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War Memorial Anti-Racist Vandalism Fears: Some Observations

Sunderland:

Group gathers at Sunderland war memorial to ‘protect it from vandalism’

A group has gathered at the Sunderland war memorial on Burdon Road to protect it from vandalism – despite no Black Lives Matter protests planned in the city.

Brighton:

A GROUP of about 30 people have gathered in front of a war memorial to “protect it” during a Black Lives Matter march.

Two soldiers are among those standing in front of the memorial in Old Steine, Brighton, today.

Kettering:

Veterans guarded Kettering’s war memorial this afternoon (Friday) because they feared anti-racism protesters might vandalise it.

About 30 men, many of them veterans, surrounded the cenotaph on the corner of Sheep Street for about two hours and were spoken to by police.

Bristol:

Hundreds of people have gathered in Bristol city centre as part of a ‘All Lives Matter’ protest, saying they are there to ‘defend the cenotaph’.

Protesters are seen holding signs with ‘Not Far Right’ and ”All Lives Matter’ on them.

Rhyl:

Police have taken action over fears that a group is planning to damage the war memorial in Rhyl.

North Wales Police has issued a dispersal order after they were told of plans by a small group of people to cause damage to the memorial off East Parade.

Thus the Sunday Telegraph:

Ten-year jail sentences for desecrating war memorials

Ministers to crack down on those who damage monuments as violence breaks out at protests

The legislation under consideration appears to be the same as the Desecration of War Memorials Bill of 2010; this document’s online presence has led some to suppose the existence of a “Desecration of War Memorials Act 2010”, when in fact the proposal was a Private Member’s Bill that never got through Parliament for the usual procedural reasons. The Bill was inspired by an incident in which a drunken woman had urinated on a memorial in Blackpool and “performed a sexual act” at the location, although Islamist provocations were also a factor.

Desecrating any war memorial provokes anger and causes distress, and even among the secular-minded it also carries a sense of profanation of the sacred, a calculated inversion of decency like a group of delinquents acting out horror-film Satanism by spraying pentagrams over a church. But just as such delinquents may trigger a Satanic Panic, I would be wary as regards proportionality.

The sense that war memorials may be under a threat is derived from last week’s Black Lives Matter protest in London, elements of which descended into hooliganism. The area where the protest occurred includes the famous Ivor Roberts-Jones statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square, and the Cenotaph in Whitehall. Someone vandalised the base of the Churchill statue to accuse him of racism, but it is not clear if the Cenotaph was attacked for what it represents or was done out of ignorance – and it should be noted that the assault apparently consisted of just one person, who attempted to burn a ceremonial flag that forms part of the memorial as part of a wider melee occurring at that point.

However, it should be borne in mind that these acts were opportunistic: the two monuments happened to be where the protesters were gathered, rather than having been sought out. Such damage is something that happens from time to time during protests in central London, as is the occasional pre-emptive covering of monuments ahead of protests where disorder is anticipated.

As such, it is disproportionate to extrapolate a general threat to war memorials, either from the Cenotaph attacker or, by a more tenuous association, from disrespect to a statue of Britain’s wartime leader. One gets the impression that the focus here is a diversion from the issue of whether Britain needs to reassess the civic commemoration and popular memory of long-dead individuals whose wealth and status flowed from their involvement in the slave trade.

For the same reason, Boris Johnson currently grandstands by vowing that he will never allow the statue of Churchill to be removed, even though the possibility of such a removal is outlandish in the extreme, while the trickier task of specifically denouncing on law-and-order grounds those who tore down the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol is left to his Home Secretary (and I suspect even Patel if asked would dodge expressing a personal view about direct action against Confederate statues in the USA).

Of course, there is the possibility of a self-fulfilling prophecy: spray-painting a slogan somewhere provocative takes only seconds, and requires no particular skill, yet can have a huge impact in terms of coverage and reaction. But this is a perennial threat, and more likely to come from someone acting surreptitiously after dark than from a protest event. And given the behaviour of the self-styled “monument protectors” in London on Saturday – bizarrely attacking the police who were already protecting the sites – it is difficult to take their expressed intentions at face value.