'It was my first protest. Now I might lose my job'

Case study: Protesters said they had been assured by police they would not be arrested if they had caused no damage

Tuesday 29 March 2011 00:00

At 3pm on Saturday, Adam made a spur-of-the-moment decision to join the sit-in at the luxury London grocers Fortnum & Mason. His sole "direct action" during the three-hour protest was to move a shop display under a table to ensure it was not trampled. Yesterday, though, the 25-year-old teacher from west London found himself facing a criminal charge and fearing for his career.

He was one of 138 people at the demonstration who have been charged with aggravated trespass after being arrested by riot police outside the store on Piccadilly, and spending up to 24 hours in cells at police stations around the capital.

Up to 500 demonstrators occupied Fortnum's delicacy-stocked aisles on Saturday afternoon as part of a unpublicised protest by UK Uncut over claims that Associated British Foods (ABF), which is 54 per cent-owned by the food emporium's owner, Whittington Investments, has avoided £40m of tax. ABF denies any tax avoidance, saying it complies fully with the law.

Adam is so fearful that his arrest may lead to recriminations from his employer that he asked for his name to be changed. He said: "It was the first cuts protest I had attended. I was on the regular march [TUC-organised] and then I met three friends. We decided we wanted to join UK Uncut, so we went inside Fortnum & Mason. It was very peaceful, no violence and no one asked me to leave. I did not think I would be arrested at any point, I had not even thought about it. What the police said to us all before we left was that the only people who could be arrested would be those who had committed criminal damage. I thought I haven't done anything like that so there was no way I could be arrested."

He added: "I am upset by the dishonesty of the police and very angry at how long they kept us [in cells]. I worry that if I get a criminal record, it could affect my work. I want to keep working in education and you don't want the kids reading about this sort of thing or their parents – they could make a fuss."

Protesters yesterday accused the Metropolitan Police of heavy-handed tactics and "tricking" participants in the sit-in when officers inside the building gave apparent undertakings that only demonstrators who had been identified as committing criminal damage faced arrest when they decided to leave. The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) said it had received a complaint from a witness of "unnecessary violence" by officers on Piccadilly.

Protesters described how, once outside the store, they were corralled into an area surrounded by officers in riot gear and made to sit down before being handcuffed, photographed and taken away in a van.

Adam spent 23 hours in a cell in Bromley, south-east London, before being charged and told to attend a court hearing in May. Like others arrested he was handed an additional banning order prohibiting him from entering the City of Westminster between 27 April and 2 May to coincide with the royal wedding.

Protesters said they hadn't seen anyone inside the shop commit criminal damage. Fortnum & Mason said the loss of trade during the protest would cost it about £80,000 but physical losses were restricted to the theft of a number of bottles of wine or champagne and slogans which had been daubed on to the exterior of the building.

UK Uncut said it was collating video evidence which it believed would show protesters were calm, peaceful and assured by officers they could leave the shop without fear of arrest as long as they had committed no damage.

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