The Colston Four are, thankfully, acquitted -but I'm worried about a government reaction

As part of Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 a group of young people pulled down a publicly-owned statue of Edward Colston, slave trader and philanthropist, in a public area of Bristol and dumped it the harbour. Four of them were caught on CCTV and were prosecuted for criminal damage.
A jury of 12 people found them not guilty with a majority of 11 to 1.

But the angry reactions from the 'hang em and flog em' brigade have been quick to come.
Some would have been happy if the four had received 10 year prison sentences.
Tom Hunt the vice-chairman of the Common Sense group of Tory MPs said the judgment 'set a worrying precedent for others who wish to ransack our country's past'.
I'm really worried that this government, with a large majority, will, or are already, bringing in even more draconian rules against fundamental freedoms of protest.
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  • I think an OP on this topic might belong in Epiphanies - because it is going to be almost impossible to avoid a discussion of racial politics. Please bear with us whilst we discuss with the Epiphanies Hosts.

    Thanks,

    Doubelthink, Temporary Purgatory Host
  • DoublethinkDoublethink Admin
    edited January 6
    We are moving this to Epiphanies - hold onto your hats ! Please bear in mind Epiphanies guidelines when posting.

    Thank you for your patience,

    Doublethink, Temporary Purgatory Host
  • I'm glad that the Four were cleared. But I am intrigued as to the legal - as opposed to the historical and emotional - reasons which led the jury to acquit. If the case were to go to appeal (I'm not sure that it can), would judges come to the same conclusion?

    An interesting comment from the Guardian: "Tom Wainwright, representing Ponsford, suggested that the historical significance, and hence the value, of the statue had been increased by its toppling – that rather than destroying history, those on trial had “created history”, while at the same time correcting the record on Colston’s crimes". Hence there could be no case of criminal damage to answer.
  • I don't think you can appeal a not-guilty verdict (for obvious reasons). I'm very glad they got a jury trial. Protesters up before magistrates (too often elderly, white, and slightly to the right of Enoch Powell) tend to get treated harshly.
  • KarlLBKarlLB Shipmate
    edited January 6
    A jury can come to any conclusion it likes. Since the deliberations of the jury room have to be kept confidential, it's impossible to demonstrate that they were wrong, barring the emergence of fresh evidence, which is why appeals require there to be a fault or omission in the evidence or procedure, not simply a sense that the jury got it wrong.

    It's actually been part of the development of our justice system; back at the beginning of the 19th century virtually anything from talking with your mouth full upwards carried a death penalty, and juries became reluctant to convict even in open and shut cases. This was, IIRC, one of the pressures that led to more and more offences being downgraded from capital crimes.

    I think something like that happened here. By a prima facie reading of the legislation and the established facts agreed on both sides, it certainly looks to me (IANAL) like they accused could have reasonably expected to be convicted. The defence would not be something I'd like to rely on and seems to amount to "it's not a crime if you don't think it should be"
  • I am somewhat reminded of the following:
    When the facts are on your side argue the facts. When the law is on your side argue the law. If you don't have the law on your side and you don't have the facts on your side, bang your fist on the defence table as hard as you can.
  • Martin54Martin54 Deckhand, Styx
    I'm amazed it went to crown court, a political decision and a wise one. It was an act of justice by the people all the way.
  • Martin54Martin54 Deckhand, Styx
    edited January 6
    Hidden text below is a C7 breach, please do not repeat or refer to. See following host post. Thanks, Louise, Epiphanies Host
    And the government can do what the fuck it likes, [redacted]

    (ETA Inciting statement removed, Doublethink, Admin)
  • I'm glad that the Four were cleared. But I am intrigued as to the legal - as opposed to the historical and emotional - reasons which led the jury to acquit.

    A barrister has summarised three possible legal routes by which the jury could have come to the not guilty verdict here: https://twitter.com/Barristerblog/status/1478845243340599304
    1. A defence of honest (not necessarily reasonable) belief that the owners of the statue would have consented. S. 5 (2) (a) of the Criminal Damage Act 1971.
    2. The use of reasonable force to prevent the crime of an indecent public display.
    3. The defence that a conviction would amount to a disproportionate interference with the right to protest.

