Black Lives Matter organisers have warned against attending previously-scheduled demonstrations in London this weekend, saying that the far-right presence could provoke violent clashes
Last week (June 7) protesters made history by pulling down a statue of slave trader Edward Colston and dumping it in the harbour during Bristol’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations. This was celebrated by many online and IRL, with deafening cheers from onlookers, while one activist kneeled on the statue’s neck for eight minutes, drawing attention to the way George Floyd was killed in police custody May 25.
Of course, though, there were also critics of those that dared to topple the bronze statue of a man responsible for transporting around 80,000 Africans into slavery via the Royal African Company, or dumping them overboard to be eaten by sharks if they died in the hull of the company’s slave ships during the Middle Passage.
Many of these critics have also been outraged by the defacement and removal of other monuments to long-dead racists in the UK in recent weeks, such as the statue of slave trader Robert Milligan, which was removed from London’s West India Quay June 9. A recent petition also calls (again) for the removal of the Cecil Rhodes statue that was at the centre of a recent Oxford protest.
However, the main source of contention – much of it stoked by far-right movements across the UK, such as the Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA) – is the Winston Churchill statue in London that was recently targeted with graffiti calling him a racist.
As pointed out by historian Richard Toye, speaking to the BBC: “It's absolutely not in doubt that Churchill was racist. He certainly regarded white people as being superior, he said that explicitly.” However, the act of protest has sparked a so-called “protect our memorials” event among far-right activists online.
Allegedly organised by the DFLA, the event has seen support from far-right groups and football firms across the country, with many planning to travel to London on Saturday to “defend” the statues and other memorials, amid planned anti-racism and Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
In a video posted to social media June 7, right-wing activist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson) encourages his followers to attend the event, saying: “next Saturday I’ll see you all in London... You watch next Saturday how many people turn up.” In a subsequent video, he makes direct reference to the Churchill statue, adding: “To desecrate Sir Winston Churchill’s statue… sorry but I’m not going to watch it.”
Robinson has also recently congratulated a racist group that opposed a peaceful protest in Hoddesdon June 8. The group responded to anti-racism activists’ chants of “Black Lives Matter” by shouting: “Why don’t you go back to Africa then?”
“Respect lads,” Robinson writes. “Showing every other firm how it’s done.”
Other protesters, attending a Black Lives Matter protest in Plymouth, have faced racist abuse from a group of white men linked to counter-protesters defending the Plymouth Naval Memorial, and yet more came up against resistance from men defending the Churchill statue before it was spray-painted.
Though the anti-racism advocacy group Hope not Hate suggests that “online boasts of numbers often do not materialise on the day”, it also provides a reminder that demos organised by the Football Lads Alliance (the group from which the DFLA originally split) drew crowds in the tens of thousands in 2017. Many of the groups that pledged their support for the “protect our memorials” event have already claimed they’ve arranged transport, Hope not Hate adds, which will bring them into London from as far away as Sunderland, Yorkshire, and elsewhere.
Last weekend saw thousands of anti-racism activists gather in Parliament Square and outside the US Embassy, showing solidarity with US protests, speaking out against police brutality and systemic racism, and providing a reminder that the UK is not innocent.
However, authorities have warned that the presence of far-right counter-protesters at this weekend’s previously scheduled rallies could raise tensions and exacerbate violence. Now, The Guardian reports that Black Lives Matter organisers have called off a protest in Hyde Park on Saturday due to these concerns, while the UK Black Lives Matter group have advised staging local protests instead.
Please, people, our people, if you want to protest this weekend, do it in your ends. It’ll be much safer to have a rally or event in Tottenham, Peckham, Hackney or Hounslow.— #BlackLivesMatterUK (@ukblm) June 11, 2020
Our priority must be our safety - please take care of yourselves and each other#BlackLivesMatterUK