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The victory of the Colston Four proves that when we fight, we win

The four Bristol protestors – who famously toppled the statue of slave trader Edward Colston – have been cleared of all criminal damage charges. It’s a much-needed victory, writes artist and activist Liv Wynter

The summer of 2020 was one of political upheaval. We entered the year wrestling the heavyweight of Covid – not just the threat of the virus and the gaping loss it created, but also the way it has affected our lives via policing. When the news reached the UK of the murder of George Floyd, it ignited a fire for people who were tired of racial injustice and sick of seeing Black people murdered by the state. The Black Lives Matter movement erupted with demonstrations, and in London, millions of people gathered to protest. 

As the capital city marched, Bristol rioted. You may remember a very notable case from the Bristol riots: on June 7 in 2020, protestors toppled the statue of slave owner Edward Colston. The importance of this gesture has been discussed at length, but for the people of Bristol it was a liberating moment; a sign of solidarity and hope for a brighter, fairer future. The UK can never rid itself of its colonial past, but we can take steps towards a future where these horrors are not repeated or celebrated.

BLM and the toppling of the Colston statue played a hugely significant role in enabling and empowering activists to mobilise on mass. Unfortunately, during the pandemic, the government attempted to block these demonstrations under the pretence of Covid safety – gatherings of over six people were outlawed, with lockdown limitations effectively banning our right to protest. These new rules were violently enforced by police officers, some of whom were drunk on power and emboldened by blurry laws. It was this legislation that led to the stop and search of Black people reaching shameful new highs (a 24 per cent rise in the last year); it was this legislation that was used by Wayne Couzens to kidnap, rape and murder Sarah Everard; it was this legislation that the police used to roughly grab and manhandle women at her peaceful vigil in Clapham.

The news got progressively worse. The Home Office continued the assault on our right to protest with the announcement of the “Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill”, which was recklessly drawn up and passed through parliament last year. This sparked more protests, as well as the Kill the Bill movement. Bristol once more rioted, and the internet was awash with images of burning police cars and bloodied protestors. It led to some horrifying repercussions: protestor Ryan Roberts was last month sentenced to 14 years for vandalising a police van, in a ruling that felt cruel, unnecessary and performative. Other sentences were handed out – three years here, three years there – all for taking part in a protest against the heavy hand of the law.

But yesterday, finally, there was a glimpse of victory. The four protestors who toppled the statue of Colston in the summer of 2020 were cleared – every single one of them – after being charged with criminal damage. The prosecution stated in its speech that, although “right-minded people” would consider the slave trade to be “abhorrent”, they “cannot just tear... down” what they disagree with. To acknowledge the horror and suggest there cannot be change is a crystal clear example of the state’s interest in disempowering activists. So what a glorious win, then, that the courts disagreed and the jury found these protestors’ testimonies to be just; their actions to be appropriate.

This win is symbolic of what I understand justice to be: to do something that is right by the people, even when it is not deemed right by the state. As one activist put it, to topple that statue was an “act of love”. It was a sign that we want a better world to exist in for ourselves and each other; an act of rage and solidarity. For me personally, I hope this ruling reignites people’s passion to organise and commit to direct action, and undoes some of the fear instilled by the unnecessary and over the top criminalisation of protesting we have witnessed recently. We can never forget that when we fight, we win. 

So here we are. It’s 2022, and the Colston Four are not guilty. But on the streets of London, the Met police are stopping people to swab their mouths for drugs. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill, and the equally threatening Borders bill, loom over the UK. More activists are set to face their sentencing for their actions at the Kill the Bill Bristol protest. There has never been a more important time to get organised. Join your local direct action group – or start one! As Sisters Uncut often say, these bills will only be beaten if we make them unenforceable, and that means mass direct action, mass trespass and bystander intervention. If we don’t react now, at this critical moment, the fight will only get harder. Every one of us can be a revolutionary because revolutions are born of everyday people – of you and I, if we do it together.

My new years’ resolution? Become ungovernable. 

Liv Wynter is a writer, artist, and community organiser based in London