A court in Bristol, England, found four protestors not guilty of criminal damage after they took part in the toppling of a monument to a slave trader during a Black Lives Matter protest in 2020. Photographs of the action, which involved tossing the statue into a nearby harbor, became some of the most iconic images of the protests spurred by the murder of George Floyd in June of that year, and the case had been closely watched in the U.K.
The four protestors—Rhian Graham, Jake Skuse, Sage Willoughby, and Milo Ponsford—had been accused of causing criminal damage when they removed the statue without permission. According to the Guardian, the protestors did not deny that they had toppled the monument, but said that they were not guilty of the charges.
The statue was a monument to Edward Colston, a member of the Royal African Company, which transported thousands of slaves from Africa annually during the mid- and late 17th century. Protestors strung up the statue with rope and launched it into the harbor that slaves had passed through centuries ago. Footage of the statue’s toppling went viral on social media—and initiated a grappling with monuments in England and around the world. Three days after the statue was thrown into the river, London mayor Sadiq Khan announced plans to review all statues in the city that could be linked to the slave trade.
The trial over the actions of the protestors, who have become known as the Colston 4, has been public-facing and controversial. Even the famed street artist Banksy got involved, producing T-shirts in support of the protestors. No similar legal action has been taken against protestors in the U.S., where attendees at Black Lives Matter demonstrations also damaged monuments.
The graffitied Colston statue itself has since gone back on view in Bristol, this time in a museum. When M Shed put it on exhibition, the activist group Save Our Statues began petitioning to have the Colston monument put back where it was once—and even bought tickets for the show in bulk, to keep curious visitors from being able to see the statue. Scholars praised M Shed’s choice to exhibit the statue, with David Olusoga saying that it is “the most important artifact you could select in Britain if you wanted to tell the story of Britain’s tortuous relationship with its role in the Atlantic slave trade.”