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UK Uncut fights for 'tax justice' in Britain

It began, as so many ideas do in this country, over pints one evening at a pub.

Drinkers fresh from a protest rally in central London a year ago started asking what they could do to get more bang for the buck in their fight against the biggest government cuts in a generation. Marches on Parliament were all well and good, but was there a more creative way to get their message across?

Days later, they found it. On a crisp autumn morning, a band of mostly young people converged on Oxford Street, London's main shopping drag, and barged into the flagship store of communications giant Vodafone, accused (wrongly, the company says) of avoiding more than $9 billion in taxes, almost as much as the government planned to slash from its welfare budget. The crowd waved banners and called on corporate "tax dodgers" to pony up, before being rousted by police.

Long before there was an Occupy Wall Street or Occupy L.A., the grass-roots movement known as UK Uncut has been combining outraged populist protest with outrageous political theater to go for "the jugular of corporations" that it says are starving state coffers of badly needed revenue.

Impatient with conventional forms of protest, the group has adopted a more strategic, media-savvy approach of bringing their campaign to the local High Street (Main Street, in American parlance) rather than the steps of City Hall or the House of Commons. They embrace Twitter and Facebook to spread the word, eschew hierarchy to get people to take their own initiative, and encourage a sense of irony and fun.

"People have become disenchanted with the let's-march-from-A-to-B-with-placards model of protest," UK Uncut spokeswoman Anna Walker said. "There is a very important role for marching, but people want to do more."

The group now boasts a loose network of affiliates in towns and cities across Britain, from Edinburgh, Scotland, in the north to Brighton in England's south. And though rocking the boat has proved easier than getting it to change course, activists are determined to keep driving their anti-tax-avoidance message home.

They set up mock libraries in branches of bailed-out banks to show what kinds of public services will be cut while financiers pocket taxpayer-subsidized bonuses. Flash mobs don athletic gear and run races inside a clothing store owned by a tycoon who they say has dodged millions in taxes, money that could help fund community sports programs facing the ax.

Even the rock band U2, despite being leftish, hasn't escaped the wrath of UK Uncut and its allies. At the famed Glastonbury music festival in southwest England in June, Bono and crew were heckled by activists over the band's decision to move its financial affairs out of Ireland to the Netherlands to decrease its tax bill. A giant balloon demanded: "U Pay Tax 2."

The protests might seem like frivolous publicity stunts, but the group's message is a serious one, an appeal to the keen British sense of "fair play and fun," said activist Tim Matthews, 30.

"We've put the issue of tax justice on the map," he said. "That's the first thing we've achieved — just making that link in people's minds…. People look at corporations in much different ways now."

The movement has tapped into a deep well of public anger that's increasingly finding a voice on both sides of the Atlantic. With the economy stalling and signs of inequality growing, indignant residents are lashing out at a system they feel is stacked against them, in which big corporations and their lobbyists call the shots and enrich themselves while ordinary folks struggle for a break.

"Power is shifting in society to corporations and private companies," said Matthews, a bookseller. So, for the fed-up followers of UK Uncut, "you have to go where the power is."

The group's mission to target the wealthy has given it a wealth of targets, including some of Britain's best-known retailers, such as popular clothing store Topshop, supermarket giant Tesco and ubiquitous drugstore chain Boots.

When the head of Barclays, one of Britain's biggest banks, revealed in February that the company paid a meager 1% tax on nearly $20 billion of profit in 2009, UK Uncut swung into action.

Activists brought dozens of Barclays branches across the country to a standstill, setting up mock libraries and daycare centers, both threatened by austerity cuts. At one bank, a woman brandished a large illustrated book cover with the title "The Fat Cat: A Banker's Tale."

"There are many who look at us like we're mad. But there are people who come over and say, 'What're you doing?' People are so receptive, and they're amazed by what we tell them," said Kim Elkin, a 35-year-old florist who helped organize bank protests in August in the seaside town of Bournemouth against government-proposed revision of the National Health Service.

The disenchantment with more conventional forms of demonstrating may have its roots in the Iraq war.

Before the invasion, Britain saw a string of street protests that were "absolutely gigantic in scale and had zero impact in terms of the political process," said Rowland Atkinson, a sociologist at the University of York. "People don't really have much faith in the idea that mass protests or marches will have any political impact."

Instead, groups such as UK Uncut have decided to hit corporations' local operations, said Atkinson, who compared it to "going after the jugular." The emphasis is on public shaming, a tactic particularly beloved of the British.

But both the message and the method have inspired activists across the Atlantic, where US Uncut groups have sprung up this year from Northern California to the Deep South. Among the objects of the groups' wrath so far: GE, Apple and Bank of America.

Ryan Clayton took part in a noisy protest this year at a Verizon store in Washington. The 30-year-old advertising worker isn't embarrassed to acknowledge that, in a somewhat shaky YouTube video, he can be seen dressed rather comically as a pirate, calling on the phone company to cough up its fair share of taxes.

"You've got to have eyeballs looking, and then they'll hear what you're saying," he said. "I'm not sure you can get it across without that carnival atmosphere. We could type up a bunch of essays and staple them and hand them out on the street, but what impact would you have?"

Here in Britain, UK Uncut has succeeded in raising awareness of the issue of tax avoidance. But none of the companies on its hit list has suddenly agreed to pay more. Nor is the government retreating from its pledge to cut about $130 billion in spending in four years and to shed nearly half a million public-sector jobs.

UK Uncut remains undeterred.

"The role of activists and campaigners is to bang our heads against a brick wall until it cracks, crumbles and falls down," said Walker, the spokeswoman. "It's hard work, and sometimes it can be deflating, but the point is that the government has to know that the population is not just going to sit down and roll over and let this happen to us."

henry.chu@latimes.com

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