Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Friday said a wave of anti-racism protests across Britain had been “hijacked by extremists”, as fears mounted about clashes between activists and far-right groups.
In London, authorities boarded up several statues, including one of Second World War leader Winston Churchill, after previous damage and with further demonstrations planned.
Mayor Sadiq Khan said the monuments, as well as the Cenotaph war memorial, were being protected against the risk of “disorder, vandalism and violence”.
Statues and monuments to figures involved in Britain’s colonial past and the international slave trade have become increasing targets for activists over the last week. That has prompted calls for a re-examination of how the country’s historical legacy is marked in public spaces, and for many monuments to be torn down or relocated to museums.
On Sunday, crowds in Bristol, southwest England, toppled a statue to a 17th century slave trader and philanthropist, Edward Colston, and threw it into the harbour. But while recognising the “legitimate desire to protest against discrimination”, Mr. Johnson said: “We cannot now try to edit or censor our past. “We cannot pretend to have a different history. The statues in our cities and towns were put up by previous generations,” he wrote on Twitter.
“They had different perspectives, different understandings of right and wrong. But those statues teach us about our past, with all its faults. “To tear them down would be to lie about our history, and impoverish the education of generations to come.”
Mr. Johnson acknowledged the anger of black and minority ethnic communities and said there had been “huge” strides in tackling discrimination in Britain. But after clashes marred largely peaceful demonstrations in London, he added: “It is clear that the protests have been sadly hijacked by extremists intent on violence. “The attacks on the police and indiscriminate acts of violence which we have witnessed over the last week are intolerable and they are abhorrent.”
With tensions running high and police promising a “robust” response to violence, the Black Lives Matter group called off a demonstration planned for Saturday in London’s Hyde Park.
That followed far-right groups saying they would stage a counter-demonstration. “We want the protests to be a safe space for people to attend however we don’t think it’ll be possible with people like them present,” BLM London said on Instagram. On Friday it unveiled a billboard on the banks of the River Thames to more than 3,000 victims of what it called “state and racist violence”.
Mayor Khan backed protesters. But both he and Mr. Johnson urged people to stay home this weekend, both because of the risk of spreading the coronavirus and of violence.
Mr. Johnson, who has written a biography of the wartime leader, said it was “absurd and shameful” his memorial would be targeted, as he fought against fascism and tyranny. “Yes, he sometimes expressed opinions that were and are unacceptable to us today, but he was a hero, and he fully deserves his memorial,” the Premier wrote.