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2 April 2022

How the trial of the Colston Four was won: the inside story

The acquittal of four protesters in Bristol sparked fury from the government – and raised fresh questions about justice, racism and history.

By Tom Lamont

1. Advocates for the defence

On the eve of the trial of the Colston Four, a 46-year-old barrister called Liam Walker leaned over from his seat in the corner of a Bristol pub to talk to the people at the nearest table. “What do you reckon, then?” Walker asked. “If you were on the jury, would you acquit or convict?”

The trial was all that anybody could talk about. Four local people had been charged with criminal damage for helping to pull down and deface the statue of Edward Colston, a 17th-century civic benefactor known to have traded in African slaves. Until its toppling on 7 June 2020, during a Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest, the 9ft bronze had stood on a plinth in central Bristol for 125 years. Now it was a Sunday in December 2021. The trial at Bristol Crown Court was expected to last ten days.

Perhaps it would run a little longer. The case raised many difficult questions: legal, historical and moral. Where should we draw the line between legitimate protest and criminal disorder, between quick, effective action and piecemeal democratic reform? The trial would be a referendum on arguments that had been unresolved since the summer of 2020. Colston’s statue came down during the hot, locked-down days after George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis. A movement for racial accountability was reinvigorated, with a sense that the creeping pace of change might now be hastened. While protests took place in cities around the world, news of a slaver’s statue being toppled by a diverse crowd in Bristol spread far. At Floyd’s funeral on 9 June, Reverend Al Sharpton made appreciative mention of it in the eulogy.

There were television debates, classroom discussions, questions asked in the Commons. In the US, the rapper Ice Cube tweeted his support; in Bristol, local artist Banksy raised funds for the accused. Soon after the battered statue was fished out of the harbour it had been rolled into, it was put on display in a city museum – the centrepiece of an exhibition that framed the protest as a rejection of racism as much as any rejection of law and order.

Even so, many people viewed the toppling as guerrilla work, not just illegal but selfish and dangerous, a glaring invitation to copycats. Last year, Boris Johnson’s government proposed stricter legal protections for British monuments, including ten-year sentences for those who defaced them. It was expected that across-the-board convictions for the Colston Four would amount to a major statement about life under Johnson’s leadership and that of his hard-line home secretary, Priti Patel.

In the pub, Liam Walker blew his hair from his eyes and sipped a pint of West Country ale. A gobby Londoner – he grew up talking his way out of fights in Croydon – Walker was one of four advocates for the defendants. He used his final hours before the trial to assess the mood among strangers, testing lines, gauging their effect.

To the layperson, acquittal looked unlikely. There was strong evidence, CCTV footage, disadvantageous material pulled from the defendants’ phones. Though two of the Four had stayed mostly silent during police interrogation, the others had briskly confessed. As Walker left the pub for a rented Airbnb, he plotted continuously, trying to work out ways to counter all this. His fellow advocates were in hotel rooms and rentals of their own, polishing arguments and analogies, going over important points like anxious actors.

Tom Wainwright, a Yorkshire-born 41-year-old who wore three-piece suits in court, would be leading many of the defence cross-examinations. Blinne Ní Ghrálaigh, a softly spoken barrister from Northern Ireland, had recently arrived in the city after days spent juggling defence work in London. That evening, she spoke on the phone to Raj Chada, a fellow Northern Irelander with whom Ní Ghrálaigh had collaborated before, to catch up on strategy. Chada, a 49-year-old solicitor-advocate, was a veteran overseer of protest trials.

On Monday 13 December, the advocates got their first look at the men and women who would decide this case. Twelve randomly selected jurors filed in to the high-ceilinged courtroom; though evenly split by gender, only one was a person of colour. To their side sat the pink-cheeked, red-robed judge, Peter Blair QC. Below him, the barristers spread out at tables that were instantly a ruin of ring-binders, cables and laptops. The four defendants sat in a perspex-screened dock at the back, guarded by a uniformed officer who moved about with an ominous clinking of keys.

One of the barristers for the prosecution, William Hughes QC, a 57-year-old with a pleasant biscuit-advert voice that could turn usefully to sharpness, rose to his feet. Televisions were rolled into place around the room, and footage cued. While Hughes narrated, we watched the events of 7 June 2020 unfold.

