To mark the Colston Four acquittal, we asked some other campaigners who’d been found ‘not guilty’ in protest cases for their reactions. We’ve put them in chronological order of their earliest not-on-technical-grounds acquittal (some of them have multiple court victories).
I was delighted to see the acquittal of the Colston Four for a number of reasons.
Firstly, it kept an evidently lovely bunch of people out of jail.
Secondly, it led to a whole raft of MPs and commentators clearly betraying their complete ignorance of the law and the legal system they claim is being eroded by such direct action.
The Conservative MP, Tom Hunt, for example, argued that: ‘If you commit damage and break the law you should be punished. No ifs, no buts.… If the jury is a barrier to ensuring they are punished then that needs to be addressed.’
The Colston Four, however, like many other activists undertaking this kind of action, accept they committed the action, but argued (and the jury appears to have accepted) that they had lawful excuse and therefore their actions were not criminal.
Something that is clearly a little too complicated for Mr Hunt to grasp.
A further reason to celebrate the acquittal, however, is the political message it sends to the government – and the home secretary in particular – as they try to pilot draconian legislation aimed at curbing protests through the houses of parliament.
Despite claims that the country is fed up with ‘disruptive protests’ and ‘activist lawyers’ who uphold human rights or act for climate justice, juries made up of ordinary citizens are, on the contrary, quite happy to accept that individuals, in the face of injustice, have to sometimes ‘take the law into their own hands’.
The Colston case, it should be noted, has been quickly followed up by the acquittal of the Shadwell Three (XR activists).
It’s not just juries but the senior judges, too, who accept that disruptive protect can well be lawful and legitimate – see the quashing of the Stansted 15 convictions and the supreme court’s verdict in our DSEI arms fair protest, known as the Ziegler judgement [see below – ed].
Despite much frothing at the mouth from right-wing commentators and politicians, ordinary people can perfectly well distinguish between damage caused to a pub window during a bar room fight and damage committed as part of a political protest.
Engaging in such protest and arguing your case before the courts is a time-honoured and legitimate way to advance a campaign. Long may it continue to be so.
Chris Cole is the director of Drone Wars UK and former vice-chair of the international Catholic organisation, Pax Christi.
Chris was acquitted of some criminal damage charges after breaking into a BAE arms factory in Stevenage in January 1993. There was a hung jury in his first trial. The prosecution split the charges in his second trial. In the minor damage category were: cutting the fence to enter the site, breaking a window to enter a building, pouring blood on military blueprints and spraypainting statements on the wall. In the major damage category was hammering on £100,000-worth of missile and military aircraft nose cones, making them useless. The jury acquitted Chris of the minor damage (presumably because of his legal and moral arguments about preventing crime and saving lives) but convicted him of the nosecone damage. That was truly a ‘perverse’ jury decision. Another ‘not guilty’ came when Chris was acquitted along with three other Christians (Henrietta Cullinan, Joanna Frew and Nora Ziegler) for their blockade of the DSEI arms fair in September 2017 – an acquittal confirmed by the UK supreme court.
The criminal damage trial ended in an unexpected acquittal.
The media declared the verdict perverse.
Spluttering Tory MPs called for the attorney general to intervene.
And – inevitably – Richard Littlejohn of the Daily Mail wrote a bile-filled attack on the four defendants.
Colston Four? No: Seeds of Hope Ploughshares, 1996.
At Liverpool crown court, four of us were acquitted of £1.4m of criminal damage to a Hawk aircraft due to be sold to the Indonesian military and used against the people of occupied East Timor.
The Tory MPs are spluttering on Twitter this time but, apart from that, the two cases are almost identical in the reaction from the press and the political right.
We should have an enquiry, we should overhaul the jury system, we should bring in new legislation (the wet dream of transport minister Grant Shapps) to prevent this kind of thing from happening again.
‘This kind of thing’, of course, being defendants who agree that they have laid hands on something (a Hawk aircraft in our case, a statue of a slave trader in the case of the Colston Four) but who put forward a legal defence and are acquitted.
The thing about Criminal Damage Act which those so offended by these verdicts wilfully ignore is that it contains within it a potential defence.
The charge is not simply that you damaged something (if that were the case, it would be case closed in both trials).
It is that you damaged something without lawful excuse.
In both trials, defendants put it to the jury that they had lawful excuse for their actions, and the jury accepted that.
Now, I can see how this would be utterly enraging for a Tory MP or a right-wing columnist.
To them, all eight of us were vandals who deserved to be locked up, and it was a travesty that we were free (although in our case some of the media did generously note that we’d spent six months in prison on remand).
Ultimately, all of us were acquitted fairly and squarely.
The verdicts weren’t ‘perverse’.
We put forward a defence, the judge allowed it to be put to the jury, the jury acquitted. That’s how the jury system works.
But given that the government wants to outlaw all protest, perhaps it’s only a matter of time before they try to outlaw ‘political’ defences too.
After all, it can’t be right that vandals like us get away without punishment.
