Matt Foot, solicitor at Birnberg Pierce, says the detention of 145 activists will 'threaten the right to peacefully protest'
Police and UK uncut activists
© Carl Court/AFP/Getty ImagesUK Uncut activists took part in the Fortnum & Mason occupation during recent London protests.

A lawyer at a leading civil liberties firm has expressed fears for the future of direct action protest after the mass arrest of UK Uncut activists during last Saturday's anti-cuts demonstrations in London.

Matt Foot, a criminal defence solicitor at Birnberg Pierce, said the detention of 145 activists during an occupation of luxury food store Fortnum and Mason in Piccadilly was "unprecedented". He has questioned the police's motivation.

After being arrested for aggravated trespass and criminal damage, scores of Uncut campaigners were dispersed to police stations around London as far apart as Harrow, Ilford and Romford and were held for up to 24 hours. The next day, the accusation of criminal damage was dropped but 138 activists were bailed on the charge of aggravated trespass.

Foot, son of the campaigning journalist Paul Foot, said: "It is unprecedented to arrest so many people for simply protesting peacefully in a building. And then it is intimidating to keep peaceful protesters for so long at the police station and then charge them so quickly without reviewing the evidence first.

"To rush to treat people in this way and charge them on such a scale suggests the police want to make a statement. This is going to threaten the right to peacefully protest through direct action."

Commenting on video footage obtained by the Guardian, in which a senior officer inside Fortnum's was captured telling Uncut campaigners they were "non-violent" and "sensible", Foot said: "It's fascinating that the police clearly took a view that these were peaceful protesters."

He added: "Given the police's public comments about violence on the demonstration, it is extraordinary that the overwhelming numbers of arrests and charges have been for non-violent protesters. One has to question the motivation behind this."

Replying to a Commons question on Monday about whether UK Uncut activists had been "misrepresented", the home secretary, Theresa May, said the police were right to make the arrests. "I say to them [UK Uncut] that they certainly have not been misrepresented and I think that what we need to do at this point in time is make it absolutely clear; the police are right in what they were doing in trying to prevent violence for taking place in our streets," May said.

The Guardian has published further footage from the event showing that senior officers on the ground at Fortnum and Mason were confused as to whether UK Uncut activists would be arrested or not.

Luke Heighton, a 32-year-old trainee journalist from East Dulwich, saw the exchange between police officers outside the store as he stood beside police lines with his girlfriend.

"I was within a couple of feet of a police officer in a fluorescent standard issue jacket who I took to be one of the more senior officers there and I overheard what was being said. Speaking to an officer in black riot gear and a peaked cap, he said: 'It's you that's stopping me from letting them out. What's the problem?'"

Heighton said a second officer in black riot gear and a peaked black cap replied: "We don't want them let out yet. We want them detained and arrested."

"The officer [in the fluorescent jacket] didn't contradict that. He looked baffled by the decision," Heighton said. "You got the sense that he was being overruled but he immediately issued that order to other members of the Met. The whole conversation probably took less than two minutes."

A Guardian video producer, Cameron Robertson, who was at the protests with officers from the Met's public order unit, the Territorial Support Group, captured a pre-demonstration briefing that made it clear senior officers wanted to draw a "line in the sand" over legal and illegal occupations.

Adam Ramsay, a campaigner with UK Uncut who was detained for more than 20 hours, said the arrests might have been politically motivated or to faciliate information gathering on the group. "At the time, the chief inspector at Fortnum and Mason effectively told us there we had committed no criminal damage - that we were all 'non-violent' and 'sensible'. But moments later we were all arrested for criminal damage - a charge later dropped. This certainly looks to me like political policing.".

"Perhaps they did this because it's easier to catch people sitting peacefully in a shop than people running round the streets outside. Perhaps they wanted to gather intelligence on a network of peaceful protesters. Either way the Met have serious questions to answer."

In a statement the Metropolitan police said: "The matter is now sub judice. It would be inappropriate to discuss further whilst proceedings are active."