Criminal Justice

The Changing Shape of Cultural Activism: Legislating Statues in the Context of the Black Lives Matter Movement

Written by:
Sadia Habib, Chloe Peacock, Ruth Ramsden-Karelse and Meghan Tinsley
Read time:
10 minutes

Key points:

  • The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (2021) took a damaging, punitive approach to contesting statues. It increases the maximum penalty for criminal damage to a memorial under the value of £5000 from three months’ to ten years’ imprisonment, while expanding the definition of ‘memorial’. This comes alongside restrictions on councils’ ability to remove statues.
  • These changes further criminalise anti-racist protest, posing a particular risk to racially minoritised communities, and making it more difficult to contest statues through official processes.
  • The government’s claim that harsher sentences will address the distress caused by damage to statues ignores the profound harms caused by the statues of slavers, colonisers and other racist figures that continue to dominate public space.
  • Though the government focuses on the need to protect ‘history’ from erasure, statues are neither complete nor neutral records of history. Rather, they prioritise certain figures, stories and values while ignoring or erasing others.
  • Local authorities, museums, academics and activists are exploring a wide range of processes to facilitate discussions about the contested meanings of statues, to encourage learning about the histories of racism they commemorate, consult local residents on their views and reach decisions about the future of statues – including how public space can better represent diverse communities.

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