LONDON — Four anti-racism demonstrators were cleared Wednesday of criminal damage in the toppling of a statue of a 17th-century slave trader during a Black Lives Matter protest in southwestern England.
Protesters used ropes to pull down the bronze statue of Edward Colston and dump it in Bristol's harbor on June 7, 2020. The demonstration and toppling were part of a worldwide reckoning with racism and slavery sparked by the death of a Black American man, George Floyd, at the hands of police in Minneapolis.
Loud cheers rang out from a packed public gallery at Bristol Crown Court as a jury acquitted Rhian Graham, 30, Milo Ponsford, 26, and Sage Willoughby, 22, and Jake Skuse, 33.
"This is a victory for Bristol, this is a victory for racial equality and it's a victory for anybody who wants to be on the right side of history," Willoughby said.
Graham, Ponsford and Willoughby were caught on closed-circuit television passing the ropes around the statue that were used to pull it down, while Skuse was accused of orchestrating a plan to roll it into the harbor.
All four had admitted their involvement but denied their actions were criminal, claiming the statue itself had been a hate crime against the people of Bristol.
They laughed with relief as the verdicts were read out and hugged the many supporters that were waiting outside of court when they were released.
The four had gotten got high profile help with their case. Elusive street artist Banksy designed a limited edition T-shirt, pledging the funds raised to their cause.
"The truth is that the defendants should never have been prosecuted," Raj Chada, who represented Skuse, said in a statement following the verdict.
"It is shameful that Bristol City Council did not take down the statue of slaver Edward Colston that had caused such offence to people in Bristol, and equally shameful that they then supported the prosecution of these defendants," Chada added.
Colston was a 17th-century trader who made a fortune transporting enslaved Africans across the Atlantic to the Americas on Bristol-based ships. His money funded schools and charities in Bristol, 120 miles (195 kilometers) southwest of London.
Bristol authorities fished the Colston statue out of the harbor and it was later put on display in a museum in the city, along with placards from the Black Lives Matter demonstration.
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