The Mayor of London is urging Black Lives Matter protesters to stay home this weekend, telling Euronews he is worried about the risk of violent clashes and the spread of coronavirus.
Authorities in the capital have boarded up a war memorial and a statue of wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill ahead of expected rival rallies by anti-racism and far-right protesters.
"What I'm saying to people who want to protest in central London is: please don't, because you're in danger of falling into a trap laid by the extreme far-right, who want to provoke hatred and division," Sadiq Khan told Euronews in a TV interview.
"We're keen to avoid any vandalism, any violence and any disorder. And that's why I encourage anybody who feels strongly about Black Lives Matter to stay at home and find other ways to have their voices heard."
He noted that some protesters in the United States and Australia had caught the new coronavirus during anti-racism protests, and said it was "not possible, with the large numbers (of demonstrators) to keep your social distance."
Khan also urged demonstrators to stay at home to spare "under-resourced, overstretched" police and reduce the risk of getting them infected, "attacked, abused, or on the receiving end of violence."
More than 60 police officers have been injured in recent weeks in the capital, he said, calling the violence "unacceptable."
Statues boarded up
Authorities fear that controversial colonial-era statues will become flashpoints of violence between protesters wanting to take them down and protesters wanting to protect them.
A protective plywood screen was erected late Thursday around Churchill's statue outside Parliament. Authorities also protected the nearby Cenotaph, a memorial to Britain's war victims.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who cites Churchill as a personal hero, said on Friday it was "absurd and shameful" that his statue was "at risk of attack by violent protesters."
The risk of an escalation of tensions is real, Khan warned.
"We know we've got intelligence that other statues including Nelson Mandela, and Mahatma Gandhi could be targeted by the extreme far-right," he said.
"What we don't want to do is to allow the extreme far-right or a small minority in the Black Lives Matter movement to cause damage to these statues. I think prevention is better than cure."
Monuments reflecting the West’s colonial past have come under attack since anti-racism protests erupted over the May 25 death of George Floyd, a black man who died at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis.
Last Sunday, protesters in the English port city of Bristol pulled down a statue of slave trader Edward Colston and dumped it in the harbour.
Several other statues have been defaced during mass protests in the UK, including Churchill's, which was daubed with the words "was a racist."
Churchill, who was Britain's prime minister during World War II and again from 1951 to 1955, is revered by many in the UK as the man who led the country to victory against Nazi Germany. But he was also a staunch defender of the British Empire and expressed racist views.
In a series of tweets, Johnson said that Churchill "sometimes expressed opinions that were and are unacceptable to us today, but he was a hero, and he fully deserves his memorial."
He said tearing down statues would be to "censor our past'' and "lie about our history."
Have statues ‘better reflect diversity’
A number of city councils across the UK and Europe are considering whether to take down some controversial colonial-era statues or amend the signage that accompanies them to provide the public context about the harm done to generations of enslaved minorities.
Khan said he welcomed the removal of statues of slave traders, and stressed that he had set up a commission to look into diversity in the capital’s public spaces.
"One of the things we'll be doing is looking at the public spaces across London, not just the statues, but also street names, squares and murals to see whether they properly reflect the diversity of our city," he said.
He deplored there were "too few statues" of women, ethnic minorities, disabled people and figures from the LGBTQ+ community.
It was only in 2018 that a statue of a woman was unveiled in London’s Parliament Square – that of suffragist campaigner Millicent Fawcett.
Watch highlights of the interview with Sadiq Khan in the video player above.