Boris Johnson has been accused of “stoking division and fear” after he claimed the Black Lives Matter protests had been “hijacked by extremists intent on violence”.
Critics suggested the prime minister was seeking a "culture war" to distract from his handling of the coronavirus crisis after he unequivocally rejected calls to remove statues of historic figures with links to racism and slavery.
Mr Johnson urged people to stay away from planned demonstrations this weekend, claiming they would “end in deliberate and calculated violence”.
His comments came before a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest on Friday night which saw hundreds march from London's Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square
“The Black Lives Matter protests following the horrific killing of George Floyd by a police officer have been overwhelmingly peaceful," said Christine Jardine, the Liberal Democrats home affairs spokesperson.
“The prime minister is stoking division and fear in our communities by suggesting they have been hijacked by extremists.”
She added: “People deserve better."
Labour MP Angela Eagle suggested in Twitter that Mr Johnson "wants the culture war to distract from his appalling performance in the coronavirus crisis".
Downing Street has been approached for comment.
Mr Johnson issued a series of tweets on Friday addressing the boarding up of a Winston Churchill statue in Parliament Square ahead of expected demonstrations this week. Graffiti calling the wartime Conservative PM “a racist” was scrawled on the statue during an earlier protest last week.
“You should not have a situation in which people, who are protesting on one basis, are violently attacking the police or public property,” Mr Johnson said.
“I’m afraid what has happened with these demonstrations is that a tiny minority – actually it is a growing minority, unfortunately – have hijacked them and they are using them as a pretext to attack the police, to cause violence and to cause damage to public property.
He added: "So unfortunately, my message to everybody is that, for all sorts of reasons, they should not go to these demonstrations.”
Black Lives Matter has called off a protest which had been planned for Saturday amid concerns over right-wing groups calling supporters to travel to the capital to defend monuments.
Moving the Hyde Park rally to Friday, the group said on Instagram: “We want the protests to be a safe space for people to attend however we don’t think it’ll be possible with people like them present.”
Leaders of Friday evening's march told others involved to make their demonstration "peaceful" and to not join any anti-racism rallies planned for the weekend, fearing violence would damage their cause.
Protesters were urged to "stay calm" if they encountered any counter-rallies as they marched to Trafalgar Square, where video footage posted on social media showed them dancing and singing to music.
Two men arrested during the rally wanted for unrelated matters, City of London Police has said.
Demonstrations against racism and police violence are expected to take place in other UK cities, including Birmingham, Bristol and Glasgow, on Saturday.
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