Exclusive: Two Cambridge students arrested after London anti-cuts sit-in

30 March 2011

Two Cambridge students were arrested in London last Saturday and charged with aggravated trespass following the occupation of the London department store, Fortnum & Mason, by the group, UK Uncut.

One arrestee, a PhD student at King’s, was present as a legal observer, independent of UK Uncut, and told The Cambridge Student that he had taken no part in the occupation itself. Rather, he said he was in Fortnum & Mason to “monitor police behaviour” and “offer legal advice to protesters” on behalf of the group, Green & Black Cross, an independent grassroots project set up last year to provide legal support for protests.

The other Cambridge arrestee, a student at Trinity Hall, was one of the 150 members of the anti-cuts direct action group, UK Uncut, who actually took part in the sit-in at the famous Piccadilly store, famed for its range of luxury foods. The action was in protest against an alleged £10mn of annual tax avoidance by multinational food corporation, Associated British Foods, in which Fortnum & Mason owners, Wittington Investments, have a 54% stake. UK Uncut have risen to prominence in the last six months, organising creative, non-violent occupations and sit-ins in protest against government spending cuts and tax avoidance by British corporations.

During the occupation, which began around 4pm, activists read books, sang songs, held up banners and listened to music. Balloons and beachballs were thrown in the air. The King’s arrestee described the atmosphere inside the store as “tranquil” while the Trinity Hall arrestee stressed to TCS that, “as with all UK Uncut protests”, the action was peaceful. When a basket of chocolates was knocked over, protesters were seen to clear up the mess themselves. Meanwhile, some of the crowd outside scaled the building of ‘the royal grocer’, spraying slogans onto the brickwork.

After a while, police began preventing protesters from leaving the building as they attempted to deal with disorder outside the store. When activists were allowed to leave at 6pm, they were seemingly assured by police inside that they would not be arrested and would be directed towards “a safe environment”. However, once outside, the Trinity Hall arrestee recalled: “We held onto each other and marched out, where the police surrounded us and started to pull us apart. We passively resisted, holding onto each other, while the police were quite violent, pulling and reportedly kicking some people”.

In all, 145 people were arrested outside the store for aggravated trespass and criminal damage – there have been allegations that police “tricked” protesters by promising them safe passage outside. The arrested Cambridge students spent the next 24 hours in Lewisham and Bromley Police Stations respectively. Both were subsequently charged with aggravated trespass and released on bail, with criminal damage charges dropped. 138 of those arrested received the same charge, with seven bailed pending inquiries. The King’s arrestee was forbidden from attending the May Day protest in London on 2nd May, while the Trinity Hall arrestee was told not to enter the Cities of London or Westminster between 24th April and 2nd May “to prevent further offences during other planned protests” as police seek to ensure the security of the Royal Wedding.

The students are due to appear at City of Westminster Magistrates’ Court on 13th and 17th May respectively.

The occupation of Fortnum & Mason came as between 250,000 and 500,000 protesters marched peacefully past Westminster in the “March for the Alternative” organised by the Trades Union Congress. The day also saw violent incidents on Oxford Street and Piccadilly. Lightbulbs containing ammonia were reportedly thrown at police officers and a bonfire was lit on Oxford Circus, as banks were broken into, sprayed with graffiti and had windows smashed, while missiles were thrown at the Ritz Hotel, Piccadilly. Topshop on Oxford Street also came under attack.

The King’s arrestee told TCS that it was “absurd for police to arrest so many peaceful protesters in Fortnum & Mason, . The protesters were sitting ducks for the police – soft targets to enable them to inflate the number of arrests they had made that day”.

UK Uncut were quick to distance themselves from Saturday’s more violent incidents. The Government and the TUC have also condemned the actions of what they call “a small minority of individuals”. In all, 201 people were arrested in connection with the disorder, with 149 charged. According to the police, there were 84 injuries as a result of the protests, including at least 31 police, 11 of whom required hospital treatment.

Michael Yoganayagam

Photo Credit: Clem Rutter