A day of planned mass protests against President Donald Trump’s visit to the United Kingdom kicked off in dramatic fashion, as the U.S. President walked back a series of explosive comments about Britain’s leaders to a tabloid newspaper.
In an interview with the Sun released on Thursday, Trump attacked British Prime Minister Theresa May’s recently released plan for the U.K.’s departure from the European Union, saying the plan—which keeps Britain closely aligned with the E.U. on certain regulatory matters—would “probably kill” the chance of a trade deal with the U.S.
The following day Trump attempted to spin his remarks about Brexit in a joint press conference with May. He dismissed the interview as “fake news,” despite the fact the Sun released an audio recording of his comments. After meeting May, he said, it seems a bilateral trade deal “will be possible.” Trump repeatedly emphasized the strength of U.S.-U.K. ties. The relationship, he said, was “higher than special.”
As May and Trump spoke at the Prime Minister’s Buckinghamshire estate, protesters gathered in the capital on Friday afternoon to protest Trump’s visit. As many as 200,000 people were expected to attend, while dozens of similar events were planned in cities and towns around the country. At around 4.30pm local time, police tweeted a photo of crowds in Trafalgar Square nearing capacity:
At the start of the protest, demonstrators chanted outside Portland Place, before marching towards Trafalgar Square
There were a variety of creative signs on display, including references to prior Republican presidents and to the Commander-in-Chief’s infamous hairstyle
In Parliament Square, a 20ft “Trump Baby” balloon was raised to great media fanfare. The President told the newspaper he was aware of the inflatable, saying, “I guess when they put out blimps to make me feel unwelcome, no reason for me to go to London. […] I used to love London as a city. I haven’t been there in a long time. But when they make you feel unwelcome, why would I stay there?”
Speaking to TIME about Trump’s comments at the launch of the balloon on Friday morning, one of the activists responsible said: “Great. That means we’ve already won. This balloon was successful even before going up.”
London Mayor Sadiq Khan has urged protesters to remain peaceful and said the demonstrations are “not anti-American”. “The U.S. has always stood by our side as a beacon for tolerance, openness and respect,” he said in a statement on Thursday. “Most of those marching on Friday will love the United States, just as I do. But having a special relationship means that we expect the highest standards from each other, and it also means speaking out when we think the values we hold dear are under threat.”
Dawn Butler, an lawmaker from the opposition Labour Party with responsibility for women and equalities, told TIME: “Theresa May has failed to be a critical friend to Trump. It’s disgraceful that after recent harrowing images of children being incarcerated in appalling conditions, taken from their parents, she is now rolling out the red carpet for his arrival. His brand of hatred and bigotry goes against what our country stands for. That’s why I and tens of thousands of others will be out protesting, to stand up to his poisonous politics.”
Plans for Trump’s two-day visit largely avoid London, where he spent just a few hours overnight at the American ambassador’s residence in central Regent’s Park. On Friday he travels to Windsor Castle, about 22 miles west of London, to meet with Queen Elizabeth II.
In London, many different groups are holding demonstrations in London as part of the wider anti-Trump protests. In central district Soho, drag queens, members of the LGBTQ+ community and allies gathered to protest the Trump administration’s policies on issues such as trans people in the military and adoption by same-sex couples.
“The British government’s decision to invite Trump sends a message to the community that we care more about politeness and tradition than standing up for what’s right,” says Maryanne Misandry, one of several drag queens to travel from northern city Manchester for the day. “We’re not obliged as country to welcome everyone. We wouldn’t roll out the red carpet for Kim Jong Un or Mugabe and we shouldn’t be doing it for Trump just because of the “special” relationship.”
“It’s very important to show our government that we can’t consider it business as usual with America while those values and attiudes are being handed down from the top in the U.S.,” says Cheddar Gorgeous, one of the U.K.’s best-known drag queens.
Amrou Al-Kadhi, who performs as Glamrou, says, “Trumpism isn’t just in America – it’s part of a global rise of facism, racism and the scapegoating of immigrants. I’m here because I want to show solidarity.”
The drag queens will later join the Women’s March – who are protesting Trump while simultaneously celebrating the centenary of women getting the right to vote in the U.K. – and walk towards Parliament Square in London’s government district Westminster.