Colston statue trial: MPs slam verdict as mob of BLM activists spout woke platitudes on court steps

Colston statue trial: MPs slam verdict as mob of BLM activists spout woke platitudes on court steps

An extraordinary, dangerous vandals’ charter: MPs slam verdict in Colston statue destroying case and government vows to keep prosecuting suspects as mob of BLM activists who tore it down spout woke platitudes on the court steps after walking free

  • The bronze memorial to slave trader Edward Colston was torn down on June 7, 2020 during a march
  • Rhian Graham, Milo Ponsford, Jake Skuse, and Sage Willoughby all faced trial at Bristol Crown Court
  • The case was set to be heard in magistrates court but the defendants chose to stand in front of a jury
  • Critics raised concerns that the verdict would set a precedent for further vandalism

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Protesters have been given the go-ahead to deface controversial monuments after a jury cleared four activists who toppled a statue of slave trader Edward Colston, MPs warned last night.

The so-called ‘Colston Four’ were acquitted of criminal damage after the memorial was torn down in Bristol.

Critics last night attacked the ‘extraordinary’ verdict as a ‘vandals’ charter’ which they fear could hand other demonstrators a ‘dangerous’ licence to carry out similar acts.

However last night government sources insisted the trial would not stop authorities bringing prosecutions against vandals to damaged or defaced statues during political protests.

Jake Skuse, 33, was accused of goading a feverish crowd into throwing the statue into the city’s harbour during a Black Lives Matter protest in June 2020.

Photos from outside the courtroom show Sage Willoughby, Jake Skuse, Milo Ponsford and Rhian Graham (from left to right) celebrating after receiving a not guilty verdict at Bristol Crown Court, on January 05, 2022 in Bristol, England

Sage Willoughby, Jake Skuse, Milo Ponsford and Rhian Graham speak to the media after after receiving a not guilty verdict. Mr Willoughby said: 'He proudly announced: 'We didn't change history, they were whitewashing history by calling him a f***ing virtuous man, sorry to swear, we didn't change history, we rectified history'

Sage Willoughby, Jake Skuse, Milo Ponsford and Rhian Graham speak to the media after after receiving a not guilty verdict. Mr Willoughby said: ‘He proudly announced: ‘We didn’t change history, they were whitewashing history by calling him a f***ing virtuous man, sorry to swear, we didn’t change history, we rectified history’

Milo Ponsford and Rhian Graham were pictured laughing and smiling outside the courtroom this evening. Speaking after the verdict was announced, Ms Graham said the defendants' actions admitted the group were 'ecstatic' at the jury's decision.

Milo Ponsford and Rhian Graham were pictured laughing and smiling outside the courtroom this evening. Speaking after the verdict was announced, Ms Graham said the defendants’ actions admitted the group were ‘ecstatic’ at the jury’s decision.

Sage Willoughby takes a knee to celebrate following the verdict in his favour. The prosecution's argument that the case was about the rule of law and not politics was repeated vehemently by critics, who raised concerns the not-guilty verdict would set a precedent for further vandalism and dangerous identity politics.

Sage Willoughby takes a knee to celebrate following the verdict in his favour. The prosecution’s argument that the case was about the rule of law and not politics was repeated vehemently by critics, who raised concerns the not-guilty verdict would set a precedent for further vandalism and dangerous identity politics.

The four protesters who toppled the statue of slave trader Edward Colston?

Ms Graham, from Bristol, works as a stage manager in the theatre industry

Ms Graham, from Bristol, works as a stage manager in the theatre industry

Rhian Graham, 30

Ms Graham, from Bristol, works as a stage manager in the theatre industry.

In a page on jobs website Mandy.com, she says she has been ‘singing and dancing’ she she was a child and more recently performed as an ‘aerial hoop artist’.

She holds a degree in Arts and Event Management from Arts University Bournemouth.

Ms Graham said during her trial that before helping to tear down the statue of Colston, she had signed petitions calling for it to be removed.

She claimed she did not originally have a background in politics or activism but, from 2019, had ‘started to make more friends who had more of a passion for history, politics and equality.’

Ponsford, 26, works as a carpenter and lives in a motorhome in Bristol

Ponsford, 26, works as a carpenter and lives in a motorhome in Bristol

Milo Ponsford, 26

Ponsford, 26, works as a carpenter and lives in a motorhome in Bristol.

During the trial at Bristol Crown Court, he said he was ‘usually a reserved and professional individual.’

The carpenter supplied one of the two ropes which were used on June 7 to haul the statue of Colston off its plinth.

He was later seen jumping on the statue and trying to pull Colston’s staff away.

Ponsford, 26, works as a carpenter and lives in a motorhome in Bristol

Ponsford, 26, works as a carpenter and lives in a motorhome in Bristol

Sage Willoughby, 22 

Willoughby, also from Bristol, is the youngest of the group of four who tore down the statue.

Unlike Ponsford, who was arrested at his motorhome after the statue was toppled, Willoughby attended a police interview voluntarily.

