Four people who helped tear down slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol and dump it in the harbour have been found not guilty of criminal damage.
The jury took just under three hours to reach their verdicts on Wednesday at Bristol Crown Court, marking the end of a landmark trial in which they heard the horrors of Colston’s involvement in the slave trade.
As the decision was read, the public gallery erupted with cheers and applause.
Outside the court building, defendant Rhian Graham said: “One thing that we know now is that Colston does not represent Bristol… I’m just so overwhelmed because it never felt like we’d get here and now we’re here.”
Graham, Milo Ponsford, Sage Willoughby, and Jake Skuse played different roles in the removal of the monument, which was pulled down and dumped in the harbour during a Black Lives Matter demonstration on 7 June, 2020.
The prosecution alleged their actions were a “violent” escalation of the peaceful protest, which followed the murder of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin in the US city of Minneapolis two weeks earlier.
But the defendants argued that the removal of the statue was proportionate, and said they were doing what Bristolians had been campaigning for over more than 100 years.
Speaking after the not-guilty verdict, Raj Chada, who represented Skuse, said: “The truth is the defendants should never have been prosecuted.”
He said it was “shameful” that Bristol City Council had not removed the monument and that it supported the prosecution of the defendants.
‘The statue was a hate crime’
Willoughby, who helped fasten climbing ropes to the statue before it was pulled down, said Colston “quite literally cast a shadow over the city”. The 22-year-old said that he considered its presence in the town centre a “hate crime”.
Ponsford, 26, and Graham, 30, supplied the ropes. They also joined the group of people who pulled on them to bring down the bronze monument, which had stood in the heart of the city centre for 125 years.
Graham described her involvement as an expression of her “allyship and solidarity with people of colour.” She added: “We were removing a symbol of great harm and oppression that towered over our community and offended so many.”
She did not deny damaging the statue, but said “whether it was criminal or not is up for debate”.
Ponsford was one of the first people to rush over to the monument when it crashed to the ground. CCTV footage showed him jumping up and down on top it. It felt like a “victory”, he told the jury. “I thought it was necessary for Bristol, and the people of Bristol, for the statue to go.”
Skuse helped push the statue to Pero’s Bridge, where it was dumped in the water. The 37-year-old told the court he suggested rolling the statue to the harbour, and that he believed he was acting on the will of Bristol people: “I knew we had Bristol behind us, everyone did.”
‘Cold, hard facts’
Before members of the jury were sent to consider their verdicts, on Tuesday they heard the closing remarks of the prosecution, and of the barristers representing each of the four defendants.
Prosecutor William Hughes QC said that while he wasn’t an apologist for Colston – whose history is “awash with his hands-on involvement in the slave trade” – it was not the slave trader standing trial.
The case, he said, was about the “cold, hard facts” of criminal damage to the monument. “If we can simply pull down what offends us, regardless of the views of others, then what statues, institutions or buildings, are next?”
But barristers for the defendants argued that Colston’s statue was so “indecent” and “abusive” that the defendants’ actions were lawful and proportionate.
Liam Walker QC, representing Sage Willoughby, said: “Colston’s statue normalised abuse. It condoned the acceptance of racism. It celebrated the achievements of a racist mass murderer. The continued existence of that statue was a racist hate crime.”
He said each of the accused were “on the right side of history, and I submit, on the right side of the law.”
‘They didn’t destroy history, they created it’
The prosecutor had said the defendants’ actions were a “violent escalation” of a peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstration. He suggested they ignored democratic processes in favour of “taking matters into their own hands”.
Seeking to refute this, Blinne Ní Ghrálaigh said Graham, her client, and the other defendants’ actions were in line with a “long and honourable tradition” of direct action protests.
“They [the protests] are in essence what democracy is all about,” she said.
She said that her client believed the people of Bristol did not want a statue of a slave trader venerated as a “virtuous and wise” philanthropist in their city, no more than they would want one of paedophile Jimmy Saville.
“[Saville] too was lauded in life and in death, as ‘somewhat of a philanthropist’, given the donations he made to schools and hospitals in particular. But as we know now, Jimmy Saville was a prolific, predatory sex offender.
“In the wake of those revelations,” Ní Ghrálaigh said, “plaques, memorials and even his gravestone were quickly removed, as was a statue of him in Glasgow… And no one spoke in favour of keeping any of it.”
Tom Wainwright, representing Milo Ponsford, said the historical significance of the statue had shifted after it was toppled. By removing it, he added, the topplers “didn’t destroy history, they created it”.
He continued: “They showed the world that the people of Bristol are willing to stand up for what they believe in.”
Colston’s statue – red paint daubed on its face and hands – went on display in its current form at the M Shed museum. The display included biographical information about Colston, his involvement in the slave trade, the history of the statue and placards that were placed around the plinth during the protest.
“[The statue] now helps Bristol come to terms with its past,” said Raj Chada, defending Jake Skuse. “There is value as a historic object that also helps us understand and shape the present and future.”
Since the toppling, Chada continued, Colston Girls’ School has changed its name, Colston Tower has been renamed the Beacon Tower, and the Colston Society’s members have voted to disband the organisation.
“None of this would have happened without the actions of Jake Skuse and the other three other defendants,” he said.
‘The council failed to act’
Ní Ghrálaigh, representing Graham, said Bristol mayor Marvin Rees had acknowledged there was “something horrific” about having a statue of a slave trader in the city but “failed to do anything to remove it”.
She said: “[The defendants] did what so many other Bristolians had fruitlessly campaigned for decades and decades to happen. They acted where the council – deeply, reprehensibly – had failed to act.”
Jon Finch, Bristol City Council’s head of culture and creative industry, was the first witness to stand as proceedings got under way in December. Under cross-examination, he was told he must have been “acutely aware” of the “great concerns” the community had about the statue.
Finch confirmed that he was clear the council had a responsibility to promote “cohesion” between communities and encourage them to work together, rather than “drive them apart”. When Ní Ghrálaigh asked if the statue did this, Finch said: “The statue clearly caused significant concerns in certain parts of the community.”
The prosecution said that, “while it may seem like it”, the council was not on trial, and nor was the Society of Merchant Ventures – a group the defence said played a key role in maintaining Colston’s legacy as a philanthropist.
‘The cult of Colston’
Celebrated historian David Olusoga, giving evidence for the defence, said Colston was “heavily involved” in the most prolific slave trading organisation in British history.
While he was associated with the Royal African Company between 1680 and 1692, it shipped 84,000 Africans into slavery, including 12,000 children, Olusoga told the court. Some 19,000 of them died during their journeys to the colonies of the Caribbean and North America, he said.
He told the jury of Colston’s own attempts at “reputation laundering”, and said it was the work of a “cult” that celebrated his philanthropy that led to the erection of his statue in 1895 – 174 years after his death in 1721.
The court heard of how the statue’s plaque proclaimed Colston was one of the city’s “most wise and virtuous men” and that the Society of Merchant Venturers “intervened” when there had been plans to add context to it.
Colston’s veneration in the city only added to the “distress” the monument caused, particularly to its Black community, the defence said.
Gloria Daniel, the descendant of an enslaved person, told the court: “The fact the statue of a slave trader had remained up for so long, and without contextualisation, was in my view profoundly shameful.”
Daniel told jurors that when the statue was toppled, she felt “a wave of huge relief”.
Ni Ghralaigh, speaking after the verdict,: “This case demonstrates the fundamental importance of trial by jury. That is because juries represent the collective sense of justice of the community.
“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.”