Boris Johnson says ‘Black Lives Matter’ — but threatens ‘full force of the law’ against people ‘hijacking’ protests
The Prime Minister addressed the Black Lives Matters protests in a video message. (PA)
Boris Johnson has said the Government “can’t ignore” the concerns raised by the Black Lives Matter protests — but warned those demonstrating against breaking the law.
The Prime Minister said the wave of demonstrations that have taken place around the country in recent days reflected “a cold reality” facing minority ethnic groups.
But he insisted Britain had “made huge strides” in tackling racism since the 1970s — and accused some of those taking part of “hijacking a peaceful protest and undermining it”.
The comments come after Home Secretary Priti Patel claimed that the demonstrations — which have been overwhelmingly peaceful and follow the killing of George Floyd at the hands of US police — had descended into “hooliganism” and “thuggery”.
She hit out after it was revealed at least 35 officers were injured during unrest in London, and labelled those involved in the tearing down of a statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol a “mob”.
Ms Patel meanwhile said she was “sickened at George Floyd’s tragic death”, and fully appreciated “the strength of feeling over his senseless killing, and the inequality that black people can sadly still face, and the deep-seated desire for change”.
'UNDENIABLE FEELING OF INJUSTICE'
That view was echoed by Mr Johnson, in a video message that was also carried by afro-Caribbean newspaper The Voice.
The Prime Minister said the "spectacle" of the death of George Floyd, who was filmed being forcibly restrained by a police officer despite repeated protestations that he could not breathe, had triggered a "depth of emotion" in people the world over.
“In this country and around the world his dying words – I can’t breathe – have awakened an anger and a widespread and incontrovertible, undeniable feeling of injustice, a feeling that people from black and minority ethnic groups do face discrimination: in education, in employment, in the application of the criminal law," Mr Johnson said.
“And we who lead and who govern simply can’t ignore those feelings because in too many cases, I am afraid, they will be founded on a cold reality.”
But, pointing out that he now leads “the most ethnically diverse government in the history of this country”, Mr Johnson flagged his own record as mayor of London in trying to “recruit and promote more young black people, in the police and other walks of life”.
And he said Britain had made "huge strides" in race relations in recent decades.
"I remember the 1970s, and the horror of the National Front. I truly believe that we are a much, much less racist society than we were, in many ways far happier and better," he said.
“But we must also frankly acknowledge that there is so much more to do – in eradicating prejudice, and creating opportunity, and the government I lead is committed to that effort.
“And so I say yes, you are right, we are all right, to say Black Lives Matter; and to all those who have chosen to protest peacefully and who have insisted on social distancing – I say, yes of course I hear you, and I understand.”
However, Mr Johnson urged protesters not to break social distancing guidance aimed at stopping the “deadly plague” of the coronavirus.
Warning that Britain remained in a "national trial" to beat the virus, the PM said: “It is BAME communities who have been at the forefront of the struggle against coronavirus – whether in health care or transport or social care or any of the other essential services that have kept our country going.
“And it is BAME communities, tragically, that have paid a disproportionate price.
“So no, I will not support those who flout the rules on social distancing, for the obvious reason that we risk a new infection at a critical time and just as we have made huge progress.
“And no, I will not support or indulge those who break the law, or attack the police, or desecrate public monuments.
“We have a democracy in this country. If you want to change the urban landscape, you can stand for election, or vote for someone who will.”
And, in the wake of the toppling of the Colston statue in Bristol, the PM said those who attacked public property or injured police officers would expect to face “the full force of the law“.
The Tory leader added: “They are hijacking a peaceful protest and undermining it in the eyes of many who might otherwise be sympathetic.”
The comments came after Chancellor Rishi Sunak issued his own statement on the Black Lives Matter movement, saying that as a British Asian he knew “that racism exists in this country” and that people were "angry and frustrated”.
But he told those taking to the streets that change could only come with “the cooperation of each of us toward that common goal”.
Mr Sunak added: “The the small minority who committed acts fo violence and vandalism last weekend, not only were your actions criminal, but they also perpetuate a dangerous lie: that the temporary excitement of destruction is the same thing as change.
“You are, and always will be, wrong.”