Anti-racism protesters rallied around Britain on Saturday, with scuffles breaking out in London where counter-demonstrators also came out to protect monuments targeted for their links to colonial history.
Statues of historical figures including Winston Churchill – Britain’s World War Two leader whom protesters call a xenophobe – were boarded up to try and minimize trouble.
In Trafalgar Square, police separated two groups of about 100 people each, one chanting “Black Lives Matter,” the other racial slurs. Some groups jostled, tossed bottles and cans and set off fireworks, as riot police lined up.
In Britain, debate is raging over monuments to those involved in the nation’s imperialist past, especially after the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was torn down and thrown into the harbor of Bristol port last weekend.
Police said on Saturday that some people were bringing weapons to the London rallies. They imposed route restrictions on both groups and said rallies must end by 5 p.m. (1600 GMT).
“Anyone who thinks they can commit a crime or vandalize property will be arrested,” Commander Bas Javid said in a statement.
In a tweet Saturday morning, London Mayor Sadiq Khan called the incident “completely unacceptable.”
“We will not tolerate attacks on our police and perpetrators will feel the full force of the law,” he wrote. “It is clear that far right groups are causing violence and disorder and central London, I urge people to stay away.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson echoed Khan’s remarks saying “anyone attacking the police will be met with full force of the law.”
‘My culture under attack’
In and around Parliament Square, hundreds of people wearing football shirts, chanting “England, England,” and describing themselves as patriots, gathered alongside military veterans to guard the Cenotaph war memorial.
The group sang songs in support of right-wing activist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, who goes by the name of Tommy Robinson.
“Winston Churchill, he’s one of our own,” they also chanted, near his statue which last weekend was sprayed with graffiti reading: “Churchill was a racist.”
“My culture is under attack. This is my culture and my English history: why should Churchill be boarded up? Why is the Cenotaph attacked? It is not right,” said David Allen, one of the protesters.
About two miles away, around 20 anti-racism protesters gathered at Hyde Park, holding Black Lives Matter placards, even though organizers had told them not to attend fearing clashes.
Hundreds of people also attended rallies in major northern English cities like Liverpool and Newcastle, with many protesters donning masks due to the coronavirus pandemic.
–With a file from Global News