The trial saw plenty of complex legal arguments, but ultimately it came down to a question of doing the right thing.
With the verdict in the Colston 4 trial announced, many, not least the right-wing media and Twitterati, are asking how the defendants managed to win what seemed like a clear-cut case against them.
With video evidence of them committing the charges against them, Rhian Graham, Milo Ponsford, Jake Skuse and Sage Willoughby were left to argue that their actions were morally justified.
Speaking after yesterday’s verdict, Raj Chada, of Hodge Jones & Allen Solicitors, who defended Graham, said that the defence came down to ‘the righteousness of the cause.’
He also said that a conviction would be a disproportionate interference with the defendants’ rights to free speech and conscience.
So what does this look like in practice?
Preventing Greater Harm
One of the arguments put forward by Mr Chada, and the other defendants’ lawyers, was that in pulling down the statue, the four were in fact ‘preventing a crime from happening’ as ‘it was a criminal offence to keep that statue up, because it was so offensive.’
Or, to put it in legalese, the statue constituted an indecent display under Section 1 of the Indecent Displays (Control) Act 1981, according to Liam Walker, the barrister who appeared for Sage Willoughby.
The view that the statue itself was the real act of vandalism was evidenced by testimonies in the courtroom.
Gloria Daniels, a Bristol resident and descendant of former enslaved people, submitted a statement to the court during the trial. In it she said she felt a ‘wave of huge relief,’ when she learned of the toppling.
She went on to say that ‘the statue of a slave trader had remained up for so long, and without contextualisation, was in my view profoundly shameful.’
During the trial it was noted that Bristol City Council, who owned the statue, had multiple opportunities to remove the statue following petitions to that effect and general public sentiment against the statue, as was confirmed by the council’s head of culture and creative industry.
In his evidence to the court, Ponsford recounted how he himself had signed petitions to have the statue removed, but felt that the council had ‘abandoned’ the issue.
He said: ‘I believe I had a lawful excuse to damage that statue, preventing further harm to the people of Bristol.’
Meanwhile, Skuse, who was accused of helping roll the statue to the harbour, said: ‘If there was racist graffiti on the wall, the council would remove it. But they didn’t remove this statue.’
In comments after the trial, Mr Chada said that it was wrong of the council to allow the statue to stand for so long, and that: ‘If the democratic process wasn’t going to do it for the council, then these four individuals were going to do it,’ he said.
Context is Key
Despite the best efforts of the prosecution to maintain a narrow focus on the acts of the defendants, the trial turned on the wider context in which those acts took place.
Each defendant spoke at length of their motivations to act against the Colston statue based on the latter’s involvement in the slave trade and responsibility for tens of thousands of deaths.
In her initial police interview, Graham is reported to have said: ‘Whether [the toppling] is criminal or not, I think, is up for debate… because of all the context around the statue, and the fact that people have campaigned to take it down… and it is just an abhorrent offence to a lot of the population of Bristol.’
The defendant’s arguments of context were substantiated by the expert evidence of historian and TV presenter David Olusoga.
On December 17th, Olusoga told the jury of how Colston became deputy governor of the Royal African Company, which held a monopoly on slave trading in the 17th Century.
He also described the way in which Colston’s legacy has been managed and moulded over the years by the Society of Merchant Venturers, of which Colston was a member during his lifetime. Olusoga said that the Society sought to focus attention on Colston’s later philanthropy and not his slave trading.
Beyond helping to convince the jury, Olusoga’s testimony helped broadcast the truth about Colston’s, and Bristol’s, role in the slave trade to a wider audience than ever before.
Speaking after yesterday’s verdict, Graham gave thanks to David Olusoga for the testimony he gave, which, she said, amounted to ‘a two-hour lecture on slavery and the empire’ in the court.
This trial did not set any new legal precedents. However, Mr Chada stated his desire that the trial should signal to other judges and courts that juries should be given full information about a case, including all relevant context and background.
Yesterday’s verdict was surely shocking to some given the evidence against the defendants. However, it was not unprecedented.
The jury’s decision follows at least three high profile acquittals last year. In June, the Ziegler case in the Supreme Court – in which Mr Chada was also involved – vindicated activists charged with obstruction of the highway. The court found that obstruction can, in certain circumstances, be considered lawful.
In December, three members of Palestine Action were acquitted on charges of criminal damage after the magistrate determined that the prosecution had failed to prove that convicting the defendants would be proportionate with their freedom to protest, A similar argument was made in regard to the Colston 4 as well.
Later in December, six members of XR employed the Ziegler defence and were acquitted by a jury for climbing onto and glueing onto a Docklands Light Railway train in London.
The Colston trial also drew on the Ziegler verdict, with the jury being required to consider whether conviction would be proportionate with regard to the Human Rights Act 1998.
The right-wing press are already decrying yesterday’s verdict as granting a “licence to destroy” But as Priti Patel’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which makes a specific offence of damaging a statue, nears passing into law, the reality is that many of us will face trials like this one.
Yesterday’s verdict, and that of the Ziegler case, are a lesson in how to win against the odds. They give us hope that conscience and justice can win and that a better world is possible.
What did you think of the trial and the verdict? What does this mean for other activists? Leave a comment below.