LONDON/ SYDNEY/PARIS: Scuffles broke out in London on Saturday between far-right activists, Black Lives Matter protesters and police trying to keep the two sides apart.
In Trafalgar Square and surrounding avenues, small bands of protesters jostled, tossed bottles and cans and set off fireworks as riot police with dogs and horses lined up.
Far-right groups shouted racial slurs at the anti-racism protesters, and some tried to use metal crash barriers to break through police lines. “It is clear that far-right groups are causing violence and disorder in central London, I urge people to stay away,” London Mayor Sadiq Khan said on Twitter.
Interior Minister Priti Patel denounced “thoroughly unacceptable thuggery” and said any perpetrators of violence or vandalism would face the full force of the law. Statues of historical figures including Winston Churchill were boarded up ahead of time to prevent them from becoming flashpoints or from being defaced by protesters who say such monuments celebrate racists.
There have been demonstrations around the world against racism and police abuses since the death of African American George Floyd in Minneapolis last month. In British cities tens of thousands of people have marched peacefully during previous days of protest.
In London the numbers of demonstrators were smaller on Saturday than in recent days, after announcements by far-right groups that they would converge on the city centre prompted anti-racism activists to cancel a planned march and instead call for scattered protests. Hundreds attended rallies in other English cities, many donning masks due to the coronavirus outbreak and carrying placards with slogans such as “To Be Black Is Not A Crime”.
In and around London’s Parliament Square, hundreds of people wearing football shirts, describing themselves as patriots and chanting “England, England” gathered alongside military veterans to guard the Cenotaph war memorial.
The far-right groups said they wanted to defend British culture, in particular historical monuments, after the toppling of the statue of a 17th century slave trader in the port city of Bristol last weekend sparked calls for others to come down. “Winston Churchill, he’s one of our own,” they also chanted, near the statue of the World War Two leader, which last weekend was sprayed with graffiti reading: “Churchill was a racist”. “My culture is under attack. This is my culture and my English history: why should Churchill be boarded up? Why is the Cenotaph attacked? It is not right,” said David Allen, one of the protesters.
Meanwhile, thousands of people across Australia attended Black Lives Matter protests on Saturday wearing masks and practising social distancing amid warnings from state leaders to call off the events on fears of a second wave of coronavirus infections. The rallies, dominated by a heavy police presence, were mostly peaceful. Protesters marched on the streets or gathered at public parks carrying posters that said “No Justice, No Peace” and “Sorry For The Inconvenience, We Are Trying To Change The World.”
“There have been people like my dad and Aunty Mingelly who have been pushing for change since they were my age - you know that was 50 years ago,” Jacinta Taylor, an organiser of the protest in Perth, told the rally. “I don’t want to be having to be 80 years old and pushing for this kind of change for my children and my children’s children.”
Perth saw the largest gathering of all major Australian cities on Saturday, despite pleas from the premier of Western Australia (WA) state, Mark McGowan, to cancel the event until the coronavirus pandemic was over.
A Black Lives Matter protestor in Melbourne had tested positive for the new coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, this week, while Prime Minister Scott Morrison has warned the mass gatherings were putting at risk the nation’s recovery.
WA Health Minister Roger Cook this week advised large gatherings were not advisable, although his wife, an indigenous woman, said she would join the rally. Cook said in a statement his wife was a private citizen and made her own personal choices. “That’s one of the many reasons why I love her,” he said. “I have great sympathy for the cause of ensuring Aboriginal people and minorities are protected from racism.”
Meanwhile, police fired tear gas and blocked demonstrators from marching through Paris to protest police brutality and racial injustice.
The tear gas began just as a group of extreme-right counter demonstrators were dislodged from the roof of a building overlooking the protest. Protesters set off firecrackers and shouted at police but were otherwise peaceful. Families and others trying to leave the protest struggled to get out because police had blocked off most exit routes. The remaining crowd took a knee.
Police decided to bar the crowd from marching from the Place de la Republique in eastern Paris toward the city’s main opera house. A police official said the decision was made because of a nationwide ban on gatherings of more than 10 people to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The counter demonstrators had earlier unfurled a banner about “anti-white racism” and lit flares in the blue-white-red colors of the French flag.
Residents reached out their windows to tear down the banner. Activists later confronted the far-right activists on the roof, throwing their bags and ropes to the pavement below.
Police have ordered the closure of newly reopened restaurants and shops along the route of a march in Paris against police brutality and racism, fearing possible violence.