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‘We had to fight so hard to get here’, says aunt of boy struck with paddle as attacker convicted 

Police have apologised to 12-year-old Antwon Forrest and his family, who say the force’s initial poor response was because of the boy’s race.

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“It’s just frustrating to think that we had to fight so hard to get here,” says Antonia Forrest, shortly after a woman who struck her 12-year-old nephew Antwon on the forehead with a large oar, leaving him permanently scarred, was convicted of assault.

Paddleboarder Fay Johnson, 32, attacked the child – a Black boy, who is also autistic – in Conham River Park on 26 March last year. In a fit of rage, she singled him out from a group of children, some of whom had been throwing mud balls at her from the riverside.

Avon and Somerset Police was strongly criticised over its initial handling of the attack and faced accusations of racism. It chose not to prosecute Johnson after she claimed she acted in self-defence and felt “threatened” by the child.

Every time he looks in the mirror, throughout his life, it will be a constant reminder of what you did to him.

Judge Edward Burgess

The force only looked again after campaigners and Antwon’s relatives posted images of the deep cut on his forehead, questioned why his attacker targeted him and not his white friends, and argued that the police response was poor because of his race. 

Johnson wept in the dock as a judge at Bristol Crown Court on Thursday described her attack on the boy as an “impulsive” and “serious act of violence against a child”. She was spared jail, but ordered to pay £500 compensation to the boy.

But she might never have had her day in court, Antonia says, if it wasn’t for her taking action to force a review of the case. “Police said they would learn from this, so that people of colour don’t get brushed off like we were, but I don’t know if they realise the damage they’ve done,” she says.

‘They messed up – and I hope something changes’

In the aftermath of the attack, Johnson was arrested and then de-arrested, and police told Antwon’s father there was not enough evidence to mount a case against her. But there was a mountain of it, including video footage of the assault from a number of witnesses, which officers initially dismissed.

The force’s initial decision to close the case prompted Antwon, who Antonia says was left “totally traumatised” by the assault, to gather Snapchat footage from his friends who witnessed the incident. His relatives began sharing images of his injury on social media.

Following a huge backlash, the police reopened the investigation and Johnson was eventually charged with assault causing actual bodily harm. The case was also reclassified, with officers saying they were treating the incident as potentially racially motivated.

“I think more would have been done in the first place if Antwon was a white child,” says Antonia. 

“The police have apologised to us, and we’re grateful for that,” she tells the Cable. “They know they messed up on this occasion and I hope something changes.”

Avon and Somerset Police chief inspector Mike Buck, in a statement following the ruling, said he wanted to assure Antwon’s family and the wider community that officers had “a number of learnings” from the case that would help improve future investigations.

‘A slap on the wrist’

Sentencing Johnson, Judge Edward Burgess said the attack was not racially motivated. He ruled that she would be spared jail given her previous good character, her remorse and because she had “already suffered significantly” – she received death threats and had to move house and change jobs.

He told Johnson: “You struck him on the forehead with a paddle, causing a nasty injury which bled heavily at the time and left a visible scar. Every time he looks in the mirror, throughout his life, it will be a constant reminder of what you did to him.”

Burgess added that the attack was an “impulsive act of violence” and was “satisfied it was not in any way racially motivated”.

Antwon’s aunt says she was “quite shocked” by the sentence, which she described as “just a slap on the wrist”.

“We didn’t want her to go to prison,” Antonia says. “I’m a mother myself so I didn’t wish that upon her, but I did think she’d get something like community service.”

Asked if she accepted the judge’s view that the assault was not racially motivated, she says she “can’t be sure” whether race played a part. But she reiterates that Antwon was – of the up to the 30 young people with her nephew at the time – the only Black boy present.

“I accept that she was very remorseful – she was crying the whole time – and I do think that she maybe had a point of anger,” she adds. “I just wish the police had done something initially and then it wouldn’t have got to this.”

Antonia says that when she posted about the incident on social media, she didn’t expect it to “blow up” like it did. She believes that if Johnson had been arrested and the case was handled properly, the defendant might not have faced such a public backlash.

Of the death threats Johnson received, Antonia says: “They shouldn’t do it, it’s obviously not necessary and I don’t agree with people’s horrible comments. I don’t like stuff like that, it’s not how we are as a family – it’s not how we were raised.”

‘Her maternal instinct split over into rage’

The court heard that Antwon was among a group of up to 30 children at the park, while Johnson was paddleboarding on the river with her daughter, who also had a friend with her. 

Some of the children were throwing balls of mud containing rocks at those passing on the river, which hit boats, canoes and paddleboards. There is no evidence Antwon threw anything, prosecutor Ehsanul Oarith said.

Johnson became “agitated and visibly angry”, he added, and confronted the group of children after her paddleboard was hit.

He continued: “She was up against Antwon, they were both making comments towards each other… a witness saw them push each other, following which the defendant used the paddle in her hand to hit Antwon. She had clearly lost it. She was very, very angry.”

Emma Martin, who represented Johnson in court, said the defendant was a devoted mother and stepmother whose protective maternal instinct spilt over into rage. She added that her client was “ashamed, desperately embarrassed and remorseful”.

Martin stressed that there were no racial undertones to the attack.

Police ‘learnings’ from Antwon Forrest case

Avon and Somerset Police accepted that its initial response to the incident was poor and there were things the force “didn’t get right.”

Chief Inspector Buck said: “We’ve identified a number of learnings as a result of this case, including the fact the family should have been offered a right to review following the initial decision. We recognise the strength of community concern following the initial outcome of this case and the perception that Antwon was treated differently because of his race.

“While we’ve found no evidence to suggest race played any part in the police decision to take no further action, we’ve listened deeply to the concerns and issues raised by the victim’s family and the wider community, and we’ll use the lessons from this investigation in the ongoing work we are doing under the national race action plan.”

He said a “significant” part of the plan will focus on improving how Black victims of crime are treated, and that all neighbourhood and response officers are undergoing training to help them improve their investigative standards. 

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