Police fought running battles with thousands of rightwing protesters in central London on Saturday, in scenes the home secretary described as “unacceptable thuggery”.
During an afternoon of tense confrontations, rightwing demonstrators threw fire crackers at police in Trafalgar Square after they broke away from a protest in Parliament Square, trying to reach an area reserved for a Black Lives Matter rally.
The protesters, including some far-right activists and groups associated with London football clubs, also pelted police officers with bottles.
Although a Black Lives Matter march originally planned for Saturday was moved forward to Friday to avoid a confrontation, some antiracism protesters also clashed briefly with police after being prevented from leaving Trafalgar Square.
The incidents came on a day that brought the worst disorder in the UK since Black Lives Matter protests started over the death of George Floyd, an African-American man, in Minneapolis last month.
Priti Patel, home secretary, described the scuffles as “thoroughly unacceptable thuggery”.
“Violence towards our police officers will not be tolerated. Coronavirus remains a threat to us all. Go home to stop the spread of this virus & save lives,” she tweeted.
Sadiq Khan, London mayor, said: “This is totally unacceptable. It is clear that far-right groups are causing violence and disorder in central London, I urge people to stay away.”
The rightwing protest was called after Parliament Square’s statue of Winston Churchill and the Cenotaph war memorial on Whitehall were vandalised last weekend during a Black Lives Matter demonstration.
There was particular outrage over Saturday’s protest, however, when one of the rightwing protesters was pictured urinating next to the memorial to Keith Palmer, the police officer killed in the 2017 Westminster Bridge terror attack outside parliament. The memorial stands close to the spot where Tobias Ellwood, a Conservative MP, fought unsuccessfully to resuscitate PC Palmer after Khalid Masood, the attacker, stabbed him.
“Absolute shame on this man,” Mr Ellwood wrote on Twitter. “Of all the images to emerge over these few testing days I find this one of most abhorrent. ”
The police said they had launched an investigation into the incident and would take “appropriate action”.
The Metropolitan Police had on Friday imposed conditions on both sets of protesters, including that they stick to routes intended to keep them separate and to leave the area by 5pm. Both Parliament Square, site of the main rightwing protest, and Trafalgar Square, where Black Lives Matter demonstrators gathered, were largely empty by 5pm, with police dealing with only isolated instances of trouble.
The Black Lives Matter protesters who clashed with police had come from a rally in Hyde Park.
More than 100 Black Lives Matter marchers were arrested and scores of police officers injured during protests last weekend.
Boris Johnson, prime minister, on Friday condemned the Black Lives Matter protests after Mr Khan ordered the covering of the Churchill statue and part of the Cenotaph to guard against vandalism.
Two nearby statues that far-right protesters had threatened to attack — Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi — were also enclosed ahead of Saturday’s demonstration.
Police officers were granted exceptional powers to stop and search people suspected of carrying weapons for the duration of the protests. Bas Javid, the police commander who imposed the measures, said after the protests that there had been “pockets of violence” directed towards his officers.
“This is completely unacceptable and I condemn those involved,” he said.
Police said that by 9pm they had arrested more than 100 people for offences including breach of the peace, violent disorder, assault on officers, possession of an offensive weapon, possession of class A drugs and being drunk and disorderly. However, they insisted that despite pictures on social media claiming to show a stabbing at the protests, there had been no report of such an incident.
Mr Javid said the police would use tactics including arrests to clear any protesters remaining on the streets.
“We will not tolerate the violence previously exhibited by some protesters,” he said.