The Home Secretary has condemned the actions of anti-racism protesters who clashed with police and tore down a statue of a slave trader as “shameful”, warning: “You will face justice.”
Priti Patel told the Commons more than 137,500 people have attended Black Lives Matter protests across the UK, with around 200 demonstrations over the weekend sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
On Sunday, graffiti was scrawled on the statue of Sir Winston Churchill in Parliament Square, a protester tried to light a flag at the Cenotaph, and in Bristol the bronze memorial to slave trader Edward Colston was toppled and dumped into the harbour.
Some 35 Metropolitan Police officers were injured, with two needing hospital treatment – one suffered a head wound and the second a shoulder injury after being hit by a bottle.
Making a statement to MPs on Monday, Ms Patel said Covid-19 restrictions made protesting in large numbers “illegal” and urged people not to attend.
She said: “As the ugly tally of officer assaults show, some protesters regrettably turned to violence and abusive behaviour at the weekend. This hooliganism is utterly indefensible. There is no justification for it.
“There is no excuse for pelting flares at brave officers, throwing bikes at police horses, attempting to disrespect the Cenotaph or vandalising the statue of Winston Churchill, one of the greatest protectors of our freedoms who has ever lived.
“It’s not for mobs to tear down statues and cause criminal damage in our streets, and it is not acceptable for thugs to racially abuse black police officers for doing their jobs.”
The Home Secretary said 135 people had been arrested by Monday morning, adding: “To the police who have been subject to the most dreadful abuse, you have my full backing as you act proportionately, fairly and courageously to maintain law and order.
Black Lives Matter demonstrations went ahead peacefully across most of the UK in the wake of the death of African American Mr Floyd after a white police officer held him down by pressing a knee into his neck on May 25.
Pop star Lewis Capaldi was pictured alongside protesters at Holyrood Park in Edinburgh, while rapper Stormzy attended the London protest.
In Manchester, hundreds crowded into St Peter’s Square, kneeling in silence as a mark of respect for Mr Floyd.
But there were a number of clashes between protesters and police on Whitehall on Sunday night.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak condemned the “small minority” who have committed acts of violence and vandalism at demonstrations, but promised that permanent progress is being made.
He tweeted: “As a British Asian of course I know that racism exists in this country.
“And I know people are angry and frustrated. They want to see, and feel, change. But a better society doesn’t happen overnight – like all great acts of creation, it happens slowly and depends on the cooperation of each of us toward that common goal.
“The truth is we have created a country far more inclusive and fairer than at any point in its history. Does this mean our story is over? No, but we shouldn’t ignore the hard work of the many generations who came before us.”
Metropolitan Police Federation chairman Ken Marsh called for an apology from bosses for failing to protect officers from injuries and criticised the Met’s tactics.
He called for urgent action from Met Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick and demanded officers are properly equipped after police without helmets and shields were pelted with bottles and fireworks.
Mr Marsh said “enough is enough”, adding: “If bottles and fireworks are being thrown at our police officers, we should have public order equipment on. No ifs. No buts. Our colleagues’ safety should be of paramount importance to our police leaders.”
Writing in the Evening Standard on Monday, Dame Cressida said officers are trained to use “force proportionately, lawfully and only when absolutely necessary” and condemned violence directed at officers.
“The violent criminality we saw is disgraceful and will have been frightening.”
Marvin Rees, the mayor of Bristol, said he felt no sense of loss for the statue pulled down in his city.
But he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “As an elected politician, obviously I cannot condone the damage and I am very concerned about the implications of a mass gathering on the possibility of a second Covid wave.”
Andy Marsh, Chief Constable of Avon and Somerset Police, backed his officers after criticism they did not intervene.
In a video posted to social media, he said: “To arrest suspects would likely lead to injuries to suspects, injuries to officers, and people who were not involved in damaging property being thrown into a very violent confrontation with the police that could have had serious ramifications for the city of Bristol and beyond.”