Starmer Drama: DPP’s Today programme announcement shows that the CPS are not even following their bizarre new guidelines
By one of the Fortnum & Mason arrestees
These days, I’m all too used to being woken up by the sound of my own voice shouting at the radio. This particular Tuesday morning, I discovered that my semi-conscious yells were being directed at Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), on the Today Programme on BBC Radio 4 [from 2:53].
Mr Starmer had just said something about a case I was involved in – a mass arrest that I’d been caught up in at an anti-cuts protest at Fortnum & Mason last March. The thing he’d just said meant that either he was woefully misinformed about our case, or else that he was flat-out lying for PR purposes. His exact words, in an interview about some new prosecution guidelines that he was announcing that day, were:
“We have had cases recently where hundreds of people have been arrested. To take the example of Fortnum & Mason we had had over a hundred people who were essentially peaceful in that situation and in respect of whom we dropped charges, but others who were more involved and they’ve been charged.”
Mr Starmer was holding our case up as an example of good practice, and saying this was how protest cases should be run in the future. Under the new rules, prosecutors would be encouraged to divide protesters into two types: those with “peaceful intent” and those who “came along planning to commit violence or disruption”. There are huge problems with this kind of “good protesters vs. bad protesters” split in any case (more on that in a moment), but the immediate implication of what he was saying was that the people who had been charged for the Fortnum case had been selected because they were “more involved” than the others in “planning violence and disruption”.
Anyone familiar with the case will probably understand why I was throwing socks at the radio by this point, but just to recap:
It’s been almost a year since 145 people were arrested for walking into Fortnum & Mason, the posh London grocers, in protest at Fortnum’s parent company’s multi-million pound tax dodge. Since the day of the arrests in March 2011, the Crown Prosecution Service have gradually dropped the charges against most of the 145, eventually whittling us down to 30.
Most of these thirty were chosen not because there was any real evidence of them being “more involved” in planning anything “violent or disruptive”, but because they were found to be carrying leaflets in their bags, waving placards, or holding coloured umbrellas that they’d been handed in the crowd. Others had previous convictions from completely unrelated protests, or else were caught on camera committing such terrifying acts as facilitating a meeting inside the Fortnums store. Many of the 115 people whose cases were dropped had had leaflets, banners, or previous protest convictions too, but no explanation was given as to why their cases were dropped while the remaining arbitrarily-selected thirty were being dragged through the courts.
In fact, so incensed were twenty-one of the non-charged people that they gave a great cry of “I am Spartacus!” and threw themselves back into the fray, stating that they were no different from the thirty who were charged and demanding to be put on trial alongside the others. They were hoping to shame the prosecution into dropping everyone’s cases; in the end, the Spartacuses(?) were removed from the proceedings and the case against the remaining thirty rattled grimly on into Autumn 2011.
So far, so completely contradictory to the DPP’s statement. But it gets worse.
The trial of the first ten took place in November 2011. They were all found guilty of Aggravated Trespass via “intimidation” – but not because any of them had themselves personally done anything to intimidate anyone. Instead, the judge made the extraordinary ruling that the protest as a whole had had “the intention of intimidating the staff, police, security and customers”, and so anyone who was part of that crowd was equally guilty. It was guilt by association – everyone was guilty simply by being in the crowd at the store, and by (supposedly) choosing not to leave.
This is an extremely dubious interpretation of the law, and those first ten defendants are appealing against it in the High Court. The appeal should be heard there sometime before the summer. But this line of prosecution also makes a further nonsense of Kier Starmer’s pronouncement today, because there is no clear reason why those ten people were more guilty of this bizarre new crime of “being in a crowded shop” than the 115 whose cases were dropped.
This is all made extra topical by the fact that the remaining twenty defendants are due to have their trials this month, with the first batch of eleven in Westminster Magistrates Court on Thursday.
Let me be clear. The DPP’s new prosecution guidelines are not a good thing. They seek to try to split us into “good” and “bad” protesters, where some are “peaceful” and some are “disruptive”. But a certain level of disruption plays a vital part in effective protest; just marching quietly on a prearranged route from A to B is a surefire recipe for being ignored. Part of UK Uncut’s success has lain in the way it has carried out disruptive actions in tax-dodging shops and banks, while continuing to build public support for these actions. UK Uncut have threatened to undermine the government’s dubious justifications for its slash-burn-and-privatise policies, which is why I believe they have been targeted so heavily by police and prosecutors.
Rather than going after the real criminals – the banks and corporations who crashed our economy in the first place, refuse to pay their fair share in taxes, and continue to put their short-term profits before the needs of the public and the long-term habitability of the planet – these new guidelines encourage prosecutors to keep going after the people who are trying to draw attention to the problem: the protesters. However, (perhaps partly due to accusations of overzealous prosecution, and perhaps because the sheer increase in the number of protesters is clogging up their system) it seems they are looking to streamline things and cut the number of cases going through the courts. To give this a nice cuddly spin, they’re trying to reassure us all that they’ll do this by focusing on getting the “nasty” protesters, and let everyone else go free. Unfortunately, their definition of “nasty” seems to be anyone wearing (or carrying) a mask (or anything else that could be used to cover a face, like a scarf); anyone possessing items that “could be used as a weapon” (in the past this has included walking sticks, camping equipment and display boards), and anyone using social media to plan disruptive action (“OMG we’re totally gonna shut down Topshop today lol”). And if, as Keir Starmer said today, the Fortnum case is a shining example of how this policy will work then we can expect leaflets, placards and megaphones to all be defined as equally incriminating too.
For more information or to see how you can support the Fortnum defendants, head on over to http://Fortnum145.org