This doesn’t normally happen – Britain gets active.
A couple of weeks ago, I went into a Vodafone store. I had an awkward 3 minute conversation with some I vaguely recognised about which phones we liked best. Neither of us really knew the differences between them. Then, it was 2pm. We pulled signs from under our coats, and sat down. A few other people in the store did the same, and about 20 more from outside, accompanied by a video camera, marched in to join us.
Customers were ushered out, and the store was shut, as another 30 people outside handed out flyers: “Vodafone, tax dodgers” and stuck signs to the window. We chanted, and waved our signs to passers by.
And then, something different happened. I am used to protesting at shops – I’ve spent hours handing out leaflets about sweatshops and child slavery outside branches of Topshop. I’ve organised stunts about oil funding outside RBS branches. Normally, people are vaguely supportive. They don’t like climate change, and they disapprove of child slavery. But mostly, they ignore you and get on with their day. But this was different. Passers by stopped, and joined our friends outside. Some helped to give out leaflets. Others passed food to us through the letter box. Most gave us a smile, a cheer or a thumbs up.
On Monday, I returned to Topshop, this time to highlight the tax they dodge at home rather than the children their suppliers enslave abroad. A reasonable number had turned up to the protest, and were sitting across the broad doorway of Topshop’s flagship store. I was taking a photo, and was approached by two teenage shoppers, who asked what was going on. I explained. “Well, I’m with them”. They sat down in the road, and donned the orange head bands we were all wearing.
And so, what had been a group of 60 or so students steadily grew. Passers by joined them. The police, without their commanders, politely asked us to move off the bits that were private property, but admitted that they too were worried about cuts. We told them that we wanted to defend their jobs, too, and moved as they asked. So they let us block the rest of the pavement.
This doesn’t normally happen. It never happens. In Britain, public protest is seen by most as an activity for political geeks and weirdo freaks. But people have a breaking point.
David Cameron smugly responded to the Millbank demo by saying the “every Government has it’s protests”. That’s true. But the level of support for actions against tax dodgers that we are now seeing is something new – something my generation has never known.
People are cross about cuts. And this anger will grow as austerity begins to bite. The message that there is an alternative hasn’t always got through – yet. But when it does, Oxford Street shoppers are willing to spontaneously blockade the shops they have come to visit. Oxford’s customers will interrupt their day to buy food for protesters, or spontaneously hand out leaflets, and people across Britain will join a growing and amorphous movement which has already changed the media narrative, and could just change the country.
Tomorrow is the national day of action against Top Shop’s tax dodging. Don’t miss it*.
*unless you are going to the climate march.