LONDON -- Far-right activists scuffled with police in central London Saturday, as hundreds gathered to demonstrate despite strict police restrictions and warnings to stay home to contain the coronavirus.
Different groups of right-wing activists and soccer fans descended on the U.K. capital, saying they wanted to guard historical monuments that have been targeted in the last week by anti-racism protesters.
Many gathered around the statue of wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the Cenotaph war memorial, which were both boarded up Friday to protect them from vandalism. Officials put protective panels around the monuments amid fears that far-right activists would seek confrontations with anti-racism protesters under the guise of protecting statues.
Some activists threw bottles and cans at officers, while others tried to push through police barriers. Riot police on horses pushed the crowd back. The protesters, who appeared to be mostly white men, chanted “England” and sang the national anthem.
“I am extremely fed up with the way that the authorities have allowed two consecutive weekends of vandalism against our national monuments,” Paul Golding, leader of the far-right group Britain First, told the Press Association.
A Black Lives Matter group in London called off a demonstration planned for Saturday, saying the presence of the counter-protesters would make it unsafe. Some anti-racism demonstrators gathered in smaller numbers at Hyde Park.
Monuments around the world have become flash points in demonstrations against racism and police violence after the May 25 death of George Floyd, a black man who died in Minneapolis after a white police officer pressed a knee to his neck.
In Britain, the protests have triggered a national debate about the legacy of empire and its role in the slave trade. A statue of slave trader Edward Colston was hauled from its plinth by protesters in the city of Bristol on Sunday and dumped in the harbor. In London, Churchill’s statue was daubed with the words “was a racist.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted Friday that while Churchill “sometimes expressed opinions that were and are unacceptable to us today,” he was a hero and “we cannot now try to edit or censor our past.” Churchill, whose first term spanned 1940-45, has long been revered for his leadership during World War II.
Police have imposed strict restrictions on Saturday’s protests in a bid to avoid violent clashes. Authorities also fenced off other statues in Parliament Square, including memorials to Nelson Mandela and Abraham Lincoln.
Police Commander Bas Javid urged people not to gather in large groups at all because of the coronavirus. But if they must, he said activists have to stick to the planned route and be off the streets by 5 p.m. or risk arrest.
He said that while protesters last weekend were largely peaceful, a minority was “intent on disorder” and that resulted in assaults on police and violent behavior.
Dozens were arrested last weekend, and a police horse was pictured bolting past the crowds amid the chaos.