Prime Minister Boris Johnson has spoken out on the U.K.’s demonstrations following the death of George Floyd in police custody, warning that protesters who attack public property or the police will face “the full force of the law.”
Johnson’s speech on Monday came a day after anti-racism protesters in Bristol tore down a controversial bronze statue of 17th-Century slave trader Edward Colston, rolled it through the streets and tossed it into the River Avon — an incident that has re-ignited the country’s contemplation of its own dark history against a week of Black Lives Matter protests.
Bristol mayor Marvin Rees, Europe’s first Black city mayor, told BBC Radio Bristol on Monday morning: “I can’t and won’t pretend the statue of a slave trader in a city I was born and grew up [in] wasn’t an affront to me and people like me.
“I think circumstances came to a head at this particular moment in time and people felt the need to take the statue down.”
The incident, which grabbed international headlines, came a day after a largely peaceful protest in London became violent around 10 Downing Street, where flares were fired at police. Around 27 officers were hurt during the demonstration. Elsewhere, in Parliament Square, a statue of Winston Churchill was sprayed with graffiti, with Churchill’s engraved name on the plinth struck out and the words ‘Was a Racist’ scrawled underneath.
In a pre-recorded speech on Monday that was also published in Black newspaper The Voice, Johnson said the death of Floyd has “awakened an anger and a widespread and incontrovertible, undeniable feeling of injustice” around the world. The U.K., said the PM, was a “much less racist society than we were — in many ways far happier and better.”
Let us work peacefully and lawfully to defeat racism and discrimination wherever we find it, and let us continue to work together as we put Britain back on its feet. pic.twitter.com/onUqXbcCGB
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) June 8, 2020
However, while Johnson suggested that he supported the Black Lives Matter movement (“You are right, we are all right, to say Black Lives Matter”), he also highlighted the “disproportionate price” paid by the country’s Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed more than 40,000 lives in the U.K.
“After such sacrifice, we cannot now let it get out of control,” he said. “So no, I will not support those who flout the rules on social distancing, for the obvious reason that we risk a new infection at a critical time and just as we have made huge progress.
“And no, I will not support or indulge those who break the law, or attack the police, or desecrate public monuments. We have a democracy in this country. If you want to change the urban landscape, you can stand for election, or vote for someone who will.”
Johnson warned that those who attack public property or the police “will face the full force of the law; not just because of the hurt and damage they are causing, but because of the damage they are doing to the cause they claim to represent.”
“They are hijacking a peaceful protest and undermining it in the eyes of many who might otherwise be sympathetic,” said Johnson. “And as a society, we can and must do better.”
Johnson’s comments come amid a week of largely peaceful protests across the country. “Star Wars” actor John Boyega made headlines last week when he expressed fears for his career after speaking out.