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Scotland Yard today vowed to be on the “front foot” for potential new protests in London this weekend as workers boarded up the Cenotaph, Sir Winston Churchill’s statue and other monuments to protect them from damage.
Scotland Yard Commander Bas Javid said that police were still hoping to persuade people to stay away and warned that attending mass gatherings remained illegal under legislation brought in to protect public health.
But police continued to prepare for protests— including one today — as Commander Javid warned that police will not tolerate “abhorrent” attacks on officers or criminal damage.
He insisted that if large numbers do turn up, officers are ready to deal with the challenge of managing potential rival demonstrations by anti-racism and far-Right activists.
The officer’s pledge came as Mayor Sadiq Khan also appealed to people to stay away, warning that as well as the need to protect public health, the “risk of disorder is high” because of the planned presence of “extreme far-right groups… there to provoke violence”.
Mr Khan added: “Their only goal is to distract and hijack this important issue. Staying home and ignoring them is the best response this weekend.”
The dual plea came as statues of Sir Winston Churchill, Clive of India, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, George Washington, Charles I and James II were all boarded up, along with the Cenotaph, to prevent them being vandalised.
“We are not planning or hoping to see the same level of violence that we saw last weekend,” said Commander Javid, referring to disorder which led to dozens of officers being injured by a minority of those attending Black Lives Matters protests in central London.
“We understand that sentiments and feelings are high and that people want to make their feelings known but the restrictions and the health reasons for those are very real and our concerns are for the communities and people’s health.”
Pointing out that mass gatherings are “unlawful” under the Covid-19 legislation, he went on: “We ask people to consider other ways they can make their voices heard and not to gather in large groups. We live in 2020 and there are lots of ways that people can do that.”
Meanwhile, Mayor Sadiq Khan said he was “extremely concerned that further protests in central London not only risk spreading Covid-19, but could lead to disorder, vandalism and violence. Extreme far-Right groups who advocate hatred and division are planning counter-protests, which means that the risk of disorder is high.”
Mr Khan added that key statues and monuments at risk “were being “covered and protected” but said that people should stay at home to prevent coronavirus spreading unnecessarily.
“The protests over the past week have shown just how difficult it is to maintain social distancing in large crowds.”
The decision, taken after police advice, produced a backlash with former Chancellor Sajid Javid — the brother of Commander Javid — posting photos on Twitter of the boarded-up Churchill statue and the Cenotaph above the words “so depressing”.
Today’s developments follow a call for supporters the far-Right Democratic Football Lads Alliance to travel to the capital to protect monuments. In response Black Lives Matters organisers in London called off tomorrow’s Hyde Park protest.
”We want the protests to be a safe space for people to attend however we don’t think it’ll be possible with people like them present,” the post said.
Elsewhere, the University of East London has taken down its monument to Sir John Cass, a 17th-century merchant and former MP connected to the slave trade, and announced a review of the use of his name in the title of its school of education.
In Westminster, Justice Secretary Robert Buckland is reported to have told magistrates to fast-track cases involving violence at protests to ensure swift justice in a repeat of methods used during the 2011 London riots.
Tory mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey today promised to erect 100 statues of women and black and ethnic minority heroes if elected mayor. He said: “Instead of removing statues and renaming streets to try to hide from our history, we should be building more statues and monuments to celebrate our present-day role models and values.”