LONDON (AP) — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson says he will establish a commission to look at racial equality in the U.K., a move that comes after two weeks of protests spurred by the death of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. Opponents accused the Conservative government of opting for talk rather than action.
Writing in Monday’s Daily Telegraph newspaper, Johnson said the body would look at “all aspects of inequality — in employment, in health outcomes, in academic and all other walks of life.”
“What I really want to do as prime minister is change the narrative, so we stop the sense of victimization and discrimination,” he wrote. “We stamp out racism and we start to have a real sense of expectation of success. That’s where I want to get to but it won’t be easy.”
Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets in hundreds of demonstrations across the U.K. since Floyd was killed on May 25, demanding that Britain confront its own history of imperialism and racial inequality.
Johnson has repeatedly been accused over the years of making racist or offensive statements for which he has declined to apologize. He has called Papua New Guineans cannibals, used the derogatory term “piccaninnies” to refer to members of the Commonwealth and compared Muslim women who wear face-covering veils to “letter boxes.”
Johnson said the new body would investigate “discrimination in the education system, in health, in the criminal justice system,“ but gave few other details.
Opposition Labour Party lawmaker David Lammy, author of a government-commissioned 2017 report on Britain’s ethnic minorities and criminal justice, accused the government of stalling.
“It feels like yet again in the U.K. we want figures, data, but we don’t want action,” he said. “The time for review is over and the time for action is now.”
While the government says it sympathizes with the aims of Black Lives Matter protesters, Johnson has criticized calls to remove statues of figures associated with the British Empire and slavery.
Last week demonstrators toppled a statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston in the English city of Bristol and dumped it into the harbor. That reinvigorated demands for the removal of other monuments, including a statue of Victorian imperialist Cecil Rhodes at Oxford University. The city of Bristol has since fished the statue out of the water, but it is not being reinstated.
After a statue of wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill outside Parliament in London was daubed with the words “was a racist,” local officials boarded it and other monuments up to protect them from vandalism.
Soccer hooligans and far-right activists gathered near the Churchill statue on Saturday under the guise of guarding historic monuments. Anti-racism protesters called off a planned march to avoid conflicts with the right-wing activists, leaving hundreds of largely white, male demonstrators to hurl objects and fight with police.
More than 100 people were arrested, including a man photographed urinating next to a memorial to Keith Palmer, a police officer stabbed to death by a man who attacked Parliament in 2017. Andrew Banks, 28, appeared in court Monday pleaded guilty to a charge of outraging public decency and was sentenced to two weeks in prison.
Many British media outlets contrasted the image of Banks urinating with a photograph from the same day of Black Lives Matter supporter Patrick Hutchinson, a black man who carried to safety a bloodied white protester who had been beaten by anti-racism activists.
“I sort of just thought, well, if he stays here, he’s not going to make it,” Hutchinson told ITN.
“I was thinking to myself if the other three police officers that was standing around when George Floyd was murdered,had thought about intervening and stopping their colleague from doing what he was doing, like what we did, George Floyd would be alive today,” he said.
Johnson condemned the self-styled statue defenders as “a load of far-right thugs” and hooligans and said “there is nothing that can excuse their behavior.” But he also said it was wrong to attack the Churchill statue.
Britain’s wartime prime minister is revered by many in the U.K. as the man who led the country to victory against Nazi Germany. But he was also a staunch defender of the British Empire.
Johnson, who has written a biography of Churchill, said it was the “height of lunacy” to accuse him of racism.
“I will resist with every breath in my body any attempt to remove that statue from Parliament Square,” he wrote in the Telegraph, although there have been no attempts to take the statue down, and no public calls for its removal.