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We've been reporting on the ongoing campaign to remove statues with ties to the slave trade and to racism here in the U.S. Well, it is happening in Britain, too, and the campaign there has triggered a backlash. Thousands of white protesters descended on London last weekend to protest the toppling of one statue and the defacing of another - Winston Churchill's. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: The battle over Britain's statues began this month in the port city of Bristol. Responding in part to the killing of George Floyd, protesters pulled down a statue of Edward Colston, the city's biggest benefactor, who made his fortune in the slave trade.
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LANGFITT: Michael Jenkins, a black film producer, was in the crowd.
MICHAEL JENKINS: It was an electrifying atmosphere. It was a very peaceful atmosphere because of what Colston actually represents - the slavery, the racism. I think people just thought, well, today is the day it's just got to go.
LANGFITT: That same day in London, protesters spray-painted the phrase was a racist on the pedestal of Churchill's statue in Parliament Square, an act that angered many Britons and inspired thousands of white protesters to travel to London last Saturday to rally around the statue which local officials had already covered with a giant box.
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LANGFITT: Many protesters threw bottles and cans at police, as captured here on cell phone video. Others were peaceful.
PETER JOHNSON: Well, we came down here today because we feel like if any statue was to be taken down, this is the wrong way to go about it.
LANGFITT: Peter Johnson (ph) of South London, who's studying to be an electrician, spoke through a purple bandanna.
JOHNSON: If you were to get a democratic vote or just a vote of the whole public to see if it should be taken down, then that's fair enough. But going at it aggressively we don't think is the way to do it.
LANGFITT: Hizam Shiq (ph), a bicycle messenger who stopped outside the police lines at Big Ben, noted that activists in Bristol had tried that route.
HIZAM SHIQ: People wanted to even take down a statue or put more information on it to give more - a brighter context to who the person was, and they've largely been ignored.
LANGFITT: Like other protesters in London, George Muntz (ph) deplored the defacing of the statue of Churchill, who rallied Britain to defeat the Nazis.
GEORGE MUNTZ: What people do in the past might not be right. It doesn't change the fact that he won us the World War. Otherwise, we would be speaking German today.
LANGFITT: Richard Toye teaches history at the University of Exeter and is co-author of an upcoming book, "The Churchill Myths." I asked him about the charge that Churchill was racist.
RICHARD TOYE: It's factually accurate. He said that he didn't think that black people were as capable as white people. White Anglo-Saxons, as he would have had it, were superior. He said that the Indians were a beastly people with a beastly religion.
LANGFITT: Toye says even some contemporaries found Churchill's views extreme. A recent public poll showed about two-thirds of respondents thought it unfair to judge Churchill by modern standards and said his statue should remain. And London's mayor says its removal is not under consideration.
JULIE GOTTLIEB: I'm Professor Julie Gottlieb. I'm a professor of modern history at the University of Sheffield.
LANGFITT: Gottlieb knows statues. She's consulted on the one of suffragist Millicent Fawcett, the first statue of a woman to stand in Parliament Square. Gottlieb says the battle over statues is so emotional because of their symbolic power.
GOTTLIEB: Well, it's a real struggle for public space, for authenticity, authority, for voice.
LANGFITT: And she says a statue's sudden toppling can be especially unsettling.
GOTTLIEB: So when we think of statues falling, we think of, you know, the toppling of Lenin's and Stalin's and Saddam Hussein's and, you know, at times of great and dramatic political change and overthrow.
LANGFITT: Gottlieb says one solution to the battle over statues is to build more of them to honor diverse figures who've contributed to Britain but been marginalized or forgotten.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.