Bristol had not considered removing Colston statue before toppling, trial hears

Bristol had not considered removing the statue of Edward Colston before its toppling by protesters, despite “significant concerns” about its presence among the local black community, the city council’s head of culture has said.

Jon Finch spoke at Bristol crown court on day two of the trial of the four people accused of helping to pull down the memorial to the slave trader, roll it to Bristol harbour and dump it in the River Avon.

Jake Skuse, 33, Rhian Graham, 30, Milo Ponsford, 26, and Sage Willoughby, 22, all deny criminal damage.

Finch gave evidence for the prosecution about the damage caused to the Colston statue and surrounding street furniture when it was toppled during a Black Lives Matter protest attended by 10,000 people on 7 June last year. He said the maintenance and upkeep of the statue was his department’s role, and that no permission had been given by the council for it to be removed or altered.

But in cross-examination he said there had been concerns about the presence of the statue in the city, and its veneration of a slave trader, going back to at least the 1920s and growing in intensity towards the end of the 20th century. Despite that the council had taken no action over the statue, he said.

Blinne Ní Ghrálaigh, acting for Graham, put it to him that the council had a public sector equality duty that required it to think about the impact of such objects on the city’s various communities.

Ní Ghrálaigh asked him: “Is it not your role to be aware of whether something is capable of undermining good relations between different groups in society?”

Finch, the head of culture and creative industries at Bristol city council, replied: “It is the council’s responsibility to ensure that heritage and the civic realm encourage communities to work together rather than drive them apart.”

Ní Ghrálaigh went on: “The civic realm should be about generating community cohesion and positive relations, yes?”

“Yes,” Finch replied. And, Ní Ghrálaigh asked, did the statue do that?

“The statue clearly caused significant concerns in certain parts of the community,” Finch said.

“And despite recognising that, there were no moves by the council to remove the statue were there?” Ní Ghrálaigh asked.

“No, not that I’m aware of,” Finch said.

Finch also said the toppled statue now provided an opportunity for “conversation and education”. Since June this year, after almost a year in storage, it has been on display in Bristol’s M Shed museum, along with an exhibit of placards from the protest and comments from Bristolians on their feelings about the statue.

Tom Wainwright, for Ponsford, read out Finch’s own words, from the opening of the exhibit, describing the opportunity for the M Shed to demonstrate “the value of what museums could and should be about”.

Wainwright said: “The toppling of the statue was in itself an historic event, it was a protest that was heard around the world?”

“It was, yes,” Finch said.

A police officer at the scene of the protest told the court how the reaction of the crowd was “bordering on mass hysteria” at the moment the Colston statue was pulled to the ground.

In a statement read out in court, PC Julie Hayward of Avon and Somerset police said she and colleagues had been briefed to provide a “non-visible style of community policing” on the day of the protest.

Hayward said about 3,000 people had gathered around the statue “shouting, with fists clenched: ‘Pull it down, pull it down’”. She said: “although they were not hostile towards us the whole atmosphere changed and it was clear they were intent on pulling the statue down.

“As it crashed to the floor the whole ground shook. The crowd were bordering on mass hysteria now: celebrating, jumping on the broken statue on the floor.”

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