Several hundred people, including far-right activists, have gathered to demonstrate in central London‘s Parliament Square despite police warnings to stay home to contain the coronavirus.
Dozens gathered around the statue of wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the Cenotaph war memorial, both boarded up. Officials fear far-right activists will seek confrontation with anti-racism protesters Saturday under the guise of protecting statues.
Paul Golding, leader of the far-right group Britain First, said activists have turned out to “guard our monuments.”
“I am extremely fed up with the way that the authorities have allowed two consecutive weekends of vandalism against our national monuments,” Golding told the Press Association.
Monuments around the world have become flash points in demonstrations against racism and police violence after 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, the protests have triggered a national debate about the legacy of empire and its role in the slave trade. A statue of slave trader Edward Colston was hauled from its plinth by protesters in the city of Bristol on Sunday and dumped in the harbour. In London, Churchill’s statue was daubed with the words “was a racist.”
Police have imposed strict restrictions on Saturday’s protests in a bid to avoid violent clashes. Authorities also fenced off other statues in Parliament Square, including memorials to Nelson Mandela and Abraham Lincoln.
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Police Commander Bas Javid urged people not to gather in large groups at all because of the coronavirus. But if they must, he said activists have to stick to the planned route and be off the streets by 5 p.m. or risk arrest.
He said that while protesters last weekend were largely peaceful, a minority was “intent on disorder” and that resulted in assaults on police and violent behaviour.
Dozens were arrested last weekend and a police horse was pictured bolting past the crowds amid the chaos.
A Black Lives Matter group in London said it was calling off a planned protest on Saturday because the presence of far-right activists would make it unsafe, though some anti-racism demonstrators are still likely to gather.