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UK Uncut and the Fortnum and Mason 145 trial: an unjust verdict

One of the defendants arrested at Fortnum & Mason this spring, while protesting against public sector cuts, gives his account of the subsequent trial that has just seen ten convicted and sentenced for a peaceful protest.

It’s been a long year since March 26, when I spent a lonely night in the cells, without clothing, companionship, food, or any idea about whether my friends from whom I had been separated that day were OK. On that night, 145 people were arrested from inside Fortnum and Mason during our peaceful occupation in protest against public sector cuts. Ten of us have just been found guilty – but we intend to fight this judgement.

It is strange to see lawyers wrestling over your innocence or guilt beneath the cold concrete ceiling of a courtroom, and the equally cold gaze of a District Judge. It seemed that, for all the righteous argument of the defence barrister, and the cock-ups and accusations of the prosecution, the judge would, in the end, either give his thumbs up or down, and the verdict would be decided. We cannot fight our own corner – our fate depends on the skill of our barristers, playing the establishment at their own legal game.

The first victory for us was securing our charge as 'the intimidation of people on private property', rather than 'obstructing or disrupting the business of the shop', a fortuity which was mainly down to tardiness on the part of the prosecution. With insufficient evidence to prove the latter, the prosecution was, from the beginning, struggling.

In the last few days, the prosecution made broader and less substantial claims of our guilt, first asserting that our individual acts - of holding an umbrella, of playing with a beach ball, of facilitating a meeting, or of holding a flag or placard - constituted 'intimidation'. We heard evidence, however, that the presence of protesters in the shop was not intimidating, and that any instances of theft or questionable behaviour (by which they meant staring or pointing) involved only a few people, who appear to have left before the mass arrest took place.

The prosecution were then forced to accuse us of participating in this behaviour by ‘joint enterprise’, whereby the fact that we remained in the shop supposedly implies our support for this behaviour. This represents another misunderstanding of the way a protest - particularly a UKUncut protest, based on inclusive, participatory principles – works. The crowd cannot be reduced to one homogeneous whole, and the diversity of agendas cannot be ignored. In court, this amounted to suggesting that any member of a crowd of music or football fans must immediately leave if anyone around them commits a crime – or else they will be responsible for that crime as well.

I do not mean to imply, though, that our presence in court was down to the actions of a ‘violent few’ or that our action was in any way hijacked. None of us can purport to represent the ‘true’ agenda of the movement, nor can anyone claim that their own intentions hold true for others involved. Although on that occasion I would not have undertaken any actions other than sitting (partly because I needed a wee like anything), I would under no circumstances be so arrogant as to presume that I had the moral authority to condemn more pro-active or aggressive actions. The anti-cuts movement is active in the context of gruesome and increasing inequality, in the context of extreme police reactions to demonstrations, and in the context of a shocking, regressive economic policy. When people are subject to the triple violence of deprivation, batons and being stripped of a future, it should be no wonder that they lash out, and it should not be slurred as illegitimate protest unless this triple violence on the part of the establishment is likewise seen as illegitimate action on the part of government and police.

Despite the successive victories in our case, District Judge Snow ruled our protest unlawful on the grounds that our presence supposedly implied our participation in ‘intended intimidation’ (which, in our view, was also a fabrication). The judge said that chanting, speaking on a loudhailer and playing volleyball were the primary acts of intimidation, and they functioned by securing control over the area. This interpretation of what we did on March 26 is selective to the point of being ridiculous, ignoring the facts, clearly put before the judge, that protesters did not have control over many parts of the shop - it was the police who prevented shoppers, staff and protesters alike from leaving - and that the atmosphere was positive, sensible and ‘like a carnival’, with poetry, dancing, and (!) volleyball.

The verdict was followed by sentencing; a conditional discharge was given to all but one of the defendants; he was given a £100 fine due to his previous unexpired conditional discharge. In addition, in a humiliating affront to our pride in what we did, we have been charged £1000 each to contribute to the cost of our prosecution. The prosecution, however, still ran at a loss. When our economy looks bleak and inequality is still growing, the question of whether it was worth taking a few people who occupied a shop - to try and save public services for us all - to court, must be asked again, as others have before.

We will be making an appeal to the High Court, contesting the judgement that remaining in a space where a 'crime' (naturally, us chanting, ‘Pay your taxes!’, not them dodging tax) is taking place is identical with actively supporting it. We expect this to take place before any further trials of people arrested at Fortnum and Mason occur, and, when it is successful, to preclude their trials being justifiably continued.

Asuka Jones is a pseudonym.


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