    If you follow the thread, he was able to check that the jury had been given a route to a verdict via a series of questions.
  • LouiseLouise Epiphanies Host
    Hosting

    Oh dear @Martin54, no. I've checked with admin and this is a C7 breach. We're definitely not Ok with people advocating breaking the law. I'm afraid this does activate the Admin six weeks posting privilege withdrawal on this particular board.

    Hope the other forums are fun.

    Best wishes,
    Louise
    Epiphanies Host

    Hosting off
  • I think the Police Bill does propose 10 years jail for damaging a monument; I expect the right wing will be frothing at the mouth, for it to be implemented. A fascinating trial, with contributions from historians, and the views that the presence of the statue was an affront. I think in Bristol you will get a groundswell of radical support, maybe not in other towns.
  • DoublethinkDoublethink Admin
    edited January 6
    Admin

    @Martin54 To confirm, it is not acceptable to post incitements to break the law. I am suspending you from SoF for two weeks, and on return your posting privileges in Epiphanies will be suspended for a minimum of six weeks.

    Doublethink, Admin

    /Admin
  • I makes me think of the suffragettes, and the debates then over law-breaking. I'd better keep quiet!
  • LouiseLouise Epiphanies Host
    edited January 6
    hosting
    Historical debate fine - incitements to break the law - we haven't the wherewithal to fight legal cases and it breaks C7. Please do make sure to stop short of that but otherwise feel free to have at any relevant historical debates

    Ta
    Louise
    Epiphanies Host

    hosting off
    (edited to use admin phrase)
  • LouiseLouise Epiphanies Host
    edited January 6
    While I'm around, Prof David Olusoga appeared as an expert witness in the case and this might be of interest on the history involved.

    https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/dec/16/colstons-firm-enslaved-the-most-africans-david-olusoga-tells-bristol-court

    On the OP - I think it's not unusual for the legal goal posts to get moved or for them to try to move them when the government thinks they or 'their side' have lost something in court.
  • Bishops FingerBishops Finger Shipmate
    edited January 6
    I'm glad that the Four were cleared. But I am intrigued as to the legal - as opposed to the historical and emotional - reasons which led the jury to acquit. If the case were to go to appeal (I'm not sure that it can), would judges come to the same conclusion?

    An interesting comment from the Guardian: "Tom Wainwright, representing Ponsford, suggested that the historical significance, and hence the value, of the statue had been increased by its toppling – that rather than destroying history, those on trial had “created history”, while at the same time correcting the record on Colston’s crimes". Hence there could be no case of criminal damage to answer.

    An interesting - and IMHO quite positive - comment indeed, from Tom Wainwright.

    However, let me make it clear that I don't advocate similar actions in respect of other monuments or statues!
  • I notice that right wing pundits are busy constructing analogies to Colston, so its OK to damage Marx's statue, my boss's 4x4, etc. Well, no, it doesn't follow. Analogies like this are very flaky.
  • I notice that right wing pundits are busy constructing analogies to Colston, so its OK to damage Marx's statue, my boss's 4x4, etc. Well, no, it doesn't follow. Analogies like this are very flaky.

    While certainly not advocating it, I could imagine a similar situation if it were a statue honouring, say, Mugabe erected in the brief period between him becoming leader of a free Zimbabwe and revealing himself to be an incompetent autocrat. The difference is that even if someone had erected such a statue it would long since have been removed, much as namings honouring Aung San Suu Kyi have largely disappeared since she started being an apologist for genocide.
  • I'm glad that the Four were cleared. But I am intrigued as to the legal - as opposed to the historical and emotional - reasons which led the jury to acquit.