It was just after 2.30pm when a large crowd gathered under the statue. The defendants were picked out in freeze-frame as they moved towards the plinth. We saw the youngest defendant, a 22-year-old labourer called Sage Willoughby, scale Colston’s back with a series of rapid upward scuttles. He clung, monkey-like, to the statue’s head. With care he turned a rope round and round Colston’s throat, securing it tightly.

2. The defendants

“I remember the back of that statue was slippery, no footholds. It was all adrenalin. If you asked me to climb it now, I’d struggle,” Willoughby said. We were walking towards his home after a day in court, his coat flapping open over a navy Moss Bros suit he’d been wearing in the hope of impressing the judge. Pale, conspicuously tall, with dark bushy hair pulled back into a bunch, Willoughby was frequently recognised, and he nodded at any “good lucks”. He didn’t respond to the glares, of which there were several, too.

An eccentric, agreeable young man who’d had a tough upbringing and never really took to school, Willoughby recalled the day of the toppling. “Tendrils of energy,” he said, had seemed to draw the protesters towards the plinth. A banner had been laid on the pavement that read “COLSTON MUST FALL”. There was a sense of permission in the air, and of timeliness. Despite numerous campaigns, Bristol City Council (which owned the statue) had failed to address local unease about the continued veneration of a man who had made his fortune from the Atlantic slave trade. The protesters had run out of patience.

After fastening a noose, Willoughby helped toss two ropes to a group that included his friends Rhian Graham, a 30-year-old events worker, and Milo Ponsford, a 26-year-old carpenter. Graham and Ponsford led tug-of-war teams in wrenching the statue free of its moorings and forward off the plinth. It struck the ground with a metallic boom, like a solitary blast from a cannon; a sound quickly drowned out by cheers. Ponsford was among the dozens who rushed forward to stamp and kick. The statue was sprayed with insults in blue and blood-red paint.

Willoughby stood off, stunned. He told me he was reminded of the fall of the Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad, which he’d seen in archive footage from 2003. That took chains. Tanks! In Bristol they’d done it with a couple of canoeing ropes. After Willoughby, Graham and Ponsford had fled the scene, the statue was rolled to the harbour by a large group that included the fourth defendant, 37-year-old labourer Jake Skuse.

Ponsford was the first to hear from the police, most likely because of his over-revelatory Instagram posts. Before his phone was taken for analysis, he warned Willoughby by text. Willoughby wrote back: “Ah, shit.” By the end of the summer they’d both been interviewed under caution, as had Graham and Skuse. While others were let off with warnings, the emerging Colston Four (Skuse had never met the others before) were charged with criminal damage. Such was the backlog in the English courts that most people facing similar charges could expect to wait two or three years to appear before a judge. If a clue was needed as to the importance of this case to a Johnson government and a Patel-led Home Office, it came via scheduling: only 18 months passed before the Colston Four were in Judge Blair’s courtroom, offering explanations, one after another.

Ponsford was the first to take the stand, and a gift for the prosecution barristers. They tortured him with unflattering evidence taken from his phone, including jaunty messenger-app confessions and a deleted note-to-self entitled “Why did I do it”. Over and over, they put it to Ponsford that the toppling of Colston was a gratuitous and violent act. In the context of an otherwise peaceful BLM march, the prosecution suggested it was also tone deaf, an act of appropriation.

Going down: the statue of Saddam Hussein toppled in Baghdad, 2003. Photo by Gilles Bassignac/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Willoughby was anxious about his own cross-examination, he told me, as we walked away from the court. He had a tendency to “overthink and spiral” when under pressure. Was it right that four white defendants should have become the faces of an action that campaigners of colour had worked towards for years? Others had voiced similar concerns, including the GB News presenter Mercy Muroki, who came close to a contempt of court charge after writing an article headlined: “I’m in favour of white people calling out racism – but the Colston saga reeks of white guilt.”

