UK: Protesters topple slave trader statue in Bristol

8th Jun 2020
UK: Protesters topple slave trader statue in Bristol

Black Lives Matter protest in London June 6, London (Credit: Socialist Appeal/Flickr)

By Karim El-Bar

LONDON (AA): Tens of thousands of people took part in Black Lives Matter protests across the UK on Sunday, tearing down the statue of a slave trader, Edward Colston in Bristol and spraying graffiti on a statue of former Prime Minister Winston Churchill in London.

In London, protesters gathered outside the US embassy in Battersea, where they took the knee.

The demonstrators then made their way across the British capital, including to the prime minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street. It was the third Black Lives Matter protest to be held in the capital this week.

Outside 10 Downing Street, protestors set off a smoke bomb and threw plastic bottles at police officers. One police officer was injured in clashes with protestors, who clashed with riot police near the Foreign Office and Treasury.

A memorial to Winston Churchill in Westminster, central London, was defaced by protestors. They struck out his name with graffiti and wrote “was a racist” underneath. Bins were also later set alight in the same area of London.

Yesterday was the 76th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944 during the Second World War. It was the beginning of the liberation of Europe from Nazi rule.

Protests also took place in Bristol and Manchester in England and Edinburgh and Glasgow in Scotland.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted: “People have a right to protest peacefully & while observing social distancing but they have no right to attack the police. These demonstrations have been subverted by thuggery – and they are a betrayal of the cause they purport to serve. Those responsible will be held to account.”

Late in the evening, the Metropolitan Police announced they had issued a Section 35 Dispersal Order covering Westminster from 9.15 p.m. Sunday to 6 a.m. Monday following “scenes of violence and disorder at today’s demonstration.” The order allows police officers to order a dispersal of people from a certain area for up to 48 hours.

Bristol rises against racism

In Bristol, protestors tore down the statue of 17th century slave trader Edward Colston and dumped it into the River Avon.

Video footage of the incident garnered more than 8 million views on Twitter, which also saw the hashtag “Saddam Hussein” trend in the UK – in reference to the famous video of US troops bringing down the former Iraqi leader’s statue in Baghdad in 2003.

The bronze memorial statue has been in Bristol’s city center since 1895 and was previously subject to a petition for its removal signed by 11,000 people.

Colston worked at a slave company that transported around 84,000 African slaves – men, women and children alike. He was a native of Bristol and an active philanthropist in his home city. Due to his charitable contributions, several roads, schools and other landmarks are named after him.

Local media reported that 71-year-old protestor John McAllister tore down black bin bags that were used to hide the statue and told his fellow protestors: “It says ‘erected by the citizens of Bristol as a memorial to one of the most virtuous and wise sons of this city.’”

“The man was a slave trader. He was generous to Bristol, but it was off the back of slavery, and it’s absolutely despicable. It’s an insult to the people of Bristol.”

In a powerful image shared on social media, black protestors were seen kneeling on the neck of the toppled statue for eight minutes – the same length of time as the US police officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck, killing the African American and sparking a global wave of demonstrations against police brutality and racial injustice.

Clive Lewis, a black Labour MP, tweeted: “Good. If statues of confederates who fought a war for slavery & white supremacy should come down, then why not this one? Someone responsible for immeasurable blood & suffering. We’ll never solve structural racism till we get to grips with our history in all its complexity.”

Avon and Somerset (which covers Bristol) Police Superintendent Andy Bennett said in a statement: “The Black Lives Matter demonstration in Bristol today was attended by an estimated 10,000 people. The vast majority of those who came to voice their concerns about racial inequality and injustice did so peacefully and respectfully.”

“However, there was a small group of people who clearly committed an act of criminal damage in pulling down a statue near Bristol Harbourside,” he said. “An investigation will be carried out to identify those involved, and we’re already collating footage of the incident.”

‘Completely unacceptable’

Home Secretary Priti Patel told Sky News that the incident in Bristol was “utterly disgraceful.”

She called on the police to ensure “justice is undertaken with the individuals responsible for such unlawful and disorderly behaviour.”

“Sheer vandalism and disorder is completely unacceptable,” she said.

Patel then went further and said the Black Lives Matter protests were “illegal” and “not in the interest of public health.”

“Under the rules we have put in place, it is illegal for gatherings of six or more people outside, in open air, to get together — and that is unacceptable,” she said.

“I would ask people not to protest, to follow the rules that are there, which are there to protect the NHS and save lives.”

On yesterday’s clashes, she said: “I am pretty certain that the British public will agree with me that what we saw was completely wrong, it is shameful, and quite frankly that is why these protests should stop and not go ahead. There is no excuse for violent behaviour.”

“Many of us — I spoke yesterday, the prime minister has expressed his views — have said how appalling the death of George Floyd has been,” she said. “However, we are in the middle of a health pandemic right now.”

In a statement, London Mayor Sadiq Khan said: “I stand with you and share your anger and pain.”

“But this vital cause was badly let down by a tiny minority who turned violent and threw glass bottles and lit flares, endangering other protesters and injuring police officers. This is simply not acceptable, will not be tolerated and will not win the lasting and necessary change we desperately need to see,” he said.

The hard-right political activist Nigel Farage tweeted: “A new form of the Taliban was born in the UK today. Unless we get moral leadership quickly, our cities won’t be worth living in.

“If Boris Johnson won’t lead and stand up for the country, as its symbols are trashed, then people will start taking it into their own hands. Full on race riots are now possible. Show leadership and fast.”

Arrests and injuries

London’s Metropolitan Police announced that 29 people were arrested at yesterday’s protests that briefly descended into clashes.

“The 29 arrests were for a variety of offences, including violent disorder, public order offences and assault on emergency service workers,” the statement said.

“A total of 14 officers were injured – two seriously. An officer from the Met’s Mounted Branch was seen to fall from her horse. She was taken to hospital and underwent surgery. She remains in hospital in a stable condition; her injuries are not life-threatening. The circumstances of what happened will be examined.”

In a separate statement, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick said that 27 police officers had been injured in the protests, including 14 yesterday.

“I am deeply saddened and depressed that a minority of protesters became violent towards officers in central London yesterday evening. This led to 14 officers being injured, in addition to 13 hurt in earlier protests this week. We have made a number of arrests and justice will follow. The number of assaults is shocking and completely unacceptable,” she said.

“I would urge protesters to please find another way to make your views heard which does not involve coming out on the streets of London, risking yourself, your families and officers as we continue to face this deadly virus,” she said.

[Photo: Edward Colston statue being thrown into the Bristol Harbour by protestors on 6 June 2020. Photographer: Harry135/ Creative Commons]

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