Updated Jun 15, 2020 - World

Black Lives Matter protests force countries to confront colonial past

The Winston Churchill statue in Parliament Square is defaced for a second day on June 7.

The Winston Churchill statue in Parliament Square is defaced for a second day on June 7. Photo: Isabel Infantes/AFP via Getty Images

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron both pushed back on Sunday against calls from Black Lives Matter protesters to remove colonial-era statues — with Johnson insisting you can't "photoshop" history.

Why it matters: Weeks of anti-racism protests triggered by Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the U.S. and across the world have brought to the fore the racist legacy of the colonial past of several countries.

Driving the news: Colonial-era memorials have been toppled, defaced or removed in response to rallies in countries including the U.K., Belgium, Australia and New Zealand in recent days.

  • Calls are growing to remove more tributes to historical figures, with Black Lives Matter protesters in France calling on authorities to remove honors for those involved in the slave trade or who were linked to injustices in the country's former African colonies.
  • Local authorities in the U.K. have announced plans to review all statues, street names and other monuments. But several leaders have pushed back on the moves.

Of note: Authorities erected fences to protect from becoming a target a statue in London of the late British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who led the U.K. to victory in World War II.

  • Churchill supported eugenics, described "British imperialism as being for the good of the 'primitive' and 'subject races' and opposed Indians' bid for independence, calling Indians "beastly people with a beastly religion," the Independent notes.
  • But Johnson defended Churchill in an article for the Telegraph, calling the defacing of Churchill's statue twice "absurd and deplorable."
  • "He was a hero, and I expect I am not alone in saying that I will resist with every breath in my body any attempt to remove that statue from Parliament Square," Johnson wrote.

What else they're saying: Johnson, who announced Sunday a commission to examine racial inequality, wrote in his Telegraph column, "If we start purging the record and removing the images of all but those whose attitudes conform to our own, we are engaged in a great lie, a distortion of our history."

  • Macron denounced racism in a televised national address earlier Sunday, Per Reuters. But he added: "The Republic won't erase any name from its history. It will forget none of its artworks, it won’t take down statues."
  • Belgian Prince Laurent told Sudpresse this week after statues of King Leopold II were removed over the deaths of some 10 million people when his ancestor ruled over the Congo, "He never went to the Congo. I don't see how he could have made people suffer on the ground."
  • Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said this week protesters calling for statues and place names of 18th century explorer Captain James Cook should "get a bit of a grip," and he incorrectly claimed that slavery never existed in Australia (he later apologized for making the claim.)
  • New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told RNZ on Monday after a statue was removed of a colonial-era captain that the decision to take down monuments should be left up to local communities.

Go deeper: The bottom-up revolution goes global, viral

Editor's note: This article has been updated with more details, comments from world leaders and context.

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