Since 2013 the Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement has transformed the debate around police brutality in the United States. However, the tangible impact of the demonstrations became visible only after the death of George Floyd in May 2020. States across the US have approved or pledged to adopt measures, in various capacities, to confront the permeating racism within police departments decisively. For example, statues of the confederate soldiers have been removed in states like Kentucky, Philadelphia, and Alabama.
These demonstrations are reminiscent of those during the Civil Rights era due to their anti-racist agenda. However, the crucial roles played by social media and the decentralised form of leadership are two factors that set apart these movements.
While the BLM movement has its roots in the US, it has garnered widespread international support with local demonstrations in at least 60 countries and across every continent except Antarctica. This is due to the issues of racism and discrimination being familiar in almost every society. Like in the US, governments around the world have for too long ignored the issues of systemic racial injustice. Ethnic minorities have been repeatedly denied equitable access to opportunities, services, and fundamental human rights. While many of these localized protests began in solidarity with their American counterparts, many have taken on new forms and led to different debates as they adapt to different national contexts. Moreover, renowned individuals like King Leopold II, Edward Colston, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Edward Colston and Cecil Rhodes have now come under severe criticism because of their racially biased policies or opinions.
The historical processes underlying contemporary inequality are unique to each country, but there are certain commonalities. The US, in common with other settler colonies, is experiencing a reckoning around the legacy of slavery and the genocide of indigenous people. However, in Europe the modern debates sparked by the BLM movement must be understood within the context of the repression meted out against their former colonies.
Contextualising the rise of BLM in England, France, and Belgium
Resentment against the marginalization of ethnic minorities has been a simmering and occasionally explosive issue throughout Europe. However, the death of George Floyd has reignited the passion around this issue. In a widespread show of solidarity, individuals from across the racial divide came together to extend their support to the victims of racial violence. Their demands grew to encapsulate not only the matter of correcting the legacy of racial injustice, but also to bring an end to the reverence that till recently, was associated with racially-biased personalities such as those mentioned above.
A critical examination of the past is necessary to comprehend why some of the European countries are facing an increased surge in protests calling for restorative justice. Xenophobia and racism are legacies of the ‘progressive’ European states. They are deeply intertwined, both in their past and the present. The remnants of the racially oppressive ideologies that the colonial empires exported beyond their immediate borders are still visible within the domestic spheres of the ‘enlightened’ countries.
The effects of colonialism were not limited to the exploitation of the defenceless population within the territories they conquered. Countless officials profited from an economically viable activities of the day, almost all of which involved the extreme exploitation of colonized peoples. This was not limited only to the slave trade itself, but also from those industries which were built on slave labour. The trade of cotton, tobacco and sugar helped to fuel the birth of global capitalism, which in turn shapes the world that we all live in. Every city in Europe was therefore built, directly or indirectly, on the exploitation of the colonised peoples.
Centuries after the abolition of slavery, the current generations (descendants of the former slaves and immigrants) face a derogatory and dehumanising treatment at the hands of the native white population. Looking back at the post-World War II era, we find that wave of immigrants from the Caribbean and South Asia arrived at the European shores to fulfil the labour requirements. Widespread civilian casualties or the unwillingness of the native population to take up menial jobs created a void. The former colonial states encouraged the continuous flow of the immigrants to keep up with the demand for economic reconstruction efforts. However, the services rendered by them remained unacknowledged as they never rose from the status of second-class citizens.
Cultural violence is prevalent in these societies. It occurs when certain beliefs become so deeply embedded within the fabric of a society that they are uncritically reproduced throughout generations. The perception that the non-whites are primitive and intellectually inferior to the Caucasians has carried well into the 21st century. The discrimination faced by the descendants of the former slaves and the first generation of non-white immigrants attests to that. In turn, direct and structural violence that diminishes their (out-group) capacity to access essential services and resources otherwise granted to the privileged group (in-group), continues to occur. They are a subsequent impact of the cultural violence which normalises the racial stereotypes and subsequently results in the dehumanisation of a given community. Structural violence enforces the marginalisation of a given section of the population. It is done through ratification of laws or through a cultural mandate that legitimises the perpetuation of such acts. Direct violence, on the other hand, instils emotions such as despair and humiliation among the marginalised community. It is a direct result of structural violence.
The above-mentioned section of the society has borne the overwhelming impact of these typologies of violence. Although each of the previously mentioned countries do operate according to the democratic principle of ‘Right to Equality’, they, however, choose to apply it selectively. As a result, the worse-off often find themselves living in destitute accommodations, earning lower wages, looked down upon, and deprived of the rights of equal citizenship.
