Open letter to Mr Simon Pountain, Commander of the Public Order Command of the Metropolitan Police Service,

Thank you for your letter regarding the protest organised by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts on the 9th November 2011. I’ve been away and was actually unaware that the protest was taking place, but will try to attend because I believe that the economy should be organised in a way that adequately funds public services, and that enables access to higher education for all who have the ability and commitment, not just those whose families can find tens of thousands of pounds to support them through university.

The letter came as a surprise because it’s the first time I’ve ever had post from the Met – I assume you decided to write to me because I participated in the UK Uncut protest inside Fortnum and Mason. You wrote to advise me that “It is in the public and your own interest that you do not involve yourself in any type of criminal or anti-social behaviour”. I would greatly appreciate it if you could clarify what forms of protest you view as criminal or as anti-social behaviour. The Human Rights Act protects freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and I’d like to be confident in the knowledge of how I can exercise these rights.

After taking part in the trade union organised march against the cuts on March 26th, I walked through the open doors of Fortnum and Mason and took part in a protest that one of your senior officers on the scene described as “sensible and non-violent”. After singing a song and listening to someone explain that the royal grocers is involved in a scam to avoid paying £10million tax a year, I spent most of the time sat on the floor waiting because your officers had closed the shop due to a disturbance outside. I and the other protestors inside the shop obeyed police requests to group in one area, and customers were left to browse freely – diners in the restaurant and café continued to enjoy their meals. I left as soon as police opened the doors, and on the assurance by the senior police officer that protestors would be allowed to leave freely. This was a lie: outside I was immediately and forcefully arrested by a police man twice my size (I’m a woman who weighs 8 ½ stone and I wasn’t resisting); I was held for 24 hours with very little food; charges were pressed without the presence of a solicitor or any evidence being declared; and I was sent home to the other side of London without my clothes, phone, shoes or coat, in an white, oversized men’s jogging suit, my remaining possessions in a clear plastic bag.

Can you imagine what it feels like to have someone use force to take away a day of your life? For two days after my release I was in shock, my thoughts scattered, swinging between numb disbelief and mild hysteria. I had symptoms of trauma for at least a week longer, as well as a painful bruise on my wrist and a sore shoulder from the way my arm was yanked behind my back. You see, I took part in the UK Uncut protest because I was impressed by the peaceful and creative tactics that the network has become known for, as well as by their argument that not only expresses a problem – the cuts – but also part of the solution – cracking down on corporate tax avoidance and evasion. I would never have believed that entering a shop and sitting on the floor could be classed as “criminal” or “anti-social behaviour”. I was never told I was committing a crime; it was the police’s decision that I remain inside beyond when I was ready to leave and it was a senior police officer who told me I was free to go immediately before I was arrested. Your letter about the Fees and Cuts protest advises me to “move away and create distance” between myself and anyone involved in violence, but I was no where near violence on March 26th and no one has ever alleged that I was.

The case of the first 10 F&M protestors facing trial will be heard on Thursday – this attempt to prosecute a group of people involved in an entirely peaceful and disciplined sit-in is new legal territory. And while no evidence against me has ever been shared and the charges against me have been discontinued, your letter is evidence of the record that has been kept against my name, alongside my DNA. I had a good mind to have my case reinstated to try to get my name cleared, but I simply couldn’t afford the legal fees.

Being arrested is an experience I don’t want to repeat, however unfortunately it’s clear to me that I will want to express political opinions over the coming years. I’m sure thousands of others would appreciate clarity about how we can safely exercise our right to protest in order to influence decision making in this country – after all, we are supposed to live in a democracy.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,
Julie Porter


Simon Pountain has responded to a letter from snapgrabber on this subject