British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Sunday condemned the sporadic violence during a weekend of largely peaceful protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, which also saw the defacing of a statue of former British premier Winston Churchill and the toppling of a statue of a 17th-century slave trader.
“People have a right to protest peacefully and while observing social distancing but they have no right to attack the police. These demonstrations have been subverted by thuggery — and they are a betrayal of the cause they purport to serve,” Johnson said in a tweet, without directly addressing the vandalism of the statues.
“Those responsible will be held to account,” he said.
Protesters defaced the statue of Churchill in central London, taping a Black Lives Matter sign around its midsection, and crossing out his last name and spray painting “was a racist” underneath.
Churchill, subject of a 2014 biography written by Johnson, was Britain’s wartime prime minister, leading the country in World War II against the Nazis.
In addition to the defacement of the statue, a protester tried to set fire to a British flag at the Cenotaph, the London memorial to the country’s war dead.
Sunday’s protests were mainly peaceful, but for the second day running there were some scuffles near the offices of Johnson. Objects were thrown at police, who sent reinforcements before calm was restored.
Protesters also threw objects at police down the road outside the gates of Parliament, where officers without riot gear formed a line. They were reinforced by riot police, who quickly ran toward the scene.
The Metropolitan Police said a dozen people were arrested and eight officers injured after demonstrators with law enforcement in central London.
Demonstrators in the English port city of Bristol vented their anger at the country’s colonial history by toppling the statue of the 17th-century slave trader. Protesters attached ropes to the statue of Edward Colston before pulling it down to cheers and roars of approval from the crowd.
Images on social media showed protesters appearing to kneel on the statue’s neck, recalling the death of George Floyd in Minnesota on May 25 that has sparked worldwide protests against racism and police violence.
The statue met with a watery end as it was eventually rolled into the city’s harbor.
Opposition chief Keir Starmer of the Labour Party said that although he believed the statue should have been removed, he did not approve of the manner in which it was done.
“It shouldn’t be done in that way. [It’s] completely wrong to pull a statue down like that,” Starmer told LBC, according to the Guardian. “But, stepping back, that statue should have been taken down a long, long time ago. You can’t, in 21st-century Britain, have a slaver on a statue.”
Interior Minister Priti Patel called the toppling “utterly disgraceful.”
“That speaks to the acts of public disorder that actually have now become a distraction from the cause which the people are actually protesting about,” Patel told Sky News.
“That is a completely unacceptable act and speaks to the vandalism, again, as we saw yesterday in London,” she said.
The city’s police promised to carry out an investigation and Crime, Policing and Justice Minister Kit Malthouse called for those responsible to be prosecuted.
“The way we do things in this country is by democratic process, not by mob rule,” he told Sky News.
Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees struck a more conciliatory tone.
“I know the removal of the Colston Statue will divide opinion, as the statue itself has done for many years,” the mayor said in a statement.
“However, it’s important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity.”
On Monday, Rees told BBC Radio Bristol that it was not a financial priority for the city to retrieve the statue.
“It’s still underwater,” he said, according to the Daily Mail. At some point it will [be fished out] but we’ve a number of priorities in the city at the moment, not least trying to face up to an £80 million gap in our budget that we’ve been left with by national government not funding us adequately for Covid.”
Rees added that he believed the statue would eventually end up in a museum in the city.
Colston grew up in a wealthy merchant family and joined a company in 1680 that had a monopoly on the west African slave trade.
The Royal African Company (RAC) was formally headed by the brother of King Charles II who later took the throne as James II.
The company branded the slaves — including women and children — with its RAC initials on their chests.
It is believed to have sold around 100,000 west Africans in the Caribbean and the Americas between 1672 and 1689.
Colston later developed a reputation as a philanthropist who donated to charitable causes such as schools and hospitals in Bristol and London.
His 18-foot (5.5-metre) bronze statue stood on Bristol’s Colston Avenue since 1895. The city also has a school named in his honor.