My Afternoon in the Cells
It’s sometime after 2pm on Sunday, I can’t be sure when because the police have taken my phone, and all my effects, and there’s no clock in here, and I’m lying on a thin mattress in a cell in St Leonards Police Station.
An hour ago I’d just arrived in the café at the back of BHS on Princes Street and sat down to read the Observer while I waited for the rest of our group to arrive and our demonstration to begin. The front page story, broken on Political Scrapbook on Thursday, reported that health policy advisor to David Cameron Mark Britnell had told a seminar that “[i]n future, the NHS will be a state insurance provider not a state deliverer.”
Just one more way in which the financial crisis we’ve come through, and the recession we’re still not fulling out of, are being used to privatise our public services and force through changes the Tories and Orange Book Liberals have always wanted but could never achieve.
And, of course, that’s why we were there, in BHS, on Sunday. Because even if you do think we need to bring down the deficit, and in the long run we do, though there’s a danger in taking that too fast, there are other ways to do that than cutting away at the services depended upon by the most vulnerable and deeply valued by all of us. On the one hand we need investment in education and new energy, and on the other hand what our real problem is, why we had a deficit before the recession, is that we simply don’t tax enough, and we don’t enforce the tax laws we do have adequately.
And that last point is what UK Uncut is all about; we must be the least radical protest movement ever, we aren’t calling for nationalisation or common ownership, we aren’t calling for higher taxes, all we’re asking is that the government close the loopholes that exist and collect the tax that’s due to us from banks and the super-rich. People like Philip Green, whose Arcadia Group owns the BHS store we were protesting in on Sunday.
Alyson already provided a very thorough description of what happened at the gig, so I won’t go through all that again in too great detail. Our comedians began their act, some people seemed to be enjoying it in the audience, some were nonplussed and continued quietly with their lunch. Then the police arrived and we began our by now standard practice of debating with them for a few minutes as to what law they thought we were in violation of and whether we should leave. But unlike the previous 15 odd protests we’ve had in Edinburgh instead of simply being led outside this time they decided to make an arrest. Of me.
I don’t know why that happened at this protest but not at any of the others, and I’m not going to speculate at this point, but I saw nothing happen that led me to think this time would be more contentious than the others. And, ironically, our whole plan for a comedy bail-in was to do something less threatening and more accessible than the chanting and blocking entrances we’ve done in the past, for which there were no arrests.
It’s an odd experience being arrested, in the back of the van, sat on a piece of wood, in a plexi-glass box, with your hands handcuffed being driven to the station. When they process you, they ask you to describe your own appearance, “what colour is your hair?”, “Are you slim or proportionate?”. It’s not often someone stares straight at you, takes a photo of you then asks you what colour your eyes are.
I should say, though, the officers who took me in and processed me were all perfectly polite and friendly enough throughout. I’m sure most of them would rather be doing something different than arresting me and they’ll be facing cuts themselves, whether directly through their own jobs, or the schools and nurseries their kids attend, the libraries they make use of at the weekend or the higher VAT they pay doing their shopping. We really are all in this together, well most of us.
Once they have my description, and my jacket, belt, shoes, personal effects, I’m led to the cell. There’s nothing to do there (I didn’t even have a copy of rights in the EU to read, like Adam did, though I was also inside for a far shorter time), so I’m trying to get a bit of a nap and managing to drift in and out of consciousness just enough everything seems slightly unreal and it takes me a second when a police officer opens the door to take me to have my fingerprints and DNA recorded, before returning my belongings and letting me go.
Outside I find about ten of my friends have come to sit by the entrance and wait for my release after finishing the rest of the protest. This gets described on twitter later as a picket or sit-down protest, but I think that may be an exaggeration. I’ve been given my phone back, I was worried that, as in London, they might have kept it, and as I turn it back on there’s a deluge of emails, texts, tweets and facebook posts offering solidarity and checking how I’m doing. It’s all somewhat bizarre to be honest, I never expected to be quite the centre of attention when I left home that morning, but I can’t overestimate how much that meant.
So now I appear in court on June 15th. I’ll be meeting my lawyer to see what happens next week and I’m sure I’ll keep you all up to date with what transpires.