Andrea Needham was acquitted of causing (and conspiring to cause) criminal damage in the Seeds of Hope Ploughshares trial in 1996. Her co-defendants were Jo Blackman, Lotta Kronlid and Angie Zelter. Andrea described the experience in The Hammer Blow: How 10 Women Disarmed a Warplane (Peace News Press, 2006).
The Colston Four acquittal gives us heartfelt inspiration to get into the streets using nonviolent action to create the changes we need in our local communities and that governments won’t make.
The Colston statue was offensive to Bristolians but their frequent protests had been ignored. While at a local BLM demonstration, I was, like thousands of others, encouraged to hear of the demonstrators toppling the statue into the harbour.
With this one action, serious and necessary public debates were opened up about the slave trade and British colonial history as a whole.
The trial itself was based on full accountability and an explanation of why it was absolutely necessary. It was an excellent opportunity for diverse voices to be heard and to raise awareness of racism and its impacts throughout society.
The right-wing backlash was to be expected but I hope the attorney general will re-consider her proposal to refer the case to a court of appeal.
When the Trident Three were acquitted in 1999 (not only by a jury but also by the judge), our verdict was ‘referred’ to the high court in Edinburgh by the Scottish lord advocate.
This was an example of a ‘political’ attempt by the UK authorities to undermine international law and prevent other activists from similar actions. (We had ‘disarmed’ an essential part of the Trident nuclear weapon system, making it unusable for warfare.)
Such referrals cannot overturn acquittals but are attempts by the state to obscure the legal and moral certainties that emerge from the original trials.
In the Colston case, the lawful excuse for drowning the statue was to stop the offence of ‘indecent display’ which was abusive and distressing to the public. Ordinary people could easily understand that it was wrong to glorify the kidnapping of people into slavery.
Soon, we are all going to be affected by the Police and Crime Act which is trying to undermine and outlaw nonviolent protests.
Our ‘leaders’ are afraid – proof of our success!
This government wants to outlaw uncomfortable protests that are escalating because these so-called leaders continue to pursue a business-as-usual scenario that is destroying humanity and the rest of life on earth.
We must never lose hope but be encouraged. We have our own kind of power and we can and must create a different kind of society that acknowledges and values our interconnectedness with each other and the ecosystems on which our lives depend.
Angie Zelter, global citizen and author of Activism for Life (Luath Press), is a life-long campaigner for human rights, the environment and peace.
Angie was one of three women acquitted of ‘maliciously damaging’ equipment at the Faslane nuclear submarine base in Scotland in June 1999. Sheriff Margaret Gimblett found the Trident Three (Angie, the late Ellen Moxley and Ulla Roder) were legally justified in disarming a Trident-related laboratory on a barge in the base, because they were preventing a crime. Angie’s other headline-grabbing acquittal was as part of the Seeds of Hope Ploughshares in 1996. Activism for Life can be bought direct from Trident Ploughshares (£12.99 plus £2.30 p&p) either from their website or by sending a cheque and your address to: Activism for Life, c/o Jean Oliver, The Lodge, Main Street, Broughton ML12 6HQ.
There are many voices in the mainstream media saying that direct action is not necessary in a ‘functioning democracy’.
I would argue that on the contrary it is a fundamental part of a democracy.
Many of the rights we take for granted are only ours because of direct action carried out by our ancestors, sometimes on a level which makes statue-toppling seem tame.
A fundamental part of a mature democracy is an independent judiciary. Yet, under Boris Johnson’s government, we’ve seen attacks on the country’s legal system from politicians, including the attorney general, who ought to know better.
As a defendant who has won three court cases in lower courts, I expect my acquittals to be respected.
It is also clear that the people of Bristol took more drastic action when democratic channels failed and the council did not respond to calls to move the statue to a museum at an earlier point.
It is telling that, shortly afterwards, Keir Starmer said in the house of commons that the statue should have been removed a long time ago.
Chris Bluemel is a music teacher and activist based in Southampton, focusing mainly on peace and environmental direct action. He is the unofficial legal advice contact for Trident Ploughshares (England & Wales), having spent many hours in court as defendant or observer.
Chris was acquitted of charges of assaulting a police officer – in both 2009 and 2016. In 2009, the case was about Chris’s reaction to suddenly being beaten by several police officers with batons – and pushed to the ground – while he was walking away from a Carnival Against the Arms Trade demo in Brighton on 4 June 2008. The magistrate found that the police had used excessive and unlawful force and that the officers’ evidence was ‘vague and contradictory’. Despite Chris admitting that he had spontaneously reacted to his beating by punching a police officer in the face, the magistrate found that he had acted reasonably in the circumstances. Both assault charges were dismissed. In 2016, Chris again admitted hitting a police officer in the face and again was found ‘not guilty’ of assaulting a police officer in the execution of his duty. On 12 September 2015, in the run-up to the DSEI arms fair in East London, Chris was climbing a pillar to reinforce a banner when a police officer grabbed him from behind. Chris swung his arm out to try to shake the officer off, and the roll of gaffer tape in his hand hit the police officer’s face. Again, the officer’s evidence was judged inconsistent and unconvincing. Stratford magistrates found Chris not guilty because the police had not established that the officer was actually ‘acting in the execution of his duty’ in trying to stop Chris climbing the pillar. (Chris was also acquitted a third time on technical grounds, after taking part in an August 2006 Trident Ploughshares war crimes investigation at Prestwick airport. The action was against US military planes flying munition supplies to Israel to use in bombing Lebanon. The court found that there was ‘no case to answer’ as there were no signs warning the trespassers of the risk of prosecution – and police officers also weren’t sure on the stand that Chris was one of the people who boarded the plane.)
