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Police and protesters have clashed in central London after hundreds gathered in the streets around the Houses of Parliament and Whitehal to "guard" statues as part of a counter-demonstration against anti-racism protests.
Officers in riot gear were pelted with bottles and at least one smoke bomb after a crowd of people, mainly white men, converged on Parliament Square, before moving onto Trafalgar Square and a wider area around Victoria station on Saturday, with many breaking the police curfew by remaining in the area past 5 pm.
Among those gathered was Paul Golding, leader of the far-right group Britain First, who had called on supporters to descend on the capital, claiming authorities had "allowed vandalism against national monuments".
As the number of protesters grew, there appeared to be clashes with police on foot and on horseback, as bottles were hurled. Chants of "England" rang out around Whitehall as some protesters appeared to make Nazi salutes. Many of those present were drinking.
Home Secretary Priti Patel condemned the violence, describing it as "unacceptable thuggery".
Throughly unacceptable thuggery.
Any perpetrators of violence or vandalism should expect to face the full force of the law. Violence towards our police officers will not be tolerated.
Coronavirus remains a threat to us all. Go home to stop the spread of this virus & save lives. https://t.co/HsOx9cgrqD
— Priti Patel (@pritipatel)
Sharing a video of protesters facing off with police, she wrote on Twitter: "Throughly [sic] unacceptable thuggery. Any perpetrators of violence or vandalism should expect to face the full force of the law. Violence towards our police officers will not be tolerated. Coronavirus remains a threat to us all. Go home to stop the spread of this virus & save lives."
Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds joined the condemnations, saying the protesters seemed "intent on causing violence and division."
Bottles, cans and smoke bombs thrown in the last half hour at police and their horses in Parliament Square by football firms/far-right protesters. Anyone who is thought to be media is also being threatened. pic.twitter.com/m0nv91uAsO
— Dominic Casciani (@BBCDomC)
The latest protests come after a series of anti-racism demonstrations across the country, sparked by the death of George Floyd in police custody. Last weekend, a statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square was defaced, while protesters in Bristol toppled a statue commemorating slave trader Edward Colston.
London's branch of Black Lives Matter had arranged further protests this weekend, prompting statues to be boxed up, but called it off on Friday amid fears of clashes with far-right groups. However, around 200 anti-racist activists gathered early on Saturday afternoon in Hyde Park and began walking towards Trafalgar Square.
Speaking in Westminster, Mr Golding said people had come out in London because they were "fed up" with the recent demonstrations.
“I am extremely fed up with the way that the authorities have allowed two consecutive weekends of vandalism against our national monuments," he said.
“Anyone who comes along today to try and vandalise them will probably be dealt with by all of these Englishmen that turned up, and they’re fed up as well.”
As well as the statue of Churchill, others have been covered up, including one of former South African president and anti-apartheid campaigner Nelson Mandela.
Mr Golding said: “Why should we have a communist terrorist mass murderer in the capital city of England? It doesn’t make any sense.
“We would like to see that one go, on good grounds, but the rest of them are our historical heritage.”
When asked why demonstrators had gathered during a pandemic, with few wearing masks, Mr Golding, who was found guilty of an offence under the Terrorism Act in late May, referenced the large anti-racism protests of recent weeks.
“If it’s good for one, it’s good for the other,” he said.
Many of the protesters were gathered around the Cenotaph in Whitehall singing the national anthem. Several were seen wearing military-style hats or jackets.
One protester from south London, holding a flag with the slogan "All Lives Matter" said the anti-racist protesters should have left the statues alone.
She said: "It’s the past. You’ve just gotta learn to live with it, they’ve done what they’ve done but it’s still in the records they did good things.
“I’ve got things I don’t want to remember, but I wouldn’t go smashing things up because of it.”
A line of police officers blocked more protesters from accessing the Cenotaph.
Whitehall is now blocked off by police. This happened moments ago: pic.twitter.com/RDaIAbNUUB
— Dominic Casciani (@BBCDomC)
Nick Lowles, of anti-fascist group Hope not Hate, wrote on Twitter: "Oh what a surprise, hooligans and far right are causing trouble and bottles are being thrown at the police... Who would have guessed these peaceful soles [sic] could be so aggressive..."
Daisy, a 26-year-old from nearby Pimlico, saw the protesters while she was out on a run at 10.30 this morning and said many were already drinking alcohol.
Describing the crowds, she said: "They were all drinking beers and there was already loads of cans lying round on the floor treating it like it was some sort of football away-day.
"It was a really tense and hostile atmosphere. I didn’t stay too long... it was really uncomfortable."
Oh what a surprise, hooligans and far right are causing trouble and bottles are being thrown at the police... Who would have guessed these peaceful soles could be so aggressive...
— Nick Lowles (@lowles_nick)
On Saturday morning, police implemented a Section 60 order for a large area of central London, giving them greater powers to conduct stop-and-search amid concerns some protesters had brought weapons and were "intent on causing harm".
A spokesperson added: “The safety of protesters, officers and the public this weekend is of the upmost importance, and it is for that exact reason why we have consulted with colleagues and partners, and decided it is proportionate to put in place a Section 60.
“It is our job to protect those who are coming into central London today, and this tactic is one of the best available to us, which allows us to seize offensive weapons that have absolutely no place on our streets at any time of the day.
“Whilst we believe there is no imminent threat to the public, we want people to be aware of why they may be stopped by London’s officers, spoken to, and possibly searched as well. Officers will, as always, be professional and courteous and I really want the public to speak to police if they have any concerns about why they are being stopped and spoken to.”
Protesters mostly kept to Parliament Square before moving in large groups a few hundred metres to Trafalgar Square, where they remained hemmed in by police.
The London protests come as similar demonstrations took place in other UK cities.
Anti-racist protesters faced off against a group called "Defenders of Newcastle" in the north-eastern city, separated by lines of police.
Meanwhile a group of people in Tamworth, Staffordshire, gathered around a boarded-up statue of Sir Robert Peel, while protesters also gathered in Brighton and Bristol.
Additional reporting by PA.