Race informed and framed the trial in conflicting ways. Julius Abraham, a film-maker who sat with me in the press box every day, was dismayed to note that for stretches of time he was the only black person in the room. A defence witness, Cleo Lake, went off-script to observe how offensive it was that portraits of bygone Bristol mayors (men also known to be slavers) should hang in the courthouse foyer. Meanwhile, Bristol’s current mayor, Marvin Rees – a man of colour – was one of the decision-makers who had left the statue in situ for so long. Though Rees never testified, he was freely criticised in court for his indecision. At such moments, the jurors were presented with the discomforting scenario of four white citizens intervening to correct the racial insensitivities of a black leader.

I walked with Willoughby to his home in St Paul’s, a historically black neighbourhood. He grew up next door to a landmark pub, the Star & Garter, and now he pointed out his childhood window, which overlooked the pub’s courtyard. “Open till 4am every night,” he remembered, “blasting dub reggae, sound systems out. Caribbean culture was such a big part of my childhood.” He shrugged. “It’s not like I can ever take that out of my brain. To not feel some sort of family and solidarity with these people, to not stand up for them, with them – that would seem bizarre to me.”

When his turn came to take the stand, Willoughby surprised everyone by going toe-to-toe with Hughes. Pressed to admit there had been arrogance, even nastiness, in the toppling, Willoughby gave no ground. Hughes, now friendly, now furious, had wrong-footed other witnesses. He put it to Willoughby that the BLM protest in June 2020 wasn’t even about removing Colston; it was about black lives mattering. “I believe they stand for the same thing,” Willoughby answered.

Riskily, it seemed, he volunteered that notion he’d had – about it being reminiscent of the toppling of Saddam’s statue in Baghdad. Hughes’s eyes lit up. So it was a violent act? Willoughby stood straighter. “It was an act of love,” he answered.

3. The witnesses

“Act of love!” quoted Liam Walker with satisfaction, as he banged open the door of the two-urinal toilet. Like the stuffy corridor outside the courtroom, with its hissing radiators and benches, this had become one of the neutral spaces where mismatched players in the trial kept colliding. Arresting cop and arrestee. Cross-examiner and the examined. “Act of love,” Walker repeated contentedly, as he unzipped. “That brought down the house, didn’t it?”

Walker was advocating for Willoughby. Although the defence team was meant to be operating in harmony, each lawyer spoke for an individual client (Ní Ghrálaigh for Graham, Wainwright for Ponsford, Chada for Skuse) and from an early stage there were disagreements. Some of these were trifling – a squabble over desk space – while others were strategic. Almost always, the excitable Walker was pitched against the other three.

They were simply very different lawyers. Ní Ghrálaigh was known for her eloquence and exceptional grasp of the laws that safeguard the right to protest. Wainwright had a rat-a-tat interrogation style and a winning way with Judge Blair. Chada, a subtle manager, had helped bring these two to the team.

Walker, by his own admission, was nobody’s idea of a handpicked selection. He had never worked on a protest case like this. Mostly he was a criminal barrister, a successful one who took what defence work came his way. This often meant advocating for those who rated low in terms of public sympathy. “Dodgy dentists,” as Walker put it. “Celebrities in a scrape. Blokes who’ve been found with a million stolen fags in their van. Mrs Hitlers.” Years of gruelling uphill battles at jury trials had convinced him of the value of emotion in a courtroom. He was a feels guy, someone markedly good at softening jurors. Walker had been brought on to the case by Willoughby, who contacted him through a friend of a friend of a friend.

Walker strode across a concourse and ducked into his consultation room. Really, it was a glorified broom cupboard, unfurnished save for a desk and two wheeled chairs. Still, it was a quiet spot where Walker and Willoughby could talk tactics. Today they were joined by the historian David Olusoga, who was about to be called as their witness. Olusoga sat with his legs crossed and his head tipped back. “Well, I’m ready to enter the crucible,” he said, coolly, when Walker announced it was nearly time. “Can’t be any worse than Newsnight, can it?”

Olusoga was key to Walker’s strategy of bringing more emotion to the case. An expert on the slave trade, Olusoga could put the fall of Colston into its historical context. He was a Bristolian himself, of Nigerian heritage, eloquent and charming – and, not unimportantly to Walker, Olusoga was famous, a presenter of popular BBC history programmes. As he strode confidently into court, a noticeable thrill went around the room. One of the prosecution barristers murmured to the other that his wife was a fan and would be sorry to miss this.

