On the Bristol verdict changing the history of public monuments

The four defendants in the demolition of the Edward Colston monument in Bristol were found not guilty. Here's why this verdict changes the history of public monuments.

“It took 16 ordinary citizens of Bristol - 4 innocent suspects and 12 jurors - to end a century of intransigence and delay at the hands of a sequence of city councils, elected mayors and the Society of Merchant Venturers. No monuments to crimes against humanity.” Probably the tweet with which Massive Attack, the internationally renowned band originally from Bristol, celebrates the end of the trial of the "Colston 4," is the perfect summation of the sense of relief felt by the vast majority of the city at the reading of the verdict that on Jan. 5, going decisively against previous cases (English law provides for up to 10 years in prison for those who knock down or damage monuments), acquitted the four accused of knocking down and dragging Edward Colston’s statue into the sea on June 7, 2020.

It is a verdict that came at the end of a somewhat surreal trial, which I had summarized here, in which the defense line was to impeach the city administration (which in fact defended itself, after the verdict, against accusations of lack of commitment). Administration that for decades had “decided not to decide” about the statue and the various naming of Edward Colston, contested by a growing part of the citizenry: as explained elsewhere, not a slave trader, but one of the originators of the transatlantic trade who built his fortune on the slave trade, only to be turned into a kind of secular saint by Bristol’s Society of Merchant Venturers in the late 19th century, after the abolition of slavery. A process in which tones were gradually raised, in which leaving the statue in the square for so long (which, I recall, described the merchant as “one of the wisest and most virtuous sons of the city of Bristol”) was called a “hate crime,” in which Colston was called a “fucking racist,” and in which the defendants claimed the gesture (“an act of love to the city of Bristol”) as non-violent, necessary, and supported by the people.

Il momento in cui la statua di Edward Colston viene gettata nelle acque del porto di Bristol
The moment the statue of Edward Colston is thrown into the waters of Bristol Harbor.
L'esultanza dei Colston 4 dopo l'assoluzione
The jubilation of the “Colston 4” after the acquittal

The verdict came by a popular jury vote (the 12 jurors were to have no connection whatsoever with the suspects), not unanimously but by a majority of 11-1, almost as if to illustrate how such a verdict cannot fail to be divisive. A verdict that probably only a popular jury composed of Bristolians could have made, given the citizen exasperation with that statue and that public celebration of character. But it is a verdict that is likely to have, needless to deny, even dangerous repercussions outside the city. In the United Kingdom, where trial verdicts “make the law,” it is already being talked about: has the ruling changed the law? For now it is hard to say; the conditions in Bristol and that single statue are so unique that one should not imagine any “permission to take down” from the English courts. But the BBC is already talking about a "milestone" in the history of British slavery, and newspapers and politicians, each according to their sensibilities, are raising alarms or asking questions.

Four people who, deliberately, carried a rope with them, decided (in the midst of a cheering crowd) to tie it around a publicly owned cultural asset, and then decided to roll it to the nearby marina “so that no one would think of putting it back on the plinth” were acquitted because, as we would say in Italian, the fact does not constitute a crime, or as the lawyers explained, because according to the jury, “a conviction for the removal of this statue, which glorified a slave trader involved in the enslavement of over 84.000 black men, women and children, would not have been proportionate.” As summarized by historian David Olusoga, “a British jury concluded that the greater harm was that the statue of a mass murderer was able to remain in the public square for 125 years, not that it was taken down in the summer of 2020.” The historic significance is obvious, but so is the risk of emulation: where does one draw the line? How many hundreds of people have to be there, pulling that string, for it not to be a crime? How many decades of ignored petitions? How many contested titling? So far we do not know, and although the media appear less alarmed now than in June 2020 (it is much easier to challenge a crowd that appears irrational and enraged than to challenge a court that after a lengthy trial determines that the same crowd was neither irrational nor enraged, but just exasperated), there are several statues in the UK that are shaking, starting with Cecil Rhodes’ statue in Oxford.

British law aside, while there were fears of a “domino effect” after the statue was taken down throughout Europe, which in fact there was not, the ruling opens up a reflection on the relationship, in Western European democracies, between the urban community and public monuments. To what extent can a statue, or a monument, be imposed on a community if it rejects it? In Italy there are no extreme cases like the one in Bristol, but continuous protests against monuments yes, for example against the one of Indro Montanelli in Milan or against the Violata in Ancona, monuments immediately rejected by the community but defended by the administrations. There is no answer to that question, and European law, which does not act by popular jury, is unlikely to see rips like the one recorded in Bristol. But for a two-year period now, the issue has been coming up with increasing force, as evidenced by the recent case in Padua in which even an absence sparked a fierce debate in defense of the existing.

After their acquittal, the four Bristol defendants were keen to point out in an official statement that “in the time it has taken for this trial to get to court, the institutions that formally defended Colston have apologized for doing so, the places, schools and places associated with him have changed their names, and public opinion has moved on. History has justified the culling. Now it is up to all of us to address the legacy of slavery and the systemic racism it left us.” It is not cancel culture, it is propulsive drive to really confront the past that we too often like to see crystallized and uncritical in our streets. And hardly, after this process, will the drive stop. Which is a problem, a risk, but there is a need to address it in all its complexity.