'Government should try to address grievances, not suppress protest'

PA REVIEW OF THE YEAR 2020 - PA PHOTOGRAPHERS' FAVOURITE IMAGES File photo dated 07/06/20 of protest

Protesters throwing a statue of Edward Colston into Bristol harbour during a Black Lives Matter protest rally - Credit: PA

What is this government’s newfound obsession with monuments?

With tens of thousands of Covid deaths, mass unemployment and crippling national debt, memorials may seem a low priority. Yet this is the time Patel and Johnson have chosen to press ahead with plans to increase the penalty for causing damage to memorials to up to 10 years in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021.

That’s more than many defendants receive for rape.

Newham has witnessed some of the worst atrocities committed against memorials in recent times. 87 graves were desecrated in West Ham Jewish Cemetery in 2005. Headstones of children were targeted. A mausoleum was wrecked. In October 2016 this paper reported the wanton smashing of 25 marble headstones at Manor Park Cemetery.

None of these unspeakably hurtful acts, and numerous others elsewhere, prompted an increase in penalties. Tough punishment is already available.

Paul Kaufman. Picture: Vishal Thaper

Paul Kaufman says the government should be trying to understand why people protest and not punish them - Credit: Vishal Thaper

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Make no mistake, it was the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol during Black Lives Matter protests last year that proved a crucial catalyst for this new expression of moral outrage by our government.

Edward Colston made his fortune from trafficking human beings. Countless men, women and children died or endured monstrous suffering from his vile trade.

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For years the authorities resisted pleas to remove the monument celebrating his life from its place of honour. It is not coincidental that Bristol has seen some of the biggest protests against the new bill and its raft of measures.

The proposed increase in punishment supposedly reflects the emotional and symbolic importance of memorials. All the more reason to recognise the obnoxious symbolism of memorials which laud slave traders.

The government bill raises profound questions about what sort of country we want.

Older readers will recall disruptive demonstrations against the Vietnam war, apartheid and the poll tax. New laws stifling the right to protest weren’t felt necessary then.

In a democracy, government should try to understand and address grievances, not suppress and punish those who protest about them.

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