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'Shameful' to threaten Churchill statue, says UK PM Johnson

Reuters/London, United Kingdom
Filed on June 12, 2020
Britain, Boris Johnson, Winston Churchill, anti-racism, protesters, vandalism, statue, London, George Floyd Britain, Boris Johnson, Winston Churchill, anti-racism, protesters, vandalism, statue, London, George Floyd

A demonstrator holds up a sign next to a statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square during a Black Lives Matter protest in London, following the death of George Floyd who died in police custody in Minneapolis, London, Britain, June 7, 2020.
(Reuters)

Boarding is seen surrounding The statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square, following protests against the death of George Floyd who died in police custody in Minneapolis, London, Britain, June 12, 2020.
(Reuters)

Anti-racism protesters, who have staged demonstrations since the death of George Floyd, have put statues at the forefront of their challenge to Britain's imperialist past.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Friday it was 'absurd and shameful' that a statue of Winston Churchill was at risk of attack by activists, his strongest statement yet on growing protests against the legacies of past leaders.

Anti-racism protesters, who have staged demonstrations since the death of African American George Floyd, have put statues at the forefront of their challenge to Britain's imperialist past.

Politicians, police and activists sought to dissuade people from coming to Parliament Square on Saturday, where statues were boarded up ahead of possible protests.

A statue of Edward Colston, who made a fortune in the 17th century from the slave trade, was torn down in the city of Bristol on Sunday, and authorities have acted to protect monuments they believe could be next.

They have now boarded up a statue opposite parliament of Churchill, Britain's prime minister during World War Two, after demonstrators defaced it last weekend.

"It is absurd and shameful that this national monument should today be at risk of attack by violent protesters," Johnson wrote on Twitter.

On Friday, around 500 people gathered in London's Hyde Park chanting "the UK is not innocent" and "Black Lives Matter", before marching through central London, with many saying that statues such as Colston's were legitimate targets.

"If we have these big images, and we're telling people that these people and what they stood for is OK, we're just allowing everything that they did to pass," said Samantha Halsall, 23, a student at the protest.

Organisers told the protesters not to turn up in central London on Saturday amid concern that there could be altercations with counter-protestors looking to defend statues.

London police chief Cressida Dick echoed that call.

"It's clear that we're in the middle of a public health crisis. So it's not safe for them, it's not safe for the people around them," she said.

"Secondly, we do have information that people are intent on coming to cause violence and confrontation."

The opposition Labour party warned that the weekend was likely to see "major challenges" and that far-right activists might "exploit the situation and sow hate for their own divisive ends."

Far-right activist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon said he would not turn up to the square on Saturday as he did not want to be responsible for more racial division.

Johnson is an admirer and biographer of Churchill, and some of those close to him say he wants to emulate him.

But Churchill expressed racist and anti-Semitic views and critics blame him for denying food to India during the 1943 famine which killed more than two million people - aspects of his legacy which some say are not scrutinised enough.

"Yes, he sometimes expressed opinions that were and are unacceptable to us today, but he was a hero, and he fully deserves his memorial," Johnson wrote, calling on people to avoid the protests.

"We cannot now try to edit or censor our past. We cannot pretend to have a different history."

Residents in Liverpool's Penny Lane, which was immortalised in The Beatles' 1967 song, scrubbed graffiti daubed on street signs that claimed it was named after a slave trader.

In Bannockburn, central Scotland, a statue to king Robert the Bruce was defaced, calling the man who led the Scots to victory against the English in 1314 a racist.

Statues, monuments, street and building names commemorating historical figures from Britain's colonial past have increasingly become targets for activists over the last week.

That has prompted calls for a re-examination of how the country's historical legacy is marked in public spaces, and for many monuments to be torn down or relocated to museums.

Several television shows, including an episode of the cult 1970s comedy series "Fawlty Towers", were also pulled from streaming services because of language now deemed offensive.

- Fears grow -

The protests were sparked by the death during a US police arrest of George Floyd, an unarmed African-American, which have triggered outrage around the world.

Johnson acknowledged the anger of black and minority ethnic communities and said there had been "huge" strides in tackling discrimination in Britain.

But after clashes marred largely peaceful demonstrations in London, he added: "It is clear that the protests have been sadly hijacked by extremists intent on violence.

"The attacks on the police and indiscriminate acts of violence which we have witnessed over the last week are intolerable and they are abhorrent."

Fears are growing of further splits in a society already riven by deep divisions over Brexit and widening inequality caused by years of austerity measures.

Police are promising a "robust" response to vandalism and violence.

But some protests have been cancelled to avoid clashes with far-right groups and self-styled "patriots" who have promised to protect memorials.

The BBC reported a statue of Jamaican poet, actor and playwright Alfred Fagon in Bristol was covered in an apparently corrosive substance.

Black Lives Matter London unveiled a billboard on the banks of the River Thames to more than 3,000 victims of what it called "state and racist violence".

Their names were contained in the letters of "I can't breathe" -- Floyd's last words before his death, as a white police officer held him down in a chokehold.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan and Johnson both urged people to stay home this weekend.

"Extreme far-right groups who advocate hatred and division are planning counter-protests, which means that the risk of disorder is high," the mayor said. 

Activists linked to the Stop Trump Coalition have compiled a crowd-sourced list of more than 60 statues and monuments across Britain that they say "celebrate slavery and racism" and should be removed.

London's Guy's and St Thomas' hospitals announced they would remove two statues -- including to benefactor Thomas Guy -- because of their links to slavery. 


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