Jurors heard at the trial at Bristol Crown Court that Willoughby, a keen climber, had tied a rope around the neck of the statue, before Ponsford and Graham pulled on the ropes.

Willoughby said in court that he had been signing petitions to have the statue removed ‘since he was 11 years old’ and added that its toppling of the statue had been an ‘act of love, not violence’.

He said he had grown up in the St Pauls area of Bristol, which has a large Afro-Caribbean population.

As a result, he said he believed having the statue of Colston in the city was an ‘insult’ and he would continue to believe that whatever the outcome of this [trial].’

Skuse, also from Bristol, did not take part in the toppling of the statue but was charged with criminal damage after helping to roll it to Bristol's harbour, where it was dropped in the water

Skuse, also from Bristol, did not take part in the toppling of the statue but was charged with criminal damage after helping to roll it to Bristol’s harbour, where it was dropped in the water

Jake Skuse, 33

Skuse, also from Bristol, did not take part in the toppling of the statue but was charged with criminal damage after helping to roll it to Bristol’s harbour, where it was dropped in the water.

During his trial, he said he had attempted to ‘sentence the statue to his death’ before tossing it into the harbour.

He claimed to have not seen the initial toppling but arrived later and got carried away with the ‘hype’ of the moment.

However, the activist admitted that his knowledge of Colston beforehand had been limited to conversations he had had with others and reading the plaque on the statue’s plinth.

Rhian Graham, 30, Milo Ponsford, 26, and Sage Willoughby, 22, were caught on CCTV looping ropes around the monument before they helped to pull it from its plinth.

Some furious protesters spat on the statue and daubed it with paint.

It was then rolled 570 yards through the streets and dumped in the water where it sank.

An 11-day trial at Bristol Crown Court heard the mob caused more than £6,000 of damage to the statue, harbour railings and the pavement.

The destruction was a defining moment in protests that followed the murder of black suspect George Floyd by a white police officer in the US.

Responding to the jury’s verdict last night, Tory MP Peter Bone said: ‘I’m not privy to what was said in court, but if somebody topples a statue or any other structure that is criminal damage and one would expect people to be punished for doing that.’

He insisted: ‘It’s a dangerous state of affairs which could now give licence to people elsewhere in the country to go around pulling statues down.’

Mr Bone said: ‘It’s a very strange decision. I hope the Government will do everything in its power to make sure there’s no room for people to commit criminal damage on the basis of some woke objective or other.’

Fellow Tory MP Tom Hunt said the verdict ‘feels like a vandals’ charter’.

He added: ‘This sets a dangerous precedent. The idea that political extremists can remove any statue they like and not be punished… where does it end?

‘What happens if activists decide to take down Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square and dump it in the Thames? Will they escape punishment too?’

Another Tory MP, Lee Anderson, stressed: ‘I have never heard anything like it. Criminal damage is criminal damage regardless of who is represented by a statue.

‘We live in a democracy and if people are offended by a statue then they should use the local democratic process to have them removed and not mindless thuggish behaviour.’

The campaign group Save Our Statues tweeted: ‘Colston statue accused defy justice. Verdict not only gives the green light to political vandalism, but also legitimises the divisive identity politics it helped succour.’

During the trial the activists did not deny their actions but argued that they were justified because the statue was so offensive.

Mr Ponsford told jurors: ‘I thought that a statue that celebrates a figure such as Colston was disgraceful and offensive to the people of Bristol.’

Miss Graham, who is the half-sister of Rag’n’Bone Man singer Rory Graham, added that she acted out of ‘allyship and solidarity’ with people of colour.

Liam Walker QC, representing Mr 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 a vibrant multicultural city was an act of abuse.’

But the prosecution insisted that the fact Colston, who died in 1721, was a slave trader was ‘wholly irrelevant’.

William Hughes QC, for the Crown, said the case was about the ‘rule of law’ and the ‘cold hard facts’.

Judge Peter Blair QC told jurors to disregard political rhetoric, and to try the case purely on the evidence in front of them.

After being cleared, the Colston Four stood outside court alongside protesters carrying banners boasting ‘We toppled Colston’.

Three wore T-shirts designed by Bristol street artist Banksy featuring a stencil of the toppled statue’s plinth.

Mr Willoughby let fly an expletive-laden rant outside court, as he justified the group’s actions.

‘We didn’t change history, they were whitewashing history by calling him a f***ing virtuous man, sorry to swear, we didn’t change history, we rectified history,’ he said.

He 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.’

Mr Skuse, wearing black baseball cap, said the verdict was ‘for once the right decision,’ and thanked graffiti artist Banksy for designing limited edition t-shirts which they wore outside court.

Mr Ponsford issued a ‘big thank you’ to jurors for ‘being on the right side of history’.

‘It’s felt just out of reach for a long time, I’ve always felt hopeful but had to remain grounded in that it could have gone either way, but here we are. Just thank you, thank you so much for sitting and listening,’ said Ms Graham.

