Watch: Colston statue verdict is ‘not green light for political vandalism’
One of the BLM protesters cleared of criminal damage over the toppling the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol has denied the verdict condoned political vandalism.
The bronze memorial to the 17th century slave merchant was pulled down during the protest on 7 June 2020, before being rolled into the water.
Rhian Graham, 30, Milo Ponsford, 26, and Sage Willoughby, 22, were caught on CCTV passing the ropes around the statue that were used to pull it down.
Jake Skuse, 33, was accused of orchestrating a plan to throw it in the harbour.
On Wednesday, all four were cleared by a jury at Bristol Crown Court after almost three hours of deliberations following a two-week-and-two-day trial.
Questioned on the verdict on Thursday morning, Graham denied it signalled a “green light for political vandalism”.
She told Good Morning Britain: “I completely understand people’s concerns and I really don’t think this is a green light for everyone to just start pulling down statues.
“This moment is about this statue in this city in this time.
“I will leave the fate of monuments in other cities to the citizens of those cities.”
But, speaking on the same show, political commentator Calvin Robinson said the verdict “doesn’t set a very good precedent”.
He explained: “It's almost vigilante in mindset that you can just tear down a statue if you don't agree with it…
“What they should have done is asked for a referendum… how does Rhian know she speaks for the majority?
“If we want to remove a statue we should do so properly in a civilised manner… this precedent will let people copy this across the country.”
Watch: Moment protesters tear down Edward Colston statue
All four defendants in the trial admitted their involvement but denied their actions were criminal, claiming the statue itself had been a hate crime against the people of Bristol.
Legal expert Adam Wagner said on Twitter said the verdict “doesn’t set a legal precedent” as the decision was made by a jury and anyone damaging property in future “would have no way of knowing if a jury would convict or acquit them”.
Nevertheless, transport secretary Grant Shapps said on Thursday morning that the government will close a “potential loophole” allowing individuals to possibly get away with damaging statues.
He told BBC Breakfast: “We do have a clause in the Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill which will perhaps close a potential loophole and mean you can’t just go round and cause vandalism, destroy the public realm, and then essentially not be prosecuted.”
Shapps insisted destroying public property is unacceptable, adding to Times Radio: “We live in a democratic country. If you want to see things changed you can get them changed, you do that through the ballot box, or petitioning your local council, etc. You don’t do it by going out and causing criminal damage.”
Tory MP Robert Jenrick also hit out at the verdict, tweeting that “we undermine the rule of law… if we accept vandalism and criminal damage are acceptable forms of political protest”.
But historian David Olusoga, who provided expert evidence for the defence at the trial, welcomed the court verdicts.
He told Good Morning Britain: “That statue standing there for 125 years was validating the career of a mass murderer.
“And to people whose ancestors were enslaved by Colston and men like him, it is offensive, and you can talk to thousands of people in Bristol who found it offensive.
“So I think this idea that a statue is somehow benign or harmless, I think that depends on your experience, where you’re coming from and what your family background is.”
Olusoga added: “Most people don’t understand the details of this history, of this statue, and the long campaign to have it removed peacefully.”
An estimated £3,750 of damage was done to the statue – including removing its staff and a coat tail – and £350 of damage was caused to the railings of Pero’s Bridge.
The court heard Colston was involved in the enslavement and transportation of more than 80,000 people, of which almost 10,000 were children.
An estimated 19,000 died on ships bound for the Caribbean and the Americas.
Watch: Defendants cleared of Colston statue criminal damage