Its vilification began on February 24, 2009, during a Bristol City Council budget debate. The Lib Dem-controlled council was discussing the city’s Legacy Commission, which funds ethnic minority projects and was created in part to atone for Bristol’s prominent role in the transatlantic slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Mrs Jethwa, a Conservative councillor, thought that to spend £750,000 on education about the slave trade in the middle of a recession made no sense. An angry Mrs Brown enlivened the proceedings by delivering – quite quietly, as it happens – her coconut-bashing tirade. “In our culture, we have a word for you... and I am sure many in this city would understand, is [sic] coconut. And at the end of the day I just look at you as that. And the water [coconut milk] is either worth throwing away or drinking it.”
Unhelpfully, perhaps, she was quoted in the local press sounding puzzled: “How can I be racist? I’m black.”
The Conservatives, backed by an outraged member of the public, reported her to the council’s standards committee for “causing embarrassment to the city”. Bristol, so keen to expiate its slave trade past, is easily embarrassed
He found Shirley Brown guilty. She was given a 12-month conditional discharge and ordered to pay £620 costs.
“The judgement,” says Clive Coleman, the BBC’s legal affairs analyst, “is an important development in what might be called 'speech crime’.”