Today Edinburgh Uncut activists watched our friend Alasdair Thompson being handcuffed and bundled into a police van. His crime: holding up a banner inside the Princes Street branch of British Home Stores, a shop owned by notorious tax-dodger and government austerity advisor Philip Green. According to the police, Alasdair’s behaviour was “abusive and threatening”, and thus constituted a statutory breach of the peace – a serious allegation because this is a criminal offence under Scots Law, and although most offenders are cautioned or fined, a judge can impose a prison sentence.
As news of the arrest spreads across the left-wing blogosphere, I thought it was important to write down my own (eyewitness) account of this afternoon’s events before they start to fade from my memory. What follows is my own personal account of events, and all views expressed are my own.
Inspired by the comedy bail-ins held in London (a few Edinburgh Uncutters, myself and Alasdair included, managed to catch some of the gig that was relocated to Soho Square on 26th March), and because we’re lucky enough to have a stand-up comedian in our local Uncut group, we planned to hold a Cutting Edge Comedy event inside BHS this afternoon. The businesses we target have a habit of locking us out if they know we’re coming, so we didn’t openly publicise the venue, instead asking participants to meet us at the bandstand in Princes Street Gardens, where we would provide further instructions. We split up, and as one o’clock approached, we reconvened in the BHS cafe to wait for the gig to begin. The whistle blew, and our MC stood up to address the (small) assembled crowd via a microphone attached to a pink, battery-powered, Barbie tapedeck, and introduce the ukulele-playing comic who was the first act.
It didn’t take long for the store management and security staff to notice what we were up to, but instead of engaging with us, they immediately called the police. There were fewer than twenty people attending the gig, but seven police officers were sent along to sort us out. Lothian and Borders Police have always had a fairly tolerant approach towards us in the past; we’ve never had an arrest at an Uncut action before, and we’d fallen into bit of a routine. However, today the senior officer was our old friend Three-thousand-and-two (A3002), who is known to us for his habit of parking in disabled parking spaces and bus stops so that he can observe us without having to leave his seat in the police van, and his general no-nonsense attitude. This is the guy Lothian and Borders send in when they want to show us that they mean business, and conversations with the police following Alasdair’s arrest revealed that they were under orders to get an arrest this time so that somebody could be made an example of.
I filmed much of the incident, and took audio recordings when BHS staff aggressively stepped in to prevent me from filming them. Alasdair is clearly visible in the video footage, a dark haired young man of unimposing stature standing towards the back of the room, holding up a cloth banner with the slogan “Edinburgh Uncut: we will not pay for their crisis”. He isn’t shouting or gesticulating, so it’s an extreme stretch of the truth to describe his actions as threatening. The police are engaged in a heated discussion with a female protester about what constitutes a breach of the peace, while the ukulele player struggles to be heard above the noise. I’m trying to record interactions between the police and protesters when I notice Three-thousand-and-two turn to his colleague and say “right, lets start at the back”, indicating Alasdair. This, more than anything else, has lead me to believe that Alasdair was deliberately singled out as the one person they would arrest so that the police could satisfy their orders.
In the conversation which followed, the police officer claimed that the manager of BHS had asked us to leave, and he begins to quote the legislation which is eventually used to justify the arrest. Alasdair and I protest that nobody has actually asked us to leave the building, so the manager is summoned to make the request. When Alasdair starts to respond to this by questioning the assertion that he is committing a breach of the police, he is immediately placed under arrest and escorted outside. I follow, switching back to recording video as we go.
As Alasdair is handcuffed and searched, I continue to observe and record footage – the two arresting officers behave professionally and respectfully throughout – but I’m approached by another officer who tells me that I have to put the camera away because I’m “not allowed to record a police action”, and “could be charged with obstruction” despite the fact that I’m standing several paces back and making no attempt to interact with anyone else. I explain that I’m filming for my friend’s protection because of the way that activists have been treated in other cities recently, and the officer complains Lothian and Borders Police have always been very fair towards us, and, paradoxically, uses this to justify the fact that they’re making an arrest now. A few minutes later, we are told that if we make any further attempt to enter a shop, the police will arrest another protester.
The response that we’ve had from the public has been extremely heartening. Not only is Alasdair’s arrest becoming a minor cause célèbre on Twitter, but people who we have met this afternoon have been very supportive. In particular, we owe our thanks to two older, respectable-looking members of the public who at different times stood very close to the police to make a point of observing their interactions with us; this may have been instrumental in preventing further arrests. Believe me, we were threatened with more arrests on increasingly dubious grounds. Inspired by the Love Police, one of our members asked permission to hug Three-thousand-and-two, and was told that he would be charged with assault if he did so. The same person was later threatened with prosecution for slander because he loudly joked that the police were standing outside Topshop to stop customers getting in. Another activist was physically restrained to prevent her from taking photographs, while the officers holding her by both wrists repeatedly told her that she was not being detained.
So why did the police choose Alasdair as the one person who would be punished? This is a question that I’ve been asking myself ever since this afternoon, and it’s difficult to come to any satisfactory conclusion. Other people were participating more vocally, while he, in his typical style, stood on the fringes, supporting others with his quiet presence. Perhaps this is the reason that the police chose him – because they thought he would be an easy target who wouldn’t create any fuss, or attract negative attention. He’s a been noticed as a regular attendee at Uncut actions, but isn’t known for talking back to the police or using the megaphone to attract attention, and it was less likely to seem like blatant intimidation than if they had chosen a woman or younger member of the group. But Alasdair is not the easy target that he may have been mistaken for; as co-editor of the popular Bright Green blog he is an articulate and intelligent activist, who will no doubt publish his own thoughts on the incident shortly (being a stoic creature, he hasn’t let his arrest get in the way of his plans for this evening and has gone out to a concert, otherwise he would have written something already). Indeed, the messages of support that have gone out when any Uncut activist has been on the receiving end of political policing would suggest that none of us is an easy target. In an increasingly individualistic world, we are learning the meaning of solidarity, and will stand up for our own when they are threatened.