By a courtroom observer
This Thursday (8th March), ten people went on trial in Westminster Magistrates Court for the heinous crime of Walking Into A Shop. This is the second of three scheduled trials (A, B and C) of the thirty people charged with committing ‘aggravated trespass with the intention to intimidate’, by entering Fortnum & Mason in London last March, as part of a UK Uncut tax-dodging protest (for the full story so far, see here).
On Wednesday morning, Director of Public Prosecutions Kier Starmer had appeared on Radio 4’s Today programme. He’d been launching a new set of prosecution guidelines for dealing with protesters. Despite the fact that the way the Fortnums defendants were being prosecuted didn’t actually fit these guidelines, the prosecution insisted that all was well and it was fine to push ahead with the trial.
Day 1: Thursday
After a three-day delay (the judge had been ill) the trial finally got started at 10am on Thursday morning. The prosecutor David Malone charged into his case like a corporate tax accountant who’s just spotted an exciting new loophole. His job was to prove that the ten defendants had trespassed in the shop with the intention to intimidate staff and customers, in order to force the store to close. A rather strange claim for a protest that even the police described as sensible and non-violent, but there you go.
First up, the prosecutor gave some background to the March 26th protests and UK Uncut, which, delightfully, required him to explain to the judge what Twitter is. This got a little long-winded and so, like a teacher in a restless classroom, Malone decided to get us all calmed down and settled in again by showing us a film. Unfortunately, the courtroom DVD player was jammed on the “videoconference” setting and after a fruitless half hour of fiddling with the machine (including a beautiful moment where one of the defendants was asked for help) we all had to decamp and troop upstairs to a different courtroom. Here, at last, it was movie time.
Malone and his team had trawled through hundreds of hours of CCTV footage, and innumerable stills from cameras seized at the scene to find the most damning evidence they could against the ten defendants. This is the shocking material they’d managed to come up with:
Footage of several hundred people walking into a shop
A few distorted YouTube clips from the middle of a chanting crowd, with no sign of any of the defendants
Footage of some protesters having a meeting in the shop, with no sign of any of the defendants
Footage of two of the defendants placing leaflets on a display rack
A still photo of one of the defendants sitting in a trolley with a second defendant pushing it
Two still photos of a defendant speaking through a megaphone
A few clips of some of the defendants walking around inside the shop, not doing anything in particular.
I’m sure this is enough to convince most readers of the seriousness of this matter, but just in case, let’s recap exactly why these ten were particularly chosen for trial out of all of the 145 arrestees. Most had – gasp – “over twenty” UK Uncut-related leaflets on their person when arrested! Meanwhile, one defendant had a minor conviction for an unrelated environmental protest two years earlier. Another one had no obvious reason for being there at all – when the judge questioned this, the prosecutor cryptically explained that “other criteria had been applied”. Very weird.
Despite these bizarre selection criteria and complete lack of evidence of anything even approaching “intimidating behaviour” on the part of the ten defendants, the prosecution ploughed on with the case. Malone’s angle was clear: he was hoping the judge would find the ten guilty using the same dubious interpretation of the law as in the first trial back in November 2011, when Judge Snow had decided that simply entering the shop in large numbers counted as an act of intimidation. Those first ten will be appealing this decision in the High Court.
The rest of Thursday was taken up with witnesses from Fortnum & Mason, describing what they’d seen happen at the store. Key moments included:
The Facilities Manager telling the court how he’d tried to head the protesters off when they entered the store, and direct them out of one of the exits. “A bit like an 80s disco!” quipped the prosecutor, inexplicably.
When asked whether there were any protesters on the lower ground floor, the Facilities Manager replied “well, there were some demonstrators down there, but they were the type who demonstrate the olives and the cheese”, thus proving that he was wittier than the prosecutor.
A woman who had been working on the sweets counter describing her experience of the protest, apparently in a far calmer and more reasonable way than in the first trial.
Generally, the picture the prosecutor tried to paint of the protest was unrecognisable to anyone who had actually been there. According to some of the witnesses, there had been a handful of people in the shop for a short period who had nicked some sweets, drunk some champagne and been rude to some of the staff and customers. The fact that there was no CCTV footage of this at all made it pretty obvious that this was an isolated incident, and that most of the staff, customers and protesters in Fortnums that day would have had no idea that it had even happened. There was certainly nothing to connect any of the defendants with it, and Malone didn’t even try – he was just trying to suggest there was an atmosphere of “intimidation”. The strangest claim he made repeatedly was that the protesters “barged into” the shop, when the CCTV footage clearly showed hundreds of people just walking in unobstructed…
Day 2: Friday
Half of the defendants are sat in a glass-screened dock, presumably to prevent them from leaping into the court and intimidating the judge by playing with a beachball or eating some home-made sandwiches. The other half sit along the front of the dock, with a ringside view of the lawyers. This morning, they got to watch two police officers explaining their actions on the day. The first was the Silver Commander from the day of the protests, describing how he had heard about the Fortnums event from his rather-space-age-sounding Silver Suite back at the Control Room. He admitted that the mass arrest had been useful for intelligence gathering (as previously stated by senior police officer Lynne Owens in front of the Home Affairs Committee) but denied that this was one of the reasons for ordering the arrests. Next up was Chief Inspector Clark, who is now infamous for her appearance in this video telling protesters that they could leave and go home, just before they were all arrested. She said some confusing things about the times during which the protesters were held within the shop and not allowed to leave.
