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UK's Johnson says emotions triggered by Floyd's death can not be ignored

Reuters/AFP/London, United Kingdom
Filed on June 9, 2020
Boris Johnson, UK, George Floyd, fight, prejudice, racism, anti-racism, protests

(Reuters)

He said Britain had made huge strides in tackling racism but it must also "frankly acknowledge that there is so much more to do - in eradicating prejudice, and creating opportunity".

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the emotions triggered by the death of George Floyd in the United States could not be ignored, and the British government had to do more to fight prejudice towards people from black and minority ethnic groups.

The death of Floyd, an unarmed African American, has sparked demonstrations around the world over police brutality. More than 100,000 people took part in anti-racism protests around Britain over the weekend.

"We who lead and who govern simply can't ignore those feelings because in too many cases, I am afraid, they will be founded on a cold reality," Johnson said in a video statement posted on Twitter on Monday.

He said Britain had made huge strides in tackling racism but it must also "frankly acknowledge that there is so much more to do - in eradicating prejudice, and creating opportunity".

Demonstrators defied warnings not to gather in large groups due to the risk of spreading the coronavirus.

Otherwise peaceful demonstrations in London ended with small groups clashing with police. Dozens of police officers were injured and more than 100 people were arrested.

A statue of Winston Churchill on Parliament Square in London was sprayed with graffiti and in Bristol in western England, protesters toppled a statue of 17th Century slave trader Edward Colston.

"I will not support those who flout the rules on social distancing ... I will not support or indulge those who break the law or attack the police or desecrate public monuments," Johnson said.

He warned those who attacked public property or the police would "face the full force of the law".

"They are hijacking a peaceful protest and undermining it in the eyes of many who might otherwise be sympathetic. And as a society, we can and must do better."

In parliament, Home Secretary Priti Patel said there had been 135 arrests in protests across Britain and 35 police officers injured in London alone.

She described those behind the clashes as "thugs and criminals".

Colston, who came from a wealthy merchant family, was a former top official in the Royal African Company in the late 17th century.

The company sent into slavery hundreds of thousands of men, women and children from West Africa to the Caribbean and the Americas. Many were branded with the company's initials.

Colston was also a Tory member of parliament and philanthropist, donating huge funds to support schools, hospitals, almshouses and churches in Bristol.

- 'Symbol of injustice' -

Historic England, a government heritage body, said the local community must now decide what to do with the fallen statue but "we do not believe it must be reinstated".

"We recognise that the statue was a symbol of injustice and a source of great pain for many people," it added.

Authorities had agreed to rename his statue, which was erected in 1895, to highlight his role in slavery but the process became deadlocked because of conflicting views.

Marvin Rees, Bristol's elected Labour mayor, said he believed the statue would 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.

Leading Bristol music venue Colston Hall, which has hosted concerts from Louis Armstrong to The Beatles, said Sunday's protests had spurred it to speed up a plan to change its name.

Bristol trip-hop outfit Massive Attack have consistently refused to play at the venue because of its name and associations.

- 'Who we are' -

British institutions and local authorities have in recent years been re-examining their public monuments in the face of demands to better represent the country's colonial past.

Churchill's legacy has come under scrutiny for his wartime policies that are blamed for the death of millions during famine in the Indian state of Bengal in 1943.

"No debate about the way we run our public spaces should ever be finished," mayor Rees said. "We should be constantly wrestling with who we are and where we've come from."

British Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton called Colston a "monster" and urged all similar statues to be torn down.

The wider protests won the backing of Manchester City and England footballer Raheem Sterling, while world heavyweight boxing champion Anthony Joshua joined protesters in London.


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