Thousands of people all over the UK came out last week to support a diversity of multiracial and peaceful Black Lives Matter protests. The Guardian reports that more than 155,000 protesters gathered organically, “by word of mouth and social media, without networks or experience. In British towns from Ledbury to Prestwich, Darlington to Blackpool, anger and frustration at generations of racial injustice has burned up young, first-time activists. A DIY sense of community is palpable; scrappy homemade signs and face masks replace glossy placards and loudspeakers.”
These are all signs of a spontaneous movement for social change, which was most visible in the tearing down of the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol last week. It has sparked a reappraisal of the role of slavery in the accumulation of wealth in cities across the country.
However, on Saturday counter-protesters descended on London ostensibly to “defend” statues in the capital, but with a rightwing hard core intent on attacking anti-racist demonstrators and the police. Video footage shows some of them performing Nazi salutes and chanting “Eng-er-land” in front of Churchill’s boarded-up statue and the Cenotaph. Black Lives Matter cancelled a planned demonstration from Hyde Park because of the danger of rightwing violence, but many protesters turned up anyway. Hundreds of police in yellow vests maintained a physical barrier to keep the two sides apart.
Several hundred of the mainly white “statue defenders” had gathered in Westminster by mid-morning, many of them drinking. At one point the crowd broke into a chant of: “We’re racist, and that’s the way we like it.” At other points they chanted the name of the far-right figurehead Tommy Robinson, and “There’s only one Winston Churchill.” What really upset them was the idea of an attack on the symbols of imperial greatness. A placard held by a counter-protestor read: “Anti-antifa: Hands Off Our History.” War memorials are “sacred” for them, says Dr. Joe Mulhall of the campaign group Hope Not Hate, and their reaction to defacing statues could be compared to how religious communities would react to the desecration of holy sites. “It really is a culture war moment,” he added.
Journalist Andrew Anthony walked with a black protester named Clem, together with his friend, both in their forties, who were both busy breaking up fights,. “We marched peacefully last week and we came out as elders today to protect our kids,” said Clem. “As we spoke,” wrote Anthony, “another group of middle-aged white men in shorts and football shirts came out of a side street and Clem engaged them in conversation. ‘It’s not about race,’ the ageing football democrat said. ‘We don’t have problems with you. It’s about our history’.”
This evocation of “our history” highlights the ideological role played by Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings in inciting the “statue defenders.” While being forced to acknowledge public outrage at the police killing of George Floyd in the US, Johnson aims to discredit the Black Lives Matter protests by converting their goal of racial equality into an attack on the cultural values of white Britishness, as well as being a threat to law and order. In a series of eight tweets early Friday morning, he warned that Winston Churchill’s statue outside parliament was at risk of attack by “violent protesters,” by “extremists intent on violence.” To tear down statues is “to lie about our history,” he tweeted. Churchill’s statue “is a permanent reminder of his achievement in saving this country – and the whole of Europe – from a fascist and racist tyranny.”
It’s irrelevant that Johnson distorts Churchill’s actual historical role. The importance of the statue for him is to symbolise Johnson’s own version of past British greatness. He singled out Churchill’s statue as in danger of attack, not that of Margaret Thatcher nearby, to appeal to the nationalist illusions of British exceptionalism, building on the mythology of countless film and TV dramas about the Second World War. His tweets were aimed at marshalling his Vote Leave base against the anti-racist movement, equating spray-painting slogans with violent attacks.
The Guardian totally misreads Johnson’s intervention as directed at Labour, commenting: “Throughout recent days, Johnson has sought to draw a sharp dividing line, and put Labour on the other side of it – alongside the ‘thugs’ disfiguring statues, and po-faced killjoys censoring the TV archives. With Brexit in the most part resolved as an issue, Conservatives hope ‘culture war’ issues such as these will serve a similar function, by severing the two parts of Labour’s electoral coalition – dividing its ‘red wall’ voters from its liberal city strongholds.” But this is not an electoral ploy. Johnson and Cummings want to isolate the social movement behind the protests and take the struggle to the streets. They are well aware of the role of the far-right, and want to deliberately associate Black Lives Matter with its violence.
The most powerful image that came out of Saturday’s events did not support Johnson’s narrative, however. It was Patrick Hutchinson, who is black, lifting an injured rightwing demonstrator to safety. He told Channel 4 News that he attended demonstrations to keep others out of trouble. The man he helped had been separated from his fellow-demonstrators: “His life was under threat, so I just went under, scooped him up, put him on my shoulders and started marching towards the police with him.” “If the other three police officers who were standing around when George Floyd was murdered had thought about intervening like what we did, George Floyd would be alive today.” He added “I just want equality – for all of us. At the moment the scales are unfairly balanced and I just want things to be fair – for my children and my grandchildren.”
The government is now planning legislation that would give ten-year prison sentences for the specific crime of desecrating war memorials, supported by the Labour front bench. This is to distract from the real issues of confronting racism in British society. The dunking of Edward Colston’s statue has taught more people about the connection of slavery to the institutions of the British ruling elite than any number of learned treatises.