UKUncut: Don’t let the CS spray become the story

This post was written by Owen on January 31, 2011
Posted Under: Police,Protest

It should, I think, be uncontroversial to state that using a chemical agent that does this to peaceful protestors is pretty fucked up, to say the least. I was at the UKUncut Boots action on Sunday, and the sight of innocent people staggering blindly around while screaming in pain through tears and mucus is not an experience I want to repeat.

I am a bit sceptical, though, of the conclusions some have drawn about the wider implications of it. True, there have been some frankly scary comments from senior officers about the future policing of demos, but my impression in the immediate aftermath of the spraying seemed to be that it was a rather stupid overreaction on the part of one officer rather than the result of any kind of deliberate strategy (either to protect ‘corporate interests’ at the expense of individual citizens as UKUncut themselves would have it, or as part of a crackdown on peaceful protesters, as the Guardian suggests in the voiceover to their video) by those higher up the police chain of command. I was told by other protesters that some of the police at the action were openly saying they thought using CS spray in that situation was a very stupid thing to do, which indicates quite strongly against it being official policy. Depending on what other information comes out over the next few days and weeks I’m open to being convinced otherwise, but that’s my hunch at the moment.

But even leaving that debate aside (and I’m sure most people who read this are going to disagree with me on it), there are more pressing issues to focus on. Call me cynical, but what’s the betting senior Boots executives are really, really grateful to Officer CW 2440 right now? There’s been barely a mention anywhere over the past couple of days of why the protest was actually happening – the fact that Boots is avoiding untold millions in tax; practically the only time Boots got a mention is in the description of how staff in the blockaded branch volunteered to treat some of the UKUncut demonstrators who were worst-affected by the CS spray.

I get why this happens; no matter how often police brutality occurs, we shouldn’t ever accept it as merely some kind of occupational hazard when we exercise our right to protest. But (at the risk of descending into cliché), it can be all to easy to let it distract us from the real issues. I’m sure UKUncut’s already-impressive media profile will be boosted greatly by what I saw happen outside Boots on Sunday, but now there’s a real risk that all the news cameras will be after is more dramatic footage of police violence, with no airtime left over for substantive discussions about tax avoidance and its implications for the cuts agenda.

And it’s not just media attention that matters; one of the best things about UKUncut’s actions so far has been the response from the public. I experienced this myself on Sunday; passer-by after passer-by offering us words of support, or wanting to know more about the campaign. If people start to associate UKUncut actions with violence (regardless of the fact that it’s not us committing it), how likely is it that new people are going to want to get involved, or that the general public will keep on seeing the campaign as something more than just an inconvenient interruption to their shopping? If the way UKUncut actions are policed is the only thing people are paying attention to, what’s the point in protesting in the first place?

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Reader Comments

Owain

I’d like to see changes to the tax advantages of debt as opposed to capital, where companies can write off debt interest to tax. This would go some way to preventing private equity takeovers that increase profits only by increasing debt and thus reducing tax, rather than by actually improving the efficiency of the company through improved management and technology.

Example – Boots, when taken over by KKR, was able to massively reduce it’s tax burden by taking on more debt, which it can then pay out to the private equity by dividend.

It’s not that I think companies are evil for not paying tax, I mean, who actually likes paying tax? But there’s no need to make it so easy for them.

#1 
Written By Owain on January 31st, 2011 @ 10:50 pm
Owain

Sorry, I should really remember to reference this stuff properly.

Look here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2009/feb/09/tax-gap-boots-chemists for a newspaper article, also I can recommend Robert Peston’s book Who Runs Britain? (ISBN 0340839449), where I first heard about this, it’s very good.

#2 
Written By Owain on January 31st, 2011 @ 10:54 pm

Dear Owen,

I agree with the main argument of your piece.

However, there really is little we can do…

I was on press that day. What you may not realise is that the protests on Sunday were not being reported AT ALL, apart from a bad article by PA.

It was only when the CS incident happened that we started getting press. This is not the sort of press we want, of course, but we would have had NO PRESS if this had not had happened.

But is this press worse than no press? Well…i’m undecided. We gained about 800 twitter followers after the CS spray, and ignited lots of discussion about police behaviour and tax avoidance over the social network…but you are right…it may well deter people and muddy the image…but I think it is quite clear that this is police’s fault, and not ours.

I think all in all, the only lasting damage of this whole episode is on the police image (and possibly their financial budget!).

#3 
Written By Daniel Garvin on February 1st, 2011 @ 1:14 am
Captn Tripps

Owain highlights the problem I have with the UKUncut campaign. Businesses should not be blamed for hiring clever accountants to exploit tax loopholes, it is the tax authority that leave these loopholes open which should be targeted if anything.

So why is it high street stores they are super-glueing themselves in the high street instead of HMRC? Higher visibility, for which I am sympathetic, but empty words from passers by is still several steps away from capturing the general public’s imagination over the issue. I speculate that is was one officer’s over zealous attempt at crowd dispersal and the resulting cried of injustice which made this a story in the media at all.

Unless we see some fresh ideas soon, I believe UKUncut will become just another victim of diminishing returns.

#4 
Written By Captn Tripps on February 1st, 2011 @ 1:35 am
Big O

Hey owen,

I agree with the main thrust of your piece – don’t get distracted.

But i think there’s more at play than to suggest it was just one officer going over the top. Hugh Orde’s comments provide a context and direction in which individual coppers going over the top is more likely.

Additionally, by intervening in the public debate in this way – Hugh is pushing the framing of the event away from the real conflict, between the people and boots with their unpaid taxes, to one of police versus protestors – what’s appropriate policing.

If anything is political policing – its their intervention in the public debate in this way.

#5 
Written By Big O on February 1st, 2011 @ 9:48 am
Much Ado

The comment at #3 by Daniel Garvin shows the lengths to which UK Uncut will exploit the injuries of people protesting for it to gain maximum propaganda opportunities. It proves Owen’s point: will UK Uncut encourage ever more reckless behaviour from its protesters in the hope that a violent reaction from the police will gain UK Uncut some more press coverage?

#6 
Written By Much Ado on February 1st, 2011 @ 11:37 am
Much Ado

“We gained about 800 twitter followers after the CS spray, and ignited lots of discussion about police behaviour and tax avoidance over the social network”

Good for you – but why not actually lobby politicians to change the law rather than go after companies that haven’t broken the law? On Newsnight, your cockney-sounding Tony Smith (no doubt you put him up instead of any Oxford-educated self-hating toffs like Laurie Penny) admitted to Paxo that this was about morality rather than the law. Since when did the left bang on about morality?

#7 
Written By Much Ado on February 1st, 2011 @ 11:42 am
Matt

If you’d sacrificed a small child outside the store that would have got lots more publicity…
The fact that you even consider using violence to gain publicity says a lot about you as human beings. Its a slippery slope, first you’ll break glass, then that won’t be enough to get coverage so you’ll have to start assaulting police officers (who are only doing they job, some of them heavy handedly true but then their colleagues were being attacked with ammonium).
Where does it stop? Why should the general public be forced out of a space because of Uk Uncut? Who has given them the authority?
I agree with comment #4 that it isn’t the fault of the companies that they take advantage of the loopholes, the loopholes should be shut down.
Is the writer of this column honestly saying that if they had an option of classifying themselves under two different tax bands, they would choose the tax band that meant they paid the most tax???

#8 
Written By Matt on March 27th, 2011 @ 3:01 pm

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