Police launch investigation after Bristol Black Lives Matter protesters topple statue of slave trader Edward Colston

  • Video report by ITV News Correspondent Rebecca Barry

Police have launched an investigation to identify protesters who tore down a statue of 17th Century slave trader Edward Colston.

Superintendent Andy Bennett of the Bristol, Avon and Somerset police force said an investigation will be carried out to identify those "who clearly committed an act of criminal damage".

Home Secretary Priti Patel condemned the actions as "utterly disgraceful" and said the toppling of a statue in Bristol "undermines" anti-racism protests.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the anti-racism demonstrations had been "subverted by thuggery" following a day of protests across the UK.

"People have a right to protest peacefully and while observing social distancing but they have no right to attack the police," the Prime Minister tweeted.

Scenes from the city - where numerous landmarks are named after Edward Colston - saw demonstrators attach ropes to the statue before easily pulling it down amid jubilant scenes.

The bronze memorial to Colston in College Green had previously been the subject of an 11,000-strong petition to have it removed.

The home secretary said: "I think that is utterly disgraceful. That speaks to the acts of public disorder that actually have become a distraction from the cause people are actually protesting about.

"It is a completely unacceptable act. Sheer vandalism and disorder are completely unacceptable.

"It's right that police follow up on that and make sure that justice is taken with those individuals responsible for such disorderly and lawless behaviour."

Mr Bennett said 10,000 people had attended the Black Lives Matter demonstration in Bristol and the majority did so "peacefully".

But he added officers would be seeking to identify protesters who pulled down a statue of slave trader Edward Colston.

After pulling down the statue, protesters dragged it to the city's harbour and pushed it into the River Avon.

The superintendent said: "The Black Lives Matter demonstration in Bristol today was attended by an estimated 10,000 people.

"The vast majority of those who came to voice their concerns about racial inequality and injustice did so peacefully and respectfully."

He added: "Keeping the public safe was our greatest priority and thankfully there were no instances of disorder and no arrests were made."

"However, there was a small group of people who clearly committed an act of criminal damage in pulling down a statue near Bristol Harbourside," he said.

"An investigation will be carried out to identify those involved and we're already collating footage of the incident."

Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests are taking place across the UK following the death of George Floyd in the US.

The unarmed 46-year-old, who is black, died while being arrested after a white police officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes.

Former officer Derek Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder while three others who were at the scene have also been charged in relation to the death.

Earlier, protestor John McAllister, 71, tore down black bin bags used to hide the statue to denounce it in front of fellow protesters.

"It says 'erected by the citizens of Bristol, as a memorial to one of the most virtuous and wise sons of this city'," Mr McAllister said.

"The man was a slave trader.

"He was generous to Bristol but it was off the back of slavery and it's absolutely despicable.

"It's an insult to the people of Bristol."

Protesters outside the US Embassy in London and in Bristol. Credit: AP

As well as in Bristol, where around 5,000 protesters are marching through the city's streets, thousands have gathered outside the US Embassy in London where they knelt in solidarity with protesters in the US and across the UK.

Crowds of demonstrators wore face coverings and held placards outside the embassy in Battersea.

The Metropolitan Police warned drivers of disruption on Nine Elms Lane, while video footage showed protesters flooding the roads outside the embassy.

Free masks, gloves and hand gel were being given out to the thousands of people, with some wearing t-shirts reading "I can't breathe".

Another protester had written "get your knee off our necks" in luminous ink on the back of his jacket, echoing the words of black civil rights leader Rev Al Sharpton who spoke at Mr Floyd's memorial service earlier this week.

Meanwhile, London Black Lives Matter organised an online protest via Zoom for those who are unable to attend demonstrations in person.

Elsewhere, hundreds of people crowded into Manchester's St Peter's Square, kneeling in silence as a mark of respect for Mr Floyd.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said it is "undoubtedly a risk" that there will be an increase in Covid-19 cases following the protests, as he urged people not to gather in groups of more than six people.

Mr Hancock said he supported the activists' arguments, but said: "Please don't gather in groups of more than six people because there is also a pandemic that we must address and control.

"And so we've got to make the argument, we've got to make further progress, on top of the significant progress that has been made in recent years, but we've got to do it in a way that's safe and controls the virus."