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Why was a Black man put on trial for using a raccoon emoji?

From policing to prosecution, this was the British justice system at its most incompetent and culturally confused. 

March 14 2024, 16.48pm

When the young man reached out to me and told me what he was going on trial for, I was in total disbelief. I could not believe such a thing would happen in a free, enlightened and multicultural Western nation. I told myself there just had to be more to it. Alas, there was not: a Black British man was, indeed, in court solely for the ‘crime’ of sending a raccoon emoji in a tweet and using the word ‘coons’. I was so shocked I was left with no option but to clear three days of work out of my diary (and forgo all associated earnings) to go to court and support the young man and document the trial itself. I had to see it with my own two eyes. So I attended every single minute of the trial. 

It was a complete farce. 

Here are the raw facts: Ben Obese-Jecty is a Black Conservative politician and contributor to the Telegraph and GB News. Many of his tweets on race are met with delight and agreement from people with discernible racist tendencies, and disgust from anti-racists, including, understandably, many Black people. In late September, 2022 Obese-Jecty wrote a tweet about the family of Chris Kaba pausing their campaign after seeing the body-worn camera of his killing, labelling supporters of the call for justice for Kaba ‘hysterical’. The young man who approached me quote-tweeted Obese-Jecty’s tweet with a sentence that included the word “coons”. In a subsequent exchange between Obese-Jecty and the young man, the young man included a raccoon emoji, and a clown emoji. Obese-Jecty informed the police. 

With no prior warning or attempt at contact, the police arrived at the young man’s house months later on Sunday the 29th of January 2023, circa 7:50am. They initially knocked and once it was established the young man lived there the police forcefully gained access. They searched him – twice - seized his phone, put him in a police car, took him to a police station, held him in a police cell for 10 hours, questioned him and then the CPS charged him. In late February 2024 the young man was tried at Wood Green Crown Court with two counts of violating the malicious communications act violations: one for using the word “coons”, the other for the raccoon emoji. The final jury of eight white people, two Asian people and one Black person deliberated for an hour and 37 minutes (including a one-hour lunch break). The young man was acquitted.

"At no point should this ever have been a police matter, let alone one for the CPS or a trial."

The sheer waste of time and money in the trial was crystalised when Obese-Jecty himself took the stand. His day in court amounted to about 30 minutes. The rest of us, not least the 12 person jury, spent three whole days there. 

The defendant gave this rigmarole the best part of two years of his life, and will likely continue to be affected by it for a very long time to come. Still, Obese-Jecty made a spirited attempt in those 30 minutes to convince us he alone was the victim. “I find this kind of abuse really difficult,” he complained. "To be targeted for my opinions and be told that I can’t have these opinions… I won’t be isolated.” He went on to state that in his experience, ‘the Left’ only uses the word “coon” in a racist manner. The prosecutor, who happened to be British-Asian, took it further still, arguing the use of the word ‘coon’ is offensive regardless of who uses it, akin to the n-word - a word he felt at liberty to use repeatedly in court, in its full form.

Obese-Jecty revealed on the stand that he reports all incidences of “racial abuse” to the police (I have been informed and shown evidence that he also contacts people’s employers; in one incident, he contacted the police and the New York based Global Head of Human Resources – after a person responded to one of his racially controversial tweets with a gif of a dancing Daffy Duck.) He also claimed that the exchange he had with the young man was his 74th and 75th incident of “racial abuse” in 2022.

But as the young man argued on the stand, within the Black community such terms are not universally racist. The n-word is often used as the equivalent of 2nd person pronoun - the original reclaiming of a slur by the targeted community. 'Coon' is usually used as a device to make a political critique - which it quite clearly was in this instance: a shorthand to saying "you are collaborating with, or behaving like the people who have historically oppressed us and oppress us today." And as for the alleged specifics of the use of the term on the Left, the defendant was neither Left nor Right, but largely apolitical; except, like most (if not all) Black people, anti-racist. 

As for silencing and isolation - no one, let alone a powerless, much younger man on Twitter, told Obese-Jecty he ‘could not have’ his opinions; and it is doubtful that all of us combined could isolate him, given his sizeable following on Twitter and the uncritical, unrestrained platform he gets on GBNews. When you publicly state opinions you must expect opinions back – and some may be indelicate in form of substance. But tellingly, his statement affirmed the obvious: what transpired between him and the young man was an intra-communal political exchange, complete with intra-communal language, codes and mannerisms. A political exchange between a member of the public and a professional politician. 

Even the arresting police officer himself actually expressed regret to me for the young man’s ordeal, and told me that he did his best to paint the young man in the best light possible on the stand, which could not have been hard given that the young man had never, ever been in trouble. He is a university-educated man who landed a role in his chosen trade soon after graduation, and then retrained himself to move to a career in another industry (the trial cost him several job opportunities). He has worked in a voluntary capacity to help reduce youth violence. In short: he is a man of high potential and even higher compassion. One of the best of Britain.  

"The emoji trial was the British justice system at its most alarmingly incompetent and culturally confused. It revealed a system that is just not fit for purpose."

Given that the young Black man was addressing a tweet by Obese-Jecty describing as 'hysterical' politicians and commentators who protested against the killing of Chris Kaba (for which police officer Martyn Blake has since been charged with murder) I would argue that the young man was effectively on trial for taking an anti-racist position in a manner commonly done within formerly colonised communities. At no point should this ever have been a police matter, let alone one for the CPS or a trial. The hate crime laws that were created to protect minorities were being used to persecute a member of a minority group - and that’s just one case; by Obese-Jecty’s own gloating and beyond we know there are more. Potentially dozens more.

In the end, the young man was either acquitted on the basis of typing the word ‘coon’ when he meant to say ‘clown’ and being playful when he typed the raccoon emoji, or the jury just used their common sense and knowledge of a “modern multicultural society such as ours,” as the judge said. As a result, there is a risk that this flaw in the system may remain, as the precedent set by previous convictions has not been conclusively overturned. (At one point the judge questioned if the defence barrister would argue whether or not the term “coons” was grossly offensive citing a recent case in which gross offence was challenged. The barrister was not aware of the case and said he would not be making such an argument.) 

Obese-Jecty, meanwhile, is vying to supplement his meagre platform on GB News and the Telegraph with the modest office of the MP for the safe Conservative seat of Hundigton. The judicial farce does beg the question if someone as hypersensitive to criticism should be one of the 650 people charged with guarding our civil liberties.

Meanwhile, it might also do all of us a load of good if the police and CPS meditate on whether they should be taking apparent serial complainers like Obese-Jecty seriously, considering their drain on resources and on people’s time, from police officers to jurors. Just imagine if all Black people flooded the police with the racist abuse they received on social media - actual grossly offensive racist abuse, not gifs and emojis. The police would have no time for anything else. (Interestingly, Obese-Jecty seems loath to advise his weapon of choice to other people; while he condemned Tory donor Frank Hester’s violent and racist comments on Diane Abbott, his statement was notably bereft of calls for Hester to be charged or sued.) 

From policing to prosecution, the emoji trial was the British justice system at its most alarmingly incompetent and culturally confused. It revealed, yet again, a system just not fit for purpose. Despite the young Black man’s acquittal, his arrest, the heavy-handed manner of his arrest, his 10-hour ordeal in a police station cell and subsequent prosecution represent a potentially criminal miscarriage of justice. The fact that it went as far as it did amounts to a blatant attempt to quite literally police political conversation within Black communities. 


Nels Abbey is the founder of Uppity: The Intellectual Playground and the author of the upcoming The Hip-Hop MBA: Lessons in Cut-Throat Capitalism from Rap’s Moguls.

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