    A barrister has summarised three possible legal routes by which the jury could have come to the not guilty verdict here: https://twitter.com/Barristerblog/status/1478845243340599304

    And the barrister who represented at least one of the four has also commented on the subject: https://twitter.com/wainwright_tom/status/1479113018260680715
    For one, the jury were asked to consider whether a conviction would be proportionate given the importance of the right to protest as against factors such as the value placed on the statue etc

    The jury were also asked to consider whether the defendants were acting reasonably to prevent a crime. In particular, I identified and argued that the statue amounted to an offence under the Indecent Displays (Control) Act 1981 given its highly offensive nature
  • Well, weren't we all delighted to see the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad being pulled down?

    In Bolama, Guinea-Bissau, there is a statue of General Ulysses S. Grant who, it states, "solved the problem of Bolama" - that is, to the convenience of the British and Portuguese! I don't think the Africans had any say in the matter, and the statue is long gone.

    What's interesting is that, when I was there in 1981, only the plinth remained; it looks as if the thing has actually been re-erected for some reason: https://tinyurl.com/2p8kfnve
  • I thought there is a tradition of English juries doing this in relation to criminal damage, that is, for "a good cause". Even some Extinction Rebellion defendants have been let off, and further back, anti nuclear protestors. Sorry, no links. And further back, juries might let off defendants on capital charges, (already mentioned).
  • I don't disagree with the verdict - juries are, after all, free to decide as they will, and as has been posted upthread there were legitimate defences in law even when the specific damage incontestably happened. But I do have a certain fear of the precedent that's been set, and worry that it may open the door to increasingly violent protests in the future.
  • I don't disagree with the verdict - juries are, after all, free to decide as they will, and as has been posted upthread there were legitimate defences in law even when the specific damage incontestably happened. But I do have a certain fear of the precedent that's been set

    No precedent has been set.
  • I don't disagree with the verdict - juries are, after all, free to decide as they will, and as has been posted upthread there were legitimate defences in law even when the specific damage incontestably happened. But I do have a certain fear of the precedent that's been set

    No precedent has been set.

    Could you expand on that a little, please? My (not a lawyer in any way) understanding was that now this verdict has been reached, future defendants accused of similar* crimes could use it in their defence.

    .

    *= "how similar" is, of course, a valid question. But even with a very strict interpretation of "similar", is any statue or monument safe any more so long as someone can say with a straight face that they consider it offensive or that tearing it down constitutes legitimate protest?
  • Yes, I just noticed the barrister Edward Henry (on Twitter), saying this is not a precedent. In fact, juries don't set precedents. People were acquitted of damaging aircraft in anti-nuclear protests - has this led to widespread damage to aircraft?
  • I don't disagree with the verdict - juries are, after all, free to decide as they will, and as has been posted upthread there were legitimate defences in law even when the specific damage incontestably happened. But I do have a certain fear of the precedent that's been set

    No precedent has been set.

    Could you expand on that a little, please? My (not a lawyer in any way) understanding was that now this verdict has been reached, future defendants accused of similar* crimes could use it in their defence.

    A jury just rules on the particular facts of a particular case, rather than the law itself or how it is to be interpreted. Any subsequent case would turn on its own set of facts and each jury would make up its own mind.
  • I don't disagree with the verdict - juries are, after all, free to decide as they will, and as has been posted upthread there were legitimate defences in law even when the specific damage incontestably happened. But I do have a certain fear of the precedent that's been set, and worry that it may open the door to increasingly violent protests in the future.

    Pulling down a statue is not violence. It might be criminal damage or vandalism but it's not violence.
  • Interesting point that the judge allowed Olusoga's testimony, which apparently was very powerful on the obscenity of a statue of a mass murderer standing in Bristol.
  • Merry Vole wrote: »
    I'm really worried that this government, with a large majority, will, or are already, bringing in even more draconian rules against fundamental freedoms of protest.

    "Fundamental freedoms of protest" include things like marching, giving speeches, waving placards, and so on. They do not include breaking stuff. Toppling the statue of Colston is criminal damage, and not part of a "fundamental freedom" that you think is in danger.

