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‘Protest is the lifeblood of our democracy, and it’s under threat’

Police and Crime bill

Raj Chada, a defence lawyer who represented the Colston Four, says prosecuting demonstrators is becoming a ‘reflex’ in the UK.

Direct-action protesters risking arrest have always played an important part in the democratic process. Throughout history, demonstrators have been instrumental in forcing social and political change.

The Bill is the largest attack on the right to free speech probably since the 1930s

“Protest is the lifeblood of our democracy,” says Raj Chada, a lawyer who has been defending demonstrators in the courtroom for more than a decade – most recently the Edward Colston statue topplers in Bristol.

But it’s a long-held tradition that’s imperilled by threats of lengthy prison terms and hefty fines under the Conservative government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, Chada tells the Cable. 

To prosecute demonstrators is becoming somewhat of a “reflex” in the UK, according to Chada. “And it’s being done,” he argues, “specifically because [government ministers] don’t like their political opponents.”

Police and Crime Bill: ‘An attack on the right to free speech’

He says it’s the “chilling effect” of the Bill that’s most dangerous, in that it seeks to stop people from protesting in the first place. Important demonstrations throughout history that affected parliamentary decisions might not have happened if this kind of legislation existed at the time, he says.

“It’s the largest attack on the right to free speech probably since the 1930s… We’re talking about matters that are unbelievable – that we can seek to limit protests that are too noisy, that might cause inconvenience.”

Take the Bristol Bus Boycott in the 1960s – a protest against the Bristol Omnibus Company over its racist employment policy. It was the first Black-led demonstration against racial discrimination in post-war Britain, and influenced the passing of the Race Relations Act 1965.

“This is a great example of radical history in Bristol and its ability to affect the national debate and national parliament,” says Chada. “And had some of these laws [proposed under the Bill] been in place then, would this protest have happened? Would these legislative changes have happened?”

He adds: “If Priti Patel was the homeland secretary in 1960s America, then Martin Luther King would be whispering from a car park outside Washington DC rather than having a dream in front of the Lincoln Memorial.”

“That’s the gravity of what’s being proposed.” And the proposed laws only highlight the importance of jury trials, Chada says, when members of the public have the final say on the fate of protesters. 

A recent example of this, he says, is the trial of those who tore down Colston’s statue.

Jury trials: ‘A cornerstone of democracy’

Sage Willoughby, Milo Ponsford and Rhian Graham used ropes to help pull down the slave trader’s statue during a Black Lives Matter protest sparked by the death of George Floyd in the summer of 2020. Jake Skuse helped roll the monument to the floating harbour, where it was dumped in the water.

The defendants – known as the Colston Four – did not deny playing a part in the removal of the statue. But after being arrested and charged with criminal damage they all plead not guilty, feeling that their actions were proportionate.

On 5 January this year a jury acquitted all four defendants, after hearing the horrors of Colston’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade and how Bristol City Council had failed to remove the statue despite years of campaigning. The statue itself was criminal, defence lawyers told jurors, and the protesters’ actions were proportionate.

The verdicts were hailed by many as an exemplar of the UK’s jury system in action, but some Conservative MPs raised concerns that they set a “dangerous” precedent and undermine the rule of law. An online petition calling for a retrial has garnered tens of thousands of signatures.

Chada, who represented Skuse during the trial at Bristol Crown Court, says it angers him that Tory politicians “deliberately” tried to undermine a jury’s decision. He says ministers recognise jury trials are a “cornerstone of British democracy” – but only when it suits them. 

It’s “ridiculous” that politicians and some parts of the media have tried to present the verdicts as some kind of “vandals’ charter”, Chada says. He says: “It would be like saying that because you have an acquittal in a murder case, that sudden homicide has become lawful in the UK.”

The case was about the Colston statue and those defendants’ actions, he says. “It was nothing more, nothing less.”

Colston Four ‘should never have been prosecuted’

Chada says that it was clear to him that the Colston Four should not have been put on trial in the first place. It was the council, he says, that should have been in the dock. “They are the ones who failed to take any action about this statue, which caused such offence and distress.”

Bristol mayor Marvin Rees, asked about the criticism he and the council faced during the trial for not removing the statue sooner, said taking it down would have been a waste of his political capital.

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Chada, a former council leader of Camden council in London, says he finds it “slightly disturbing” that Rees and other political figures welcomed the statue’s removal yet allowed the Colston Four to be prosecuted.

“They welcome the removal of the statue, say it shouldn’t have been there, say it brought a reckoning with slavery and highlights various issues, yet they were letting four people face trial, face that angst and possibly go to prison.

“To me that can’t be right. What would have happened if they were convicted? If I was in their position I couldn’t have lived with that: effectively saying, ‘We’ve got all the positives out of it but [the defendants] – they’re collateral damage.’”

Rees denied claims that the council supported the prosecution, saying the local authority had been “asked to give a factual account of what happened and we provided it”.

‘Callous and calculating prosecutions’

Chada says the case of the Stansted 15 being charged with terrorism offences was another example of a prosecution that should never have happened.

The protesters – one of whom is from Bristol – broke into Stansted Airport in 2017 to stop a plane deporting people to Africa. They cut through the perimeter fence and locked themselves to a Boeing 767 jet.

They were convicted of a terrorism-related offence before the rulings were quashed in Court of Appeal. The Lord Chief Justice at the time said the defendants should not have been prosecuted for the “extremely serious offence”.

Chada, who represented the defendants, says: “They suffered distress after hearing they were being charged with a terrorism-related offence, with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. And it was all done in error.”
He says that public authorities need to consider how prosecutions in protest cases, particularly when the alleged offence is “minor”, will affect the individuals. They must be sure there is a strong public interest in the prosecution, Chada says, “otherwise it just becomes too callous and too calculating”.

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