You scale the wall under cover of darkness, past the barbed wire and weird razor defences that seem inordinately vicious to protect what has been thrown away. Dropping into the yard, you scurry to the containers and heave them open one by one revealing the gourmet pantry within. Life is like a Waitrose garbage bin – you never know what you’re going to get.
Filling up the backpacks and baskets and the bike-trailer with armfuls of baguettes, sacks of potatoes, an entire field of broccoli, mango fruit yogurt with crumble, prawn vodka mousse, duck a l’orange, eggs, milk, cakes and packs and packs of steak, sausage and mince, you wheel home through the night ready to prepare a victory feast, smug in the knowledge that it all cost nothing and would have ended up in a landfill had you not intervened.
Yet of course, all of this is a crime.
Recently three friends of ours were arrested and detained for 18 hours after being found in an enclosed area much like the one described above round the back of a large super market chainstore. They were charged under the Vagrancy Act of 1824 – a piece of legislation designed for the punishment of “idle and disorderly Persons, Rogues and Vagabonds”. The charges were later dropped.
The Dickensian wording conjures colourful characters straight out of Hogarth’s etchings:
“Every petty chapman or pedlar wandering abroad, and trading without being duly licensed, or otherwise authorized by law; every common prostitute wandering in the public streets or public highways, or in any place of public resort, and behaving in a riotous or indecent manner; and every person wandering abroad, or placing himself or herself in any public place, street, highway, court, or passage, to beg or gather alms, or causing or procuring or encouraging any child or children so to do; shall be deemed an idle and disorderly person.”
It is legislation designed for one thing only – the continued persecution of poor people and those who choose to live an alternative lifestyle. The real crime is in the shocking waste and exploitation of market forces by the supermarkets, agro-business and government itself. The idle and disorderly should also pay attention, as the act can also be applied to those being found in derelict buildings or even “failing to give a good account of themselves”. This act could be increasingly used to oppress and harass the most vulnerable elements of our society and those taking direct action against the rampant wasteful excesses of capitalism.