As the trial of 9 UK Uncut activists begins, Britain's right to protest is also in the docks

Today the trial of nine UK Uncut activists begins. They had superglued themselves to Topshop last year in protest against tax avoidance by the super-rich. Their trial comes at a pivotal time, as England undergoes a post-riots crackdown on the right to protest
Niki Seth-Smith
14 September 2011

Yesterday, nine Brighton UK Uncut activists faced their first day in the courts. Eight of them had superglued themselves to a Topshop window last December to protest against tax dodging by Sir Philip Green, the billionaire retail magnate who owns the store along with several other major UK fashion chains within the Arcadia Group. The ninth was arrested before the action took place. 

The Brighton 9 and their anti-cuts supporters want to call the public's attention to the massive robbery of taxpayers through apparently legal tax avoidance and the illegitimacy of a system increasingly supported by the severe punishment of minor infringements.

The group's four-hour stunt as 'Tax Dodger' mannequins shut down the store. But that isn't why they are appearing in the Brighton Magistrates Court today. Topshop are claiming that several mannequins (real ones, that is) were damaged during the protest, forcing them to replace the whole set with another, costing the store £3,700. The trial is expected to last nine days.

UK Uncut activists have been charged with criminal damage in the past (see this summary of arrests and charges following the Fortnum and Mason occupation last March).  But that was before the week of rioting and looting that swept across England’s major cities just over a month ago and the frenzy of punitive justice that has followed. The sharp increase in the rate of imprisonment and the length of prison sentences handed down by Magistrates Courts across England in the aftermath of the riots raises real concerns for the Brighton 9.

For while the commentariat makes noise on whether or to what extent the riots were political, those who would benefit are already busy conflating organized peaceful protest with a week of unplanned disorder that led to the deaths of three innocent citizens. Sir Philip Green, in his first public comment on the riots, which did significant damage to his Arcadia group of stores, explicitly made the link between the looters and the Brighton 9’s tactic of “supergluing themselves to our shop windows”. The Telegraph piece, written by the paper’s City Editor and published last Saturday, claimed that Green’s comments “reflect the views of a number of retailers who believe that a change in police tactics after the death of a bystander in the disturbances surrounding the G20 summit in London in 2009 encouraged the looting.”

The Brighton 9 are going to trial at a pivotal time. We are already seeing the erosion of our right to protest in the wake of the riots, as the granting of ‘exceptional powers’ to London Metropolitan police during major public events in London becomes the norm.  We must do all we can to ensure these activists get a trial that is fair, not shaped by the current climate of misplaced blame and fearmongering.

This will, of course, raise further questions as to what is fair and where the balance of justice should lie in our economy. While Sir Philip Green and his friends in the media, along with strong voices in the government and both Houses of Parliament, seek to present direct action as a dangerous threat to a free society, the argument needs to be made clearly and loudly that the liberty of regular people is threatened by the license to make money and avoid tax enjoyed by the super-rich. 

You can follow and support the Brighton 9 through their Facebook page

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