Clamping Down on UK Uncut

by Ellie Mae O'Hagan

New Left Project editor Ellie Mae O'Hagan reports on the latest UK Uncut protest in London, in which three people were hospitalised after the police used CS gas.

First published: 31 January, 2011 | Category: Activism, Corporate power, Law, Politics

At 1pm yesterday, I and around ten others walked to Boots, 361 Oxford Street, to occupy it in protest against its tax avoidance: the usual UK Uncut high jinks, in other words. I’ve only been living in London for three weeks, and after passing the Liverpool Uncut baton onto some wonderful people, I was ready to get stuck in.

I was nervous and giddy as we walked, bouncing down the street in the sunlight as police officers eyed me going by. I heard one of them identify passing protesters in his radio, including me, ‘the one in the pink hat,’ and I knew then that the chances of us getting in were unlikely – not that we would be deterred from trying.

Unsurprisingly, Boots’ security found the idea of me getting in almost laughable, and I was escorted out as soon as I set foot over the threshold. Luckily we’d brought an enormous banner that read ‘CUTS DON’T CURE,’ which we immediately unveiled to the shoppers of London. As I was holding the banner, I chatted to a policewoman by my side. She was young and seemed almost embarrassed at having to police the event. ‘I can’t let you go in if Boots don’t want you to,’ she explained, ‘it’s civil law.’ I told her I’d heard about cuts to the police force and she let out a frustrated sigh. I took that as a cue, and ruminated for a bit upon the evils of tax avoidance, then added ‘I know you can’t comment.’ She looked rueful, and replied ‘maybe if I wasn’t on duty…’ and said that talking to me had made her feel better.

Meanwhile, some protesters were acting out a hospital scene inside, and the store was starting to close. Customers were leaving – except those that joined the protest – and the atmosphere was playful and fun. The staff at Boots seemed fairly ambivalent about us being there. When a customer asked the manager if our claims were true, he replied ‘yep,’ and then, ‘it’s not me though – it’s my bosses.’ When the doors were finally sealed, the protesters cheered. A swarm of cameras hovered outside the window, and we all peered inside to see the protesters dance and chant and wave back at us. I was exhilarated, but I also felt a twinge of jealousy that I was stuck outside.

Eventually the protesters were allowed out. Everyone broke out into applause as they marched forward, singing ‘we are the tax collection society,’ and sat down on the pavement. The group came together then, surrounded my cameras and journalists, and we boomed out our message in one loud, united voice. At one point I attempted a chant that got everyone tongue-tied, and we all dissolved into fits of giggles. Polly Toynbee was standing next to me, and she leaned in and said ‘it’s brilliant isn’t it?’ It was brilliant: it was powerful, it was togetherness – and, crucially, it was harmless.

After a while, the group got restless: Boots was closed, and there were other tax dodgers still trading. So they took off to Vodafone, which obligingly shut down, to BHS, and then to Topshop. I stayed at Boots with a few others. We were keen to make sure it didn’t reopen, and to keep talking to the public about what we were doing. After a while, the doors were unlocked. The manager said, ‘if we open this one door, can you guarantee us you won’t sit in front of it?’ My friend, Will, shot the manager a puzzled look: why would we guarantee that? We said no, and immediately sat down.

Another manager turned up then, one I didn’t recognise, and she was irritable. I wondered if they’d decided to let us have fun for an hour or so, and with any luck we’d go away. Within minutes, and despite the fact that we were moving out of the way for customers, the manager reached for her phone and called the police.

What happened next seemed to last forever, and simultaneously be over in seconds. I have unblemished mental images of scenes in my head from what unfolded, but no strings of memory to hold them all together.

I looked to my right to see a knot of protesters and police that had formed in between Boots and the adjacent shop. It was a little knot but it was undulating as the crowd jostled together. They were chanting ‘shame shame shame,’ and I heard someone say ‘there’s been an arrest.’ I ran over to see what was happening, as someone in the middle of the knot fell down. Cameras and passers-by encircled the commotion, each jockeying for position. At that moment, strangely, my most clear memory was the sunlight reflecting off a policeman’s helmet.