Olusoga’s evidence focused on the 17th-century slave trade and Colston’s role therein. Yes, he was a benefactor to Bristol and a source of (targeted, not especially democratic) philanthropy. But his wealth came from a cruel trade, the details of which were hard to hear repeated. There were kidnaps, brandings, murders. During an account of the frequency of rape, a reporter in the press box began to shake. Later, Olusoga laid out for the jurors an argument that the veneration of Colston was in fact quite inorganic, the consequence of canny Victorian spin. Decades after Colston’s death in the early 1700s, Olusoga explained, a deliberate programme of reputation-laundering was begun by the city’s maritime merchants, a group apparently nervous about the legitimacy of their own wealth and eager to shore up public favour for generations to come.

In Olusoga’s telling, erecting the Colston statue (it went up in 1895) had not been a democratic act in the first place. Records from the time strongly suggested it had been put up by a small and highly partisan group. Were the circumstances under which it fell so different? Some jurors took note, others sat poker-faced; none gave a sign as to whether they were persuaded or not.

4. The judge

Judge Blair was losing patience. The trial was running over, and soon Christmas would shut his court for days. The jurors, canvassed about returning between Christmas and New Year, were not eager. Neither, we supposed, was Judge Blair: in a moment of unguarded optimism, he had mentioned that his daughter was getting married over the winter break. Now, with time running short, one of the Colston Four hadn’t shown up.

Skuse was unwell, Chada informed the court. Blair raised an eyebrow. Skuse, who once brought a Spider-Man mask to court, posing in it while doing boxer-ish shuffles for the press outside, had established himself as the unruliest defendant. When he failed to appear for a second day, the courtroom turned skittish. There were gloomy predictions that, should this trial continue into January, the jurors were far more likely to catch the Omicron variant of Covid-19. If that happened, there could well be a retrial.

Outside the courtroom, Willoughby, Graham and Ponsford huddled around a mobile phone. Together they called Skuse. Was it time to part ways and fight on in distinct groups: a Colston Three and a Colston One? The conversation was strained. “Can’t you just drink a can of Coke and come in?” someone asked, not quite serious, not quite joking. When Skuse swore he would be there the next day, the group were in agreement: “It’s all for one and one for all,” Graham said.

In court, it was decided the barristers would make use of Skuse’s absence by settling outstanding matters. By convention, at the end of a complicated trial, any number of “routes to verdict” might be put before jurors to assist their deliberations. All parties agreed that the Bristol jurors should be given a printed handout – part magazine questionnaire, part crib sheet – to help them fathom the criss-crossing laws that applied. Nobody could say how much the jurors would use these handouts, but even so the advocates fought over every sentence, as though a punctuation mark could mean the difference between conviction and acquittal.

After Walker’s coup with Olusoga, this was Ní Ghrálaigh, Wainwright and Chada’s afternoon to shine. They cited old cases, alternately pandering to and lecturing the judge, trying to get Blair to agree to as many routes to verdict as possible. Might it be put to the jury that Bristol council had abused its position by leaving the statue in place for so long? Judge Blair decided not. Might it be put to the jury that the statue had increased in value since its toppling? Again, no. Already Blair had agreed to let the jury answer for themselves whether the statue was in some sense indecent or abusive. If so, its removal by force could be said to be a crime to prevent a crime.

Eager to add one last legal plank, Ní Ghrálaigh argued for an hour for the consideration of a new piece of law, known as DPP vs Ziegler [2021] or “Ziegler”, which expands on a citizen’s inalienable right to protest. Might the jury be allowed to ask themselves if criminal conviction was even proportionate here? Eventually, overnight, the judge agreed.

Skuse took to the stand the following morning, and it was worth the wait. Pacing like a jungle cat, he began his evidence by saying: “I don’t really pay too much attention to politics. Who-owns-what. Y’know, laws.” He recalled kicking Colston “till my foot got sore”. The prosecution barristers hardly knew where to start. What democratic options had Skuse pursued, before he kicked the statue till his foot was sore? “I did nothing before that day,” he answered, “except piss-and-shit complaining about it, shamefully.”

