Since 2010, UK Uncut has facilitated direct actions involving tens of thousands across Britain in acts of civil disobedience. These actions have targeted the public spending cuts executed by the coalition government that came to power that year, alongside actions against corporations that are making massive profits while not paying taxes.
The anti-cuts group recently mobilized a nationwide action called “Roadblocks for Justice” that focused specifically on cuts to legal aid, which is the state support for legal services that ensure citizens are provided equality before the law.
England’s most senior family judge, Sir James Munby, has expressed dismay about the British government's plans to remove legal aid to defendants in serious family cases. As an example, the civil rights law firm, Tooks Chambers, is soon to close down, and a senior lawyer at the firm asserts this happened because of government’s cuts so far to legal aid. With more still to come.
Last Saturday, October 5, the street outside the Royal Courts of Justice was brought to a standstill. Activists against disability cuts, many in wheelchairs, locked themselves together. Supporters of UK Uncut and others opposing austerity occupied the other carriageway with a samba band providing the beat. They looked on as police interrupted those performing street theater.
“This road block represents the U.K. government, who is blocking people's rights and access to justice,” explained Anna Walker, a UK Uncut supporter. “We decided this would highlight the impact of the legal aid cuts that will particularly affect disabled people, migrants and the homeless. The vulnerable in society are being denied a path to justice, so we wanted a straight-up piece of civil disobedience to reject their policies.”
Gordon Linch, participating with Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), added:
“Without legal aid, you cannot challenge the cuts. The government are doing this to shut up the voice of these people. If it was not for legal aid, the Stephen Lawrence and Mark Duggan families would not have been able to correct the injustices they faced as two key examples.”
The injustice of these cases is famous in Britain, though perhaps less so abroad. Stephen Lawrence was murdered in 1993, and only years later the British justice system found that the Metropolitan Police had mishandled the case due to institutional racism.
Mark Duggan was shot by police officers in a taxi in North London in August of 2011, which sparked riots across the country. An inquest into his death is still ongoing. Tooks Chambers, which now has to shutter its doors, took on both of these influential cases.
Taking Direct Action Against Austerity
The tactic of roadblocks in political protest has a long history, as UK Uncut highlighted in the run-up to last weekend's event. Blocking roads was used to fight against British imperialism in India, by the women of Greenham Common against Britain's Nuclear Arms bases, and by the Civil Rights Movement in America, among many other examples.
But in contrast to the past, “The blockades before were about demanding new rights – from winning the vote to displaying women’s right to protest," said one organizer from the group, who wished to remain anonymous. "Yet this time we challenge our government’s authority to rip away our rights.”
“Roadblocks for Justice grew out of a meeting that brought together people who wanted to discuss the cuts to legal aid,” he continued. “An idea was proposed at that meeting about legal aid, which included representatives of Women Against Rape, DPAC and UK Uncut. This proposal was then taken to the wider group. It was passed using our consensus process.”
The action outside the Royal Courts added to a mounting list of direct actions organized by the group in recent years, starting in the autumn of 2010 when Uncut activists closed down eight Vodafone mobile phone shops to protests the company's tax dodging practices.
The BBC reported that in 2010 tax evasion cost the global economy $21 Trillion. The campaigning group, Tax Justice Network, calculated that over half this amount flowed through London into tax havens. Activists recounted how UK Uncut's actions brought this research to public attention.
“In 2010 it was so exciting to show corporations were not paying their fair share. There were not many actions or other groups focusing on it then," said Walker. "Now that has all changed.”
In 2011, the first ever Occupy mass convergence happened within a UK Uncut action, when 3,000 people blocked Westminster Bridge to protest against cuts to Britain's National Health Service. “It was a week before the Occupy camp was set up [and] a General Assembly happened on the side of the action, organized by those who wanted to outreach about the Occupy movement," she added. "It did not seem a big deal on the day.”
UK Uncut’s largest action to date saw 40 branches of Starbucks occupied to protest the company's evasion of taxes. Reuters reported that the corporation's UK profits that year totaled £1.2 billion -- but that it reported to UK authorities it had made no profit. Other mass actions coordinated by the group have included "die-ins," which shut down the Department of Work and Pensions offices in protest to austerity cuts.
In addition, the group launched a “Who wants to evict a millionaire?” campaign, bringing activists just outside the mansions of those in the government who stood behind the "bedroom tax," which targets people receiving housing support. Since its introduction, The Independent newspaper reports that the bedroom tax has caused 50,000 people to face imminent eviction from their homes.
UK Uncut was also responsible for putting on a street party outside Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s house, the purpose being to embarrass him for reneging on his election pledge not to raise student fees, which he reversed only months later. Inspired by this action, the group UK Uncut Legal Action followed up in a rare move by activists: they took the British Treasury to court for allowing Goldman Sachs to get away with tax evasion.
Involved in the anti-tax evasion movement since the start, Anna Walker described how UK Uncut plans to move forward.
“Tax is something UK Uncut is associated with, but now we’re trying to broaden out to a full anti-cuts message -- although when we do tax actions, these are the most popular, so we will keep doing them too.”
In complement to other British anti-austerity movements in recent years, UK Uncut has proved perhaps the most successful at mobilizing activists from other cities as well as London. During Roadblocks for Justice, actions were coordinated across seven UK cities.
The nationwide impact is something the group want to push further. “We need to continue building the movement against cuts across the country. So far this has happened spontaneously and autonomously, which is great,” Walker said. But, ”it needs strengthening through more nationwide skillshares, improved administration and better lines of communication.
"In these ways more groups can be empowered to be totally included in a broader movement.”