U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson condemned “racist thuggery” after right-wing protesters clashed with anti-racist activists and police in London on Saturday.
London police arrested 100 people, among thousands who traveled to the city to protest, on charges including violent disorder and assault on officers.
The city has become a new epicenter for protests in the weeks following the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, in the U.S. as the Black Lives Matter movement has gone global. It has prompted a reckoning with the U.K.’s history of involvement in the slave trade and racism.
Monuments have become a focal point for protesters on both sides in the U.K., following the removal by protesters last week of a statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol.
Saturday’s right-wing protests marked the start of a backlash with far-right activists shouting racial slurs and vowing to protect English culture. The protests were advertised as an effort to defend a statue in Parliament Square of Winston Churchill which was defaced during a protest last weekend with the words “was a racist” in graffiti. The monument to the wartime leader has subsequently been boarded up temporarily.
“Racist thuggery has no place on our streets,” Johnson tweeted Saturday night. “Anyone attacking the police will be met with full force of the law. These marches & protests have been subverted by violence and breach current guidelines. Racism has no part in the UK and we must work together to make that a reality.”
While both anti-racist and rightwing protesters were on the streets, London Mayor Sadiq Khan pinned the blame for the violence squarely on the latter.
“Millions of Londoners will have been disgusted by the shameful scenes of violence, desecration and racism displayed by the right-wing extremists who gathered in our city today,” Khan tweeted late Saturday night.
Referring to the violence perpetrated by far-right protesters, Labour’s Shadow Justice Secretary David Lammy said, “The scenes were ugly and very very threatening.”
He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show on Sunday morning that, “[Churchill’s] statue should never have been attacked. And the idiots who did it detract from the central message of Black Lives Matter.”
On Saturday, police said they were investigating an image of a man urinating next to a monument of Keith Palmer, an police officer killed by a terrorist trying to enter the Palace of Westminster in 2017.
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden appeared to rule out speedy removal of any statues earlier in the day on Saturday. He tweeted that he’d written to lawmakers to argue that “heritage” should be used to “educate people about all aspects of Britain’s complex past, good and bad, rather than airbrushing history.”