As Black Lives Matter supporters cheered the freedom of the Colston 4, opponents of the cause wrung their hands in concern that a dangerous new precedent may have been set
Britain has a long, proud history of acquitting protesters who smash things up.
The most recent of these are Rhian Graham, Milo Ponsford, and Sage Willoughby, and Jake Skuse, who were yesterday cleared of criminal damage after they pulled down Bristol’s statue of Edward Colston.
The Colston 4, as they’re now known, were let off by a jury despite admitting that they did indeed help topple the infamous slave traders’ likeness.
As Black Lives Matter supporters cheered their freedom, opponents of the cause wrung their hands in concern that a dangerous new precedent may have been set.
Robert Jenrick, a Tory MP and former cabinet minister, tweeted: “We undermine the rule of law, which underpins our democracy, if we accept vandalism and criminal damage are acceptable forms of political protest. They aren’t. Regardless of the intentions.”
KEIR GRAVIL via REUTERS)
Tom Hunt, a vice-chair of the parliamentary Common Sense Group, said he was “deeply concerned by the precedent set here”.
He later told the Telegraph: “If you’ve broken the law and committed criminal damage you should be punished. If the jury is a barrier to ensuring they are punished then that needs to be addressed.”
In truth, both MPs are wrong.
The jury decided that damaging a statue was indeed an acceptable form of political protest when they accepted defence lawyers’ argument that convicting the four would infringe on their human right to assemble, think freely and express themselves.
Mr Hunt is wrong as, by definition, the not-guilty Colston 4 did not break the law and did not cause damage that was criminal.
The defence also successfully agued that the mere presence of Colston’s statue, and its plaque describing the slave trader as Bristol’s ‘most virtuous’, was so alarming it had to be removed according to the Public Order Act.
As Britain continues to reckon with its uncomfortable past of empire and slavery, and its terrifying future of global heating, more and more defendants will follow in the footsteps of the Colston 4 as they followed in the footsteps of those before them.
In 2001 Lord Melchett and 27 GreenPeace activists avoided punishment, thanks to a jury’s verdict, despite admitting to destroying GM crops to stop them pollinating.
Six years later Toby Olditch and Philip Pritchard were acquitted after deliberately sabotaging US bombers at RAF Fairford Gloucestershire, arguing they would have been used to commit war crimes in Iraq.
Just last month six climate protesters who climbed onto Docklands Light Railway trains were let off by a jury who felt their fury about political inaction justified the disruption.
And on Monday three or four more defendants accused of disrupting the same train line will likely make similar arguments in the latest protest case to hit the courts.
Mike Schwarz, a criminal defence lawyer with Hodge, Jones and Allen who will defend them, argues these protesters are far from the lawless mob they’re sometimes made out to be.
“There is a golden thread running through these cases,” he told The Mirror.
“The protesters have political and principled views, put them into action, do them accountably and then explain them in court. They don’t hide what they’re doing.”
Raj Chada, who defended two of the Colston 4, believes yesterday’s verdict is a great victory for those who hit the streets and fight injustice.
“People will draw heart from this,” he said.
“The issue of Colston was very particular and particular to Bristol. It wasn’t just that he was a slave trader, the particular offence was the plaque, ‘to one of the most virtuous and wise son of their city’.
“You are claiming that this man, who committed crimes against humanity, is a revered son of Bristol.”
Chada explained that the four defendants were ultimately acquitted as “they had a lawful excuse as to why they committed the acts that they did”.
“That excuse included their right to free speech, their right to conscience, and that a conviction would be a disproportionate interference with those rights.
“They were preventing a crime from happening. It was a criminal offence to keep that statue up because it was so offensive.”
The Colston case – which centred around such a hated figure whose statue was kept on its plinth for years despite furious protests – is one of the simpler of these protest cases which can brought to crown court.
Whether future juries are as sympathetic as campaigners continue to push for action on climate change and to clear up “offensive” parts of Britain’s past, remains to be seen.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.