The members of the out-group are looked at with a degree of suspicion. They face numerous hurdles in gaining access to equitable educational and employment opportunities. Arguably, even if they are relatively more qualified than members of the in-group, they are bound to be discriminated against by the latter. The EU Agency for Fundamental Rights reports how pervasive racism thrives within the European continent. It highlights how the racial minorities are often reduced to the colour of their skin. For example, in terms of employment, Austria, Luxembourg, and Italy reported the highest number of cases where the prospective employees faced discrimination due to their racial background. Racial discrimination is also visible in Brussels, which houses significant EU institutions. An examination of the employment status of racial minorities revealed that between 2014-19, only 2 percent of them found a place as members of the European Parliament.
The victims of the discriminatory policies suffer mainly on the ground that they frequently experience the struggle of living within a fractured system that denies them justice. The police act as perpetrators and instigate differential forms of violence against them. They do so within a climate of great impunity. The police harass four in ten people during checks on account of their racial profile. Since official data based on ethnicity is lacking among the European countries, it becomes relatively hard to accumulate precise information. Nevertheless, a French NGO called ‘La Police Assassine’ or ‘Police Kills’ has reported on numerous cases where the police have killed young black adults. Reportedly, law enforcement officials have mocked the gravity of hate crimes by downplaying the racial factor behind them.
The systematic forms of racism are embedded deep, for example, within the fabric of the French society and polity that there is a great sense of denial among the in-group regarding it. Being black in the EU often means racism, poor housing and poor jobs. It is how a publication of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights defines the status of the black community in the EU. Between 2014-2019, as per the data analysis, 30 percent of the total respondents spoke about how they faced racial harassment, and 5 percent suffered physical violence at the hands of their white peers. Moreover, 41 percent have experienced racial profiling at the hands of the police. It goes to show that the European continent has found itself unable to move past the toxicity of the colonial era that defined the racial dynamics.
The BLM protests
The United Kingdom has witnessed waves of protests across cities like Manchester, London, and Bristol. Although the protestors are not associated with an official BLM chapter, however, they do operate under the same banner.
It is an irony that a philanthropist, Edward Colston, had a pivotal role to play in the African slave trade during the epoch of the British empire. Despite providing education and healthcare to vulnerable people in Bristol his work in the Royal African Company means that he was responsible for unimaginable cruelty and death. This pattern of domestic charity and foreign rapaciousness is not isolated to Colston or Bristol, with a similar pattern being seen across the UK’s industrial cities. However, it is Bristol which saw this statue defaced before the protestors subsequently brought it down and threw it into a nearby river. It was a tribute to those coerced into the slave trade.
The permeating issue of racism became a focal issue in one of the foremost institutions of higher learning, Oxford University. Over the years, it has come under harsh criticism for failing to address ‘institutional racism’ adequately. A student who chose to remain anonymous pointed out how the university had alienated its black students while at the same time provided support to the BLM movement. Amid these circumstances, a campaign to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes (19th century British colonialist and white supremacist) situated within the campus of the Oriel College began in 2015. Rhodes had played a crucial role in the colonial enterprise in South Africa. Modelled after a similar campaign that took place at the University of Cape Town, the slogan of ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ became the rallying cry of the demonstrators. The protests, however, dwindled after the students graduated that year. The death of George Floyd renewed the campaign. It ultimately resulted in the college voting to remove the statue, which for centuries had espoused the racist legacy of colonialism.
The UK has a longstanding legacy of police brutality being committed against the black community members. Along with France, it remains one of the worst affected countries by racial profiling. The marginalised community accounts for 8 percent of the total custodial deaths. In comparison, their population count is only 3 percent of the entire population of the UK.
In France, widespread protests centred around the removal of the statue of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, who served as the Finance Minister of King Louis XIV. Colbert penned the notorious ‘Black Code’ which set the guidelines for the treatment of the black slaves in the French colonies. The death of Adama Traore, a French-Malian national, while in police custody gave rise to an uproar regarding the treatment of non-whites at the hands of law enforcement officials. Asphyxiation, due to three police officers throwing their weight on him during the arrest, resulted in his demise.
In Belgium, the horrific reminder of the past brutality committed by King Leopold II against the Congolese resurfaced in the aftermath of Floyd’s death. Till recently, he was the heroic figure who defended Belgium’s neutrality in the Franco-Prussian war (1870-71). He continues to be addressed within the school curriculum as the ‘builder king’, ignoring the wealth generated for this purpose through grave exploitation of the Congolese people. However, his heinous crimes overshadow the defence of his homeland. Belgium had greatly profited from his invasion of Congo. However, this success came at the cost of coerced enlightenment and a widespread genocidal campaign.
Response to the BLM protests in France
France is a country which promotes the idea of a unified national identity that transcends fault lines like race, religion, and ethnicity. However, this means that the policy of colour-blind neutrality inevitably disregards the existing racial divide. Such flawed guiding principles wreck further havoc for those who are primarily affected by the systematic racism present within the country.
