When I awoke on Saturday morning it was after a Christmas party, three hours sleep and to the prospect of snow, and standing around in it for a lengthy period of time. No matter, I was on my way to shut down Oxford Street on their busiest, most profitable day of the year; a clear window of opportunity, our Death Star moment.
My target in particular was the Vodafone shop at 374 where, to protest their recent let off of a £6billion tax bill, we were staging a read-in. The idea was that protesters would infiltrate the shop and, at the allotted time, whip out a decent book, sit down and read it. What’s less violent than that universal good, reading? This was to highlight the fact that, if Vodafone paid what they owe – not any extra because they’re super rich, have broad shoulders and can afford it, simply what they owe – it would not only cover the cuts to libraries but actually cover all of the cuts to local councils that were made in the Crazy Spending Review. If all of the high street banditos – Arcadia Group, Boots, Marks and Spencers et al – paid up, we’d probably all find a nice little banker style tax-rebate bonus in our stockings this Christmas.
In the end, Vodafone had seen us coming and closed the shop for us. Apart from the cold, it didn’t really matter that they’d sent the Imperial Fleet to intervene: it was closed and that was the point.
• An American man - entirely missing the point - shouting ‘get a job and pay some tax’. I assume he pays his, somewhere, but given the rage in his voice, perhaps not.
• The perma-tanned business man who has just paid a £200,000 tax bill and was outraged to learn Vodafone have been avoiding theirs. ‘…What? …How? ….I mean, I’m really angry about this.’ Imagine his reaction when I told him the extent to which the high street was at it:’…WHAT?!’ This was a pretty universal reaction.
• The heartening news, from the lady from the Librarians magazine who was stood next to me, that every council must provide libraries by law (the Libraries and Museums Act). They must also be ‘comprehensive’ but this is open to interpretation, and the loophole that will allow the government to make cuts. Still, at least someone has recognised their value at some point and thought to enshrine that in law.
Actually, the most heartening thing was the level of support, and not just the usual protestor solidarity either. We had to do a little explaining but once you pointed out to people that they pay their taxes fair and square, and the super rich companies do not, even those who had no idea previously were on our side. I’d echo what others have said: walking away from the protest, it did feel like a difference had been made, that people were watching and that, above all, there was momentum. It also seems to me that the word ‘protestor’ is becoming more and more a part of common usage, and the lines between student protestor, tax avoidance protester, anti-war protester, are being blurred - the movement forming into one Rebel Alliance against the both the cuts and the status quo. It's not that it's becoming any more us and them, just that perhaps people are beginning to realise quite how us and them it's always been.
In the end our numbers dwindled until there were just five of us left holding the banner outside Vodafone, which meant we each had our own personal police guard. At 17.37 the Chief Inspector came over to negotiate; they’d been quite reasonable in ‘allowing’ us our democratic right to freedom of assembly but now their reasonableness had gone on for long enough. They told us that either we leave now or get issued with a Section 14 and be arrested. A section 14 is normally used when there is potential for violent disorder or damage to property; we argued that five protesters reading in the cold could hardly amount to that. The other incidence in which a Section 14 can be applied is if our actions impinged on the rights of others, and it was explained to us that our right to protest had now become less important than other people’s right to shop. Freedom of association has its limits, and they are dictated by Vodafone’s opening hours, it seems. They were the legal equivalent of a bent mechanic: determined to find something to charge us for. The inspector further threatened us that his chief had a limit to her patience and has arrested people for less (than reading?). He tried all manner of warmth related pleading: I told him that it would not be the cold that sent us home, but his dodgy threats.
Earlier on I had seen riot vans outside of Top Shop, and scores of police inside. These agents of the state were more into property than your average estate agent, determined to protect people’s right to buy, even if that tramples over people’s right to protest. We discussed whether it was worth getting arrested to make a point but decided that the negative press would harm the cause more than help it. So we left, cold but ultimately content. The Death Star was not destroyed, but it was dented, and the Rebel Alliance will be having another crack at it very soon indeed…
Ps. Apologies for any incoherence in this post: the combination of three hours sleep on Friday night and five and a half hours stood in the snowy slush in my converse on Saturday afternoon has left me in a state of head pounding delirium. I feel like I’m in Crime and Punishment; did I murder someone? I certainly murdered that Star Wars analogy…