Towards the end of his evidence, Skuse was asked about the behaviour of police at the scene. “The police did nothing,” he said. He was baffled by this, adding: “The police watched. How can I think it’s a crime, if they’re stood watching us?” There were snorts of laughter, but it was an important point. Bristol police had decided on a programme of tactical passivity that afternoon, standing back as Colston was rolled almost over their toes to the harbour.

Listening to Skuse describe this, a whole new perspective emerged. The trial was only the most recent in a series of hand-offs. Bristol council had dithered over what do with its divisive statue, passing the problem on to campaigners. In wrenching it down, campaigners had given the problem to the police. From there it was handed to the CPS, which passed it to Judge Blair. Here the hand-offs might have ended; steered along rigid legal lines, the trial would surely have resulted in quick convictions. Instead, to the judge’s credit, he allowed more nuanced arguments. He made room for philosophical questions. How to solve a problem like this statue? The riddle was handed off one last time, to 12 ordinary people.

5. The prosecution

Time ran out. On 23 December, Judge Blair announced that the trial would resume in the new year. Liam Walker, a railway station bap and a bottle of Oasis in hand, boarded an evening flyer to the Welsh coast where his wife and children were waiting in a holiday let. The following morning he would be surfing ten-footers. Chada, Wainwright and Ní Ghrálaigh returned home to London. Judge Blair went off to be father of the bride.

The lead prosecution barrister, William Hughes, was supposed to be staying with relatives in Wales, but one of his teenage daughters caught Covid. Hughes, a widower and single parent, decided they should all hunker down at home instead. At least the enforced isolation would give him time to work on his tricky closing speech, which he would have to deliver almost as soon as the trial resumed. Both of Hughes’s daughters had been impressed when their father first came home and told them he was working on this case. “Cool!” they said, figuring out only much later that dad was the prosecution. Their sympathies were firmly with the defendants.

Deep down, Hughes had some sympathy for the Colston Four himself. He was impressed in particular by Rhian Graham’s steely eloquence. He did not think Colston was a figure much worthy of celebration. As he told me when the trial was over: “The man made money out of slavery. No one in a decent society could condone that.” But none of this affected his opinion on the verdicts, which had to be guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty – because on the other side of any acquittals lay anarchy and chaos. Hughes made a note of those two words as he sat down to work on his speech.

Not forgotten: a memorial to George Floyd by the artist Kenny Altidor is unveiled in Brooklyn, New York, July 2020. Photo by Angela Weiss/AFP

Before I left Bristol, I spent an afternoon with Cleo Lake, the defence witness who had highlighted the portraits of slave traders in the courthouse. She had lived in the city all her life, and agreed to show me the parts I hadn’t yet visited, including Montpelier, where she was a pupil at what was then the Colston’s Girls’ School. As we walked around the school’s perimeter, Lake spoke of her discomfort, as a young woman of colour, on learning more about her school’s founder. As an adult she joined a campaign group called Countering Colston, which urged the school to distance itself. It had resisted, until the statue fell. Now Lake and I stood in front of a new sign: Montpelier High School.

The toppling “heightened everything,” Lake explained. “It made institutions that were complacent suddenly wake up, catch up. But that’s the experience of people of African or Caribbean heritage: we’re always waiting for other people to catch up.” In her evidence Lake had told a story about petitioning, successfully, to have a portrait of Colston removed from Bristol council headquarters, where she worked at the time. Something about Hughes’s alert manner, when Lake talked about this, made me wonder if he had heard something useful to the prosecution case. In his cross-examination, Hughes teased out more. “You seem to have been quite patient, for the time it took? And nonetheless, with the proper democratic persuasion, you achieved it?”

In his study, Hughes fleshed out an argument he felt sure would persuade the jury. Colston was a terrible man, yes. But an elected council had been entrusted with the care of his monument and when pressured to remove it, it had responded, even if agonisingly slowly. By June 2020, there were discussions under way. The Colston Four had jumped democracy’s queue, Hughes wrote.

On 4 January everyone returned to the familiar corridor at Bristol Crown Court. There were stiff greetings between Hughes and the defendants. Walker went around giving his trademark wink hello. An usher confirmed that every juror was present; there had been no Omicron dropouts after all. The trial would conclude quickly now.

