Thousands sign petition to replace torn-down Bristol statue of slave trader with one of anti-racism campaigner

Paul Stephenson: The anti-racism campaigner led the 1963 Bristol Bus Boycott. (Change.org)

A petition has been launched to replace the toppled Edward Colston statue in Bristol with one of local anti-racism campaigner Paul Stephenson.

The Change.org petition, started by 19-year-old Edward Beeston, has already received thousands of signatures since it was created last night.

Demonstrators at a Black Lives Matter protest pulled down the 18-foot (5.5-metre) bronze monument of 17th-century slave trader Colston on Sunday and dumped it in the city’s harbour.

People have been protesting in cities around the world following the death of George Floyd, a black man, in the US city of Minneapolis after a white police officer held him down by pressing a knee into his neck for nearly nine minutes.

Protesters throw statue of Edward Colston into Bristol harbour during a Black Lives Matter protest rally. (PA)
Protesters throw a statue of slave trader Edward Colston into Bristol harbour. (AP)

More than 12,000 people have signed the petition calling on Bristol City Council to replace the statue with one of Stephenson, who led the Bristol Bus Boycott in 1963.

Stephenson founded the West Indian Development Council to campaign against racism in response to the “colour bar” on employing black and Asian people on Bristol’s buses in 1963.

Read more: Police criticised for use of horses to control Black Lives Matter protesters

The bus boycott was supported by local MP Tony Benn and Labour leader Harold Wilson, who passed the Race Relations Act in 1965 outlawing discrimination on the grounds of colour, race, ethnic or national origins.

The boycott was considered to have been influential in passing the act, which made “racial discrimination unlawful in public places”, according to the Black History Month website.

The petition says: “Following the statue of Edward Colston being thrown into the harbour, it is time a suitable replacement is found that honours black Bristolians.

“I believe that one candidate for his replacement would be Paul Stephenson. He led the 1963 Bristol Bus Boycott, started because Bristol Post announced in 1961 that black workers were refused work despite a worker shortage due to a resolution from the Transport and General Workers' Union.

“It is time Bristol moves forward with its history in the slave trade, acknowledging the evil committed and how it can educate its citizens about black history.”

In 2009, Stephenson was awarded the OBE for his part in organising the boycott.

Beeston, who was not at the protest as he’s remaining in the Midlands during lockdown, told Yahoo News: “My first thought when I watched the videos of Edward Colston's statue being pulled down is 'Well, it was probably time the statue was removed' but then my second thought was 'There's now an empty spot for another statue, why not start a petition to get Stephenson put up?”’

“I thought that there could be no more a poetic response to the removal of a slave trader than to replace him with a black civil rights activist.

“I had not heard about the statue of Colston before yesterday, I will be honest.

“A lot of what I learnt about Colston came from yesterday and it was more enlightening about the slave trade than most of my history education, which focused on the Medieval era and the 100 Years' War before jumping over to the 20th century.”

Read more: Boris Johnson says 'Black Lives Matter' amid claims he’s stayed silent on protests

Edward Colston’s statue had stood on Colston Avenue since 1895.

Colston grew up in a wealthy merchant family in Bristol before he joined the Royal African Company in 1680, which is believed to have sold about 100,000 west African people in the Caribbean and the Americas between 1672 and 1689.

The statue was erected as a memorial to his philanthropic works, which he developed after a significant part of his wealth was made in the trading of slaves.

Protesters seen at Trafalgar Square with BLM placards during the demonstration. Protesters from the Black Lives Matter campaign demand justice for George Floyd and an end to Police violence in London. (PA)

The statue’s fall came as largely peaceful demonstrations across the weekend saw some clashes with police. In London, a statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square was defaced.

Boris Johnson tweeted that the protests had been "subverted by thuggery”.

The PM condemned the clashes as "a betrayal of the cause they purport to serve".

Read more: Bristol protesters who tore down statue of slave trader must be prosecuted

Home secretary Priti Patel said the toppling of the Bristol statue was "utterly disgraceful" and Tory minister Kit Malthouse said charges should be brought to those who pulled it down.

"A crime was committed, criminal damage was committed, there should be evidence gathered and a prosecution should follow," he told the BBC on Monday.

Jeremy Corbyn (left) with Labour's mayor of Bristol Marvin Rees during a walk about at College Green, Bristol. (PA)

Marvin Rees, Bristol's mayor, said he believed the statue should end up in a museum, alongside banners from Sunday's Black Lives Matter protest.

Rees, who is of Jamaican heritage, said he "cannot condone the damage" but described the destruction of the statue as an "iconic moment".

"I cannot pretend it was anything other than a personal affront to me to have it in the middle of Bristol, the city in which I grew up," he told BBC radio.