The chanting intensified and the crowd swelled backwards. I tried to push forward to see what was happening. The protesters were a foot or so back from the police: they were angry, but not aggressive. In a split-second, a cloud filled the air. It was like steam, and I remember seeing it twinkle in the light, suspended for a moment before it invaded my throat and I lost my breath. Someone must have told me it was pepper spray, because I remember knowing what had happened, even though I’d never experienced it before. It was a horrible feeling of powerlessness: I remember looking down, panicked by how slowly it had gripped my windpipe, thinking it might get worse. As I spluttered, the crowd burst open. My friend Will, in front of me, fell to the floor and put his hands over his eyes.

The next thing I remember is standing in front of another protester, Tom, whose eyes, nose and mouth were streaming. He was slurring ‘call an ambulance.’ My friend, Dawn, reached for her phone and dialled 999. His face was red, and his and Dawn’s hands were gripped together.

Out of nowhere the police presence seemed to treble. There was a van now, and the media was frenzied. I felt dazed. I sat on the pavement, next to my friend whose eyes were streaming. He was dressed in medical scrubs, and he was shaking. I suppose the shock of it all had made us realise how cold it was. I put my arm around him, and he leaned into me, and my skin burned as I felt his face press against mine. Just that tiny bit of pepper spray was so painful; I was so lucky that I’d managed to avoid getting any in my eyes. A policeman came over to tell us how to cope with the pepper spray. ‘Why did you do it?’ I asked. I felt fearless then. I didn’t care about arrest – I was just so angry. ‘It wasn’t me,’ the policeman replied, lamely. I suppose there was nothing more he could say.

It was like the set of a zombie film: red-eyed figures stumbling around; a sense of crisis in the air. The ambulance took the injured away: three people, I was told. I heard the full details of the incident: a girl was arrested for pushing leaflets through the door. The officer had told her she was littering, and when she replied ‘you can’t arrest me for that,’ he said ‘criminal damage, then.’ The protesters, I would hear later, had tried to link arms to protect her.

I walked over to the offending door, which was now working perfectly, to survey the damage. A tiny film of rubber was slightly loose. That, I thought to myself, had landed one girl in a police cell and three people in hospital. I felt angry, but also dejected. It was not right. As the more resilient protesters resumed chanting, I went over to the commanding officer, Inspector Wiles, to ask him to make a statement. I felt we needed some explanation as to why this had happened – not just the pepper spray, but the arrest that had led to its use. It wasn’t just because I wanted justification; I also needed to understand it in my own mind. The police are the people you call when your house is getting burgled, and when you fear for your own safety. Their unprovoked actions had just sent three of our friends into hospital. Maybe I needed reassurance.

Inspector Wiles was on the phone and waved me to leave him alone. As he wandered off up the street, a constable told me to wait. ‘It’s not just you,’ she said, ‘he’s dealing with other incidences in London.’ I was rattled, ‘you just pepper sprayed three of our friends! We need some explanation!’ She was unmoved, and responded simply, ‘wait there, and he’ll get back to you.’ He didn’t: he disappeared up the alleyway and didn’t return.

I walked over to a weary sergeant who was talking to protesters. They were angry and desperate, and wanted answers. ‘I can’t give you answers,’ he said, almost pleadingly, ‘I’m just trying to talk to you one human being to another.’ Later I would find out that he’d given protesters the name of the constable with the pepper spray, and instructions on how to complain about him. Many police officers, I sensed, were as shocked as us. Maybe that’s why Inspector Wiles wouldn’t talk: maybe he knew it had all gone too far.

As the sun started setting, the protest trailed off. I went to meet some friends at a pub, and as I walked there I passed a Boots. Seeing the logo made me wince, and I realised I’d been shaken by the day’s events.  Maybe others weren’t; maybe I was being oversensitive. But I couldn’t help wondering what message the police were sending by their actions, even if the majority of them had been amiable. Do we now have to see hospitalisation as a necessary evil of peaceful protest? I hope not.

When I told my pub companions about the day’s events, they were supportive. They asked me how I felt about my future with UKUncut. Was I deterred? I didn’t hesitate in my reply: I had not been deterred at all. The purpose of the protest had been to highlight the correlation between tax avoidance and cuts in the NHS, so it was bitterly ironic that the NHS had cared for us where the police had failed. Paramedics arrived quickly, treated us well, and acted with complete professionalism.

Despite the trauma, yesterday’s protest reminded me that public services are indispensible. Now it seems more important than ever to challenge the government’s depiction of these services as extravagances, rather than absolute necessities. The benchmark of a civilised society is how it treats its poor, its sick, and indeed, its protesters. I won’t forget that because of the uncivilised actions of a few.

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