Police have been accused of endangering the safety of 15 people who helped topple a slave trader’s statue in Bristol by publishing their photographs.
And locals have criticised the force for pursuing non-violent anti-racist protesters instead of putting its scant resources into – for instance – fighting domestic violence.
Officers from Avon and Somerset Police did not intervene at any point during the pulling down of Edward Colston’s statue during a Black Lives Matter protest on June 7 – nor did they put any measures in place to prevent it from being dragged into the water.
Instead, officers scoured social media and CCTV in the following days, tracing the pictures of 18 people involved both in toppling the statue and in rolling it into the River Avon.
While a press release, published on Monday, states that the police have tracked down three of the people pictured, the pictures of 15 more have now been shared with members of the public asked to identify individuals.
Detective superintendent Liz Hughes said: “The incident attracted worldwide attention and there’s no denying it has polarised public opinion – but in the eyes of the law a crime has been committed and we’re duty-bound to investigate this without fear or favour.
“I’d like to reassure people we’re carrying out a thorough, fair and proportionate investigation and have sought early investigative advice from the Crown Prosecution Service.”
Bristol’s directly-elected mayor Marvin Rees said in the days after the protest that he had viewed that statue as “an affront”, and while he could not condone Colston’s removal, said he felt “no sense of loss”, telling Radio 4′s Today programme that any prosecution would be “up to the criminal justice system”.
He added: “I don’t really intervene in criminal matters like that – that’s not for me to go and be a cheerleader to the police in any criminal investigations.”
But on June 19, the police confirmed the council had in fact referred the matter to the police. Bristol City Council itself did not return HuffPost UK’s request for comment.
Now, with the pictures published and publicly available, there are fears that sharing the images of protesters could actively put them in harm’s way.
Clayton Wildwoode, an organiser for Bristol Black Lives Matter, told HuffPost UK: “The first message we want to get out is letting people know that they should keep themselves and their families safe because their faces have been put out there – it’s quite an unsafe thing for the police to have done.
“It’s quite a big issue, especially with EDL-type people out there. Their faces are out there and terrorist groups – which we will call them – could potentially take advantage of that.
“But at the same we do understand that pressure has been put on Avon and Somerset Police and we’re hoping it is something that will be dropped quite quickly as it’s been debated for decades – for as long as anyone across our group has even been alive.”
Woodwilde added: “It’s more than a debate now. People’s futures are on the line. Every law and policy the government put in place is there for a reason, but sometimes there are situations where it has to be applied differently.
“At the moment it’s being looked at from a moral perspective, which shouldn’t be the case.”
BLM Bristol is currently working on a response to the police appeal, and crowdfunding for potential legal expenses that could come as a result of prosecutions. In the meantime, members are also working on setting a date for a second march, which will be announced in the coming week.
Police said they had “carried out a number of enquiries to try and establish who these people are in the hope we wouldn’t need to release their images into the public domain,” but had ultimately had to turn to a photo appeal for answers.
Avon and Somerset Constabulary directed HuffPost UK to the press release when contacted for further comment.
The toppling of Colston’s statue sparked a worldwide conversation, and many news organisations globally have shared the pictures featured in the police appeal. HuffPost UK is not among them.
Even the reporting of the police appeal has revealed fierce polarisation in public opinion, with many of those supportive of the protesters’ actions slamming media organisations for sharing the pictures.
Despite being at the very heart of the story, the Bristol Post – the city’s largest and oldest surviving dedicated local paper – has taken a different approach, opting to avoid sharing the police appeal altogether.
Editor Mike Norton, who wrote an opinion piece explaining his decision on Monday morning, told HuffPost UK: “It’s a very nuanced situation – everyone has accepted it is a very nuanced situation. The police said on the day it was a complicated situation, and the mayor has talked of nothing else but how complicated and difficult it is.
“But now we’ve got to this point, and everyone just behaves as though it’s a very simple act of criminal damage – and that’s where I struggle to conform to that view. All these institutions, which had admitted how complicated it is, had reduced it to a criminal act and I didn’t want the Post to be the same.
“I wanted to show that what happened made us think differently. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be prosecuted, I’m saying that I disagree with how what the police and the council have done has taken the nuance out of the history and the background of this issue.
“I’m just trying to be consistent with what we’ve all said from the moment he came down.”
Journalists, including those at the Bristol Post, have faced intimidation from some members of the public as the Colston story has unfolded in front of a global audience. Reporters have faced attacks online, and have even detailed incidents of being spat at and verbally harassed while reporting on counter-demonstrations.
“The Colston debate is definitely a magnet for racists, which has affected whether or not we turn comments on,” Norton explained.