    That said, a lot of protest includes civil disobedience - knowingly breaking the law, and accepting the consequences for doing that - because the law is unjust, or to draw attention to some greater injustice. And, as has been noted, sympathetic juries not infrequently let the perpetrators off in these circumstances.

    Wainwright's argument, though, is bollocks. You don't get to trash someone's stuff, and then claim that the trashing of their stuff is historically significant, and that therefore you were increasing the value of their possessions.
  • chrisstileschrisstiles Hell Host
    edited January 6
    Wainwright's argument, though, is bollocks. You don't get to trash someone's stuff, and then claim that the trashing of their stuff is historically significant, and that therefore you were increasing the value of their possessions.

    As above, that's not what he was arguing. Equally, I assume the testimony by Olusoga was accepted by the judge because of the argument he was making.
  • More on precedents, suffragettes broke windows of politicians and government offices. Can we therefore argue that breaking windows is OK? Of course, you could try, good luck.
  • LouiseLouise Epiphanies Host
    Some suffragettes also planted bombs - something that later got downplayed in the history. They did lots of illegal stuff. I'm not an expert in that period so cant say what juries were like with them.
  • Some suffragettes were force-fed in jail, leading to the cat and mouse tactics, I.e. being force fed then released. Juries, I don't know, but I thought the suffragettes were widely derided. But there is often a slow burn with such campaigns, initial scorn, and repression, leading to support. Were they wrong to break the law? Were the Tolpuddle Martyrs?
  • As above, that's not what he was arguing. Equally, I assume the testimony by Olusoga was accepted by the judge because of the argument he was making.

    Here is the Guardian article referenced by @Baptist Trainfan containing a report of Wainwright making exactly this argument.

    I did not intent to imply that this was the only argument that Wainright made - I have a lot of sympathy for the "it's like having a statue of Hitler outside a synagogue" argument - but this particular argument is bollocks.

    If I have a statue, it is not for you to decide that my statue is improved by you vandalizing it. It doesn't matter whether, after you vandalize my statue, someone offers to purchase it from me for several times the price I paid for it. You don't get to destroy it, and then claim that my pockets are full of fish.
  • LouiseLouise Epiphanies Host
    edited January 6
    Indeed - I've researched individual suffragettes. They were treated appallingly and often faced violence when being arrested too, but I'm no expert and there was also a big non-violent legal-means-only pro-women's emancipation movement of various groups (known as suffragists rather than suffragettes). I think I'm right in saying there's a historical argument over whether what the suffragette movement did was counter-productive - but am so out of my usual field that I don't like to say. Maybe @North East Quine would know better?

    I think the honest answer is that it depends. If I lived back then, I might break a politician's window but I hope I wouldn't plant a bomb.
  • HeavenlyannieHeavenlyannie Shipmate
    edited January 6
    The Tolpuddle Martyrs (the leader of which was my great great great grandfather and a Methodist lay preacher) are often assumed to have been deported for forming a trade union, as that was why they were persecuted. But trade unions were not illegal in England in 1834. They were deported for the crime of swearing an oath of secrecy, which their leader, my ancestor, did not know was a crime as it was common in societies then. They did not knowingly break the law and the campaign to free them started immediately, with up to 100,000 people demonstrating a month later. https://www.tolpuddlemartyrs.org.uk/
    And the jury was rigged https://www.tolpuddlemartyrs.org.uk/story/oath-and-betrayal
  • The Suffragists had been at it for years before the Suffragettes resorted to direct action, and could be reasonably said to have won the argument. The Suffragettes forced the issue onto the front burner but the point became moot with the start of WWI.
  • Louise wrote: »
    I think the honest answer is that it depends. If I lived back then, I might break a politician's window but I hope I wouldn't plant a bomb.

    In modern protests, it seems practically de rigueur to smash windows, cars, and the like in city centres. Protesters who make this choice believe that law-abiding protest will be ignored, whereas breaking enough stuff might scare people into doing something.