6. The jury

Hughes began his closing statement. First he read a brief preamble, in almost perversely dull tones. Then he stopped and folded his arms, pouting a moment, before looking up to meet the jurors’ gaze. “This trial?” he said. “It’s not about emotions. Fundamentally, it is about the rule of law.” He lowered his voice to the gravelly near-whisper he’d used to powerful effect before. Everybody leaned in to hear. “We say a conviction is wholly appropriate. Why?” He raised his voice: “Because you can’t just go around destroying things you don’t like. That way lies chaos. That way lies anarchy… The people of Bristol have a voice. That voice may not be perfect. But it is expressed through democratic representation. And that voice has been usurped.”

Hughes sat down. The jury were dismissed and he watched them go, all the way to the door.

“You know that juror who wears the jumpers, down to the left,” Liam Walker was saying. We were in the pub again. “She couldn’t stop nodding.” Like Hughes, Walker had given a stirring final speech. All the defence advocates had. “And you know the grey-haired juror in front? Another nodding dog.” Walker sipped contentedly. He was in the same corner where he’d killed time on the eve of the trial. Tomorrow it would be over. “There’s a magic hour when the jury go out to deliberate,” Walker told me. “And if they come back with a verdict in that first hour? It’s almost certainly a unanimous acquittal. But after that hour…” He trailed off.

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Early the next morning the jurors were sent away, clutching their routes-to-verdict handouts, ready to turn all the trial’s subtle questions into a blunt verdict of innocent or guilty. I took a walk around the court building with Julius Abraham. He had a newborn, and on trial days would race home during breaks to snatch an hour with his daughter. There wasn’t time today; the verdicts might come in at any moment. As we circled the building, coming in and out of sight of the empty stone plinth in the centre of town, Abraham told me he wasn’t much of a crier. But that plinth! Whenever he looked at it these days, it made him tearful. It was something to do with his daughter. She wouldn’t have to wonder about that statue; what its looming presence meant about her importance, as a girl of colour, in the order of things.

Back in the courthouse, the magic hour had passed. Walker, checking his watch, looked paler. There wouldn’t be a unanimous acquittal. People walked nervous laps, distracting themselves with the price of barristers’ wigs, the fortunes of Crystal Palace FC, how many cigarettes they’d smoked, how much they missed cigarettes on days like these.

The defence advocates were preparing to say goodbye to clients they’d become close to. “It’s not a normal relationship: it doesn’t run a normal course,” Walker explained. “There’s a verdict, and you might never see them again.” When Willoughby handed him a thank-you card (“Hope we’re able to stay in touch”) Walker was moved. He’d received thank-yous before: a lyrical inscription in a poetry book, from a man charged with rape; a thoughtful prison email, from a man jailed for assault. What a relief it had been, Walker said, to spend these past few months advocating for people who’d made the world a less depressing place.

A tannoy blurted for our attention. The defendants jumped to their feet and said: “Oh-god-oh-god-oh-god.” In the courtroom, Judge Blair explained he’d received a note from the jury. After three hours, they could not reach a unanimous decision. Blair dispatched an usher to fetch them. “Thank you for the note,” he told the jurors, as they took their seats. “If you can’t reach a 12-0 verdict, then the court can accept a majority verdict of 11-1 or 10-2.” The foreman began to answer and Blair interrupted, insisting that no, it was protocol for the jury to leave for another discussion before anything was announced.

But something had shifted; there was a new electricity in the room. The barristers closest to the jury, who had spent weeks trying to second-guess them, had finally heard something concrete. Walker spun around and gave Willoughby a wink. Ní Ghrálaigh turned to Graham and nodded rapidly. Judge Blair warned the public gallery not to make “a hullabaloo”. But when the jury returned and the foreman announced four verdicts – “not guilty” – there were roars and stomps that were loud enough to be heard through thick sound-proofed glass.

Willoughby exhaled. He looked as though he hadn’t taken a proper breath since December. Skuse put his head back and shouted, “Oi-oi!” Ponsford’s knees buckled. Graham slumped, a hand on her forehead, swallowing sobs. The corridor was for 20 minutes the scene of a party. Weaving between embraces, the four defence advocates removed their wigs and starched collars. Chada said: “It’s always so good to take off this godforsaken stuff.” Hughes beat a path through the crowd. At least his daughters would be pleased. Somebody shouted after him, “Happy New Year!” and he bowed his head: sure, why not? He had a murder in Cardiff next.

