‘Sickened and appalled’ Johnson calls for UK Floyd protests to remain peaceful

·5-min read

Boris Johnson has said he was “sickened” by the death of George Floyd as he called for UK protests to remain peaceful and in accordance with Covid-19 social distancing rules.

The Prime Minister came under pressure to halt exports of riot control gear to the US after President Donald Trump called for American authorities to “dominate” protesters and threatened to deploy the military.

Protesters in London’s Trafalgar Square
Protesters in London’s Trafalgar Square (Victoria Jones/PA)

Protests have swept across America following the death of Mr Floyd, a black man who had his neck knelt on by a white police officer in Minneapolis, with some demonstrations ending in violent clashes.

As Mr Johnson appeared at the daily coronavirus press conference, a number of videos shared on social media showed protesters and police clashing outside Downing Street.

Footage shows various objects, including signs and a traffic cone, being thrown at police while one protester is wrestled to the ground and restrained by officers.

Protesters face police at the entrance to Downing Street
Protesters face police at the entrance to Downing Street (Victoria Jones/PA)

Freelance journalist Mattha Busby filmed the moment and said it was “unclear exactly what started things”.

“Police appeared to attempt to take a man from the crowd and pandemonium ensued,” he tweeted.

Speaking at the press conference, Mr Johnson said: “We mourn George Floyd and I was appalled and sickened to see what happened to him.

“And my message to President Trump, to everybody in the United States from the UK, is that I don’t think racism – it’s an opinion I’m sure is shared by the overwhelming majority of people around the world – racism, racist violence, has no place in our society.”

He said people had the right to protest but added: “I would urge people to protest peacefully, and in accordance with the rules on social distancing. Everybody’s lives matter, black lives matter, but we must fight this virus as well.”

Earlier at Prime Minister’s Questions, Mr Johnson said: “I think what happened in the United States was appalling, it was inexcusable, we all saw it on our screens and I perfectly understand people’s right to protest what took place.

“Though obviously I also believe that protest should take place in a lawful and reasonable way.”

He told MPs: “Of course black lives matter and I totally understand the anger, the grief that is felt, not just in America but around the world and in our country as well.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer urged Mr Johnson to speak to Mr Trump and “convey to him the UK’s abhorrence about his response to the events”.

The SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford pressed the Government over the export of riot control equipment from the UK to the US, calling for an urgent review.

“The UK exports millions of pounds of riot control equipment to the US, including tear gas and rubber bullets,” he said.

“The Prime Minister must have seen how these weapons are used on American streets.”

Mr Johnson responded: “I’m happy to look into any complaints but as he knows all exports are conducted in accordance with the consolidated guidance and the UK is possibly the most scrupulous country in that respect in the world.”

Shadow international trade secretary Emily Thornberry has said it would be a “disgrace” if the UK supplied equipment to US authorities to crush protests.

In a letter to Liz Truss, her Government counterpart, the Labour MP called on the Government to suspend all licences that allow British companies to sell riot control kit to American police forces.

“I’m sure you will agree that, at a time when Donald Trump is gearing up to use the US military to crush the legitimate protests taking place across America over the murder of black civilians, it would be a disgrace for the UK to supply him with the arms and equipment he will use to do so,” she wrote.

The Department for International Trade has issued a licence to an unnamed company to sell a range of crowd control items to US police and military buyers. They include CS hand grenades, anti-riot guns and projectiles, and tear gas capsules.

“If there is a risk that any of these riot control projectiles and equipment are being used in the United States against peaceful, unarmed civilians, then the Government must act immediately to stop their export,” Ms Thornberry said.

People take a knee during a Black Lives Matter protest
People take a knee during a Black Lives Matter protest (Yui Mok/PA)

The Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) said almost £6 billion of arms sales to the US have been approved since 2010, although it is not clear whether they were destined for the military or police.

CAAT spokesman Andrew Smith said: “The brutal and racist police violence we have seen over recent days has been absolutely appalling, and so has the reckless and totally irresponsible escalation from the president and his colleagues.

“These arms sales should never have been allowed and the Government must ensure that they do not happen again. This kind of equipment is always repressive, and it can be deadly.”

A Government spokesman said: “We take our export responsibilities seriously and assess export licence applications in accordance with strict licensing criteria.”

London mayor Sadiq Khan said the “brutal killing” of Mr Floyd had “rightly ignited fury around the world” and should serve as a “catalyst for change”.

He said it was vital that protests in London were conducted “peacefully, lawfully” and in accordance with social distancing rules.