COLSTON 4 protesters cleared of causing criminal damage after toppling Edward Colston statue

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The Colston 4: Jake Skuse (second from left with Spiderman face covering), Rhian Graham (fourth from left), Milo Ponsford (second from right) and Sage Willoughby (far right) appeared at Bristol Crown Court – photo credit by Betty Woolerton

Four people have been cleared of causing criminal damage after the statue of slave master Edward Colston was toppled and thrown into Bristol harbour.

Rhian Graham, 29, Milo Ponsford, 25, Jake Skuse, 32, and Sage Willoughby, 21, were accused of criminal damage after the controversial statue of Edward Colston was rolled and dragged into the water during 2020 Black Lives Matter protests in Bristol

The so-called ‘Colston 4’ were the only people to stand trial at Bristol Court Crown following events that made global headlines on June 7 2020, when the statue of the notorious slave trader was pulled from its plinth and dragged into the water during Black Lives Matter protests in the city on June 7, 2020.

Rhian Graham, Milo Ponsford, Jake Skuse, and Sage Willoughby, were arrested and charged.

Six others accepted conditional police cautions for their part in the incident.

All four had denied the charge.

The four have been cleared at Bristol Crown Court of criminal damage for pulling down a statue of slave trader Edward Colston during a Black Lives Matter protest in June 2020.

The statue was toppled and thrown in Bristol harbour ( Image: PA)

Over the course of the trial that started on December 13, Bristol’s history and the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade and its lasting legacy of racism were laid bare, with renowned historian David Olusoga among the expert witnesses called.

The statue was toppled and thrown in Bristol harbour

Barristers for the four defendants stated that Colston’s statue was “offensive” and a “racist hate crime” and that its toppling during a Black Lives Matter march came in the wake of at least three decades of campaigning for its removal.

There were loud cheers from the packed public gallery after the not guilty verdicts were returned.

The four defendants laughed with relief as the verdicts were returned and hugged the many supporters that were waiting outside of court when they were released from the dock.

In a broadcast following the verdict, the four defendants thanked their “wonderful” witnesses and donators to the crowdfunder, their family and friends.

“One thing we know now is that Colston does not represent Bristol,” Rhian said.

All four defendants admitted their involvement but denied their actions were criminal, claiming the statue itself had been a hate crime against the people of Bristol.

They chose to have the case heard by a jury at Bristol Crown Court, even though it could have been dealt with by a magistrate.

Tom Wainwright, for Mr Ponsford, raised the question of costs being repaid to the defendants following their acquittal but Judge Peter Blair QC questioned whether such an application was appropriate in light of the high-profile support the defendants have received.

Artist Banksy designed a limited edition t-shirt, pledging the funds raised to the defendants’ cause.

The prosecution argued the case was a matter of straight forward criminal damage, and who Colston had been was “irrelevant”.

But the barristers for all four defendants argued Colston and his legacy was vital to deciding the case.

The court heard Colston was involved in the enslavement and transportation of over 80,000 people, of which almost 10,000 were children.

An estimated 19,000 died on ships bound for the Caribbean and the Americas.

Over the course of the two-week trial, the court heard there had been campaigns in Bristol to have the statue removed dating back to the 1920s.

Historian Professor David Olusoga OBE gave the jury the grim reality of the 17th-century trade which enslaved millions of African people.

The professor, an award-winning author and broadcaster, told the court Colston was involved with the Royal African Company, which was a prime mover in transporting African people across the Atlantic to be enslaved in British colonies.

He told the court: “Edward Colston became a shareholder and then one of 24 leading members of the company.

“Towards the end of his 12-year involvement, he became the company’s deputy governor and was heavily involved in the company.”

Professor Olusoga told the jury, Africans were seen as “unpeople” or outside the protection of English law and therefore could be subject to heavy punishment, mutilation and destruction.

Some 3,000 to 20,000 enslaved Africans were taken to Bristol as possessions, he said, and slave ship captains were given a bonus scheme to bring enslaved people into the UK for sale.

The idea the statue was erected by the citizens of Bristol was misleading, the professor said, as evidence suggested it was funded by an elite.

A statement was read in court by Gloria Daniel who talked about the plight of her ancestors and how the statue remaining in place for so long has was “shameful”.

It read: “The world had witnessed the public execution of George Floyd and we had finally arrived at a place in history where people would no longer tolerate the continuing dehumanisation of black people.”

In 2017, a petition was drawn up on the 38 degrees website calling for the removal of the statue.

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