The alarming riots of 9th May 2015 angered many. It is four years since rioting broke out across the UK. But, it appears that history has sadly repeated itself in another violent fashion. Hundreds of anti-government campaigners took to the streets, in London, and elsewhere in the UK, with banners claiming to resist the new Government and its policies.
Riots erupted due to resentment against the re-election of Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron. Ironically, a large number of police officers had also spoken out against cuts before the election, bypassing the ban on political activities to denounce shrinking police budgets and extensive redundancies.
Only less than 24 hours after the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of VE Day, senseless vandals, claiming to be protesters against anti-austerity measures, defaced the Women of World War Two Memorial in Whitehall, by spraying obscene graffiti. To throw a stone is one form of anti-social behaviour but to deface a war memorial is a deplorable act of vandalism, a clear example of disrespect and an insult to those women who served in WWII.
A spokesman for Downing Street condemned the graffiti as “a despicable display of disrespect for those who fought and died for their country“. According to the Metropolitan Police an investigation is under way, “after graffiti referring to ‘Tory scum’ was daubed on a war memorial”.
The demonstration rally started peacefully in central Whitehall Avenue and the majority of protestors who took part acted in an appropriate manner. But only a small minority were intent on causing public disorder and chaos. It is estimated that approximately a couple of hundred people took part in yesterday’s protest but it was also noted that a party of about 25 black-clad youths wearing face masks and sunglasses joined the march.
Fights broke out when protestors confronted lines of police outside the gate leading to Downing Street. Protestors began to goad, provoke and hurl abuse by throwing bottles and smoke bombs at riot police because they were unable to pass and reach David Cameron’s Downing Street residence.
The defacing of the Women of World War Two Memorial in Whitehall raises a number of questions. First of all, the democratic credentials of those who have not waited for the new government to even announce any measure to protest against the Conservative victory.
Second, their failure to respect the foundation of the freedoms they avail themselves of, targeting a monument to those who stood ready to give their all, and often paid the ultimate price, so that they may, among other rights, protest. We may ask ourselves whether the monument was deliberately targeted, or simply fell victim of its location, in which case the demonstrators would be at least guilty of failing to appreciate what it stood for.
Great Britain has made an extensive effort to commemorate the 70th Anniversary of the Allied Victory in the Second World War, and the country is home to myriad memorials, museums, and voluntary organizations. However, although this has made it possible to keep the flame of remembrance alive in the hearts of the majority, it is unfortunate to note that there are still those who simply do not appreciate the sacrifices made by that generation.
In the summer of 1940, it would have been only natural to have fallen prey to the temptation of surrender, deluding ourselves that some sort of compromise peace was possible, in a misguided attempt to avoid large-scale destruction. After all, this is exactly what many countries did. Great Britain and the Commonwealth, however, refused to follow the easy road ahead.
Instead, and being fully aware of the sacrifices demanded, the decision was made to fight, to fight for the traditional liberties so dear to anybody in these islands. Many countries contributed to the final victory over Nazism, but we should never forget that for a year, Great Britain and the Commonwealth remained the only bulwark against a seemingly invincible tyranny. Thus, any gesture of disrespect must be seen with the gravest of concerns.
Right now, the most pressing issue is identifying those directly responsible for the graffiti. Given that they were surrounded by fellow demonstrators, and that according to footage of the protests many were carrying mobile phones and other electronic equipment, it is very likely that the evidence exists to find the culprits.
While it seems true that a majority of the protesters did not partake in the defacement, they did not prevent it either, and fortunately they now have the chance to atone for their passivity by coming forward with this evidence.
Once those directly responsible have been identified and punished, the time will have come to engage in a wider debate on how to preserve the memory and values of the generation that defeated Nazism, and prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future.
Alex Calvo is a is a student at Birmingham University’s MA in Second World War Studies program.