The new Home Secretary Suella Braverman has hailed a Court of Appeal judgement in the ‘Colston Four’ case when Black Lives Matters protesters in June 2020 pulled down by ropes and dragged to deposit in nearby Bristol harbour a statue of Edward Colston for his slavery links.
Ms Braverman called for ‘common sense policing. Unashamedly and unapologetically on the side of the law-abiding majority’, and told the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham yesterday that ‘the mob needs to be stopped’. (For her speech in full, visit https://www.conservatives.com/.)
She said: “The police must have all the powers that they need to stop protestors who use guerrilla tactics and bring chaos and misery to the law-abiding majority. It’s not a human right to vandalise property. It’s not my ‘freedom of expression’ to protest violently. No – you can’t just start a riot or glue yourself to the roads and get away with it.
“Yes, friends, as Attorney General [her previous ministerial job before she was made Home Secretary by new PM Liz Truss], I had to go to court to get some of these simple truths established. The judges agreed with me last week in the Court of Appeal in the Colston Statue case. And that’s why our Public Order Bill will empower our police to stop this nuisance. So whether you’re Just Stop Oil, Insulate Britain or Extinction Rebellion – you cross a line when you break the law. That’s why we will keep putting you behind bars.”
Her speech also covered the Prevent scheme; and boats of illegal immigrants crossing the Channel, which she described as ‘a complex and entrenched problem’ and admitted to ‘no quick fixes’.
For the Court of Appeal case in full visit https://caselaw.nationalarchives.gov.uk/ewca/crim/2022/1259. As the Court said, the issue, in short, concerned ‘the extent to which the European Convention on Human Rights sanctions the use of violence against property during protest, thereby rendering lawful causing damage to property which would otherwise be a crime’.
The judges concluded that prosecution and conviction for causing significant damage to property during protest would fall outside the protection of the Convention either because the conduct in question was violent or not peaceful, or (even if theoretically peaceful) prosecution and conviction would clearly be proportionate. The judges added that the June 7 events did not involve peaceful protest. “The toppling of the statute was violent. Moreover, the damage to the statue was significant. On both these bases we conclude that the prosecution was correct in its submission at the abuse hearing that the conduct in question fell outside the protection of the Convention.”
The judges emphasised that this is not to suggest that the defendants were in fact guilty of the offence of criminal damage (which the defendants denied in a jury trial at Bristol in January, and were found not guilty).
Guarding against protest – and how protesters have consistently adapted their tactics to get around any new laws – last featured in the August print edition of Professional Security Magazine.
(Coincidentally, the Met Police meanwhile gave an update on policing of the month-long protests by Just Stop Oil in central London.)
For the civil rights campaign group Liberty, lawyer Katy Watts said: “Protest is a fundamental right, not a gift from the State. Today’s judgment puts a threshold on when people can enact their human rights in a legal case, and takes away vital protections that empower everyone to be able to stand up for what they believe in.
“We are disappointed that the Court has said that that human rights are not always linked to acts of protest. By placing weight on the value of an object in deciding if human rights can be taken into account, we feel that the court is shifting the balance too far away from our essential human rights.
“In recent years we have seen this Government chip away at our protest rights. From restrictions on protest in the Policing Act to further attacks in the Public Order Bill – which rehashes the draconian measures thrown out in the Act, including protest banning orders and expansions of stop and search powers – the Government is making it much harder for people to challenge them and to access justice.
“The Public Order Bill, if passed, will be a hammer blow to protest rights that builds upon the damage of both the Policing Act and today’s ruling. It is vital that instead of weakening our freedom of expression, the Government safeguards our protest rights.”
Liberty has complained that protest rights have already been severely weakened with the passing of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act by the previous Home Secretary Priti Patel.
Picture by Mark Rowe; Bristol city centre, the Colston plinth in late 2020 minus statue.