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Colston toppler: ‘We’ve pushed things in the right direction’

Rhian Graham speaks to the Cable about how pulling down the slave trader’s statue was a ‘victory for Bristol’.

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Rhian Graham parked her van near Portland Square in St Paul’s. She took a length of climbing rope from the vehicle, stuffed it into her rucksack, and began walking into Bristol city centre. 

She was heading to a Black Lives Matter march. It was one of the many being held across the world following the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in the US two weeks earlier. 

During the protest, using her rope, she and two of her friends helped topple a statue of slave trader Edward Colston – a monument she describes as a “symbol of great harm and oppression”

Their actions that day – on 7 June, 2020 – got the three of them, and a man who helped roll the statue to the harbour where it was dumped in the water, arrested and charged with criminal damage. 

But last Wednesday, following a landmark trial 18 months after the events unfolded, the group now known as the Colston 4 were acquitted. The public gallery erupted with cheers and applause. 

Not guilty: The Colston 4 outside Bristol Crown Court

Rhian, now 30, describes the day of the toppling as one of the most “transformational” moments of her life. But more than that, she says, it was a day that helped change how Bristol remembers its past.

She speaks to the Cable about pulling down the statue, how the not guilty verdicts were a “victory for Bristol”, and the negative reaction that’s been spiralling since the so-called Colston 4 were cleared… 

White Silence is Violence

En route to the march the streets were  busy, Rhian says, and she encountered people holding placards, one of which read “White Silence Is Violence”. It’s a phrase that strikes a chord with her.

Rhian grew up in a predominantly white area, near Norwich in Norfolk. The casual racism she witnessed as a child went unchallenged, and even as an adult, living in Bristol, she felt she could have been a better ally to people of colour.

But the coronavirus lockdown – during which her work as an events manager and lighting rigger had dried up – provided her the time and space to educate herself about the impact of racism.

“It was white people who put that statue up,” Rhian says. “And it was – predominantly, I suppose – white people who pulled it down again.”

“I had probably been a bit consumed by my own life and career… but the pandemic gave me all the time to listen and learn and, I think, deeply empathise,” she tells the Cable. “There was this call to action happening in my mind.”

The march provided her with an opportunity, she says, to display her “allyship and solidarity”. It was in this spirit too, she says, that she helped pull down the monument to 17th century slaver Colston. 

Colston Must Fall 

Rhian joined the march as it moved towards the city centre, but peeled away from the main route to join a group of protesters who were beginning to gather around the statue. 

A placard that read “Colston Must Fall” had been placed at the foot of the monument. People were throwing eggs at it, Rhian says, and chanting “bring him down!”.

It was obvious, she says, that everybody present wanted the statue to come down. And they had waited long enough, she adds. “Dissent around the statue had been going on for about 100 years.”

Calls for its removal – including a 10,000 signature strong petition – had been ignored by Bristol City Council, she says. “So how long do people have to say that something’s not okay to be listened to?”

It was near the statue that Rhian met with her friends Milo Ponsford and Sage Willoughby. Together, along with Jake Skuse, who the others did not know at the time, they would become known as the Colston 4.

Rhian and Milo had spoken briefly the night before at his workshop in Horfield, where she had been renovating her van, about how great it would be to see the statue removed. The conversation, she says, didn’t go further than this.

Asked if she had planned to topple the statue, Rhian says: “I felt like it would be a good idea to bring rope… to provide it to the people of Bristol, if they so wished to attempt to pull it down.”

Rhian took the rope from her rucksack and tied a figure-of-eight knot big enough to noose Colston’s head. She then tried to pass it upwards to people who were already on the statue – including Sage.

When Milo and Rhian’s ropes were in place, people in the crowd began readying themselves to pull. Rhian joined them, after ensuring that the area surrounding the monument had been cleared.

“I will absolutely never forget the feeling of that rope in my hands,” Rhian tells the Cable. “I felt the statue rock forwards, back again, and knew the next time it rocked towards me it was going to come down.”

“I’m not under any impression that we’ve cured racism by pulling that statue down. But it’s created momentum and pushed things in the right direction – more people are listening. It’s another step towards racial justice.”

The statue came crashing down and the crowd – cheering – swarmed around it. Rhian however, stood still. She says she had “frozen”, and couldn’t quite believe what had happened. 

Rhian and Milo gathered up their ropes and left for Castle Park, where the protest was concluding. It’s only then that Rhian learned – reading the news –  the statue had been rolled to the harbour and dumped in the water.

Nobody was Listening

Colston’s statue was an “abhorrent offence” to the city, particularly its Black community, Rhian says. She says the democratic process – petitions, campaigns for it to be removed – hadn’t been fully recognised by the council.

“That was the justification,” she says. “The democratic process had been followed and nobody listened. So with that force and energy that was there – with the Black Lives Matter protest – it was a moment of critical mass that provided the means to do something.”

Two days later, the toppling was referenced at George Floyd’s funeral. Reverend Al Sharpton said: “All over the world I’ve seen grandchildren of slave masters tearing down slave masters statues – over in England they put it in the river.”

This, Rhian says, proved how symbolic the moment really was. “It was white people who put that statue up,” she told the Cable. “And it was – predominantly, I suppose – white people who pulled it down again.”

Not a Green Light to Damage Things

Rhian, Milo and Sage – along with Jake, who helped roll the statue to the harbour – were cleared of criminal damage following a jury trial that concluded last week at Bristol Crown Court.

The prosecution had argued that the Colston 4’s actions were a “violent escalation” of the Black Lives Matter protest. William Hughes QC told the jury the case was about the “cold, hard facts” of criminal damage to the monument. “If we can simply pull down what offends us, regardless of the views of others, then what statues, institutions or buildings, are next?”

But barristers for the defendants argued that Colston’s statue was so “indecent” and “abusive” that the defendants’ actions were lawful and proportionate.

A petition from ‘Save Our Statues’ calling for a re-trial of the defendants has reached 27,000 signatures, and some political commentators have said the verdict has created a “charter for vandalism”.

Asked in the days after the verdict about the negative reaction, Rhian says it’s important that the jury’s decision isn’t misinterpreted. “Everyone’s got an opinion,” she says. “But the trial was about this statue, at this time.”

“It’s not a green light for people to go and damage things.”

Rhian says she was never really concerned about the outcome of the trial. She tells the Cable: “At the end of the day all of the good things had already happened.”

She says the verdict was “never about me” or her fellow defendants, and describes it as a “win for the people of Bristol”.

“I’m not under any impression that we’ve cured racism by pulling that statue down. But it’s created momentum and pushed things in the right direction – more people are listening. It’s another step towards racial justice.”

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