK Uncut has embarrassed both the government and the police with its gentle, inclusive, imaginative direct action days over the past six months. As its members are manhandled onto police coaches, waiting patiently to be taken to jail whilst career troublemakers run free and unarrested in the streets outside, one has to ask oneself why.
Of course the mainstream media and usual suspects will now lump UK Uncut alongside Black Bloc and others who were responsible for violence before and after this event. But Laurie Penny’s analysis of the power relations in play couldn’t be more poignant – however much those who disapprove of protest may bleat their anger about people being unable to shop at a branch or two of Boots for a spell, UK Uncut provides an invaluable means of peacefully highlighting the fraud behind the government’s ideological attack on the public sector. The ConDems’ savage cuts were not voted for, they aren’t necessary, and you do indeed have to question why the police expended so much energy against them, when the ringleaders of the violence were blatantly clear even to uninformed passers-by. I applaud anyone, young or old, who is prepared to stand up for the society they want, in the face of shock doctrine economics, and the social disaster which inevitably comes with it.