This story is part of a special series taking a look at people caught up in the biggest events of 2020.
By the time the scale of the protest stretching down Bristol’s Park Street became clear, Clayton Wildwoode, 20, admits he was in full ‘panic mode.’
The student had never even been on a protest before, let alone organised one, and now he had a distinct feeling that he’d unleashed something that might be hard to control.
As one of the main organisers of the Black Lives Matter demonstration, which ended in the now famous toppling of slave trader Edward Colston from his perch on Bristol’s harbour, it was a feeling that would become all too familiar in the months ahead.
Watching crowds of 15,000 people amass all the way to the city’s College Green, Clayton could sense something truly remarkable was happening but was also slightly distracted by the nagging thought he might be sent to prison.
‘We’d been watching the Facebook group grow to about 16,000 people,’ he said. ‘But we never thought they would all show up. We had been expecting a couple of hundred.
‘We’d had all these threats of fines and being sent to prison. I’d looked it up beforehand and I’d read that I could have got 18 years. We’d been stressing to the police that it would be peaceful. But I was so nervous, I wasn’t even excited. It was such a scary threat, we were in panic mode.’
Originally from Nottingham, Clayton was still relatively new to Bristol. The end of his second year at the University of the West of England had been interrupted due to Covid, he’d been furloughed from his part time job and like everyone else he was bored of lockdown.
Gradually, amid the fug that was the summer of 2020, he’d started to pay attention to a growing movement emanating from across the Atlantic, in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of police.
Black Lives Matter didn’t start on the roadside in Minneapolis, but the tidal wave of rage that one incident caused sent the movement crashing around the world.
‘I’d started to see friends of mine sharing pictures of themselves at protests in other parts of the country,’ he said. ‘But nothing was happening here. I thought, I’ve been complaining about how bored I am, so why not get involved?’
Clayton, who is queer, says he’s always felt deeply motivated to support groups who face prejudice.
‘Coming from a minority group myself, if something like what happened to George Floyd happened to us, I know my black brothers and sisters would organise in the same way,’ he said.
‘It’s not the same experience, it is completely different but I have lived through prejudice. I am white and white people created racism and the disadvantages that black people face in life. It should be us as white people trying to address this. We can’t leave it to black people to clean up our mess.’
Clayton and his fellow organisers Yvonne Maina, Sam Little, Liza Bilal and Tiffany Lyare, had never met up as a group until the day before the protest.
The whole thing had been planned on Zoom. In the weeks proceeding the demo, he’d done things he’d never imagined, including meeting with police about organising gatherings during a pandemic.
The protest had been called as a response to police brutality and systemic racism in the UK and around the world. Like many others in Bristol, Clayton had never heard of Edward Colston.
But the name had started to be mentioned by more seasoned activists who’d long wished for Bristol to stop honouring someone who caused so much suffering. The demonstrators planned their route to symbolically go past the hated plinth.
Such was the scale of the crowds, some were finishing the march before others had begun. It was those at the back who broke off from the main group and amassed around the statue, eventually tearing it down.
In scenes that were replayed around the world, a rope was attached around the head of the slave trader and he was rolled down the street and tossed into a murky grave.
For Clayton and the other organisers, trying to marshall crowds who had finished the march, the first sense that something had happened was the whisper that went around the thousands of people gathered.
Suddenly phones started lighting up as people realised what was going on elsewhere in the city.
Clayton said: ‘I remember thinking very clearly at that point that we had changed people’s lives, black kids are not going to have to walk past that statue everyday, we’ve shown this is not a city that glorifies slave traders.
‘I think people saw it as an opportunity to do something they’d wanted to do for a long time. We’ve had 80-year-olds coming up to us saying they’d waited their whole lives to see something like this happen. We didn’t tear it down but we don’t see it as violence, we see it as a good thing.’
Although not responsible for Colston’s demise, Clayton said he and his fellow organisers felt like they became the face of what happened, which catapulted them into a whirlwind of media appearances and debates over the next few weeks.
Having never heard of the slave trader a week prior, Clayton was now expected to be an expert on Colston and his legacy.
The scale of what had been unleashed was rammed home very quickly thanks to social media. Clayton saw the rapper Ice Cube tweeting about it from the other side of the world. Suddenly Bristol and Colston was all anyone was talking about.
He said: ‘We got called terrorists for organising it. The police had been keeping an eye on us as the organisers and knew where we were at all times so they knew it wasn’t us. But we’ve had it at every protest since: “You’ve got to restore trust because of what happened to the statue”.’
Clayton says he had at first assumed that the one protest would be enough but he now admits this was naive.
Since June, he’s become a full time activist working with the group he helped to found; All Black Lives Bristol.
Asked if he ever gets annoyed that all anyone will ever remember from the first protest is the statue coming down, Clayton is pragmatic.
‘It is frustrating for us but I think it is a good thing that people are hearing about it, at least it is now a conversation that is being had when before it wasn’t at all,’ he said.
‘There was a feeling that everyone was talking about statues and the bigger issues were not being spoken about. But, if you think about it, we had a man who was responsible for killing thousands of people standing in our city centre.
‘No, it doesn’t compare to the police brutality people experience every day. No, the statue didn’t harm people, it didn’t shout the N word at you as you walked past. But it was the idea behind it. A lot of people have been waiting for this their whole lives.’
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