UK PM condemns George Floyd killing as protesters take to streets

Joe JACKSON and Charlotte DURAND
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Protesters scuffle with police on Downing Street during an anti-racism demonstration

Thousands of people took to the streets of London on Wednesday to protest the death of George Floyd in US police custody, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson condemned the killing and told President Donald Trump that racist violence had "no place" in society.

Protesters, many of them in face masks, defied coronavirus restrictions and held aloft signs saying "Justice for George Floyd" and "Enough is enough!" as they marched from Hyde Park to the Whitehall government district in central London.

Some scuffled with police outside Johnson's Downing Street office. Others paused and knelt as the procession moved on towards the US embassy, holding "Black Lives Matter" banners and raising clenched fists.

The demonstration is the latest in the British capital since Floyd, an unarmed African-American, died last week after a police officer in Minneapolis knelt on his neck.

The incident, which was captured on video by an eye-witness, has provoked global outrage, and seen the officer concerned charged with third-degree murder.

"I'm here because I believe in my rights as a black person," said one protester, Lisa Ncuka, a 26-year-old student. "This is an important movement."

"Everybody should be here fighting for equality. It's not just the US's problem. It's the whole world's problem and we need to come together and spread this awareness."

"Star Wars" actor John Boyega, who was in the crowd, gave an emotional speech, saying the demonstrators were a "physical representation" of support for Floyd and other victims.

"We can all join together to make this a better world," he said, urging a peaceful protest.

"Let's let the United States of America, our black brothers and sisters, know that we've got their backs."

- 'Appalling, inexcusable' -

Johnson, who has been accused of racism for his depictions in newspaper columns of black Africans, and Islamophobia over comments about veiled Muslim women, condemned Floyd's killing.

Asked what his message was to Trump, he told reporters: "My message to President Trump, to everybody in the United States, from the UK is... that racism, racist violence has no place in our society,"

Johnson earlier made his first comments on the case to lawmakers in parliament, calling Floyd's death "appalling, inexcusable".

But he dodged questions about whether he had raised the issue directly with Trump, a key ally with whom he is hoping to strike a post-Brexit trade deal.

Johnson also backed the right to protest, but only if they were "lawful and reasonable".

His comments echoed those of British police chiefs, who earlier issued a joint statement saying they were "appalled and horrified by the way George Floyd lost his life".

But they appealed for people in Britain to "work with officers" as protests spread, just as the coronavirus lockdown is being eased.

"The right to lawful protest is a key part of any democracy, which UK police uphold and facilitate," they added.

"But coronavirus remains a deadly disease and there are still restrictions in place to prevent its spread, which include not gathering outside in groups of more than six people."

- 'Challenging time' -

Britain has its own fraught history of racism within policing, with a landmark 1999 report finding "institutional racism" in London's Metropolitan Police force.

The report was commissioned after the racist murder of a black teenager, Stephen Lawrence, at a bus stop in south London in 1993.

The police investigation was marred by a catalogue of failures that saw no-one convicted until 2012.

Despite programmes of reform, a 2015 study by the Runnymede Trust, an educational charity which aims to promote a successful multi-ethnic Britain, found "systemic and institutional racism persists" within British policing.

"Britain is no stranger to racialised police violence," it noted.

"Black and minority ethnic people are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system at every level, from arrests to stop and search, to imprisonment, to deaths in custody."