PARIS – Paris riot police fired tear gas Saturday to disperse a largely peaceful but unauthorized protest against police brutality and entrenched racism, as France’s minorities increasingly push back against a national doctrine of colorblindness that has failed to eradicate discrimination.
In London, far-right activists and soccer rowdies scuffled with police while trying to “guard” historical monuments that have been targeted recently by anti-racism protesters for their links to slavery and British colonialism.
The events in the two European capitals reflected the global emotion unleashed by the death of George Floyd in the United States and the ensuing reckoning with racial injustice and historical wrongs. In both cities, protesters defied restrictions on public gatherings imposed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Myriam Boicoulin, 31, who was born in the French Caribbean island of Martinique, said she marched in Paris on Saturday because she “wants to be heard.”
“The fact of being visible is enormous,” Boicoulin said. As a black woman living in mainland France, she said, “I’m constantly obliged to adapt, to make compromises, not make waves — to be almost white, in fact.”
“It’s the first time people see us,” she told The Associated Press. “Let us breathe.”
At least 15,000 people rallied in Paris, led by supporters of Adama Traore, a French black man who died in police custody in 2016 in circumstances that remain unclear despite four years of back-and-forth autopsies. No one has been charged in the case.
“We are are all demanding the same thing - fair justice for everyone,” Traore’s sister Assa told the rally.
Angry shouts rose from the racially diverse crowd as a small group of white extreme-right activists climbed a building overlooking the protest and unfurled a huge banner denouncing “anti-white racism.”
Building residents then reached out of their windows and tore part of the banner down, one raising his fist in victory. Officers prevented people attending the main rally from approaching the counter-demonstrators, but didn't detain the far-right activists until two hours later, further angering the crowd below.
Riot police then fired tear gas and charged a few unruly members of the main protest, urging them to disperse. Hundreds of other protesters took a knee and stayed for hours despite the police pressure. The crowd had initially planned to march through the city, but police decided to block them from marching, citing coronavirus concerns.
Similar protests were also held Saturday in cities around France, from Rouen in Normandy in the northwest to Marseille on the Mediterranean.
Some demonstrators were encouraged that the French government responded to the past couple of weeks of Floyd-inspired protests by banning police chokeholds and launching investigations of racist comments in private Facebook and Whatsapp groups for police.
In London, a Black Lives Matter group called off a demonstration scheduled for Saturday, saying the presence of counter-protesters would make it unsafe.
Some protesters still gathered at Hyde Park to denounce racism while hundreds of far-right activists demonstrated, despite strict police restrictions and warnings to stay home to contain the coronavirus.
Many from the far-right camp gathered around a statue of wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the Cenotaph war memorial, which were both boarded up to guard against vandalism. Officials put protective panels around the monuments amid fears that far-right activists would seek confrontations with anti-racism protesters under the guise of protecting statues.
Some activists threw bottles and cans at officers, while others tried to push through police barriers. Riot police on horses pushed the crowd back. The protesters, who appeared to be mostly white men, chanted “England” and sang the national anthem.
“I am extremely fed up with the way that the authorities have allowed two consecutive weekends of vandalism against our national monuments,” Paul Golding, leader of the far-right group Britain First, told the Press Association.
Scotland Yard said five people were arrested for violent disorder, assault on police and possession of weapons or drugs. Six police officers suffered minor injuries.
Monuments around the world have become flash points in demonstrations against racism and police violence after the May 25 death of George Floyd, a black man who died in Minneapolis after a white police officer pressed a knee to his neck.
In Britain, the protests have triggered a national debate about the legacy of empire and its role in the slave trade. A statue of slave trader Edward Colston was hauled from its plinth by protesters in the city of Bristol on Sunday and dumped in the harbor. In London, Churchill’s statue was daubed with the words “was a racist.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted Friday that while Churchill “sometimes expressed opinions that were and are unacceptable to us today,” he was a hero and “we cannot now try to edit or censor our past.” Churchill, whose first term spanned 1940-45, has long been revered for his leadership during World War II.
Protests denouncing racism also took place elsewhere in the U.K. In southern England's coastal city Brighton, police said some 10,000 people turned up for a peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstration.
Hui reported from London. Angela Charlton and Boubkar Benzabat in Paris contributed.