In June 2020, following the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in America, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in the UK to march against institutional racism. I was living in Bristol at the time, and I will never forget the image of the statue of Edward Colston being toppled by protesters, dragged through the streets and thrown into the harbour. It’s a striking image, and one that has stayed with me ever since.
The protesters who pulled the statue down, now known as the Colston Four, were arrested and charged with criminal damage. During their trial they argued that the statue of a slave trader was offensive, abusive and distressing to the human rights of Bristol’s African-Caribbean community. Earlier this year, a jury found them not guilty. The Colston Four were acquitted in what was a huge win for protest rights in the UK.
But some people were not happy. In June 2022, the then Attorney General Suella Braverman brought this case to the Court of Appeal to look at the ways human rights were used in the trials of the Colston Four, and if these types of defences can be considered in protest-related trials in the future. Liberty intervened in this landmark legal case, arguing that changes to protest trials will not only deter people from standing up for what they believe in, but also pose a significant threat to our protest rights. For me, having seen the atmosphere in Bristol at the time, it was all the more important to stand up for protest freedoms. Here in my role as a lawyer at Liberty it was particularly poignant.
Today, the Court of Appeal has handed down their judgment, and it’s a disappointing result. The Court ruled that due to the ‘high value’ of the statue of Edward Colston and the way it was brought down, which they described as ‘violent’, defendants in similar cases in the future will not be able to use human rights defences.
Only in cases that are perceived as minor or of ‘lower value’, such as chalk or graffiti on a wall, will human rights defences be allowed to be considered. Put simply, if the Colston Four were tried today, it is much more likely that they would be convicted.
I’m very disappointed that the Court disagreed that the Colston Four were entitled to rely on their right to protest. Instead of continuing to heap protections on problematic statues, the government needs to uphold and protect people’s fundamental rights, especially when it comes to protest rights.
It’s concerning to see the government continue to make moves to curb our right to protest. In recent years, they have created a hostile environment for protesters. We’re seeing the impacts of this already. The sight of people being carted off by the police for expressing their views following the Queen’s death should ring alarm bells for all of us.
Earlier this year, the government passed the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act – a draconian piece of legislation which expands police powers and limits our right to protest. Last year’s ‘Kill the Bill’ protests, which engulfed Bristol’s streets, made national news and led to at least 20 protesters being jailed, failed to stop the legislation. The Act has introduced restrictions for one-person protests, increased prison sentences for protest-related offences, and gives police the powers to restrict protests that are too ‘noisy’.
But the government isn’t stopping there. The Public Order Bill is currently going through parliament, re-introducing some of the more vicious measures that were kicked out of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act. This would see the introduction of new offences surrounding ‘locking on’ – meaning the tactic synonymous with the Suffragettes will now be illegal. Protest banning orders could be issued to people even if they haven’t committed an offence, which can include 24/7 GPS tagging. The expansion of stop and search powers will allow police to stop and search people and vehicles for protest-related items, including bike locks, placards, fliers, and, perhaps, blank sheets of paper.
It’s important to remember that existing stop and search powers are already used in racist ways to target Black people and communities of colour, who will bear the brunt of any further expansions of police powers. The introduction of new restrictions on protest will prevent those from marginalised communities from making their voices heard.
Protest is a fundamental right, not a gift from the state. Today’s ruling takes away vital protections that empower all of us to stand up for what we believe in. And if passed, the Public Order Bill will be a hammer blow to protest rights that builds upon the damage done by the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act. It is vital that instead of weakening our freedom of expression, the government safeguards our protest rights.