The Swansea Witch Hunt
Featured in the January edition of The Light, UK. 2023.
THE ANNA REDFERN STORY
It was the mid-1700s in the UK when ordinary and often once well-respected women were turned upon by members of their own community. Accused of witchcraft and making a pact with the devil, these women often lost everything. Good, honest, wise and nature-loving women were hunted down, put on trial and, in some instances, tortured and executed. What stands out about these historical stories is that most of these women were identified as witches by members of their own community. Not the officials that wrote the laws, not the people paid to uphold the laws, but the men and women who lived with them, worked and socialised with them and had previously held them in high esteem in their communities. Isn’t it great that we no longer live in such times where one would have to constantly look over their shoulder and watch how they behave for fear of public shame, loss of livelihood and a trial in court?
Have you met Anna Redfern? She was the Cinema owner who was dragged through the courts for non-compliance of covid regulations. An experience that left her and her business in tatters. Cinema& Co was once a lively, vibrant hub of the community – now it is mostly empty and running at a loss.
Just before Christmas of 2020, Anna had taken on two new members of staff and programmed all of the festive films and events. After being closed throughout the first lockdown, she was looking forward to her busiest time of year. Then Mark Drakeford announced the 2nd lockdown and the introduction of the covid passport scheme. This was the final straw for Anna, who has a background in Children’s Rights and had already recognised many red flags relating to Human Rights issues with the implementation of masks, track and trace and social distancing.
Cinema & Co not only has a cinema screen, it’s a multifaceted business, which includes a bar, cinema, art gallery, coffee shop and live music space. ‘Depending on what hat we were wearing altered the rules and restrictions in place’, says Anna, who also described the covid regulations as ‘bewildering’.
Anna put a post up on social media explaining her views and her decision not to implement the passports. She believed the restrictions to be an invasion of rights and privacy and she would, instead, be advocating for freedom of choice. She explains that she had ‘had enough of pretending to comply with these ridiculous nonsensical lockdown rules and restrictions’ and trusted her customers to take responsibility and stay away if they were ill.
For the first few days after the announcement, she was inundated with messages of support and positive comments from people admiring her decision and declaring her as ‘on the right side of history’. However, Swansea Council received 70 complaints, so they closed her down on Beaujolais Day (17th Nov ’21). The hypocrisy of this action was not lost – only 100m down the road from Cinema & Co is Swansea’s ‘Wine Street’, which was full of drunken revellers. Another local bar also has a cinema screen bigger than Anna’s, but because it’s not registered as a cinema it didn’t have to ask for covid passports. It also has ten times the capacity of Cinema & Co.
CLOSURE AND THE ‘FAR-RIGHT’
Swansea Council fined Anna £5,000 and closed her premises under the Public Health Act, which was a flimsy excuse. They took photos of the premises, found some mouldy cheese in the fridge and declared Cinema & Co a ‘threat to public health’. Anna wasn’t there at the time and, stating that they refused her the right to earn a living, reopened the next day, despite the threats. She was overwhelmed by the number of supporters, well-wishers and volunteers who appeared to cheer her on. She had never seen her café so full and was grateful for the help as she was now working on her own as her staff had been scared away. She had no idea who the people who had flooded her premises were or their agenda for helping. Included amongst this crowd were Richard Taylor (who went on to set up a Crowdfunder page) and members from The Voice of Wales, whom Anna mistook for being a choir!
“All I saw was kind human beings helping me in my time of need, I was a single mum being closed down. If seeing the good in people is a crime, I’m guilty of that”.
Anna has since been judged as supporting the racist, homophobic, Islamaphobic (and every other ‘phobic’ you can mention) Voice of Wales group ever since. Should she be judged so harshly? Was she supposed to veto everyone who came into her bar and find out what their political beliefs were and refuse their help? In hindsight, I’m sure she would, but at the time she was naive to their far-right status and explains: ‘there were three helping – a gay ex-safety officer, a mixed-race cameraman and a family man with his wife and their three-year-old daughter; they seemed like good people’. However, the political left and the Council heard of Anna’s supposed association and have boycotted her business ever since, but, as Anna comments, ‘the paradigm of left and right is over – it’s now freedom over totalitarianism’.
THE DONATED MONEY
The Crowdfunder was the fastest-growing cause in the platform’s history, with £61,000 raised in just three weeks from 3810 donors. Anna received the money at the end of 2021, at a time when, in reality, that amount was not needed. So, being a kind and responsible citizen of Swansea, she decided to donate it to a good, local cause, as money can’t be refunded to donors after the target has been reached. She chose the Town Hill Community Primary School Fund, which supports children from low-income homes, including a food bank. She contacted the Head Master but was told that, after a Board of Governors meeting, they would not be able to accept the donation. Swansea Council said that they ‘cannot be seen to accept either 50p nor £50k from you, due to where the money has come from’. That money would have helped five in-poverty schools and to suggest that all of the money was raised by the far-right was incorrect, as the donors were from all sections of the community and all over the UK. I’m sure many of you readers will have donated too.
Anna’s attempts to donate the money were actually premature. The donated money was soon used up by the business, which has been running at a loss since the lockdown and also by legal fees. Her financial documents were dissected in court and the MSM printed copies for the general public to scrutinize – an extreme invasion of privacy!
