Four people arrested while staging demonstrations in Bristol are to receive apologies and substantial damages from Avon and Somerset police after the force admitted its declaration of a blanket ban on protest was unlawful.
The apologies, which followed a legal challenge, are thought to be the first time a police force has admitted it misapplied coronavirus powers to ban protests. In a statement agreed with the claimants, the police said the arrests had been made on the basis of “a misunderstanding of the legal effect of the regulations” and admitted all four “were unlawfully arrested”.
Paula Richardson, 60, Ros Martin, 60, Taus Larsen, 44, and Rowland Dye, 68, had been detained on 25 January while protesting outside Bristol magistrates court in solidarity with four defendants accused of toppling the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston during last June’s Black Lives Matter protests.
A mass demonstration called that day had been reorganised as an online rally after police issued a public statement claiming that “protests are not allowed”. Despite that, acting independently, Richardson, Martin, Larsen and Dye had decided to stage socially distanced protests in person.
Arriving at the court on the morning of 25 January, Richardson, a gardener, wrote “Support the Colston 4” outside its entrance in water-soluble chalk. When Martin, an artist and writer, arrived shortly after she wrote: “Let justice prevail.” Both were arrested for criminal damage and breach of Covid regulations as they complied with instructions to leave the area.
Larsen, an architect, arrived on a bicycle towing a trailer with a sound system. An officer told him he could not remain outside the court, but agreed that he could cycle past on the road. Despite complying, another officer approached him and ordered him to leave but before he was able to go, he was arrested for breach of coronavirus regulations.
Dye, a retired teacher, arrived at the court with a placard reading: “Slave trade. Arms trade. Bristol … wake up!” He stood by the court steps with his back to the building, where an officer told him to leave. He also agreed to go but was arrested as he tried to walk away.
Speaking after the settlement was agreed on Thursday, Martin said: “In the week that justice has been served for George Floyd, it is vital that the right to peaceful protest in support of the Colston 4 has prevailed. It is fundamental to our democracy. The locking up of peaceful protesters should never happen.”
Larsen described the police’s behaviour as ridiculous. “I was in a safe place, I wasn’t endangering anyone’s health, I wasn’t posing a risk to anyone, I wasn’t going to be spreading any infection that day,” he said.
Dye said it felt as if he had been caught up in “a PR stunt” as police attempted to save face for their perceived failures during the BLM protests. “Knowing there would be intense media interest in the Colston 4 plea-hearing they had no compulsion using us as pawns,” he said.
“The direction of travel is a couple of months later police are savagely attacking peaceful protesters here in Bristol, so we’ve got to hold the line, and I do feel that this case plays some small part in holding that line against politicised policing.”
Gus Silverman, a civil liberties lawyer at the law firm Irwin Mitchell, who represented Larsen and Dye, suggested the outcome of the case could lead to further actions against police. He said: “Recent demonstrations have seen force used against protesters by police, whether at the vigil for Sarah Everard or at the more recent protests in Bristol. If officers at those demonstrations believed that all protests were banned under coronavirus regulations then it is now clear that they were wrong.”
A spokesperson for Avon and Somerset Constabulary said its officers honestly believed that all four had been committing an offence under coronavirus regulations. “However, we now accept we misinterpreted the regulations and that the arrests and the issuing of FPNs were unlawful,” the force said.
“We have apologised to them and explained officers’ actions were motivated purely by a desire to protect the health of the public at the height of the pandemic.”