In the last year dozens of young people in the UK have received criminal records and jail sentences for protesting. This week I received a conviction for my part in a protest described by Chief Inspector Clare Clarke of the Metropolitan Police as "sensible and non-violent". My crime was to sit on the floor of a shop. It just so happens that this shop is the Queen's grocer, Fortnum & Mason, and one does not mess with the supplier of the royal tea.
Back in March 2011 I joined several hundred others in occupying Fortnum & Mason in protest at the tax avoidance scheme employed by its parent company Whittington Investments. For this I was arrested, held in a cell for 18 hours and ejected onto the streets of London having had my phone, my clothes and my shoes confiscated - though they did gave me a delightful white tracksuit to wear and some plimsoles.
We were charged with trespassing with intent to intimidate staff and customers of Fortnum & Mason so as to deter them from carrying out their business. During the trial we heard from witnesses who described the scene in the shop variously as "chaos", "exciting", "amusing", "loud" and one even said we were "...sitting about reading poetry", 'intimidating' poetry mind you, about how if we taxed the rich we wouldn't need to cut spending.
After hearing the evidence District Judge Snow ruled that by not leaving Queen's corner-shop, although we ourselves did not intimidate anyone, our presence whilst others did meant that we were guilty by virtue of what the law terms "joint enterprise". The broader implications of this ruling are simply that anyone present at the time a crime has been committed who doesn't actively disassociate themselves from that crime is potentially just as culpable.
By this same logic the staff of any bank that dealt in collateralised debt obligations, the bundles of toxic loans, are guilty of causing the financial collapse.
In the digital age, protests such as the Fortnum & Mason's occupation are increasingly organised over Facebook or Twitter. If you attend one of these and someone does something illegal, this ruling states that you can be arrested and convicted for not leaving the scene immediately.
The sentence handed to me and each of my nine co-defendants was a six month conditional discharge* and an order to pay £1000 towards the cost of the prosecution. The prosecution's total costs were around £17,000, that's £17,000 spent to convict 10 people for the heinous crime of sitting on the floor of a posh shop. That's £17,000 more than has been spent since this protest chasing the biggest tax dodgers, £17,000 more than has been spent bringing the bankers that have destroyed the global economy to account.
The government and the police have, over the last 20 years or so, been pursuing a policy of increasingly criminalising protest. They no longer see it as their role to facilitate protest, they see their role as to police protest, to regulate and control it. This new interpretation of the law could see many hundreds more arrests and convictions of people whose only crime is to attend a protest and many thousands more intimidated into keeping their mouths shut. This ruling betrays the clear priority of the government and the police; to ignore the crimes of the rich and persecute those who dare to shout about them. There is only one way to challenge this and it is not in the courtrooms, but on the streets.
For more information or to support the campaign visit http://fortnum145.org/2011/06/26/donate/
*A conditional discharge means that if a new offense is committed during the period, in this case six months, then the person can be re-sentenced for the original offense and as well as the new one.