December 4, 2011 by Tess Riley
A year ago today, almost to the minute, several of us were in the process of being checked into Brighton Custody Suite – a misleading name for the cop shop – after staging a protest to highlight the disgusting amount of tax that Sir Philip Green (super-rich businessman who heads up a number of stores within the Arcadia Group, including Topshop and Miss Selfridge) gets away with not paying into the public purse.
A fortnight before this, some of us had taken part in a national day of action against notorious tax dodgers Vodafone by standing outside one of the telecoms company’s branches holding banners and talking to passers-by. This resulted in the immediate arrest of all 8 of our male protesters (the 4 women were curiously allowed to stay – does your gender determine whether you’re breaking the law or not rather than what you are actually doing?) All the charges were, of course, dropped as it turns out (unsurprisingly) that standing on the street isn’t a criminal offence, yet. But we had learned a lesson: protest ‘peacefully’, as told to do by the powers that be, and you’re a sitting target for immediate arrest.
When the day of action against Sir P Green came around two weeks later, it was clear the same thing would happen all over again… unless we found a more effective way to hold space. This is where the superglue came in. The hours of time this bought us allowed us to get our message across in no uncertain terms, glued as we were to the inside of Topshop as ‘tax dodger’ mannequins. Petitions, lobbying, marches and banner protests have their uses but when no-one seems to be listening and austerity measures are coming in thick and fast to the detriment of the most vulnerable in society, it sometimes takes a little more to get the issue firmly onto the public agenda.
So, a year on, where have we got to?
Let’s start with the Brighton 9, who spent 4 December 2010 locked up in a cell for pointing out that tax dodgers like Sir Philip Green should be prosecuted rather than offered the role of external advisor to the coalition government on austerity measures (a role he accepted with pleasure, it should be pointed out…). Following our release, we had a string of re-bails before a two-week trial was finally set for September 2011 at Brighton Magistrates’ Court. The very fact that the trial was two weeks long was a joke in itself but the farcical nature of the whole event was made acutely worse by the unavailable CCTV footage from Topshop, the endless stream of police officer witnesses who were certain – yes certain – that we nine were there on the day (genius) and a whole host of other things that I probably shouldn’t go into because…
…having had the verdict – four acquittals and five convictions – the Crown Prosecution Service is now appealing the verdict and the nine of us (yes, that’s right, even the ones that were convicted even though we thought that wasn’t allowed) are now being summonsed to the High Court at some point next year, date to be confirmed. Awesome – yet more public money being poured down the drain in order to, well, I don’t really know – deter anti-cuts actions? Unlikely. Make it look like the authorities have some vague grip on the rising public anger over the destruction of our communities? Well if that’s the way authority is being asserted – i.e. in a haphazard, expensive and nonsensical manner – I’m even more worried about the current state of affairs than I was to begin with.
Ok, enough of us, what about the cuts and the reason we took action in the first place. It is generally the case that you cannot legally take action to prevent something happening, only in response to it having happened. In the case of the austerity measures, that means wait until the NHS is torn to pieces and sold off in chunks to private companies, until benefits are cut, funding for the arts and local services is reduced or removed altogether, until inequality grows and unemployment rises, education support is removed… Then, when everything is well and truly buggered, feel free to show your outrage, by all means take action, because by then, of course, it’s too late.
Only last week, NHS cuts were back in the spotlight following the resignation of David Goodier, a consultant orthopaedic surgeon at Barts and the London NHS Trust. The surgeon claims that the need to hit waiting list targets and cut budgets is putting patients in grave danger, a concern echoed by several others, including Prof. Norman Williams, president of the Royal College of Surgeons, who has made clear his worries over the apparent “appalling deterioration” of surgical services.
This is just the tip of the iceberg.
On a more positive note, civil society continues to fight back and more and more people are realising that there are alternatives to the damaging spending cuts. Tax justice has shot up the public agenda and people like Sir Philip Green are increasingly being recognised for the unscrupulous tax dodgers they really are. So while the Brighton 9 may well still have High Court to go, the bigger picture is the one we need to keep focussed on – the one that firmly labels Green and cronies as the real wrongdoers around here. Maybe next 4th December, the Brighton Custody Suite will be hosting them instead… now there really is wishful thinking.