Pulling down a shameful past

Is direct action too woke or too right?

Times change. Opinions shift and harden. Much of what was acceptable in previous centuries is now, in more enlightened times, acknowledged as totally unacceptable and abhorrent.

Edward Colston was a seventeenth century slave trader from Bristol involved in the enslavement of more than 80,000 African people, including 10,000 children. Many of those rounded up by Colston’s company, some as young as nine, were branded and an estimated 19,000 died on ships bound for the Americas.

Colston was later a Tory MP and devoted much of his fortune to genuinely philanthropic works, aiding schools, hospitals, almshouses and churches in his home city. Streets, schools and buildings were named in his honour and he lived in considerable comfort and splendour until the ripe age of 84.

In June 2020, as part of a Black Lives Matter protest, a statue of Colston was pulled down and pushed into the Bristol docks. Four people were later charged with criminal damage.

At their trial, all four defendants admitted their involvement but denied that their actions amounted to criminal damage because the statue itself was a hate crime. Their claim was upheld, with the jury agreeing that no criminal damage had taken place and the Colston Four, as they have become known, walked free to emotional scenes and joyous celebrations from supporters.  

The decision subsequently provoked outrage amongst Conservative MPs and sections of the right-wing Press. MP John Hayes wrote to attorney general Suella Braverman on behalf of the “anti-woke” Common Sense group of Tory MPs claiming the jury had been devoid of an understanding of criminal damage, because if “you damage, destroy or deface property without permission, you are guilty by definition.”

Braverman later said she was considering referring the case to the court of appeal as the verdict was “causing confusion.” The acquittals cannot be overturned and there cannot be a retrial without fresh evidence, but judges could be asked to clarify points of law.

Another Tory, former communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, claimed the acquittals would “undermine the rule of law,” while transport secretary, Grant Shapps declared that the government’s forthcoming Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill meant the law would be changed to close a “potential loophole” limiting the prosecution of those who damage memorials.

He said the new legislation would ensure that people “can’t just go round and cause vandalism, destroy the public realm, and then essentially not be prosecuted.” Under the proposed legislation, the four would each face up to ten years in prison.

The Daily Mail, amongst other papers, also waded in to attack the Colston Four, deriding their emotional comments on the steps of Bristol Crown Court after the case as “woke platitudes”.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the meaning of the word “woke” as: “Aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues” (especially issues of racial and social justice). So were the Colston Four and the others who rolled the statue into the Bristol waters too woke – or too right?

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