“It’s been difficult, I’ve had abuse online and our reporters have been spat at in the street. We’re trying to steer a balanced route through this.
“I think it’s very difficult to have a nuanced conversation about the transatlantic slave trade in Bristol because views are so polarised. This is not about whether or not you agree with prosecutions, or whether or not you agree with the statue coming down – there is so much grey in the middle.
“I think the conversations should be had in that grey area, not at the extremes.”
A study conducted by the Runnymede Trust, the UK’s leading race equality think tank, has previously deemed Bristol to be one of the worst places in the UK for racial inequality, and many living in the city had come to view the Colston statue as a symbol of this pervasive imbalance.
Ros Martin, a Bristol-based writer and artist and a member of Countering Colston, said: “My personal view is that they [the protesters] have done us a huge favour and the council should be recognising this.
“In Bristol it very clearly represents to me an oppression – it’s about privilege. It’s about the entrenched inequalities that don’t shift in a city and the disingenuous way in which on one hand it’s a very wealthy city whilst also having some very high levels of deprivation.
“You would have thought that in a city like Bristol there are a lot of things that they [the police] would have to occupy their time – for example the increase in domestic violence through lockdown.
“The statue sat there under the pretence that it was raised by the citizens, when it was in fact the wealthy Victorian Merchant Venturers who put it up in our midst. Now it’s been taken down by the citizens of Bristol.
“It’s not a good use of police time and is just serving to make an example at a really critical time, the middle of a pandemic.”
The Bristol Post reported that records showed the statue had been accepted by the city as a gift in 1895. The Society of Merchant Venturers – which raised the funds to pay for it – has since distanced itself from the controversial memorial.
Zoe Jones, who herself was arrested and had been through a trial after taking part in a sit-in protest outside the Houses of Parliament in April 2019 with Extinction Rebellion, said: “The pulling down of the Colston statue is something that people in Bristol have been campaigning for decades to achieve.
“This was kind of the inevitable conclusion to years of this, and it didn’t harm anyone. No one was hurt in the process. So to have this selection of blurry photos taken from videos on Facebook amplified by the press doesn’t seem to helpful to anyone.”
She added: “As Extinction Rebellion, prosecution is something we’ve always understood if you take part in any form of non-violent civil disobedience – it’s something that we crowdfund for and support people through and we’ve shared the crowdfunder for Black Lives Matter in Bristol.
“If people are prosecuted we want them to have a fair chance and a fair trial. We hope that the people who made it happen are not punished for bringing down a memorial to a man who trafficked 84,000 people into slavery. He didn’t represent our city and he belongs in a museum.
“I think the cultural importance of moments like this can’t be underplayed. We’ve seen statues in American cities and all over the world coming down, inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests in Bristol.
“As somebody who has engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience and been taken into custody myself, I do think it’s necessary to force change when things are wrong.”
Avon and Somerset Constabulary is pursuing an investigation specifically into criminal damage – but it’s not clear what sentences protesters could face if they were to be charged, tried and ultimately convicted.
According to the Sentencing Council, criminal damage with a value exceeding £5,000 can be punishable by a maximum of up to 10 years in prison. The Sunday Telegraph reported on June 13 that ministers were considering proposing 10-year sentences for demonstrators who damage war memorials such as the Cenotaph.
Manchester-based journalist Nimo Omer said: “I think it just shows the disdain that the political class have for people who are just trying to make a change because taking down that statue has been one of the most effective forms of direct action in years.
“It’s an example of what happens when people say ‘enough is enough’. I think it’s [the investigation] is abhorrent, especially as a lot of people involved are Black or brown, and could directly face harsh, punitive sentences.
“It just seems like a vindictive way of telling people: ‘This is what happens – we will find you and you will be punished for taking part in non-violent civil disobedience.’”
Omer added: “Sharing these pictures is incredibly harmful – not just for those who were taking down the statues but also for those who were involved in the protests more generally. It sets a really dangerous precedent.
“I don’t see how it is in the public interest, and I don’t understand how it is acceptable for publications to be putting people in danger for no reason at all. I think putting out this information uncritically is just completely reckless.
“If this is the future of journalism, I don’t want any part of that.”
Bristol resident Cath Greig said she had been “shocked” by the pictures of protesters being published as part of a police appeal.
“I would class myself as a pretty law abiding citizen, but this was something so different,” she said.
“It was almost like it had been such a long time coming, and this was the only way that anybody would take notice. With the toppling of the statue, so much more information about the slave trade came out – people who had no idea about this suddenly did.
“Although certain people actually did it, they would have been part of a whole mass of people involved. They might not have actually touched the statue, but it was almost a group endeavour.
“Because of that I was hoping that nothing would come of it, and there wouldn’t be any individual prosecution.”