Far-right activists clashed with police in central London on Saturday as hundreds of people gathered to demonstrate despite strict police restrictions and warnings to stay home to contain the coronavirus. Various groups of right-wing activists and football fans have descended on the British capital, saying they want to guard the historic monuments that were targeted last week by anti-racism protesters.
Many gathered around the wartime statue of Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the Cenotaph War Memorial, both of which were boarded on Friday to protect them from vandalism. Authorities have placed protective signs around the monuments, fearing that far-right activists may seek clashes with anti-racist protesters under the guise of protecting the statues.
Some activists threw bottles and cans at police officers, while others tried to break through police barriers. Riot police on horseback pushed the crowd away. The protesters, who appeared to be mostly white men, chanted “England” and sang the national anthem.
“I am very tired of the way the authorities have allowed two consecutive weekends of vandalism against our national monuments,” Paul Golding, leader of the far-right group Britain First, told the Press Association.
A Black Lives Matter group in London has cancelled a demonstration planned for Saturday, saying the presence of counter-protesters would make it dangerous. Some anti-racist protesters gathered in small numbers in Hyde Park.
Monuments around the world have become flashpoints in protests against racism and police violence following the May 25 death of George Floyd, a black man who died in Minneapolis after a white police officer pressed a knee to his neck.
In Britain, protests sparked a national debate about the empire’s legacy and its role in the slave trade. A statue of slave trader Edward Colston was pulled from his pedestal by protesters in the town of Bristol on Sunday and thrown into the harbour. In London, the churchill statue was smeared with the words “was a racist.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted on Friday that while Churchill “sometimes expressed opinions that were and are unacceptable to us today,” he was a hero and “we cannot now try to change or censor our past.” Churchill, whose first term spanred from 1940 to 1945, has long been revered for his leadership during the Second World War.
Police have imposed strict restrictions on Saturday’s protests in an effort to avoid violent clashes. The authorities also fenced off other statues in Parliament Square, including memorials to Nelson Mandela and Abraham Lincoln.
Police Commander Bas Javid urged people not to gather in large groups because of coronavirus. But if they do, he said, the activists must stick to the planned route and get off the street before 5 p.m., or face arrest.
He said that while last weekend’s protesters were largely peaceful, a minority was “a matter of disorder” that resulted in assaults on police and violent behaviour.
Dozens of people were arrested last weekend, and a police horse was photographed bolting in front of the crowd amid the chaos.