By Isabel Ringrose and Sophie Squire
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2787

Keep fighting after Colston Four victory so more statues fall

Issue 2787

Black Lives Matter protests in London in 2020 (Guy Smallman)

The victory for the Colston Four last week should spark similar acts of resistance against racism and the Tories’ draconic policing bill.

More statues linked to racism should be torn down. Acts of defiance against the Tories’ agenda and more direct action have to be the legacy of Colston falling.
 
And the not guilty verdict shows the power anti-racist movements can have to affect and influence ideas in society.
 
An angry crowd pulled down the statue of slave trader Edward Colston and threw it into the harbour during a Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest in June 2020.
 
This took place during a wave of worldwide protests in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd in the US.
 
The momentous protest sparked similar actions to remove statues from Britain’s colonial past.
 
Last Wednesday four activists were cleared of criminal charges for toppling Colston.
 
Rhian Graham, Milo Ponsford, Jake Skuse and Sage Willoughby—known as the Colston Four—were charged with criminal damage in December 2020. 
 
After a ten-day trial, the jury found them not guilty, with only two voting against. 
 
The Colston Four argued that tearing down his statue wasn’t criminal. 
 
Willoughby said Colston was a “racist and a slave trader who murdered thousands and enslaved even more”.
 
Crowds greeted the four with loud cheers outside Bristol Crown Court after the verdict was announced. 
 
Protesters held ­banners that read, “We toppled Colston,” and, “Glad Colston is gone.”
 
Willoughby hailed the verdict as a “victory for Bristol, a victory for racial equality and a victory for anyone who wants to be on the right side of history.”
 
For decades Bristol City Council ignored pleas to remove Colston. After his statue was toppled, the council recovered it from the water and claimed £3,750 worth of damage had been done.
 
One of the lawyers, Raj Chada, said, “The truth is that the defendants should never have been prosecuted.
 
“It is shameful that Bristol City Council did not take down the statue of slaver Edward Colston that had caused such offence to people in Bristol.”
 
The not guilty verdict is a blow to the Tories and home secretary Priti Patel, who is grabbing more powers for the police and ramping up repression.
 
And it shows the impact the BLM movement had in inspiring people, both black and white, to take such action and protect them in the aftermath.
 
Damage
 
But the not guilty verdict does not mean tearing down ­statues or causing damage while on protests, is now safe.  
 
An alternative jury might find a different group accused of a similar crime guilty under different circumstances.
 
Another set of criminal ­proceedings may also turn out less positively if those put on the stand were not white.
Already it’s clear that the courts cannot be relied on to defend protesters. 
 
Just last month Ryan Roberts was jailed for 14 years after setting fire to a police van in Bristol during Kill The Bill protests.
 
Riot police attacked demonstrators over multiple nights as the state cracked down on any who resisted it.
 
And with Patel’s ­incoming Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill, the Tories are hoping that resistance will be severely restricted.
 
The bill is currently on its report stage in the House of Lords.
 
 Clause 46 would increase sentences for “criminal damage to memorials” from three to ten years and significantly raise the cost of fines.
 
The drop in the ­movement against the bill means ­smashing it before it becomes law seems less and less likely.
 
It may also be a reason why protesters such as Roberts have faced such a harsh sentence.
 
Making the law unworkable by defying its clauses—continuing to protest loudly—will be the best way to fight the Tories. The not guilty verdict should encourage everyone to resist the Tories’ racism and authoritarian laws, and keep mobilising on the streets.

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