Anti-racism campaigners have hailed a jury’s decision to clear protesters responsible for toppling a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston as a huge step in getting the UK to face up to its colonial past.
Yesterday, Rhian Graham 30, Milo Ponsford, 26, Sage Willoughby, 22, and Jake Skuse, 33, found not guilty after the statue was thrown into Bristol harbour during a BLM protest in 2020.
A lawyer for the defence Blinne Ni Ghralaigh welcomed the not guilty verdict saying: “In this case, they determined that a conviction for the removal of this statue – that glorified a slave trader involved in the enslavement of over 84,000 black men, women and children as a ‘most virtuous and wise’ man – would not be proportionate.”
After just under three hours’ deliberation, a jury of six men and six women found the so-called “Colston Four” not guilty by an 11 to one majority decision at Bristol crown court on Wednesday afternoon.
“This verdict is a milestone in the journey that Bristol and Britain are on to come to terms with the totality of our history,” said David Olusoga, the broadcaster and historian of the slave trade, who gave evidence in the trial.
Olusoga said: “For 300 years Edward Colston was remembered as a philanthropist, his role in the slave trade and his many thousands of victims were airbrushed out of the story. The toppling of the statue and the passionate defence made in court by the Colston Four makes that deliberate policy of historical myopia now an impossibility.”
Clive Lewis, the Labour MP, said: “A British jury has confirmed the toppling of Edwards Colston’s statue was not a criminal act. The real crime was the fact the statue was still there when protesters pulled it down.
“Today’s verdict makes a compelling case that a majority of the British public want to deal with our colonial and slave trading past, not run away from it. That’s important to understand and I hope it gives political leaders a little more confidence when it comes to challenging the ‘culture war’ our government is currently pursuing.”
After the statue was toppled, on 7 June 2020, the home secretary, Priti Patel had demanded that police pursue those responsible, saying their behaviour was “utterly disgraceful”. The Home Office did not comment following the verdicts.
The four defendants laughed with relief as the verdicts were returned. They emerged from court wearing T-shirts designed by the Bristolian street artist Banksy to raise funds for their legal fight, and hugged the many supporters waiting outside.
“This is a victory for Bristol,” Willoughby said. “This is a victory for racial equality and it’s a victory for anybody who wants to be on the right side of history.”
In the trial, in which few facts were in question, the four defendants argued that their actions were justified because the statue was so offensive.
Each defendant described being motivated by sincere antiracist conviction, frustration that previous attempts to persuade the council to remove the statue had failed, and a belief that the statue was so offensive it constituted an indecent display or a hate crime.
The court heard from black Bristolians including a former lord mayor of the city, Cleo Lake, who had removed a portrait of Colston from her office. “He was the person responsible for brutalising my ancestors, taking away their humanity, and for me and my community experiencing the harm they still experience today,” Lake said.
Responding to the verdict, Liz Hughes, chief superintendent of Avon and Somerset police, said the toppling of the statue was an incident that “attracted worldwide attention and … polarised public opinion”, which the force had had a duty to investigate. “Having been presented with the evidence, a jury has now determined their actions were not criminal, and we respect its decision.”