The civil society actors, such as Philippe Brunet (Director of The Suppliants) and Cécile Guilbert (Essayist) have become increasingly complicit in aggravating the racial divide. They have done so by condoning the use of ‘freedom of speech’ to mock the sentiments of the marginalised community. The use of blackface (use of makeup by a non-black performer to come across as a member of the black community) is an acceptable matter in the theatrical art form. The irony is that those who protest against the misuse of fundamental freedoms are branded as ‘crass’ and ‘revolting’. It is the epitome of hypocrisy to selectively apply the democratic principle to those who are considered a part of the in-group.
There are political leaders like President Emmanuel Macron, who are also equally liable for the perpetuation of racial discrimination. While he has acknowledged the problem of racism in French society, he has, at the same time, failed to take a decisive stand to correct the existing dilemma. He has also vowed to protect the status of the leaders associated with French colonialism, thereby disregarding the damaging impact on the collective psyche of the black community in his country. Monnica Williams is a psychologist and Director of the University of Louisville’s Center for Mental Health Disparities. She has addressed a typology of psychological violence referred to as ‘race-based traumatic stress injury’. It is a form of emotional abuse that an individual experiences due to traumatic encounters such as racial hostility and harassment. The known triggers are racial discrimination or aggression. President Macron, has subjected them to this specific form of psychological violence by relegating the psychological impact of the black members of his country.
The United Kingdom
Casual racism is a defining feature of that section of the British society which continues to defend people like Rhodes and Colston despite the overwhelming evidence which presents the image of known bigots. Rhodes’ racist worldview could not be more clearer – ‘I contend that we are the first race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit, the better it is for the human race.’
Priti Patel (Home Secretary) expressed her outrage at the ‘utterly disgraceful’ incident of demonstrators tearing down the statue of Colston and discarding in the city harbour. Her distorted perception of the events that unfolded is a worrisome matter, especially considering she is no stranger to the racist propaganda herself.
PM Boris Johnson while sympathising with the sentiments of the protestors, has issued a dire warning to those who aspire to remove Rhodes’ statue similarly to that of Colston’s. He has vowed to bring the force of law against those who follow through on their threats. Lord Patten, the Chancellor of Oxford University, took a more vocal approach in defending the legacy of Rhodes. He claimed that the demonstrators who failed to demonstrate ‘a generosity of spirit’ towards history ought to redirect their educational pursuits elsewhere.
The PM has adopted a passive-aggressive approach in dealing with the racial crisis. In the process, he has disregarded the sentiments behind the demonstrators’ call for the removal of the statue. Lord Patten’s reference to the demonstrators as ‘hypocrites’ highlights how racism is normalised within the fabric of the British society. His statement reiterates the idea that privileged section of the society remains ignorant of how the normalisation of racism entraps the marginalised in a perpetual cycle of violence and discrimination: ‘… for me there is a bit of hypocrisy…in Oxford taking money for hundred scholars a year, about a fifth of them from Africa, to come to Oxford, and then saying we want to throw the Rhodes statue…in the Thames.’
Keir Starmer (leader of the Labour Party) has also adopted a hard-line stance similar to those of the Tories. He dismissed one of the crucial demands of the BLM demonstrators – to defund the police – as ‘nonsense’. Moreover, Starmer downplayed the role of BLM as a movement. Instead, he spoke about how it was a mere ‘moment’ to reflect the events that occurred in the US. It is ironical that a party which describes itself as ‘determined to transform Britain for the many and not the few’, stands in opposition to a legitimate social movement and its essential demands.
In Belgium, the defence of King Leopold II has come from across the divide. Prince Laurent (brother to King Phillipe), and Louis Michael (former PM) have come out in solidarity of the dead King. A monarch, whose violent excursions within the African continent are today equivalent to the perpetrations of war crimes liable to be investigated by a Hague Tribunal.
The prince has categorically denied the claim of King Leopold II ever stepping foot on the Congolese soil. He even blamed the violence suffered by the Congolese population on the people who worked for the monarch. He, however, conveniently forgot that the King remained liable for the crimes committed in his name. Michael, on the other hand, has taken a road trampled on by numerous defenders of the colonial enterprise. He has reiterated how the Belgians brought enlightenment to Congo by civilising its population. He did not fail to remark on how the colonised country’s economic and structural reformation are indebted to the changes introduced by the former King.
The way ahead
The strength of the BLM movement in Europe shows the need for serious reform to address systematic inequality. Part of this involves dealing more honestly with complicated historical legacies. Countries like England, France and Belgium have for too long brushed their colonial crimes under the rug, preferring to present a progressive face to the world. Statues commemorating slave traders and racially-biased leaders are a bizarre relic with no place in the modern world. It is equally imperative that educational curriculums do not seek to airbrush history. That said, campaigners and activists should be careful not to embrace a headlong rush into historical debate as a panacea for contemporary injustice. Culture wars often suit politicians of the right, and should never be allowed to serve as a distraction from issues such as housing, health and income inequality.
Daniel Odin Shaw is the Director of Political Violence and Conflict Resolution Programme at The International Scholar.
Saman Ayesha Kidwai is a Research Assistant with the Political Violence and Conflict Resolution programme at The International Scholar.