Europe: Reckoning with racism, past and present

Inspired by anti–police brutality protests in the U.S., hundreds of thousands of Europeans are rallying in the streets under the banner of Black Lives Matter, said Afua Hirsch in The Guardian (U.K.). As well they should. “What black people are experiencing the world over is a system that finds their bodies expendable, by design,” a template that was forged by European colonial powers. It was Britain “that industrialized black enslavement in the Caribbean” and exported that system to America. The racism that killed George Floyd, the African-American suffocated by a white police officer in Minneapolis, “was built in Britain.” And this country still treats black Britons as second-class citizens: We are more likely to die in police custody than whites, and now we’re “dying disproportionately of Covid-19.” Floyd’s death was horrific, said Melanie Phillips in The Times (U.K.). But cowed British authorities are letting the protesters riot. Demonstrators have hurled bottles at police, defaced a statue of Winston Churchill, and burned a Union Jack at a war memorial. When protesters in Bristol toppled a statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston and rolled it into the River Avon, the city’s police chief sympathized with the rioters, saying, “I do understand why it’s happened; it’s very symbolic.” What an abdication of duty. “Vandalism and thuggery” should be punished, “not justified.”

The rally in Brussels was “dedicated to Floyd,” said Ludivine Ponciau in Le Soir (Belgium), “but also to people of color who have died in Belgium” at the hands of police in recent years. Many of the 7,000 demonstrators carried placards bearing the names of the dead: Mehdi, a 17-yearold run over by a police cruiser as he tried to evade a checkpoint; Mawda, a 2-year-old Kurdish-Iraqi girl killed when police fired on a van smuggling migrants; Lamine, 27, who died in unknown circumstances while officers were evicting him from an apartment. Belgians are also looking more deeply at their history, said Colette Braeckman, also in Le Soir. Statues of King Leopold II—whose genocidal colonial regime brutalized the Congo in the late 1800s, killing some 10 million people—are being vandalized all over the country, and a civic movement to take them down is amassing followers. Leopold’s troops were able to conquer the Congo only because the slave trade had “depopulated villages” there and weakened African resistance. Floyd’s own ancestors may have been “captured in the forests of Central Africa to be taken away, chained, in the hold of a slave ship.”

Some of these demonstrations, though, are simply inappropriate performance art, said Emma Jaenson in Upsala Nya Tidning (Sweden). Police had to break up a Stockholm protest because it breached the 50-person limit on public gatherings. The officers were right to do so—we’re in the middle of a pandemic! How obnoxious of the Swedish demonstrators to carry signs reading “I can’t breathe” when their very presence risks spreading a disease that threatens the breath of “vulnerable people such as the elderly and the ill.” Stand up for African-Americans, sure. Just don’t risk Swedish lives to do so.