Far-right demonstrators gather in London to 'protect' symbols of UK history

'Winston Churchill, he's one of our own,' chanted right-wing demonstrators near the former prime minister's statue, which was sprayed with graffiti by anti-racism protesters last weekend.

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By Isobel van Hagen

LONDON — Right-wing counterprotesters to the Black Lives Matter movement were among groups who gathered in London on Saturday in what some said was an effort to protect public symbols of British history.

Videos on social media showed some of the demonstrators singing the British national anthem and chanting "England," amid a tense atmosphere and heavy police presence, despite prior warnings from officials for the public to stay home.

"Winston Churchill, he's one of our own," some chanted near a statue of the former prime minister that last weekend was sprayed with graffiti reading: "Churchill was a racist."

British Home Secretary Priti Patel condemned the violent clashes by the counterprotesters as "throughly unacceptable thuggery."

London Mayor Sadiq Khan urged people on Saturday to “stay away” from the demonstrations in light of the risk of spreading the coronavirus and concerns about possible disorder, vandalism and violence.

“We have intelligence that extreme far-right groups are coming to London ostensibly, they say, to protect the statues, but we think the statues may be a flashpoint for violence,” Khan said on BBC Radio on Saturday.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson also forcefully advised against attending protests, saying Friday that anyone attacking public property or the police would face "the full force of the law."

The U.K.'s Black Lives Matter group also urged people to avoid central London, citing fears over safety.

The global Black Lives Matter movement has spread beyond demonstrations against police brutality to confronting colonialist pasts and systemic racism.

In recent days, some protesters around the world were emboldened to take more strident action, toppling statues of slaveholders, slave traders and prominent colonial-era figures.

With this in mind, metal scaffolding was placed around a statue of Churchill in London ahead of this weekend's anti-racism protests.

While Johnson called the threats against the Churchill statue 'absurd' and 'shameful,' the celebrated former World War II leader's legacy is tainted by evidence of racist and white supremacist views.

Scaffolding was also placed around statues of Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, as the mayor said was that far-right groups intend to remove these statues.

London’s Metropolitan Police imposed several restrictions ahead of the scheduled protests including requiring the events to end at 5 p.m. local time. But the police warned protesters to reconsider attending at all due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The restrictions come in the wake of disorder in the city at the end of protests last weekend. While police said those demonstrations were on the whole peaceful, there were dozens of arrests and some police were injured.

Even so, more anti-racism demonstrations around the world are expected to continue on Saturday for the third consecutive week, as protesters stand with U.S. demonstrations after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.

Demonstrations are planned in Paris on Saturday despite police bans on large gatherings due to coronavirus. Police urged restaurants, shops and businesses on the route between the upscale Place de la Republique square and Opera areas to close and board up their windows due to the risk of civil disorder.

Demonstrators attend a Black Lives Matter protest to express solidarity with U.S. protesters and demand an end to Aboriginal deaths in custody, in Perth, Australia on Saturday.Trevor Collens / AFP - Getty Images

In Australia, protests also went ahead on Saturday in support of the Black Lives Matter movement against the advice of government and health authorities.

The rallies, dominated by a heavy police presence, were mostly peaceful. Protesters marched on the streets or gathered at public parks carrying posters that said "No Justice, No Peace" and "Sorry For The Inconvenience, We Are Trying To Change The World."

Australian police on Friday night set up temporary barricades in front of Sydney's town hall and stood guard around a statue of colonial figure Captain Cook in the nearby park.

The movement in Australia focuses on the mistreatment of indigenous Australians, including Aboriginal deaths in law enforcement custody.

The worldwide unrest has also drawn attention to indigenous rights in Taiwan, where hundreds packed into a park in central Taipei on Saturday to protest.

An indigenous Taiwanese group was given prominent billing at the rally to draw attention to discrimination against the island's original inhabitants. The rally, attended by more than 500 people, was peaceful with only a very light police presence.

Nancy Ing and Reuters contributed.