Bristol is known for its diversity, its music scene, the vibrant youth culture and is thought of as one of the best cities in the UK to live. But within the glow and attractiveness that others see, in reality, Bristol is a deeply divided city. Within several parts of Bristol, you are told as Black youngsters you are not welcome if you are not from those parts.
Clifton in Bristol is one of the oldest and more affluent districts. It is widely known that Clifton made a lot of its money through the tobacco trade and slavery and is the home of the world-famous Brunel Suspension Bridge, Bristol University, and the Bristol Zoo. It is also home of the Clifton Downs - a space that is known to most Bristolian young people as the location for visiting touring funfairs.
It was the last week of March 1993 and the buzz of anticipation was in the air - there were mumblings that the Bob Wilson’s fairground was in town. News that lorries had been seen setting up on the Downs was too much for the thousands of young people looking for the excitement and thrill of going up to the fair to see the glimmering brilliance of the ‘Waltzer’, the size and stature of the ‘Big Wheel’, the luminosity, the clashing sounds of the ‘Dodgems’. There was the excitement of potentially winning a teddy bear for a loved one or a goldfish in a bag. It would also be a time to meet and gather with lost long friends and acquaintances to relish in all the vibrant experience of the fairground.
Marlon Thomas was at the time an 18-year-old man, a son, a friend, and college student who loved playing sports. He would often be seen down at The Mill youth centre playing basketball or practicing by himself perfecting his skills. Marlon, who would always have a cheeky grin on his face and a willingness to help others, woke up that day much like any other day filled with excitement but not knowing that this would be a date that would ultimately change his life forever.
Some of the workers who worked for the Birmingham-based Bob Wilson’s Fair which included Bob Wilson’s son himself - armed themselves with baseball bats, hammers, spanners, iron bars, wrenches, pieces of wood and other weapons and intentionally searched the grounds, looking for young black teenagers to attack.
On Wednesday 31st March 1993, Marlon attended the fair with his girlfriend. Whilst enjoying the excitement of the lights and vibe that the fairground brought with it, he was brutally attacked along with other black teenagers enjoying the fairground on that night.
The effects were catastrophic. Marlon was left with head and chest injuries and stopped breathing. Vernon Walker, who is known in the Bristol area as an elder and mentor in the black community was a bystander who immediately started to administer CPR until paramedics took over and saved his life. Devastatingly, Marlon’s head injuries were severe.
Marlon was revived at the scene but was left in a coma, when Marlon woke, he had suffered life-changing injuries where he was unable to move or speak and suffered severe brain damage. It took years for him to be discharged from hospital, in what is effectively known as a ‘waking coma’.
Marlon's family, friends and allies set up the Justice For Marlon Thomas campaign in response to this horrific attack. In addition to fighting for justice for their son, brother and cousin, they also supported the young people who were also attacked at the fair and their families. They took their case to MP's, gathered over 10,000 signatures and forced the Downs Committee to ban Wilson's funfair from ever returning to The Downs again. Whilst this was a success, Marlon's family did battle against the system in many ways during this time.
“The main reason that Marlon was hospitalized for that long, was because suitable accommodation was not found sooner.” - Marlon's Brother, Rudey.
As we will see shortly, the system had also failed Marlon when it came to the sentencing of the perpetrators of this horrendous attack.
The Crown Prosecution Service decided to drop charges of attempted murder, and go for the easier-to-prove charges of GBH with intent, and there was no - as there is now - extra severity in punishment for the sickening racist element to the attacks.
GBH*: Grievous Bodily Harm is the most serious form of assault short of attempted murder and can carry a life sentence.
ABH*: Actual Bodily Harm carries a maximum sentence of five years and or a fine (depending on the seriousness of the offence).
Evidence was given by the young people who were attacked recounting the trauma and pain of that March night which had scarred their memories. Bystanders who had also witnessed the brutality of the onslaught also gave testimony of that night.
The Judge David McCarraher said on the closing statement:
“This was very nearly a murder, and from a practical point of view, the boy has really lost any possibility of enjoyment of life and is suffering in effect, almost a living death,”
He later ruled the following sentences:
William Wilson, the 19-year-old son of the funfair’s owner Bob Wilson, was jailed for four years for GBH, and two for violent disorder – Judge David McCarraher's ordered the sentence to run concurrently, rather than consecutively. This meant that the two sentences would be run at the same time rather than one after the other.
Stephen Appleton, 46, was sentenced to five years for causing GBH with intent, and two years for violent disorder, to run also concurrently.
Jason Appleton, 19, was jailed for three and a half years for GBH and two years for violent disorder.
Anthony Thompson, 20, was sentenced for two years for violent disorder.
A minority of the gang ended up convicted of the lesser offence of ABH with intent to endanger life, and were jailed.
There was outrage at the leniency of the sentences, and the community understandably felt let down by the court system, a system which is supposed to represent us all and a system that was thought to honour its commitment to the law. At a later appeal the court agreed with the family and the police and added a couple of years to several of the sentences.
There is also still the matter of the dozen or more fairground workers who were never prosecuted for the attacks.
The Justice For Marlon Thomas Campaign battled to get criminal injury compensation for those who were also attacked...the full compensation for Marlon Thomas only fully came to the family in 2015 - 21 years after the attack.
We will finish this section with some quotes from Marlon's Family.
“Marlon has needed physiotherapy and hydrotherapy ever since he woke up from his coma, and we were determined to have that continue to date and have managed to do so, as well as to include aromatherapy, which we have maintained until now, with a lot of battling".
"Marlon has two carers 24 hours per day, which have been demanded and fought for, since he was discharged from hospital, because we know these are absolutely necessary to meet his needs.”
How has hearing about this event made you feel?
Do you think that attitudes in Bristol towards racist attacks have changed? If the answer is yes, why? If the answer is no, why not?
How do you feel about the sentences given to the perpetrators?
This was without a doubt the most difficult part of the timeline for us to cover. We have included it because we feel that this horrific attack should not be unknown. It is an example of what we would now call a "hate crime" that has prevented a young man from living his life in accordance to his dreams and aspirations. Marlon and his family are magnificent human beings who have continually fought back against the system and their treatment of this case. They are a shining example of Black Brilliance and Black Excellence and as a team we want to extend our love, light and support to them. You inspire us all at Zazi and you will no doubt inspire many young Black people in Bristol. Thank you.
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