Earlier today the Crown Prosecution Service dropped the charges of aggravated trespass against 109 UK Uncut activists who staged a peaceful protest at the upmarket Fortnum and Masons store in London on the 26th of March. Charges against another 30 are still to proceed and their cases will be heard in November.
I never understood the arrests from any point of view other than serving a political agenda; these people were in a shop that was open to the public and as far as I can tell were engaged in a remarkably calm and good natured protest against the coalition’s austerity measures and tax evasion by major companies. The Guardian even quoted one of the police officers at the scene, Chief Inspector Claire Clark, as saying that the protest was non-violent and sensible.
Adding to the sense that this whole affair was far from the police’s finest hour is the fact that the protestors were told they would not be arrested or kettled upon leaving the store and were tricked by the police before being arrested and held for up to 24 hours in police cells. The video of the police’s assurances is here. It's worrying if as citizens exercising our democratic right to protest we can't trust the police to at least be honest about their intentions.
Now almost regardless of your political stance or your vie of UK Uncut and their actions, this case must have seemed like a waste of time. Prosecuting a group of non-violent protestors for occupying a shop seems odd when surely the courts could be put to better use. As it is I feel the problem goes beyond that to cover the fact that the police and the courts seem to be trying to make examples of some protestors in an effort to put off future demonstrations.
You only have to look at the sentence of 16 months in jail for Charlie Gilmour to see the kind of excessive use of the law to punish protestors. I am not defending Mr. Gilmour’s actions, he was a drunken and drugged up idiot that day who desecrated one of Britain’s most important war memorials (though this wasn’t actually a crime he was sentenced for) and who was involved in some minor acts of vandalism towards a car in the convoy carrying Prince Charles and towards the window of a Topshop store. Not behaviour I in any way support, but also in no way is it behaviour deserving of that length of custodial sentence.
It would seem to be a clear statement by the courts to other protestors that future protestors will have to expect to be prosecuted at the absolute extreme of the law, without genuine perspective towards the severity of his crime. Gilmour did not assault anyone, he was more a danger to himself than to others and the degree of punishment is in my opinion highly unfair.
Gilmour deserved to be taken to court, perhaps he even deserves some time in prison, though I’d argue that the nature of his crime would suggest a community service order would be more productive all round. He isn’t a danger to others, but he could be useful to his local community.
Sadly though he has been made an example of, and it is still to be seen whether the remaining 30 protestors from the Fortnum and Mason case suffer similarly excessive punishments or if the CPS sees sense and throws out those cases like it did 109 today. The cases aren’t in the public interest to prosecute, nor is it in the public’s interest for a 21 year old student to be imprisoned for 16 months because of an idiotic, drug fuelled day that in the end caused no physical harm to anyone and who has shown clear remorse for his actions.
As a student and someone who shares the views of many of the student protestors and members of UK Uncut, the kettling, the arrests, the drawn out court cases and the excessive sentences all seem to have an additional purpose that goes beyond simply trying to enforce the law; it seems that the government and/or police want people to be scared to go out and protest in the future. They want people to remember that you can protest entirely peacefully and still be taken to court, they want people to remember that attending a protest may mean being kept on freezing cold streets, cramped together without access to basic amenities for hours at a time, subject to police charges on horseback and they want people to remember Charlie Gilmour and how little he actually had to do to earn himself a long stay in a prison cell.
As is often the case, I don’t want to post a song following a more serious blog post like this.