Tensions over Britain’s attitude to race and heritage have heightened, with fresh attacks on statues and efforts to call off a major Black Lives Matter protest amid fears of clashes with the far right.
BLM organisers said they had decided to cancel a planned protest in London’s Hyde Park on Saturday, warning that “many hate groups” were threatening their safety. Other anti-racism groups are pressing ahead with demonstrations, however.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people waded into the debate over statues of historical figures linked to slavery and racism that has raged since the weekend, signing petitions for and against a growing number of plans for their removal.
In Bristol, where a statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston was toppled at the weekend, bleach or another corrosive substance is suspected to have been thrown over a memorial to the black playwright, poet and actor, Alfred Fagon. Police are investigating the apparent attack on the statue of Fagon, a member of the Windrush generation who arrived in England from Jamaica as a teenager in 1955.
In Poole, a council announced plans to remove a statue of the founder of the Scout movement amid concerns it would be targeted by anti-racism activists – but these were thwarted when it was surrounded by dozens of local people.
Former scouts were among those who formed a ring around the statue of Robert Baden-Powell, who died in 1941 and has been accused of racism, homophobia and support for Adolf Hitler. They vowed not to let council workers or activists get to the statue. It will now have 24-hour security protection until it can be removed.
Baden-Powell is among those added to a growing “hit list” of nearly 80 statues across the UK, as anti-racism action grew following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on 25 May.
Anger at British historical figures spread abroad, with BLM graffiti daubed on a statue of Winston Churchill in Prague. The wartime prime minister espoused racist views in his lifetime.
On Sunday BLM protesters dumped the statue of Colston in Bristol harbour. It has now been retrieved and taken to an undisclosed, secure location.
This was followed by the removal of a statue of the West Indian merchant and slaveholder Robert Milligan. The statue of the founder of London’s global trade hub had stood outside the Museum of London Docklands in West India docks.
On Thursday night, London’s Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS foundation trust said that two statues at its hospitals would be taken out of public view due to their association with the slave trade. Robert Clayton, a former lord mayor of London, had ties to the Royal African Company, which transported slaves to the Americas, while Thomas Guy, the founder of Guy’s hospital, invested in the South Sea Company, which was also involved in the trade.
The debate over the UK’s historic monuments and statues has played out in online petitions, with tens of thousands calling to remove or keep them. Almost 15,000 people signed a petition to retain the statue of Baden-Powell.
More than 10,000 people signed petitions calling for the removal of a statue of the 18th-century British colonialist Robert Clive, also know as Clive of India, in Shrewsbury. Clive has been accused of “white supremacy” and benefiting from “blood money” due to his role in the British imperial domination of India, Bengal and much of south-east Asia.
Almost 5,000 people signed a rival petition to keep the sculpture. The petition, set up by Emma Dolphin, said: “Removing statues does not change history nor help us learn from it. Shrewsbury and Shropshire [have] been influenced by the actions of Robert Clive whether we condone all of his actions or not.”
Many of the statues and monuments have appeared on the website Topple the Racists, which includes 78 targets across Great Britain, from Lord Kitchener’s memorial in Orkney to the statue of Francis Drake in Plymouth.
The website, which is part of the Stop Trump coalition, aims to highlight the “complicity and history of empire and slavery”. A statement says: “Statues are exercises of public adoration. And Edward Colston made his fortune in the slave trade. He was part of a system of mass murder, torture and human suffering. We must learn from, not venerate, this terrible chapter in British colonial history.”
The monument of slave owner Thomas Picton in Cardiff is the latest to be facing removal. Calls have been made to display it in a new purpose-built slavery museum.
Aled Thomas, a descendant of Picton, wrote to the council leader, Huw Thomas, saying he was “embarrassed” by his links to the colonial governor and calling on the UK and Welsh governments to build a new national slavery museum similar to the National Holocaust Museum.
Cardiff council said it would debate the future of controversial monuments “at the earliest possible opportunity”.
In Prague a 3.5-metre statue of Churchill was sprayed with red graffiti reading “Byl rasista” (“He was racist”) and “Black Lives Matter”. It was later removed using a high-powered hose.
The statue was unveiled by Margaret Thatcher in 1999, in a ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution which overthrew communist rule in the former Czechoslovakia. It is a replica of the original created by the British sculptor Ivor Roberts-Jones and currently sitting in Parliament Square, which was also sprayed with the words “was a racist” during a demonstration on Sunday.
Churchill is a revered figure in the Czech Republic, where he is remembered for opposing the 1938 Munich agreement, which carved up Czechoslovakia by ceding territory to Hitler and left the country open to subsequent invasion by Nazi Germany.
At Churchill’s statue in London, far-right groups with the support of extremists such as Tommy Robinson are planning to hold a “defend our memorials” event on Saturday morning. The extremists claim they intend to prevent landmarks from being targeted but anti-racism campaigners fear that marauding gangs will seek out BLM protesters with the intention of confronting them.
A posting from BLM London organisers announced the cancellation of the Saturday protest, saying: “We want the protests to be a safe space for people to attend. However, we don’t think it will be possible with people like them present.”
It is unclear whether BLM protesters will heed the call to stay away because other protests, intended to be supportive, are still currently listed as going ahead. One – called “Antifascists support Black Lives Matter” – is due to take place on Saturday lunchtime, supported by the Labour pressure group Momentum among others.
BLM protests are expected to go ahead in London on Friday afternoon.
Others from the far right have urged people to head to local war memorials or statues around the country and form protective cordons.
Martin Hewitt, chair of the National Police Chiefs Council, said the impact of Covid-19, including an economic slump, could fuel discontent in addition to anger about police brutality.
“We are going into the summer period which is always a challenging period in relation to to incidents and disorder … and of course now, we do have the additional factor of the extraordinary movement that’s happened over the last fortnight in relation to BLM and people’s feelings about inequality. So of course, when you put all of that together, that has the potential if things come together to cause concern,” he said.