Edward Colston’s statue was an “abhorrent offence” to the people of Bristol, a defendant accused of helping to topple the monument is said to have told officers during her police interview.
Rhian Graham, 30, Milo Ponsford, 26, Jake Skuse, 33, and Sage Willoughby, 22, entered the dock at Bristol Crown Court for the first time on Monday as the highly anticipated trial of the so-called Colston 4 got under way.
Opening the prosecution’s case, William Hughes QC said all four defendants were guilty of criminal damage. He added that the prosecution accepts Colston was a “divisive figure”, but what the slaver “did or did not do” was not on trial and therefore it was “wholly irrelevant” to the proceedings.
However, the court heard that Graham said in a police interview: “Whether it [the toppling] is criminal or not, I think, is up for debate… because of all the context around the statue, and the fact that people have campaigned to take it down… and it is just an abhorrent offence to a lot of the population of Bristol.”
Prosecutors told the jury of six men and six women that events on 7 June last year began during a peaceful Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest. The demonstration was one of many that took place all over the world following the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in the US city of Minneapolis a few weeks earlier.
Mr Hughes QC said that about 10,000 people had been at the BLM march, described as “friendly, engaging and very much a community event, with an emphasis on coming together to make a change for Black lives”.
During the protest, a small number of people congregated at the Colston statue in the city centre, the prosecutor said. The statue at this point became a focal point of the demonstration, Mr Hughes QC said, and was pulled down by people including Ponsford, Willoughby and Graham. He said it was daubed in graffiti and then rolled to the harbour by several people, including Skuse, before being pushed into the water.
The tailcoat and stick that formed part of Colston’s figure was broken off as the monument was rolled towards the harbour, the court heard. Paving slabs and railings were also damaged during the activity.
Jurors were shown videos – a compilation of CCTV and social media footage – of the statue being removed from its plinth, rolled towards the harbour and then being pushed into the water. People in the court’s packed public gallery cheered and clapped as footage showed the monument crashing to the ground.
Mr Hughes QC told the court that Ponsford, Willoughby and Graham are all clearly visible on CCTV footage using ropes to pull down the statue. Others who were seen helping remained unidentified. The prosecutor said that Skuse was pictured rolling the statue and was present when it was pushed into the harbour.
The defendants’ roles in the events were different, the prosecutor said, but all aspects amount to causing damage to property. The estimated cost of damage to the statue was £3,750 and damage to railings of Pero’s Bridge, where the monument was pushed into the water, was £350, he told the court.
The four defendants were not the only people responsible for the removal and damage to the statue, which was erected in the city centre in 1895, the prosecution acknowledged. “Others are involved too… most remain unidentified”.
Graham had identified herself during questioning by police as one of those shown to be pulling on the ropes that helped bring the statue down, said the prosecutor, who quoted from a police interview the defendant gave following the events. But the Graham told officers that whether or not her actions were criminal was “up for debate”.
“The statue being there in the first place is a massive offence to many, many people living in Bristol. By it being there I am forced, as a citizen of Bristol, to say I am not racist but I allow a statue of a slave trader to be venerated in my city,” Graham is said to have told police.
“Whether it [her involvement] is criminal,” the prosecutor quoted her as saying, “is, I think, up for debate… because of all the context around the statue and the fact that people have campaigned to take it down… it is just an abhorrent offence.”
Willoughby admitted that he helped cause damage to the statue by tying ropes around its neck, the prosecution claimed, but said he found the monument offensive given the history of Colston as a slaver. The prosecution quoted him as saying that the statue was “disgraceful” and being part of the removal “felt like the right thing to do”. He is also said to have told police that he grew up in St Pauls, surrounded by Black and Caribbean culture, aware of the racism faced by the community.
Skuse and Ponsford answered ‘no comment’ to all questions asked of them during their respective police interviews, the prosecution said.
Colston ‘a divisive figure’ but fact he was a slaver is ‘irrelevant’ to case
Mr Hughes QC told the jury: “The prosecution accepts and makes clear that Colston himself was and remains a divisive figure among the people of Bristol and beyond. It is common ground that he was a ‘slaver’ and gained much of his fortune through the slave trade.
“In later life, it appears Colston was also something of a philanthropist. This prosecution is not about justification of him or his vilification… the prosecution’s position is that it is wholly irrelevant to the issues you have to decide in this case.”
He added: “It is not in dispute that the presence of that statue has been and continues to be the subject of differing opinions and debate. At the date of this alleged offence, Bristol City Council, the custodians of the statue on behalf of the people of Bristol, had not reached a settled view on its future.”
Charges allege that the four defendants, together with “others unknown”, damaged the Colston statue and plinth of a value unknown without lawful excuse. The defendants all deny charges of criminal damage.
Graham, of Colston Road, Bristol, Ponsford, of Otter Close, Bishopstoke, Hampshire, Skuse, of Farley Close, Bristol, and Willoughby, of Gloucester Road, Bristol, have been given unconditional bail.
The trial continues.