The acquittal of the so-called Colston four has been a source of celebration for many young and working-class people and one of outrage for the Tory government. The protestors who were placed on trial for tearing down the statue of hated slave trader Edward Colston and pushing it into Bristol harbour never denied doing this. Instead, they argued what they did was justified because of the existence of a monument to such a prominent slaver was itself a hate crime. The jurors on the case agreed with them. Predictably, the Tory government has responded by once again promising crackdowns on statue ‘vandalism’ as part of its draconian Police Crime and Sentencing Bill. But this bill has recently come up against major hurdles in parliament, fueled in part by the renewed resistance on the streets.
Despite attempts by the judge to dismiss Edward Colston’s role in the slave trade as unimportant to the case, the trial essentially boiled down to whether Colston deserved to have his statue pulled down. The destruction of statues is not a new phenomenon. It is often used as a display of anger against a regime or a hated figure. Those opposing the statue’s removal, even in the Tory party itself, would surely not argue that the destruction of Nazi monuments at the end of World War II, or the pulling down of Saddam Hussein’s statue in 2003, were ‘criminal’ acts. The real question then is whether Edward Colston is a figure that deserves similar treatment.
Colston was not a minor player in the slave trade. He was a senior executive in the Royal African Company, which had a monopoly on the English trade of African slaves, at one point being a vice president of it. The company is estimated to have transported 84,000 African men, women and children to the Americas and was responsible for at least 19,000 deaths during these journeys. The scale of human suffering he caused is incalculable.
The counter-argument that Colston was involved in philanthropic work is a tactic often used by the ultra-rich to distract from the oppression and exploitation that is the source of their fortunes by funneling a portion of their ill-gotten wealth into charitable pursuits.
This was not either, as detractors like to pretend, an act of mindless vandalism, but the end point of years of campaigning to remove the statue, as well as to rename other buildings that are still named after Edward Colston. Members of the black community in Bristol in particular lobbied for years for the statue to be removed. Such campaigning was ignored by the council and so the protestors at the BLM demonstration took matters into their own hands by doing what the council was unwilling to.
This then was actually an act of democracy, although not the sort of democracy that capitalist politicians would recognise. Ultimately the verdict of the trial shows that the attempt to paint the Colston four as mindless vandals did not stick. The toppling of the statue brought attention to Colston’s crimes and, far from being an attempt to ‘erase history’ as some have claimed, it has actually brought attention to the real and bloody history of British imperialism. It is not surprising that the inheritors of that legacy are eager to keep such realities out of sight.
The response from the government has been entirely predictable. Grant Schapps said the new laws in the proposed Police, Crime and Sentencing bill would close the “potential loophole” that allowed the Colston four to escape conviction. But the internal divisions in the Tories, along with the pressure generated by the Kill the Bill Campaign, have led to the bill being pushed back by the Lords, with the government now faced with having to water down some of its most repressive aspects. Peers opposed the part of the bill that hands police powers to shut down protests for being “too noisy” as well as new powers to stop and search protestors without ‘grounds for suspicion’. It is not certain then whether the parts of the bill pertaining to statue destruction will be able to pass through the House of Lords or whether the bill will need to be rewritten entirely.
Tories knocked back – kill the bill
The verdict of the Colston four trial also gives a glimpse of the potential there would be to push back against such laws if and when they are eventually passed. The trial showed that a group of jurors were unwilling to criminalise peaceful protestors for such symbolic actions. Most working-class people called up for jury service would clearly be even more reluctant to convict peaceful protestors should they face prison sentences of up to 10 years, even when directed to do so by judges representing the capitalist establishment. What’s more, draconian treatment of demonstrators or strikers would bring with it the danger for the ruling elite of triggering a massive backlash, and bringing thousands more to the streets.
Whatever version of the policing bill survives the parliamentary process, we need to continue building the fight to defend our right to protest. The collective potential power of the 6 million-strong trade union movement, alongside Kill the Bill, climate activists, BLM, and community campaigns, must be mobilised in the workplaces and on the streets to defeat it. Already the Kill the Bill movement is beginning to regather steam after a period of being less active. A national day of action saw Kill the Bill protests taking place in London, Bristol, Cardiff, Coventry, Liverpool and Manchester which members of Socialist Alternative were involved with. There will no doubt be further attempts by the government to push through draconian laws which will need to be met with mass resistance by the working class.