Things took an unexpected turn when the “officer in the case” was called to present the evidence that had been found on the defendants when they were arrested. He handed those oh-so-dangerous handfuls of leaflets over to the defence lawyers, who quickly realised that something wasn’t quite right with one defendant’s bundle. The “charging threshold” set by the prosecution had been twenty or more UK Uncut leaflets, and it turned out that this particular defendant had only been carrying sixteen UK Uncut leaflets, plus a few unrelated flyers and a theatre ticket. As a result, the prosecution were forced to drop the charges against her!
This was obviously brilliant news for the defendants and their supporters, and underlined – once again – the total arbitrariness of the way that the thirty people were selected from the 145 to stand trial.
After lunch, it was time for the defence. The lead barrister, Ben Newton, explained that he planned to show that there was no evidence that any of the defendants had any “intention to intimidate” – that they had walked into the shop to attend a protest that may well have been disruptive to the running of the shop, but certainly wasn’t in any way intimidatory or scary.
The first defendant to take the stand was an environmental writer and author. He explained that he hadn’t known that the target would be Fortnum & Mason, but had followed the crowd and walked into the shop. The mass of protesters had walked to the centre of the shop and “chanted upwards into the atrium, as though towards some imagined Fortnums management somewhere up high”. He hadn’t seen anyone behaving in an intimidatory manner, and the customers he’d seen had appeared a bit surprised, but not at all scared. If he’d seen anyone being intimidating or threatening, he would have gone over and stopped them.
He then walked around the shop for a while chatting to people, until he was recognised as a performance poet and asked to recite a poem to the other protesters (this is what he had been doing with the megaphone in the prosecution’s photos). The judge expressed relief on hearing that there wasn’t any footage of the defendant’s poetry. He and his partner then tried to leave the store, but were prevented by police for about an hour. When they finally left along with a group of shoppers, he was snatched out of the crowd and arrested. What did he think about the handful of people who’d apparently been drinking champagne and being unpleasant to staff? Well, that was upsetting but it obviously wasn’t part of the UK Uncut protest. He hadn’t seen anything like that happen.
Next, the defendant’s partner was called as a witness, to corroborate his story. She told the court how the mood in the shop had been friendly, and how she’d seen protesters going up to staff and customers to explain what was happening and to reassure them that there was nothing to worry about. She’d seen nothing intimidatory, and if she had she would have gone over and stopped it. The prosecutor then went off on a strange line of questioning about what people had been chanting:
“Did you hear people chanting an anti-royalist chant?”
“Oh, yes, I think I remember something like that”
“And do you condemn that chant?”
The witness looked understandably confused, and explained that she didn’t remember exactly what words people had been using but that people should have the right to chant what they liked. When the defence lawyer helpfully leaned over to explain that apparently some protesters had been chanting “You can shove your Royal Wedding up your arse”, the prosecutor leapt in and once again threw his bizarre question at the witness: “And do you condemn that?” She looked even more bemused, but again calmly replied “I might not chant it myself, but I think people have the right to chant whatever they like”.
Things got even stranger when the prosecutor, describing the protesters entering the shop, announced with a dramatic flourish, “this was basically shock and awe, wasn’t it?” – straightfacedly comparing a group of people walking into a grocers with the bombing of Baghdad. The witness let out a splutter of laughter which was echoed round the court, before replying that no, it really wasn’t.
The next defendant on the list decided not to give evidence, and so we came on to the third of the nine defendants. He works as a researcher at a charity, and had first-hand knowledge of how the cuts were affecting people’s lives. He too had walked into the shop and seen no sign of anyone looking scared or intimidated – in fact, he’d chatted to several customers and they generally seemed interested or slightly bemused, but certainly not scared. CCTV footage showed him having a friendly conversation with a shopper with two kids, putting right a shop display that had got knocked, and walking around the shop picking up litter to hand over to the cashiers to dispose of.
How did he think that an elderly relative of his might feel at the sight of the protesters entering the shop? Well, he thought they’d be fine with the sight of a few hundred people walking through a door. Unabashed, Malone continued to try to raise the dramatic tension in the room by asking the defendant about an incident that had apparently taken place in the Fortnum’s restaurant, where someone had called one of the customers “posh” and “pushed the food around on her plate”. “Do you condemn that behaviour? Well, do you?” he demanded. The defendant looked understandably bewildered, and explained that he hadn’t seen that happen and so couldn’t really comment. “You won’t condemn it? What kind of an organisation is this?!” roared Malone, hurling his pen down on the table in the style of a Grisham courtroom hero. Everyone else in the room struggled to keep a straight face.
The defendant went on to explain that the event had been pretty much like his experience of previous UK Uncut actions – calm, friendly, and engaging. Yes, it had been loud, but it was a protest – it was supposed to get people’s attention. Ben Newton pointed out – again – that the defendants weren’t being charged with disrupting the shop, but with the specific crime of intimidation. As a committed pacifist, the defendant explained that he would never want be involved in any protest that made the public feel threatened. In fact, the reason he’d had so many leaflets with him was because he enjoyed talking to the public, giving them information and explaining what these kind of protests were all about. That’s what he’d been doing on the day, and had given away around 100 leaflets.
The court wrapped up at around 4.30, and the defendants – one fewer in number than they’d been that morning – were sent home for the weekend. First, though, they got to collect the property the police had seized from them on their arrest, almost a year ago, and so there was a Christmas-like atmosphere in the court corridor as defendants waved around much-missed mobile phones and armfuls of musty-smelling clothes that had been held as “evidence” for all this time.