British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Friday it was “absurd and shameful” that a statue of Winston Churchill was at risk of attack by activists, his strongest statement yet on growing protests against the legacies of past leaders.
Anti-racism protesters, who have staged demonstrations since the death of African American George Floyd, have put statues at the forefront of their challenge to Britain’s imperialist past.
Politicians, police and activists sought to dissuade people from coming to Parliament Square on Saturday, where statues were boarded up ahead of possible protests.
A statue of Edward Colston, who made a fortune in the 17th century from the slave trade, was torn down in the city of Bristol on Sunday, and authorities have acted to protect monuments they believe could be next.
They have now boarded up a statue opposite parliament of Churchill, Britain’s prime minister during World War Two, after demonstrators defaced it last weekend.
“It is absurd and shameful that this national monument should today be at risk of attack by violent protesters,” Johnson wrote on Twitter.
On Friday, around 500 people gathered in London’s Hyde Park chanting “the UK is not innocent” and “Black Lives Matter”, before marching through central London, with many saying that statues such as Colston’s were legitimate targets.
“If we have these big images, and we’re telling people that these people and what they stood for is OK, we’re just allowing everything that they did to pass,” said Samantha Halsall, 23, a student at the protest.
Organisers told the protesters not to turn up in central London on Saturday amid concern that there could be altercations with counter-protestors looking to defend statues.
London police chief Cressida Dick echoed that call.
“It’s clear that we’re in the middle of a public health crisis. So it’s not safe for them, it’s not safe for the people around them,” she said.
“Secondly, we do have information that people are intent on coming to cause violence and confrontation.”
The opposition Labour party warned that the weekend was likely to see “major challenges” and that far-right activists might “exploit the situation and sow hate for their own divisive ends.”
Far-right activist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon said he would not turn up to the square on Saturday as he did not want to be responsible for more racial division.
Johnson is an admirer and biographer of Churchill, and some of those close to him say he wants to emulate him.
But Churchill expressed racist and anti-Semitic views and critics blame him for denying food to India during the 1943 famine which killed more than two million people – aspects of his legacy which some say are not scrutinised enough.
“Yes, he sometimes expressed opinions that were and are unacceptable to us today, but he was a hero, and he fully deserves his memorial,” Johnson wrote, calling on people to avoid the protests.
“We cannot now try to edit or censor our past. We cannot pretend to have a different history.”