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Pulling down ‘monument to racism’ was right thing to do, Colston toppling trial hears

Trial day 3: The presence of the slave trader’s statue was like a hate crime, a defendant told the jury

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Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol was a “monument to racism” and its presence was “like a hate crime”, a defendant accused of helping to topple it said on Wednesday 15th December, day three of proceedings.

Sage Willoughby (pictured), 22, is one of four people on trial at Bristol Crown Court. His lawyer – arguing that the way in which the statue was removed during a Black Lives Matter protest on 7 June last year was lawful – said 125-year-old bronze monument to the slave trader “quite literally cast a shadow over the city”.

The defendant does not dispute having a role in pulling down the statue and said he believed “it was the right thing to do”. The court heard how he told officers during a police interview that the statue was a “monument to racism” and its presence, to him, felt like a hate crime.

‘Statue was threatening to Black community’

“The statue was indecent and threatening, particularly to members of the Black community in Bristol,” lawyer Liam Walker, who represents Willoughby, told the jury.  Referring to long running efforts to have the statue removed officially, or added to with its proper historical context, Walker said “as their campaigns were consistently ignored, the choice of direct, non-violent action was lawful.”

Walker also submitted that the way in which Colston’s figure was pulled from its plinth did not create a “charter for vandalism”. He told the jury: “The circumstances of 7th June were unique to this statue, this city and the repeated omissions to address a public display that caused such deep offence.”

Jurors had been told by the prosecution at an earlier hearing that, while Colston was and remained a “divisive figure” in Bristol and beyond, his identity was “wholly irrelevant” to the matters they had to decide in the case. But Walker sought to refute this, saying the slave trader’s actions were in fact “at the heart” of proceedings.

He added: “[Colston] is not, as has been described, a ‘divisive figure’… [his] vile, immoral enrichment and indeed his life should not, I suggest, divide opinion in the slightest.”

Willoughby told the court he was born in Montpelier, near the Star and Garter pub, and was surrounded by a diverse community. He said growing up there exposed him to the many inequalities people of colour face, and described people of different cultures as his “friends and family”.

The court heard that during lockdown Willoughby was staying in the back of friend’s van on an industrial estate in the city. It was here that he got to know two of his fellow defendants, Milo Ponsford, 26, and Rhian Graham, 30. 

The three of them, the court heard, were involved in pulling Colston’s statue from its plinth. Jake Skuse, 33, who Willoughby said he met only after the events, is accused of helping to roll the monument towards the harbour before it was pushed into the water.

‘It was necessary for the statue to go’

Ponsford took to the witness stand on Wednesday. The defendant said he felt it was a disgrace that the statue that depicted a man involved in “crimes against human beings” was on display.

“I thought it was necessary for Bristol, and the people of Bristol, for the statue to go,” he told the jury.

Ponsford told the court that Graham – a friend of his – had overheard him mentioning the idea of toppling the statue, the day before it happened. Both of them then brought rope to the BLM demonstration, the court heard.

Ponsford said he cycled to College Green where the protest was to begin after a moment of silence for George Floyd, whose murder by police officers in the US state of Minnesota sparked global protests. Ponsford then met Willoughby just before the march set off in the direction of the statue.

There was a black cloth draped over the monument when people began gathering around the monument and, Ponsford said, a Black man could be heard saying that he couldn’t bear to look at the statue. There were chants of “Colston must fall, bring him down”, the defendant added. Ponsford said he was not aware of anyone disagreeing with this idea.

It was at this point that he removed a rope from his rucksack and passed it to people on the statue, who placed it around the neck of the statue. People were “almost fighting” to get hold of the rope, he said.

The court heard how Ponsford gave a signal for people to start pulling the rope, after checking to ensure the area surrounding it was clear. He joined people pulling on the rope.

When the statue fell, Ponsford was one of the first people to run over to the monument and began jumping up and down on it. “I couldn’t believe it had happened. It felt like a “victory”, he told the jury.

Ponsford said he has known Willoughby for roughly two years and Graham about five years, but that he didn’t know Skuse prior to their arrests. 

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. 

The trial continues.

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