Milo Ponsford, left, Sage Willoughby, second left, Jake Skuse , second right in mask, and Rhian Graham right, were cleared of all criminal damage charges at Bristol Crown Court on Wednesday

Milo Ponsford, left, Sage Willoughby, second left, Jake Skuse , second right in mask, and Rhian Graham right, were cleared of all criminal damage charges at Bristol Crown Court on Wednesday

The bronze memorial to the 17th century merchant Edward Colston was pulled down on June 7 last year during a Black Lives Matter protest, and was later dumped in the harbour (pictured)

The bronze memorial to the 17th century merchant Edward Colston was pulled down on June 7 last year during a Black Lives Matter protest, and was later dumped in the harbour (pictured)

The group addressed the media in the wake of the high-profile trial

The group addressed the media in the wake of the high-profile trial

She added: ‘We are ecstatic and stunned. I tried to write something ready for this moment and I’m just so overwhelmed because it never felt like we’d get here and now we’re here.

‘There were so many people that day, so many people reverberating across the world in response to it… thanks to really key people, obviously our legal team who have been incredible. I can’t thank them enough for getting us through this.

‘Everybody on the day, those 10,000 people who marched through the streets of Bristol in the name of equality for our love.

The four defendants cheer outside Bristol Crown Court after the jury returned their not guilty verdict. Pictured from left to right: Sage Willoughby, Jake Skuse, Milo Ponsford and Rhian Graham

The four defendants cheer outside Bristol Crown Court after the jury returned their not guilty verdict. Pictured from left to right: Sage Willoughby, Jake Skuse, Milo Ponsford and Rhian Graham

'It's felt just out of reach for a long time, I've always felt hopeful but had to remain grounded in that it could have gone either way, but here we are. Just thank you, thank you so much for sitting and listening,' said Ms Graham (pictured today) after the verdict was announced

‘It’s felt just out of reach for a long time, I’ve always felt hopeful but had to remain grounded in that it could have gone either way, but here we are. Just thank you, thank you so much for sitting and listening,’ said Ms Graham (pictured today) after the verdict was announced

Rhian Graham is seen at a press conference in Bristol held after she and Jake Skuse, Milo Ponsford, and Sage Willoughby were cleared of criminal damage

Rhian Graham is seen at a press conference in Bristol held after she and Jake Skuse, Milo Ponsford, and Sage Willoughby were cleared of criminal damage

Ms Graham admitted the group were 'ecstatic' at the jury's decision and claimed that they had 'illuminated history' by toppling the statue

Ms Graham admitted the group were ‘ecstatic’ at the jury’s decision and claimed that they had ‘illuminated history’ by toppling the statue

Colston, who served as deputy governor of the Royal African Company, was once celebrated as Bristol's greatest son, but his legacy is quickly being erased from his home city

Colston, who served as deputy governor of the Royal African Company, was once celebrated as Bristol’s greatest son, but his legacy is quickly being erased from his home city

‘All the rope-pullers, the statue-climbers, the rollers, the egg-throwers, the marchers, the placard-holders, all those people, you lot are incredible, and the international topplers – the people that went and took their agency and went and did something in their hometown and changed the landscape of their place.

‘One thing that we know now is how Colston does not represent Bristol.’

Ms Graham said: ‘That is one thing that has been a really big lesson to me, being able to take agency in my own life.

‘We all have the ability to say how our space is decorated and who we venerate and who we celebrate and one thing we know now is that Colston does not represent Bristol.’

The statue, which was retrieved from the harbour and later went on display at a museum, is currently in storage awaiting the result of a public survey over what should happen to it.

Colston was a key figure in the Atlantic slave trade but supported schools, houses for the poor and hospitals. Some buildings bearing his name in Bristol ditched it after the statue was toppled.

Edward Colston: Merchant and slave trader who was once seen as Bristol’s greatest son

Edward Colston was integral in the Royal African Company, which had complete control of Britain's slave trade

Edward Colston was integral in the Royal African Company, which had complete control of Britain’s slave trade

Edward Colston was born to a wealthy merchant family in Bristol, 1636.

After working as an apprentice at a livery company he began to explore the shipping industry and started up his own business.

He later joined the Royal African Company and rose up the ranks to Deputy Governor.

The Company had complete control of Britain’s slave trade, as well as its gold and Ivory business, with Africa and the forts on the coast of west Africa.

During his tenure at the Company his ships transported around 80,000 slaves from Africa to the Caribbean and America.

Around 20,000 of them, including around 3,000 or more children, died during the journeys.

Colston’s brother Thomas supplied the glass beads that were used to buy the slaves.

Colston became the Conservative MP for Bristol in 1710 but stood only for one term, due to old age and ill health.

He used a lot of his wealth, accrued from his extensive slave trading, to build schools and almshouses in his home city.

A statue was erected in his honour as well as other buildings named after him, including Colston Hall.

However, after years of protests by campaigners and boycotts by artists the venue recently agreed to remove all reference of the trader.

On a statue commemorating Colston in Bristol, a plaque read: ‘Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city.’

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 sparked by the death of George Floyd in the US, the statue of Colston overlooking the harbour was torn down.

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/articles.rss

Gregory Kirby

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