Rhian Graham, Milo Ponsford, Sage Willoughby and Jake Skuse found not guilty over act of public dissent during Bristol protest
Anti-racism campaigners tonight 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.
Jake Skuse 33, Rhian Graham, 30, Milo Ponsford, 26, and Sage Willoughby, 22, did not dispute the roles they had played in pulling down the statue and throwing it in the River Avon during a 2020 Black Lives Matter protest but all denied criminal damage.
In closing statements following the nine-day trial, the defence had urged jurors to “be on the right side of history”, saying the statue, which stood over the city for 125 years, was so indecent and potentially abusive that it constituted a crime.
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.”
But some critics reacted with fury. Scott Benton, a Conservative MP, denounced the verdict as an “absolutely appalling decision”, tweeting: “Are we now a nation which ignores violent acts of criminal damage? This sends out completely the wrong message.”
The former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie said he could not help “questioning the sanity of the jury”. He added: “The verdict was a shocking signal to every lefty protester in the country that they can damage with impunity as long as they chant the phrase hate crime.”
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.
Colston was a 17th-century shareholder in the Royal African Company when it shipped 84,000 Africans into slavery, including 12,000 children; he rose to become the equivalent of a modern chief executive, Olusoga had told the trial. Overall, he said, the company “transported more Africans into slavery than any other company in the whole history of the slave trade in the north Atlantic”.
The judge, Peter Blair QC, the recorder of Bristol, allowed expert evidence from Olusoga despite past comments that he “desperately” wanted to join protesters that day, which were raised as a sign of potential bias by the prosecution.
The prosecution argued that the fact Colston was a slave trader was “wholly irrelevant”. William Hughes QC, for the crown, said the case was about “cold hard facts” and the “rule of law”.
Jurors were shown CCTV capturing each of the defendants playing roles in toppling Colston. Bristol council’s head of culture, Jon Finch, gave evidence of damage to the statue, which lost a cane and part of a coattail. He confirmed £350 damage to the harbour railings and £2,400 to the pavement.
The Colston statue was approved in 1895 by the council, which had not given permission to anyone to alter, damage or remove the statue on 7 June, the trial heard.
But Liam Walker QC, representing Willoughby, said: “Each of these defendants were on the right side of history, and I submit, they were also on the right side of the law. Colston’s deeds may be historical but the continued veneration of him in this city was not. The continued veneration of him in a vibrant multicultural city was an act of abuse.”
Ponsford told jurors: “I thought that a statue that celebrates a figure such as Colston was disgraceful, and offensive to the people of Bristol.” Graham, who had also brought rope to the scene, said she had acted out of “allyship and solidarity” with people of colour.
Skuse admitted helping roll the Colston statue to Pero’s bridge (named after an enslaved man who lived in Bristol), where it was thrown into the water, “sentencing [Colston] to death”. Skuse said: “I knew I was in the right, I knew everyone wanted it down. I knew Bristol wanted it, everyone wanted the same thing.”
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.”