Once again, a group of Bristol protesters captured national attention this week. Some 18 months after the toppling of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston made international news, the Colston 4 were tried for criminal damage and found not guilty.
The verdict was welcomed by many, including campaigners who had fought to have the statue removed for years. But there’s been a backlash too, with some people outraged about what this could mean for other statues, which has been stoked by parts of the tabloid press.
While the council has come under fire for not taking action on the statue sooner, Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees has given a cagey reaction, saying that prioritisng the removal of the statute would have been a waste of political capital and risked “sacrificing real substantial politics for symbolic politics”. “Whatever happened to the individuals who pulled the statue down has very little to do with the drive to tackle race and class inequality in the city,” he told the Guardian.
The statue coming down and the criminal trial that ensued were both an important and highly divisive moment in Bristol’s modern history, and have implications for the wider debate about how we best remember the darkest chapters of our history. This is why we have asked Cable readers what they think. Below is a summary of views shared on the trial of the Colston 4 while proceedings were still ongoing and since the verdict.
Support for the Colston 4
The majority of readers who answered our callout welcomed the not guilty verdict, supported the Colston 4 and the toppling of the statue last year. Multiple people expressed joy at the acquittal and pride at the role Bristol had played in the debate about remembering slavery. The four protesters were described by some as “heroes”, and their acquittal as “just” and “a monumental moment in history”.
“I am absolutely delighted. For far too long the name of Colston has been a blight on the amazing city that is Bristol. After years of inaction people took the action that politicians wouldn’t.Paul
“It feels as if Bristol is at last emerging from centuries of willful ignorance and bigotry.Steve Kimberly
“It’s wonderful. It’s daft that we have so many things in Bristol named after Colston, let alone a statue of him. The will to remove it or even better represent what he stood for and did to the world was slowed down in a bureaucratic quagmire. Direct action was left as the best course to take, I’m glad the jury could see that.Sebastian Howard
“The verdict has restored my faith in the criminal justice system. As a civilised society we obviously must have laws, however we must also evolve and apply decency. I feel incredibly proud of Bristol and the way this event has unfolded on the world stage.Julie Ann Woods
But others were against it
Some people opposed the not guilty verdict. Regardless of whether they were glad the statue had come down or not, readers said it was important that people were prosecuted for criminal damage. Otherwise, the rule of law is under threat.
“Outrageous unjustifiable verdict – criminal damage is criminal damage wherever and whatever reason motivates it. They had the decision of democratically elected representatives by the council not removing the statue. A classic case of mob rule.Stephen
While some readers said the Colston 4 and fellow protesters were acting based on the will of the people of Bristol, others challenged this idea.
“Knocking the statue down created more division rather than harmony. I’ve met numerous Bristolians who feel angry that they weren’t consulted about pulling the statue down. It’s toppling was an arrogant decision of a few people. The action unfortunately succeeded in alienating people who could have been won round.Jeremy Bristow
“It’s wrong. They were guilty. I don’t think they speak for the people of Bristol and suspect they weren’t even locals.Anon
Council under fire
Most people who answered our callouts were glad to see the statue removed in the first place and many criticised the inaction of the council despite years of campaigning.
“I think it is absolutely brilliant. I am delighted that the jury agreed the statue venerating a murder of thousands of adults and children was a hate crime, that Bristol City Council should have removed it sooner and the Colston 4 were on the right side of the law and doing the will of Bristol people.Sue Mennear
“Delighted and relieved. Justice has been done and the council should hang its head in shame.Keren
“The right legal decision was taken and it was good to see. I am a born and bred Bristolian and that provocative and reviled statue was a stain on the city I have lived in for my 60 years. My main regret is not being there to help pull it down. History is made by the people and Bristol has a proud history of it. Of course you will always have your moaners that don’t do anything about anything. We would still have the poll tax if we listened to them. The fact is that the council failed to act and remove this hateful and hated statue. We should not forget that the daily act of keeping this statue displayed and in place was actually more provocative and political than the act of how it was removed. It’s to the shame of Bristol that it stood there for so long. It’s in a museum now where it belongs and we should have a symbol and celebration of our great diversity there now instead.Brendan Kelly
Trial shouldn’t have happened in the first place
Some readers thought that the trial shouldn’t have happened in the first place, and that it was a waste of public money. Some described the proceedings as a “political trial”, where the four defendants were being made examples of.
“This prosecution was absurd, divisive, wrong.Lesley Welch
“It’s an absurdity to have four people singled out from a day of collective action with hundreds physically involved, and thousands more supporting, thousands campaigning in many different ways for years.Eva
“I think its political theatre and a show of supposed strength by the govt and especially Pritti Patel,”Deasy Bamford
As has been discussed in the tabloid media this week, a minority of readers were worried about how the not guilty verdict might encourage others to vandalise other controversial statues.
“I think the road to hell is paved with good intentions. It now makes the waters muddy for future statues, ie you can destroy property on political views. I also never thought it was a good idea to take the statue down as it would eventually end up hidden away in a museum storeroom and white wash our history. I believe Bristol needs to take ownership and heal our racist and slavery past and everyone who visits our city should be aware of what happened and that we declare and show we are champions against slavery and racism.Annie
“Regardless of motivation they were guilty. Where do we go from here? Has it suddenly become legal to start vandalising historic properties that don’t always fit in with modern times? They should have been found guilty but released without penalty.Alex Duck
“It was wrong. I had no problem with the removal of the statue if done as a result of the democratic process. This verdict appears to give the right to any group of people who are offended by something to take action outside the democratic process.Anon
Good for awareness
Among those who supported the Colston 4 and their acquittal, there were some who were glad the trial happened, because like the toppling of the statue it raised awareness of the history around Colston and the debate about how to remember slavery.
“I am tearful with joy – it was unexpected. I am pretty sure I would have found it hard to reach a not guilty verdict myself because there was damage done and these were the four that ended up on trial for it – however, it felt very unfair that these four were charged in the first place for something so many wished to see happen. There has been some incredible conversation and awareness sparked by the actions of all those involved with the march and the resulting removal of the statue. There has been some very impactful discussions and awareness raising – I personally am so much more aware of the harm and upset caused by having a figure like Colston venerated / honoured with a statue.Anon
“How many people outside of Bristol knew who Edward Colston was before his statue got pulled down? History has not been erased, it has been taught in far more detail than the statue ever managed. It will continue to inform people from its new home in a museum. Bristolians have been campaigning for its removal for years with barely any acknowledgement from people who see it as an issue they would rather not get involved with. Eventually, people who are repeatedly let down by the system will look for ways outside of it to achieve their ends.Graham Moir
We also asked readers about what should happen next with the statue and wider debate about Bristol’s history. We will be sharing ideas from this discussion in our next print edition later this month.