Boris Johnson says it's 'absurd' Churchill statue is boarded up for protection
Johnson, who once wrote a biography of the former British leader, says country can't 'censor' its past
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Friday it was "absurd and shameful" that a statue of Winston Churchill was at risk of attack by protesters, his strongest statement yet on a growing movement to challenge the legacies of past leaders.
Anti-racism protesters, who have staged demonstrations since the death of African American George Floyd after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes while detaining him on May 25, have put statues at the forefront of their challenge to Britain's imperialist past.
The statue of Edward Colston, who made a fortune in the 17th century from the slave trade, was torn down in the city of Bristol on Sunday by demonstrators taking part in a worldwide wave of protests.
Before new protests on Friday and over the weekend, officials boarded up a statue opposite Parliament of Churchill, Britain's prime minister during the Second World War, after demonstrators defaced it on Sunday.
"It is absurd and shameful that this national monument should today be at risk of attack by violent protesters," Johnson wrote on Twitter.
"Yes, he sometimes expressed opinions that were and are unacceptable to us today, but he was a hero, and he fully deserves his memorial. We cannot now try to edit or censor our past. We cannot pretend to have a different history."
He called on people to avoid the protests.
Churchill expressed racist and anti-Semitic views and critics blame him for denying food to India during the 1943 famine which killed more than two million people – aspects of his legacy which some say are not scrutinized enough.
Protests in Hyde Park
Around 500 people gathered in London's Hyde Park on Friday, chanting "the U.K. is not innocent" and "Black Lives Matter," before marching through central London, with many saying that statues such as Colston's were legitimate targets.
"If we have these big images, and we're telling people these people and what they stood for is OK, we're just allowing everything that they did to pass," said Samantha Halsall, 23, a student at the protest.
Johnson is an admirer and biographer of Churchill, and some of those close to him say he wants to emulate him.
Johnson has said he hears the "undeniable feeling of injustice" of those protesting, but has also appealed to demonstrators to abide by physical distancing rules to prevent a second wave of the novel coronavirus.
"Whatever progress this country has made in fighting racism — and it has been huge — we all recognize that there is much more work to do," he said. "But it is clear that the protests have been sadly hijacked by extremists intent on violence."
On Friday, there were a small number of people arguing next to the boarded up statue of Churchill.
Organizers told the protesters not to turn up in central London on Saturday amid concern that there could be altercations with counter-protestors looking to defend statues.
London Police Chief Cressida Dick echoed that call.
"It's clear that we're in the middle of a public health crisis. So it's not safe for them, it's not safe for the people around them," she said.
"Secondly, we do have information that people are intent on coming to cause violence and confrontation."
The Opposition Labour Party warned that the weekend was likely to see "major challenges" and that far-right activists might "exploit the situation and sow hate for their own divisive ends."