It was one of the most visually striking incidents to take place during the height of the George Floyd protests in the summer of 2020: a teeming crowd of demonstrators in Bristol, England ripped a statue of slave trader Edward Colston from its plinth and flung it into the harbor. In the aftermath, during a highly publicized trial, four protestors were accused of participating in the statue’s watery disposal and were charged with criminal damage. On Wednesday, after the defendants conceded that they had participated but that their actions were motivated by antiracism, the four dissenters were found not guilty in Bristol crown court.
The four young people in question are Milo Ponsford, Sage Willoughby, Jake Skuse and Rhian Graham. “We just want to say thank you to so many people because we have never been alone in this journey,” Graham said outside court after being acquitted. “We have been so supported and we are such a small part of this. There were so many people that day. So many people reverberating across the world in response to it (the statue’s toppling).” In the UK, in the aftermath of the Colston incident, many government officials began to take the stance that the “retain and explain” policy was best when it come to dealing with the legacies of offensive statuary, making the protestors’ victory even more poignant.
“We didn’t change history, we rectified it,” Willoughby added. “This is a victory for Bristol, this is a victory for racial equality and it’s a victory for anybody who wants to be on the right side of history.” After the statue was originally tossed in the bay, it was once again dragged out. Earlier in 2021, plans were made to once again display the statue at the at the M Shed museum in Bristol accompanied by protest signs that were present during the demonstrations as a means of preserving history.
During the trial of the four protestors, during which the defendants took pains to explain their actions, expert witness and historian David Olusoga informed the court as to the specifics of Colston’s conduct while he was alive. According to Olusoga, Colston was actually responsible for enslaving more people of African descent than any other individual in British history.