London Boards Up Its Monuments as Tensions Run High Over the Fight to Topple Controversial Historical Statues

Groups opposing Black Lives Matter have threatened to defend monuments from protesters, and a bust of a Black poet was attacked in Bristol.

The statue of Winston Churchill is protected before the weekend protests. Photo: Matthew Chattle/Barcroft Media via Getty Images.

City officials have boarded up monuments around London in an effort to avoid clashes over the weekend as hate groups have threatened to target protests and “defend memorials” from activists seeking to bring down statues of historical figures linked to racism and slavery. A bust of the Jamaican-born poet in Bristol has also been vandalized with what looks like bleach by an unknown perpetrator.

Far-right groups have been organizing among themselves to protect landmarks after a week of turbulence following the dramatic toppling of a monument to a slave trader in Bristol by protesters, and the targeting of monuments to Winston Churchill and others in London and around the UK. 

Since those events last weekend, debate has raged around the country with thousands weighing in on whether statues of racist historical figures should be removed. Some activists have assembled a hit list for problematic monuments, and called for buildings and streets named after controversial figures to be renamed. The group Topple the Racists has provided a map of these sites on its website. “It’s up to local communities to decide what statues they want in their local areas,” it says. “We hope the map aids these much-needed dialogues.”

Ahead of the weekend, the Mayor of London Sadiq Kahn ordered monuments including the Cenotaph war memorial and a statue of Ghandhi to be boarded up as a precaution.

But extremists including the vocal far-right activist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (who is better known as Tommy Robinson) are calling for counter protests to “defend our memorials,” and Yaxley-Lennon has called for “patriots” to defend the Churchill monument in Parliament Square that was graffitied last weekend. 

The UK prime minister Boris Johnson weighed in on the issue on Twitter, writing that it is “absurd and shameful” that the Churchill monument is at “risk of attack” by “violent protesters.”

The statue of former British prime minister Winston Churchill is seen defaced, with the words (Churchill) "was a racist" written on it's base in Parliament Square, central London after a demonstration outside the US Embassy, on June 7, 2020. Photo by Isabel Infantes/AFP via Getty Images.

The statue of former British prime minister Winston Churchill is seen defaced. Photo by Isabel Infantes/AFP via Getty Images.

“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 says. “We cannot now try to edit or censor our past. We cannot pretend to have a different history.”

Some 155,000 people have participated in nearly 200 demonstrations in the country since the murder of George Floyd in May. Authorities have said that the Black Lives Matter protests in the UK have been “overwhelmingly peaceful” so far.

But some fear that the situation may be about to escalate. Speaking to media earlier this week, Clifford Stott, who is a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, warned that authorities need to foster police-community relations in the coming weeks as frustrations are already high in many communities due to the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. Stott said that there is a risk of a repeat of the 2011 riots across the country that occurred in the wake of the police killing of 29-year-old Mark Duggan in London.

In Bristol, a bust of the Jamaican-born poet and playwright Alfred Fagon was attacked with what appears to be bleach. The Bristol poet and community activist Lawrence Hoo said in a video posted online that the vandalism was a reminder of the “oppression and racism” that communities in the city have faced for a long time.

“After celebrating the removal of one slaver’s statue, let’s get back to what the crux of this issue is about here in Bristol, which is racism, which is endemic here,” Hoo said.

A statement from Avon and Somerset Police shared with Artnet News said that they became aware of the damage to the bust with “an unknown corrosive substance” on Thursday but it is unclear when it occurred.

A spokeswoman tells Artnet News that they are appealing for information about what happened and who was responsible. Meanwhile officers are investigating the incident and coordinating with Bristol City Council, which is responsible for the bust, to establish whether the damage is permanent. The Bristol City Council echoed this in their statement to Artnet News.

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