The scarring of the Churchill statue – smeared by Black Lives Matter activists last week – was an intolerable affront, and a convenient pretext, for protesters belonging to far-right groups like Britain First. On the walls surrounding the square still faded graffiti painted by the protesters last weekend: “Churchill you are a racist”, “Racists, we are looking at you”. “They questioned our story, and we took to the streets,” explains one of the demonstrators.
The march following George Floyd’s death triggered a wave of protests of opposite sign, and much more vehemently. Black Lives Matter canceled a demonstration scheduled today to avoid clashes with far-right groups, which attacked police officers in the square. The most violent fringe crowded in front of the barricades and began to sneer choruses and throw objects against the police. The same treatment was reserved for journalists. A group of demonstrators tugged and threw beer mugs at a video reporter on the sides of the square, and a few hours earlier a photographer was rescued with a bleeding face.
Churchill’s defense was no more than a pretext for venting anger and proudly exhibiting the symbols of old England. A group of boys – almost all men in the square – tie a British flag around their nose and mouth, and sing the anthem God Save the Queen. Very few wear the mask and nobody seems to observe the rules on social distancing, especially in the moments of greatest pathos. Protesters lose their heads – and crowd side by side – when they see a group of veterans parading in camouflage suits and army cockades. The military are welcomed on the notes of “Rule Britannia” – old imperial hymn and sacred rite of nationalist rallies – and gather around the statue of Churchill.
The protesters took possession of a symbol that does not belong to him to legitimize a protest that has little to do with the defense of monuments. Former Conservative MP Nicholas Soames, Churchill’s grandson, said the demonstration is “repugnant” and that Britain “has lost the moral compass.” Even Prime Minister Boris Johnson, biographer and lover of the conservative statesman, had encouraged citizens to desert the protest. Britain is still in the midst of the coronavirus emergency, with hundreds of deaths every day. But today the virus that worries the most is another.