THE COURT ORDEAL
Anna spent £20,000 on legal fees, although she believes that they failed to adequately represent her in court. She tried to adjourn the case as she was, by now, her dying mum’s full-time carer, but this was refused. She was never given more than 24 hours to find legal representation and felt that her Barrister wasn’t on her side. She received a phone call on the day of the court case to say: “we’ve had the heads up, if you don’t attend court you’ll be going to jail for contempt”. Anna was also threatened with her children being taken from her care and, if she didn’t plead guilty, she would be going to jail for Christmas. So, on the 14th of December, Anna appeared in court, was fined £15,000 and received a 9-month suspended sentence; therefore, if she breaks the law (including not adhering to Covid Regulations) within this period she will be sent to jail without a hearing for 28 days. The Metro covered this story by submitting the following headline: Cinema owner fined £15,000 for showing conspiracy film.
Anna refers to this time as ‘an ordeal’. She was caring for her mum, surviving on three hours of sleep and felt like she was under surveillance by the media who were waiting outside - she had to leave the cinema by the back door. Her health suffered and she lost a lot of weight. She believes that Swansea Council wanted to make an example of her and scare other businesses into compliance. Although she did receive private messages of support from people who felt that they couldn’t voice their opinions in public, she says that she was ‘left high and dry’.
Whilst Anna was putting her mum on the commode at 5:30 in the morning, Swansea Council were bolting her shutters down. Mark Drakeford wrote a personal directive just for Cinema & Co, which Anna cheekily has framed and hanging in her café. She exclaims: “All of this occurred two days before Swansea declared itself Wales’ first Human Rights City! I’m just guilty of a thought crime that’s all”.
Cinema & Co was closed for three months at her busiest time of year. Anna lost all her staff due to threats that they’d be personally liable for any Covid fines incurred. She didn’t want to let any of her bookings down, so refunded them all in full - £11,000 in total.
With no experience with the judicial system or timeline, Anna got her appeal filed just two days before the deadline. With the death of her mother in January, it was adjourned several times. She finally withdrew the appeal due to issues with legal representation and her fines currently stand at £38,000. She describes her time in court as a ‘harrowing experience’. She thought that she was giving a voice to the people but feels she has been knocked down at every turn and now regrets the appeal, saying that ‘it was me against the system and the system only benefits those that designed it'.
Cinema & Co reopened in March 2022, but this was not the end of Anna’s ordeal. The false accusations stating that she is associated with the far-right have had a knock-on effect on her business. People she previously considered friends will no longer supply her beer and brownies, she has also had to vacate her storage space and her business has been blacklisted from major cultural events. Labelled a fascist, Anna states:
“The irony is, I’m being accused of the very thing I’m standing up against. There’s a running theme of hypocrisy”.
Swansea Council has excluded her business from the Swansea Fringe Festival; none of the bands are allowed to play at Cinema & Co. Similarly, the local cultural community is also boycotting her. She had booked the Black Women’s Theatre Company for their Strong Women Festival, to celebrate Black History week. Lots of energy had gone into publicising the event, publishing tickets and organising a Jamaican kitchen – she’d even offered the space for free. But a week before the event they withdrew the booking, saying that she had ‘alienated the political left and the anti-racist forums in Swansea’.
Anna has been left out of the City Centre Conference, which she was previously invited to as a guest speaker because she was regarded as a ‘change maker’. After being postponed due to the lockdown, she no longer has an invite. This ostracisation also stretches to her no longer being eligible for the Swansea Co-Working grant of £5k. She explains:
“They’re never going to stop; I bruised their ego by not doing what I was told – by not complying. I had a visit from licensing this week, they’ve got control over everything. Pollution threatened to put an abatement notice on me. They won’t stop until my business goes down the pan”.
Anna no longer pays herself a wage and can’t afford to pay any staff. She’s working as much as she can, but with the business being £40,000 in the red she doesn’t know what her next step will be. After her mum’s death in January and her dad’s in August, she feels that losing her business will be too much to bear. She says: “I think I’m going through a grieving process again. I nurtured this business like a baby for 6 years, it’s upsetting”.
What’s also upsetting for Anna is the way that her local community, particularly the cultural community that she has loved and supported for years, has turned its back on her. Voice.Wales (not to be confused with The Voice of Wales) published an online article stating: “Hundreds in Swansea sign open letter to Cinema & Co – don’t let racists divide us!” The letter had just over two hundred signatures at the time the article was released – from creatives, community leaders, politicians and activists based in Swansea. It declares that Cinema & Co had allowed the far-right to use them to further their message of bigotry and hatred. This was shocking to peace-loving Anna, who had done everything she could to help and integrate the community she loves throughout her entire time in Swansea. She says that they have turned against her, even though she has made an official statement to say that she is not affiliated with the far-right.
SUPPORT FOR INDEPENDENT BUSINESSES?
She is currently blocked on social media. A ‘shadow ban’ means that she can’t advertise or be tagged, so there is no way of promoting her cinema listings or events. She’s blacklisted and her followers are dwindling. She’s thought of relocating but has two sons (8 and 11yrs) in mainstream school, whom she co-parents with their dad. She’s also considered another Crowdfunder, but that has pitfalls too, with the current level of public scrutiny over her financial spending.
It’s a dire situation she has found herself in and one that is not her fault. Yes, she was naïve to trust people who said they wanted to help; but she was also brave to stand up for all our rights amid the chaos of the lockdown. We hear so often the mantras ‘support small businesses’, ‘buy local’, and ‘support the arts or lose them’, but are we really doing everything we can for independent business owners in our communities? Meeting Anna and hearing her story certainly made me rethink where I spend my time and money. It also opened my eyes to the way our communities behave – pitchforks in hand, ready to hang the witch that dares to live outside of the imposed regulations. Perhaps we haven’t progressed from the 16th Century after all.
By Andrea Grottick 26.11.2022 ©