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Boris Johnson claims Black Lives Matters protests ‘subverted by thuggery’ as Tories hit out at removal of slave trader statue

Protesters throw statue of Edward Colston into Bristol harbour during a Black Lives Matter protest rally. (PA)

3 min read

The Black Lives Matters protests have been “subverted by thuggery”, Boris Johnson has claimed, amid a row over the removal of a controversial statue of a slave trader in Bristol.

The Prime Minister said protesters who clashed with police this weekend had overseen a “betrayal of the cause they purport to serve” - and warned they would be “held to account”.

The comments came as Home Secretary Priti Patel branded demonstrators in Bristol who pulled down a statue of slave trader Edward Colston “utterly disgraceful”. 

Ms Patel said the toppling of the statue of the wealthy merchant, who made his fortune transporting tens of thousands of slaves from West Africa in the 17th century, would only become a “distraction from the cause” of racial equality.

But Bristol’s mayor, Marvin Rees, said it was “important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity”.

The 18ft, Grade II listed statue was erected in 1895 to honour Mr Colston, who led the Royal African Company, which transported slaves between West Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas.

Those on board the company’s ships were kept in unhygienic and cramped conditions and branded with the firm’s initials - RAC.

Thousands died during the voyages.

Mr Colston later became a member of Parliament and set up several philanthropic organisations, with a string of streets and venues in the city bearing his name.

Protesters on Sunday tore down the statue, which has been subject to a petition demanding its removal, and threw it into the river Avon.

Reacting to the scenes on Sunday evening, Ms Patel said: “I think that is utterly disgraceful.”

Hitting out at what she called “sheer vandalism and disorder“, the Home Secretary said: “That speaks to the acts of public disorder that actually have now become a distraction from the cause, in which people are actually protesting about and trying to empathise and sympathise with that.”

The Black Lives Matter protest in Bristol follows a weekend of largely peaceful demonstrations in London which saw clashes between some demonstrators and the police, as well as the defacing of Parliament Square’s statue of Sir Winston Churchill.

And they come after widespread unrest in the United States following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers.

The Prime Minister said on Sunday night: “People have a right to protest peacefully and while observing social distancing but they have no right to attack the police.”

And he added: “These demonstrations have been subverted by thuggery - and they are a betrayal of the cause they purport to serve. Those responsible will be held to account.”


The comments from the Conservative leader came as several MPs criticised the Black Lives Matters protesters for the tearing down of the Colston statue. 

Sajid Javid, the Conservative former chancellor tweeted: “I grew up in Bristol. I detest how Edward Colston profited from the slave trade.


“If Bristolians want to remove a monument it should be done democratically - not by criminal damage.” 

Tory MP Ben Bradley said: “In this country if we want action or if we disagree with something, then we make a case. 

“We set out an argument for what we want and we achieve things democratically. If you want a statue removed, start a petition or stand for election. Criminal damage is NEVER an option!”

But Marvin Rees, the Labour mayor of Bristol said: “I know the removal of the Colston Statue will divide opinion, as the statue itself has done for many years. 

“However, it’s important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity. Let’s make the legacy of today about the future of our city, tackling racism and inequality.”

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