Outside, photographers and journalists gathered. Three of the defendants paused in the lobby to pull on T-shirts designed for them by Banksy. Willoughby chose to remain in his Moss Bros suit, and stood to one side while Graham gave a speech. A journalist put it to the Colston Four that, whatever the verdict, this had surely been an attempt to erase British history. Willoughby interrupted. He didn’t think erasure was correct. Later he would receive a text from David Olusoga: “You’ve made history.” Again, Willoughby wasn’t so sure. Theirs had been a small historical correction, he thought, amid a big historical mistake.

Long before the press conference was over, Willoughby wandered off with his mum. Banksy had put money behind the bar at the Star & Garter and, within an hour of the verdict, Willoughby was ordering a tequila. Make that a double. Within three hours of the verdict, his co-defendants, their supporters, the four defence lawyers, even a few key witnesses, were gathered there, too. Reggae blasted from the pub’s speakers. Cleo Lake was among those who’d told reporters that the verdict marked “a major moment in a struggle that has been going on for generations”. Mayor Marvin Rees was more circumspect, framing the trial as a distraction from his efforts to tackle racism in the city.

The government was not in a celebratory mood either. Ministers began voicing their concerns about the legitimacy of the verdict on Twitter and on breakfast television shortly after it had been delivered. In doing so, Robert Jenrick, Grant Shapps and others were questioning the legitimacy of our justice system – a more anarchic act, you’d think, than any number of toppled statues. But on such cheerful contradictions the modern Tories govern. Within 72 hours of the verdict, Johnson’s attorney general, Suella Braverman, suggested she might seek to appeal against aspects of the trial due to the “confusing” jury decision.

Jurors’ decisions are not meant to be confusing or unconfusing. These decisions are for themselves: sacrosanct. The jury decided to let the Colston Four walk free, and whether this was an emotional gut-call, an apology, an act of recognition of the otherworldly summer of George Floyd’s murder, or born of closer legal considerations, they were not obliged or even allowed to say.

On the afternoon of the verdict, in the scrum outside the court building, I noticed a few jurors on the fringes of the crowd. One of them moved through the press of people and approached a defendant, Rhian Graham, to squeeze her arm. Later that same afternoon, the juror and the defendant crossed paths again, quite by accident, down by the empty Colston plinth. Graham was heading for the pub. They blinked at each other, and talked about their lives away from the courtroom. There were so many questions that could not be asked or answered.

But one thing was certain: whatever the government did next, and wherever the Colston Four would end up fitting into the bigger story of racial injustice, one aspect of this trial could not be undone. They were not criminals.

Sage Willoughby, Jake Skuse, Milo Ponsford and Rhian Graham celebrate after receiving a not guilty verdict at Bristol Crown Court, on January 05, 2022 in Bristol, England. Photo by Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images

7. The aftermath

There was no especially neat ending for the Colston Four. A week or so after the acquittal, they were back in the Star & Garter pub, for an off-the-books reckoning with Mayor Rees and to try to mend some bridges. The meeting did not go well. Voices were raised. Sage Willoughby told me he felt that such behaviour was not appropriate, that the Colston Four ought to take their favourable verdict and fade away, making room for other voices in the city. He had heard that there were now certain pubs in Bristol he was not welcome to enter. When a Bristol road was informally renamed in honour of the Colston Four, local newspapers quoted residents who objected. It was one thing for vandals to be forgiven, they suggested; quite another for them to be rewarded.

There was no neat ending for their lawyers, either, who celebrated separately on the night of the verdict. When a legal symposium was arranged for the spring of 2022, a panel event at which the defenders of the Colston Four would discuss their strategy with the public, Liam Walker was not invited. He tried to be sanguine about the snub; after all he had just been promoted, made a QC. One of the first people he invited to celebrate was Willoughby.

As for the statue of Edward Colston, it remains in storage in the bowels of a Bristol museum, where touring groups can visit by appointment. Colston lies on his back, and the blood-red paint has not been cleaned away.

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This article appears in the 06 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special