Laurie Penny: Fight for your right to be heard

A concerted campaign is under way in the tame tabloid press to portray UKUncut and other peaceful protesters as thuggish and alien

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This morning, 138 peaceful protesters were scheduled to appear at Westminster Magistrates' Court. They were charged with aggravated trespass after occupying Fortnum & Mason on 26 March in order to voice their opposition to corporate tax avoidance alongside activist group UKUncut.

Most of the cases will now be adjourned until September, and many may be quietly dropped. That will not stop hundreds from gathering for a rally outside the court to defend this peaceful, media-friendly activist group. Many believe that the point of the charges was never to lock up criminals, but to make an example of UKUncut by frightening and inconveniencing its members as much as possible.

The court date follows two weeks in which the police have cracked down hard on anti-cuts campaigners in Britain. New charges have been brought against student protesters, including Alfie Meadows, the young man who was nearly killed in the police kettle on 9 December.

Known dissidents have been seized from their homes and arrested, and community centres have been raided for signs of subversion. The signal to the silent majority who oppose this Government's spending plans is clear: think twice before speaking out. If you take action to defend public services, you risk being punished.

UKUncut seem to have been singled out for police harassment. Far fewer arrests were made of those who committed unrelated acts of violent property damage on the day of the anti-cuts protest, whereas all I saw damaged inside Fortnum & Mason's was a single chocolate rabbit.

However, the group's core argument, that the state could save billions by pursuing corporate tax avoidance instead of cutting public services, is gaining ground. It is an argument so compelling that top economists and even, this week, the Royal Family's lawyers, have taken up the fight against wealthy companies "raiding the public purse" as the poorest are hit by spending cuts. Thousands of ordinary people, from octogenarians to toddlers, have been mobilised by this simple message.

The coalition is far more frightened by UKUncut's friendly model of popular resistance to government spending plans than by any overprivileged idiot swinging from the Cenotaph. This is why the group needed to be discredited, with key members effectively gagged by their ongoing court cases. Meanwhile, a concerted campaign is under way in the tame tabloid press to portray UKUncut and other peaceful protesters as thuggish and alien, making it seem as if only a "violent minority" disagrees with the Government's cuts, rather than at least 54 per cent of the population, according to the latest YouGov poll.

For now, these intimidation tactics appear to be working, antagonising the anti-cuts movement into temporary retreat. Ordinary citizens have begun to shy away from protesting, not because they suddenly support the cuts, but because they are worried about the evident penalties for speaking out. Many activists have begun to feel isolated and demoralised, shaken by the arrests and by the savageness of the tabloid backlash.

Pre-emptive arrests of anti-cuts activists and the targeting of alternative communities for police raids are manifestly attacks on the right to freedom of expression. They are not, however, attacks on the "right to protest". The right to protest is, by its very nature, a right which citizens must claim for themselves, rather than having it graciously granted to them by the state.

The police backlash against activists proves that the Coalition is losing the argument on austerity. This Government has shifted from a strategy of persuasion to one of coercion. The only way ordinary citizens can defend our right to protest is by continuing to protest, standing up for one other and for public services, and refusing to be cowed by intimidation tactics.

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