Andrea Wallace, Nicola Thomas, Natalie Ohana, Freyja Cox Jensen, Nandini Chatterjee
On 8 June 2020, protestors in Bristol pulled down the statue of Edward Colston, slave-trader, dragged it through the streets, and threw it in the canal. While the protests in Bristol were largely peaceful, there were some conflicts in London and elsewhere, resulting in injuries to a small number of police personnel. In response, Home Secretary Priti Patel said that ‘tearing down of the statue was “utterly disgraceful”, adding that “it speaks to the acts of public disorder that have become a distraction from the cause people are protesting about”. Professor Ian Cook, Department of Geography, Exeter, captured the range of voices on the topic in his film Colston Falls. During these debates, members of the Decolonising Working Group in History, University of Exeter, pooled their knowledge to produce this collectively written essay on how statues of historical figures have been literally ‘de-platformed’ and the various physical and ethical solutions that have been found to deal with such toppled statues.
Last week, we were dismayed to find that the government of UK is proposing to close off the debate with a new law that will sharply raise the penalties for damaging memorials. We responded by submitting evidence to the Parliamentary Committee deliberating on the matter, working in collaboration with colleagues in Law and Geography. We are generally critical and wary of the ‘extremely wide ranging’ Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill, which in our opinion, combines a raft of highly risky and unncessary provisions together with ones that are less controversial. There are other published criticisms of the Bill. Here, for purposes of this post, we are particularly concerned with the way one tiny section of the Bill, tucked into a mammoth text of more than 300 pages, proposes to close off debate on the place of public memorials in present-day Britain.
This is the section in question.
46 Criminal damage to memorials: mode of trial (1) In Schedule 2 to the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980 (offences for which the value involved is relevant to the mode of trial), in paragraph 1 (offences under section 1 of the Criminal Damage Act 1971), in the first column, for the words from “any offence” to the end substitute “— (a) any offence committed by destroying or damaging property by fire, and (b) any offence committed by destroying or damaging a memorial (see section 22(11A) to (11D)).” (2) In section 22 of that Act, after subsection (11) insert— “(11A) In paragraph 1 of Schedule 2 “memorial” means— (a) a building or other structure, or any other thing, erected or installed on land (or in or on any building or other structure on land), or (b) a garden or any other thing planted or grown on land, which has a commemorative purpose.
(11B) For the purposes of that paragraph, any moveable thing (such as a bunch of flowers) which— (a) is left in, on or at a memorial within the meaning of subsection (11A), and (b) has (or can reasonably be assumed to have) a commemorative purpose, is also to be regarded as a memorial. (11C) For the purposes of subsections (11A) and (11B)— (a) references to a building or a structure include a reference to part of a building or part of a structure (as the case may be), and (b) something has a commemorative purpose if at least one of its purposes is to commemorate— (i) one or more individuals or animals (or a particular description of individuals or animals), or (ii) an event or a series of events (such as an armed conflict). (11D) It is immaterial for the purposes of subsection (11C)(b)(i) whether or not any individuals or animals concerned are or were (at any material time)— (a) living or deceased, or (b) capable of being identified.” (3) The amendments made by this section do not apply in relation to offences committed before it comes into force.
As the text of the proposed law says, this provision ‘strengthens the courts’ sentencing powers in relation to criminal damage to memorials’. It does so by amending the Magistrate’s Courts Act 1980 and the Criminal Damage Act 1971, increasing the maximum penalty from the existing 3 months’ imprisonment to 10 years, making it an offence more severe than most offences of sexual and physical violence. Women readers, please read that again. A statue of a dead slave trader is worth more than your bones.Continue reading “A law to end decolonising debates?”