At a time when there is not much to be cheerful about, the Bristol jury’s decision to find the four accused of toppling the statue of Bristol slaver, Edward Colston, not guilty, has been widely celebrated. This article by Tom Anderson was first posted on The Canary blog.
NOT GUILTY: BRISTOL JURY FINDS THAT DEFENDANTS WERE JUSTIFIED IN TOPPLING SLAVE STATUE
A jury has cleared the four people who toppled a statue of slave trader Edward Colston. After three hours of deliberation, the jury came to the same conclusion that we knew all along – that the people who pulled down the statue were on the right side of history and were totally justified in their actions.
The toppling of the statue happened during Bristol’s huge Black Lives Matter demonstration on 7 June 2020.
The trial of Sage Willoughby, Rhian Graham, Milo Ponsford, and Jake Skuse – dubbed the ‘Colston Four’ – had been ongoing since last December, and 5 January was the second day back in court after a break for Christmas and New Year.
On 4 January, the jury at Bristol Crown Court heard closing speeches from the defence and the prosecution.
Blinne Ní Ghrálaigh – the defence barrister for Rhian Graham – told the court that Colston was responsible for the enslavement of 84,000 Black people – including 12,000 children – and the deaths of 19,000 people. She said that a “line in the sand was drawn on 7 June 2020 by those who joined together to pull the statue down and to dump it in the harbour. They recognised the need to make clear that Colston’s victims, those84,000 Black lives – more than three times the total number of the Black community in Bristol today– that they mattered. That those Black lives matter. That they will not be forgotten or airbrushed outof history. That their descendants’ pain will not be ignored. That their slaver – their tormenter – will not continue to have his crimes whitewashed, as he towers above them on his pedestal”.
She said that those enslaved by Colston were:
“torn from their homes and families; chained; whipped; branded with a red hot iron with the initials ofhis company; and shipped across the sea as things – not as human beings – on a journey of horror”
“You heard about the slave ships… You’ve heard about the chilling term “wastage”. You heard aboutthe rapes and beatings. You heard… about it taking seven years to literally work an enslavedperson to death”.
Raj Chada – defence counsel for Jake Skuse – said to the jury:
“The statue of Edward Colston, standing in the centre of Bristol, [was] utterly indecent, offensive and disgraceful. We all know that”.
An act of defiance against racism
The Bristol demonstration was part of the global Black Lives Matter movement that came in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
Ní Ghrálaigh told the jury:
“On 25 May 2020 shortly after 8:20 pm, African American George Floyd was murdered by policeofficer Derek Chauvin, who knelt on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds until he stoppedbreathing. The video of his long drawn out killing went viral around the world. People heard hisrepeated pleas of “I can’t breathe” and his desperate cry to his dead mother.”
People in Bristol were quick to join the movement. On 7 June, 10,000 people gathered on College Green for the biggest in a series of powerful Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Tiffany Lyare – one of the demonstrators – told Vogue Magazine at the time:
“I didn’t want to protest just because of the loss of George Floyd’s life, but because of the fact that I am also black and I have experienced discrimination and racism first hand.”
“It almost felt like it was a personal attack to myself in a way.”
We all toppled Colston
As the march passed the statue of Edward Colston, people paused and began to work together to remove the statue by putting a rope around its neck and pulling.
The court was reminded that one of the police witnesses earlier in the case had estimated that thousands of people had been involved in taking the statue down. According to Ní Ghrálaigh:
“Police Officer Julie Hayward estimated that there were in excess of 3,000 people around the statue,just under a third of her estimated total of at least 10,000 marchers.”
“Those people around the statue who joined together spontaneously to pull as one on the rope thatRhian Graham had supplied [and] those people who applauded them as they did”.
Ní Ghrálaigh told the court that:
“After the slave trader was toppled, and the jubilations were over, a Black man knelt on EdwardColston’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the length of George Floyd’s slow murder. The statue was rolled to the harbour and unceremoniously dumped in the water.”
Chada told the jury that Jake Skuse was one of the people who helped drag the statue across the cobblestones to the harbour. According to Chada, the cobblestones were:
“cobbles which in his mind signified where people would have been dragged unwillingly in centuries before, dragged to the harbour in the symbolic act of being dumped there”.
‘At least I won’t have to see that fucking slave trader on my way to work anymore‘
After the toppling of Colston, hundreds of messages of support were left at the foot of the – now empty – plinth. Some of them read:
“I want to send my gratitude to the people who participated in the toppling of the Colston statue. It was never an erasing of culture but creating a better informed history…
Power to the people. Equality is Quality.”
“At least I won’t have to see that fucking slave trader on my way to work anymore.”
The events of 7 June – and the momentum of the global Black Lives Matter movement – led to the renaming of Bristol’s Colston Hall and a decision to rename two schools in Bristol named after the slave trader. The court also heard that a pub in Bristol changed its name; that the stained glass windows and other dedications to Colston had been removed from St Mary Redcliffe Church and Bristol Cathedral, and that Colston Tower has been renamed Beacon Tower. The Colston Society also voted to close itself down.
The court heard that the toppling of the statue of Colston had been celebrated in Trinidad and had been mentioned during the funeral of George Floyd in the US. Ní Ghrálaigh told the jury:
“Gloria Daniel, the great, great granddaughter of the enslaved child John Isaac, emphasised thesignificance of the toppling. She said that it served as a marker that “we had finally arrived at aplace in history where people would no longer tolerate the continuing dehumanisation of Blackpeople”.
Despite the massive public support for the toppling of the statue, Avon & Somerset Police – egged on by Priti Patel – made a series of arrests and eventually charged the four people defendants with criminal damage. The Glad Colston’s Gone campaign commented at the time:
“Hundreds can clearly be seen on camera to have been involved in various activities that led to this object being pushed into the harbour. Despite this, authorities have decided to single out four people.”
In response to the statue toppling, the Tory government’s controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is proposing a new offence of damaging national monuments, which would make actions like the one against the Colston statue punishable by up to ten years imprisonment.
‘If you have a festering cancer like Colston, you cut it out’
Tom Wainwright – the defence barrister for Milo Ponsford – likened the removal of the statue to removing a cancer:
“If you have a cancer like Colston festering in your city, you cut it out. Even a new plaque would only have been a sticking plaster. Cutting it out will leave a scar, so that people remember what was there in the past and make sure it doesn’t return, but only once it is gone can the body heal. You have heard during this trial of the positive impact this action had, in prompting action where there was lethargy, promoting understanding where there was ignorance, provoking discussion where there was silence. Not just in this city, not just in this country but around the world. Bristol, like its tower, is no longer weighed down by the name of Colston but is a beacon showing how to bring communities together.”
- Protester in Colston statue trial asks ‘how long must you ask to be heard and not be listened to?’
- Bristol ‘rioter’ sentenced to 14 years for resisting police violence
This article was first posted at:-
1. Tom Devine, the Highland Clearances, black chattel slavery and statues – Barry Biddulph Republican Socialist Alliance
Tom Devine, the Highland Clearances, black chattel slavery and statues
2. On looting and statue toppling – Allan Armstrong and Sandy McBurnie, Scottish Left Forum