    The intent to scare people into taking an action you want them to take makes it a fundamentally violent protest, even if humans aren't actually being attacked. This statement doesn't mean that the violence isn't justifiable - just that it's not "peaceful".

    Of course, everything has degrees, and a protest that breaks some windows is less violent than a protest that breaks some people.
  • More on precedents, suffragettes broke windows of politicians and government offices. Can we therefore argue that breaking windows is OK? Of course, you could try, good luck.

    OK according to the law, or OK according to the sentiments of larger society?
  • I think what the op was getting at, is the idea that government might react to the verdict with a curtailment of civil liberties. Which is a risk.
  • RuthRuth Shipmate
    Louise wrote: »
    I think the honest answer is that it depends. If I lived back then, I might break a politician's window but I hope I wouldn't plant a bomb.

    In modern protests, it seems practically de rigueur to smash windows, cars, and the like in city centres.

    I have been to a fair number of protests, and I've never seen anything get smashed or broken. Ever. Of course it happens, but the notion that it's "de rigueur" is nonsense.
  • mousethief wrote: »
    More on precedents, suffragettes broke windows of politicians and government offices. Can we therefore argue that breaking windows is OK? Of course, you could try, good luck.

    OK according to the law, or OK according to the sentiments of larger society?

    Both. Well, I don't think I will be acquitted for breaking windows, because of precedents. It could be criminal damage, but citing Pankhurst etc., probably won't work.
  • As above, that's not what he was arguing. Equally, I assume the testimony by Olusoga was accepted by the judge because of the argument he was making.

    Here is the Guardian article referenced by @Baptist Trainfan containing a report of Wainwright making exactly this argument.

    I did not intent to imply that this was the only argument that Wainright made - I have a lot of sympathy for the "it's like having a statue of Hitler outside a synagogue" argument - but this particular argument is bollocks.

    From other reports and what Wainwright has said elsewhere it seems like the Guardian took a somewhat incidental remark of his and reported it as if it was his main defence.
  • EnochEnoch Shipmate
    This all took place, both the demonstration and the trial, not very far from where I live but I wasn't there. The police have come under quite a lot of criticism from people like the Home Secretary for not wading in, truncheons, water cannon etc to stop the original demonstration. They concluded, legitimately in my opinion, that the general state of public order on the day was better served by their not doing so.

    This was a jury trial. This was the accused peoples' right. It has turned out to have been a prudent decision.

    It is the jury, not the judge who decide whether those accused were guilty or not. There's plenty of evidence that they did what they were accused of. It was illegal. They don't seem to have made much attempt in court to deny that they did what they were accused of doing. That would probably have been a pointless exercise and merely got up the court's nose.

    It has been clearly stated by a number of people that this does not set a precedent. That is right. It neither defines nor changes the law. Besides, the jury is asked a simple yes/no question. Nobody can know what they discussed in the jury room, what their reasons were or weren't. It used to be contempt of court and is now a criminal offence for a juror to tell anyone. What it does demonstrate is that there are limits, but unpredictable ones, as to how far, irrespective of the evidence, one can get a jury to convict in some controversial circumstances. There's a long history of examples going back at least to the eighteenth century. They haven't said the accused didn't do it or were innocent. Nor, despite what Professor Olusoga and others have said, have the jurors said why or what they thought. They have simply indicated that they were not willing to convict them.

    The juror's oath is that "I will faithfully try the defendant and give a true verdict according to the evidence". I really don't know how I would have interpreted that if I'd been a juror in this case, but in the circumstances, I think I would have been quite prepared to interpret 'true verdict' to mean that I would have been morally entitled not to have found them guilty if I didn't think they ought to be.


    This isn't the only controversial case recently and they don't all go the same way. Five people did go to prison for a violent nocturnal riot in March last year less than a ¼ of a mile from where the Colston statue used to be.

  • TelfordTelford Shipmate
    I don't disagree with the verdict - juries are, after all, free to decide as they will, and as has been posted upthread there were legitimate defences in law even when the specific damage incontestably happened. But I do have a certain fear of the precedent that's been set, and worry that it may open the door to increasingly violent protests in the future.

