Bristol’s first black mayor has criticised the “Colston Four” protesters for claiming that the city’s leaders had not done enough to address racism.
Speaking on the Trevor Phillips on Sunday show, Marvin Rees said: “I haven’t poured over the things they have been saying other than them and their barristers saying we’ve been inactive in the city, which obviously I’ve got issues with.
“I’ll be more than happy to talk to them about what real anti-racism work is,” he added.
Mr Rees 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.
A 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.
Following the toppling the statue had been on display at the M Shed museum in Bristol alongside a selection of placards from the protest. Last week it was moved into a storage room and is only available to see as part of a behind the scenes tour of the museum.
A museum employee told the Telegraph the exhibition was temporary and a Bristol Council spokesperson said a local history commission is still deciding the future of the statue after surveying residents.
The mayor 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”.
The not guilty verdicts have sparked some controversy. 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.
Verdict ‘less significant’ for city than for defendants
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 said.
“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.”
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.”
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 [it’s] about sometimes those hard yards done in invisibility.”