Just as the Colston statue was literally toppled from its pedestal and unceremoniously dumped in the water, it seems a good place for one of the helicopters or tanks on display outside DSEI would be at the bottom of the royal docks nearby.
In September 2017, four of us were arrested during a lock-on outside the DSEI arms fair at the ExCeL Centre in East London. We were deliberately attempting to disrupt the setting up of the arms fair.
In the magistrate’s court, we never denied we were blocking the highway but the judge respected our rights under the European Convention on Human Rights and we were acquitted.
Then, after nearly four years of legal wrangling, as the lawyers put it, we were acquitted again in the supreme court last summer.
I have thought a great deal since then about direct action and protest.
The court process is an opportunity for reflection and self-education but we shouldn’t have to be standing in a court to fulfil our rights to freedom of expression.
A road is not always a highway. Our little DSEI protest was about transforming a road and turning into a space of prayer and peace.
Key to this kind of direct action is that it should be site-specific and transformative. The context is enormously important.
The Colston Four’s action was definitely all those things, dumping the Colston statue into the very docks from which the slave ships set sail.
As one of the Colston defendants said, it’s not about statues, but this particular statue. Their action resists Empire by subverting the pomp and glory used to celebrate and sustain the devastation caused by Empire, when we know the terrible suffering caused to so many by colonial racism and the slave trade.
The arms trade indulges in similar grandeur that is easily mocked and so it should be. There are white tie dinners and shareholder meetings in grand hotel ballrooms. There’s a tank painted with the union jack.
The people of Bristol had petitioned to have the statue removed. Similarly, there have been countless campaigns at all levels from local opposition to parliamentary committees to legal actions against the arms trade.
The DSEI arms fair takes place in a part of London where migrant communities over centuries have made their home to escape war and oppression. Meanwhile, the arms trade continues to fuel those very wars.
The arms fair is a modern-day monument to racist wars that spring directly out of colonialism.
Many people who are baffled by the continued existence of the UK arms industry – we could use the resources so much more wisely – see that it is in fact a direct result of colonialism.
Henrietta Cullinan is a peace activist and writer born in London.
Along with Chris Cole, Joanna Frew and Nora Ziegler, Henrietta was one of the defendants in the Ziegler case mentioned above which reached the UK supreme court in July 2021 and which has been cited in many direct action cases since then. The supreme court ruled that exercising your right to protest could be a ‘lawful excuse’ for obstructing the highway, even if the protest is seen as disruptive.
As an activist, there’s lots to feel hopeless about.
This government has been viciously attacking any group, campaign, movement that would threaten the unjust status quo, including the right to even be an activist.
I’ve seen many friends and friendly faces face court in recent times over issues such as deportation, arms exports, climate justice, and, in this case, during the Black Lives Matter (BLM) campaign, the toppling of an icon of capitalism, the slave trader, Edward Colston.
I’ve worried each time for those on trial. What will happen to them if they are found guilty? What would it mean for the ability of anyone to make positive changes in our society? All this to the backdrop of the government, the crown prosecution service, and often the mainstream media, vilifying activists and/or pouring a lot of time and effort into securing convictions.
It has left activists in the position of their only hope being a very problematic judiciary.
Of course, whether you’re convicted or acquitted does not change the fact that these actions are right and just. Judgements do, however, diminish or enhance the hopes of future actions and change.
So, with all of this in mind, I’m stunned, amazed, delighted, overjoyed, filled with hope, that again and again, the criminal charges against activists have been overturned. Even after appeal, the courts rule that these people have acted justly.
Stansted 15 acquitted, XR acquitted, Christian Climate Action acquitted, DSEI blockaders acquitted, and now, joy of joy, the Colston Four, those who symbolically, and also very literally, made an attack on the unjust and racist foundations of our unfair society – acquitted.
I thank all who quietly organise and nurture to make movements happen, and those who take decisive action in the moment to fight injustice wherever it is found.
I thank the Colston Four and all who have organised and protested in support of BLM. I take encouragement from this and hope that all movements can do the same.
We can act and we can win.
Reverend Daniel Woodhouse, a Methodist, was acquitted in 2018 (along with Sam Walton) for breaking into BAE Warton to try and disarm Saudi jets bound for the war in Yemen.