Toppling Colston statue was act of ‘allyship and solidarity’, says accused

A woman accused of helping to pull down the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol said she was acting out of “allyship and solidarity” with people of colour, a court heard.

Rhian Graham told Bristol crown court on Monday she knew the bronze memorial to the slave trader was a source of offence for many Bristolians and that the council had not responded to calls for it to be removed before the Black Lives Matter protest she attended last year.

Giving evidence in her defence, Graham described how she brought rope to the protest, used her expertise as a lighting rigger to tie a noose in it, passed it to others to attach around the neck of the Colston statue, then helped pull it down.

Asked by her barrister, Blinne Ní Ghrálaigh, what she hoped pulling down the statue would show, Graham replied: “That was my expression of my allyship and solidarity with people of colour. I believe that by removing that statue we were removing a symbol of great harm and oppression that towered over our community and offended so many.

“I believe that act was an act of compassion and solidarity, not violence.”

Graham, 30, is accused alongside Milo Ponsford, 26, Sage Willoughby, 22, and “others unknown” of helping to tie ropes around the statue’s neck and using them to pull it from its plinth in Bristol.

They are on trial for criminal damage alongside Jake Skuse, 33, who is accused of helping roll it to Bristol harbour, where it was thrown into the River Avon.

Graham, an events organiser and lighting rigger, said she did not come from an activist background, but that in the period leading up to the protest on 7 June 2020 she had become increasingly aware of the impact of racism on black people.

A turning point had been reading the book Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, Graham said, which made her reassess the casual racism she had grown up with as a child in Norfolk.

Her voice shook as she told the court: “I never considered myself racist but I don’t think I ever experienced the daily experience of a black person. I felt like I had been a terrible ally.

“It was the realisation of the privilege I have just because of the skin colour I have that made me feel like I have to stand in solidarity for black lives.”

Re-emphasising her actions were an act of “allyship and solidarity” with the black community, Graham added: “I felt like it would be a good idea to bring a rope with me to the protest and to provide it to the people of Bristol, if they so wished to attempt to pull down that statue.”

Graham said she felt “it should be considered a crime” to glorify a man such as Colston. “I believe [pulling the statue down] was justified because it says [on the plaque attached to the plinth where it sat] that it was owned by the citizens of Bristol, of which I am one,” she said. “However, the act of pulling down that statue I believe that it was necessary to even prevent further harm.”

She added: “Jimmy Savile also donated to schools and hospitals, but I’m sure I speak for everyone here when I say we don’t want a statue of Jimmy Savile in our city.”

Skuse, Graham, Ponsford and Willoughby all deny criminal damage. The trial continues.

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