I made my placard for #payday, UKUncut's national day of protests against corporate tax avoidance, on Wednesday night. I was going to join the Library Bloc, staging a read-in in Vodafone's flagship store on Oxford Street to publically highlight the connection between HMRC's unwillingness to force Vodafone to pay their tax in full, and the budget cuts faced by local councils which will affect hundreds of public libraries. Rye public library is new - I've only just joined it and it might have to close down. It stinks.
Getting the placard to London was a mission - on the way out of Rye it doubled as a windsail, but proved useful as a snow shield this morning when battling through the blizzard to the tube station. After five minutes on the roads I got onto the tube with an inch of snow encrusting hat, coat, bag and placard. Ah well, I thought, at least the shop will be nice and warm.
Self, bags and placard struggled down Oxford Street through slush, ice and snowfall. My boots swiftly proved not to be waterproof and by the time I reached the Vodafone shop my feet were soaked with ice water. I'd given careful thought about how to smuggle a large placard into the shop, and ended up putting it in a big John Lewis bag donated by khalinche's housemates, thereby disguising it as shopping. A picture or something. Look, I'm a good little consumer! Let me in!
The Vodafone store, when I arrived at 1pm, seemed remarkably empty. The read-in was scheduled for 1:04. I blagged my way in pretending I wanted to buy a memory card for my Sony Eriksson, but quickly established that no other activists were around. Hrm. Back outside, I phoned denny and discovered that I was at 127 Oxford Street, and the Vodafone flagship store was at 345. Buggeration! I'd already have missed the flashmob. Forlornly, I trudged back the way I'd come through hail and slush, boots steadily filling with snowmelt and feet growing numb with cold.
I found the protest underway outside the flagship store - which had pre-emptively closed before we got there. Apparently we're scary. So the day was about getting the message out, and get it out we did.
Dozens of people outside with signs saying TAX DODGERS and the Vodafone logo. An enormous banner with the figures: Amount Vodafone owes in unpaid tax: £6bn. Spending cuts to local councils: £6bn.
My placard got a lot of attention, but I'd written it with the intention that we'd be inside the shop protesting to Vodafone. Instead we were outside protesting to the public. "Pay your tax!" suddenly seemed a little accusatory; I didn't want people to think I was accusing them of tax avoidance, so I borrowed a biro and quickly scribbled 'Vodafone' above it. Not sure how visible it was.
Climate Rush had brought a songsheet of anti-capitalist carols. Some were on message, others were about climate change, which obviously I agree with but seemed a little confusing in context. They drifted off after twenty minutes or so. The rest of us stood in the snow, feet freezing to iceblocks, holding up our signs, looking friendly and hopeful and cold.
It was a quiet protest - lots of us were just reading, although I'm not convinced that did much to get the message across. But the lack of chanting went down well. People slowed down and read the signs. They were interested. Many were sympathetic. Some were shocked when we explained the situation. Vodafone's waived tax bill could have paid for every single cut to every single council in the country this year.
There were about twenty police officers, all polite and well-behaved, although cold and a bit resentful. ("God, are you lot still here?" Yes.) Lots of people with cameras. A few members of the press. I hid from the cameras behind the placard, but when they weren't flashing I smiled and made eye contact with as many passersby as I could.
The leaflets flew out of our hands - everyone wanted one. We handed out thousands. I shared out mincepies with the rest of the picket. We didn't chant but chatted to people quietly, one to one.
Things shoppers walking past me said:
"Get a job!" (I have a job. Actually I own a company. Which pays its tax. Do you?)
"Well done." (Thankyou!)
"It was £7bn wasn't it?"
To friend "Bloody protestors, they look like they've never paid tax in their life." (Let's just ignore that one.)
To small child "Look, they're angry because Vodafone didn't pay their tax and now the libraries have to shut because the government doesn't have enough money." (Look! They know about it already! It's working!)
"Well, what you're doing is alright, this is fair enough, it's nice and peaceful."
"Yeah well you keep it peaceful, we'll keep it real." (Er, please don't smash any windows!)
"How can I help?"
"What's this about? But what were Vodafone threatening the government with to make them let them off? But that's so corrupt!"
"How did they persuade them to let them off? But that's shocking. That's not fair at all."
"What can we do about it?" (Spread the word!)
"How can I find out more?" (UKuncut.org.uk!)
"Yes, I heard about that, tax dodgers the lot of them."
"It's not just Vodafone you know, they're all at it" (Yes, we know it's a much broader issue, but we're starting with this one and once people know about that, we'll broaden our targets.) "Oh, fair enough then. Good luck!"
The level of support was overwhelming. I have never been on a protest which felt so strongly as if our message was getting through, it was working, people were listening. The publicity over the last few weeks has worked. Lots of people nodded sagely, familiar with our arguments. Most - literally most - of the people who responded were on our side. That's never, ever happened to me at an action before. It was brilliant.
We stomped to keep warm. I changed my socks but the fresh ones soaked through again within minutes. Josie Long and a quiet geeky boy brought everyone tea. A man from Hungary told me that similar protests had happened in his country and they changed the law as a result; I said I'd look it up and find out more. Protestors from other groups popped by to see how we were getting on and share news of the other actions. A couple of posh men in suits told us we didn't understand the economics of the situation. We argued with them. People stopped to listen, nodded, took a leaflet. We ran out of leaflets.
At ten past 3 I decided I needed to get home and into clean clothes before I developed trench foot, handed my placard to someone else and headed off. There were only a couple of dozen of us left by that point but I felt good. People agreed with us. We were representing popular opinion. The campaign was working. We had sympathy, energy, momentum, we weren't stopped by the weather, there were thousands of us all over the country. After we'd been there for a while I found out that a group had managed to close down the smaller Vodafone store I'd started out at. We were winning.
As I left I overheard someone asking a policeman when the shop would be open. "Sorry," he replied, "Not for a while yet, I imagine."
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