    Pulling down a statue is not violence. It might be criminal damage or vandalism but it's not violence.

    It doesn't appear to be a crime at all now. It was a peverse verdict.
  • Perverse:
    *showing a deliberate and obstinate desire to behave in a way that is unreasonable or unacceptable.*

    Is that what you mean?

    ISTM that all due processes of law were followed correctly, though that doesn't mean to say that anyone has to agree with the verdict.
  • Telford wrote: »
    I don't disagree with the verdict - juries are, after all, free to decide as they will, and as has been posted upthread there were legitimate defences in law even when the specific damage incontestably happened. But I do have a certain fear of the precedent that's been set, and worry that it may open the door to increasingly violent protests in the future.

    Pulling down a statue is not violence. It might be criminal damage or vandalism but it's not violence.

    It doesn't appear to be a crime at all now. It was a peverse verdict.

    There is no reason for believing it to be a perverse verdict - i.e that the jury just didn't want to apply the law, so we'd have to assume that they believed the defendants had a valid defence, of which more information below:

    https://www.doughtystreet.co.uk/news/edward-colston-statue-toppling-trial-liam-walker-represents-acquitted-defendant
  • Gee DGee D Shipmate
    I'm glad that the Four were cleared. But I am intrigued as to the legal - as opposed to the historical and emotional - reasons which led the jury to acquit. If the case were to go to appeal (I'm not sure that it can), would judges come to the same conclusion?

    An interesting comment from the Guardian: "Tom Wainwright, representing Ponsford, suggested that the historical significance, and hence the value, of the statue had been increased by its toppling – that rather than destroying history, those on trial had “created history”, while at the same time correcting the record on Colston’s crimes". Hence there could be no case of criminal damage to answer.

    There is no appeal against an acquittal.

    I like Wainwright's statement, but the sentence after that is clearly wrong.
    Telford wrote: »

    It doesn't appear to be a crime at all now. It was a peverse verdict.

    That is wrong, wrong, wrong (even without getting too concerned about your spelling). It's a basic principle that a jury, the representative of the community, is always entitled to acquit.

  • KarlLBKarlLB Shipmate
    edited January 7
    Telford wrote: »
    I don't disagree with the verdict - juries are, after all, free to decide as they will, and as has been posted upthread there were legitimate defences in law even when the specific damage incontestably happened. But I do have a certain fear of the precedent that's been set, and worry that it may open the door to increasingly violent protests in the future.

    Pulling down a statue is not violence. It might be criminal damage or vandalism but it's not violence.

    It doesn't appear to be a crime at all now. It was a peverse verdict.

    I think on balance I'm not keen on people posting satire sites in sensitive threads especially not when it can be taken as a dig at another poster - Louise Epiphanies Host
  • TelfordTelford Shipmate
    edited January 7
    Gee D wrote: »
    I'm glad that the Four were cleared. But I am intrigued as to the legal - as opposed to the historical and emotional - reasons which led the jury to acquit. If the case were to go to appeal (I'm not sure that it can), would judges come to the same conclusion?

    An interesting comment from the Guardian: "Tom Wainwright, representing Ponsford, suggested that the historical significance, and hence the value, of the statue had been increased by its toppling – that rather than destroying history, those on trial had “created history”, while at the same time correcting the record on Colston’s crimes". Hence there could be no case of criminal damage to answer.

    There is no appeal against an acquittal.

    I like Wainwright's statement, but the sentence after that is clearly wrong.
    Telford wrote: »

    It doesn't appear to be a crime at all now. It was a peverse verdict.

    That is wrong, wrong, wrong (even without getting too concerned about your spelling). It's a basic principle that a jury, the representative of the community, is always entitled to acquit.

    Please don't post things that might be legally problematic for us - Thanks! L Epiphanies Host
    In that case, I have to also blame the judge for failing to explain to them their duty.
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