Bristol mayor defends city’s anti-racism record in wake of Colston acquittals

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Bristol’s record in tackling racism and inequality has been defended by the city’s elected mayor following the acquittal of the so-called Colston Four for toppling the statue of a slave trader.

Marvin Rees said he wanted to deliver “real, substantial systemic change” for the people of Bristol and that meant focusing on issues of housing, education and employment over “symbolic acts”.

He spoke out to defend his record after Rhian Graham, 30, Milo Ponsford, 26, Sage Willoughby, 22, and Jake Skuse, 33, were found not guilty of criminal damage during a Black Lives Matter protest in the city in June 2020.

Bristol mayor Marvin Rees was speaking to Sky News (Bristol City Council/PA)
Bristol mayor Marvin Rees was speaking to Sky News (Bristol City Council/PA)

The bronze memorial to Edward Colston, a 17th-century slave trader, had stood on a plinth in Bristol city centre for more than 100 years before it was toppled and rolled into the nearby harbour.

There has been controversary since the not guilty verdicts and Attorney General Suella Braverman said it had caused “confusion”, and she was “carefully considering” whether to use powers which allow her to seek a review on specific points of law.

Mr Rees, the first black mayor elected in the UK, said the acquittals were “less significant” for the city than for the defendants.

“In the lives of the four individuals it is incredibly significant because their futures faced a bit of a fork in the road in some ways,” he told Sky’s Trevor Phillips on Sunday.

“For the work on race inequality in Bristol much more widely, it is less significant because when we’re tackling race inequality, we are looking at those underlying drivers of political and economic inequality.

“The verdict itself doesn’t actually touch on those very real and immediate issues.”

The statue of Edward Colston was pushed into Bristol harbour after being toppled during a Black Lives Matter protest (Ben Birchall/PA)
The statue of Edward Colston was pushed into Bristol harbour after being toppled during a Black Lives Matter protest (Ben Birchall/PA)

Mr Rees said that “symbolic acts”, such as toppling Colston, should not be a replacement for “real substantial systemic change”.

“It’s one of the warnings I make all the time that we have to be careful about symbolic acts and mere events perhaps being substituted for acts of real substantial systemic change,” he said.

“Make no mistake about it, I don’t like the idea of the statue being up in the middle of the city and I’m glad it’s not there.

“I think that the debate around our history, who we choose to celebrate as a country, is important.

“At the same time, symbolic acts, while they are important, if they begin to take the place of acts of political and economic policy and real substance become a problem.

“If we look around in five years, realise that nothing’s really changed people point to all these things that have happened and we say, ‘Oh those were just acts, those are just performances’.

“We have to be very careful in the way we handle these issues.”

The Colston Four - Sage Willoughby, Jake Skuse, Milo Ponsford and Rhian Graham - were found not guilty after a trial at Bristol Crown Court (Ben Birchall/PA)
The Colston Four – Sage Willoughby, Jake Skuse, Milo Ponsford and Rhian Graham – were found not guilty after a trial at Bristol Crown Court (Ben Birchall/PA)

Mr Rees said not all anti-racism work was done with a “banner and a T shirt and a megaphone”.

“Some of it’s done by looking at housing policy, looking at affordable homes, looking at what we do around making sure people are fed, making tweaks to our mental health system, looking at the number of magistrates we get and going out and recruiting,” he said.

“It’s not all about what gets in the headlines is about sometimes those hard yards done in invisibility.”

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