Thousands of protesters marched against police brutality and racism in Brussels, Belgium, on Sunday. The demonstration was about George Floyd, the black man killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, when a police officer pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.
But the protest was also about Belgium: its colonial history, its current inequities. Demonstrators scaled a statue of King Leopold II, the Belgian ruler who killed millions of Congolese people, and hoisted the flag of the Democratic Republic of Congo below it.
It wasn’t just Brussels. Protests have erupted on nearly every continent, many defying coronavirus restrictions. People took to the streets in London, Seoul, Sydney, Monrovia, Rio de Janeiro. A mural honoring Floyd was painted amid the rubble in opposition-held Idlib, Syria.
The video of Floyd’s assault, shared widely on social media, made “people think about how it was relevant where we were,” said Stephanie Collingwoode-Williams, a spokesperson for Belgian Network for Black Lives, a collective formed this week to bring activist organizations together in Belgium.
When Americans went out on the streets to protest, and kept going out day after day after day, it sparked a movement around the world.
Statues of figures from countries’ colonial pasts are falling. Governments are reexamining policies when it comes to policing. Protesters worldwide are saying the name of George Floyd, but also Collins Khosa and Adama Traoré and Belly Mujinga, black men and women in other countries who died in police custody or whose deaths have not been fully investigated.
What comes next is uncertain — whether protests will continue, whether there will be real change. At this moment, though, “Black Lives Matter” is a global rallying cry and a gut-punch reminder that this message still needs to be repeated everywhere.
The George Floyd protests went global and stayed that way. Just look at the UK.
Those have continued and expanded and have now become movements of their own. This is especially true in Western Europe, where many countries are still grappling with their colonial legacies and the systemic inequities minorities, including immigrants from Africa and the Middle East, face.
“We stand alone in terms of creating our momentum — not just responding to what’s happening in the US,” Alex, a 29-year-old organizer with Black Lives Matter UK, told me. “But at the same time, obviously, solidarity is really, really important, and we operate under the same banner, ‘Black Lives Matter.’”
“I think that’s because we understand that what happens over there also happens over here,” she added. And US activists, she said, know that, as well. “And so we understand the connections there as well as the connections with other people and other parts of Europe. So we’ve also connected with groups in Germany, in France, and in Belgium recently,” Alex said. “There’s so much in common.”
In the United Kingdom, anti-racism protests swept the country. In Bristol, England, on Sunday, protesters brought down a statue of Edward Colston, a 17th-century slave trader, spray-painting the figure and throwing him into the harbor. On Monday, according to Sky News, someone posted a sign on the now-vacant pedestal: “This plaque is dedicated to the slaves that were taken from their homes.”
The downing of the Colston statue has reignited calls to nix or replace other monuments to controversial or racist figures.
Protesters with the Rhodes Must Fall campaign held a sit-in outside of Oxford University, demanding the removal of a statue of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes. The group has been fighting this issue for years but has said the Black Lives Matter protests “reignited” the campaign, per the Guardian. In London, a statue of former Prime Minister Winston Churchill was graffitied, calling him a racist.
Politicians across the political spectrum in the UK denounced the vandalism, even as many expressed solidarity with the larger cause. “I don’t condone at all any attacks on our police or any disorder or criminal damage,” London Mayor Sadiq Khan told Sky News, “but we’ve got to recognize that our public realm, statues, squares, street names don’t accurately reflect our values, or London, in 2020.”
Khan has promised that a committee will review street names and landmarks in London, saying those with ties to slavery should be taken down or changed. On Tuesday, a statue of Robert Milligan, another slave trader, was removed — this time by authorities — outside a London museum.
The UK protests have also focused on police brutality. The protests have revived anger over the death of Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old black man killed by police in 2011 that set off riots in the United Kingdom. Officers said they acted in self-defense because they believed Dugan was armed, and though an inquest found he was not, it still upheld the killing as lawful.
Protesters also refocused attention on the death of Belly Mujinga, a transit worker who died from Covid-19 after a man allegedly coughed on her, though the case was quickly closed. And a well-known rapper in the UK shared a disturbing video of his 62-year-old father Millard Scott, a civil rights activist, who was tased and fell down stairs when the police entered his home.
Police have also used controversial tactics on protesters in recent days, including “kettling” — a crowd-control tactic used by police (including in the US) that corrals demonstrators into a confined space so they can’t leave. Police kettled demonstrators in London for six hours Sunday night, during which they were “left without food, water or access to toilets,” according to Sky News. This is despite the fact that activists and those present said the protests were largely peaceful.
Emmanuel Onapa, a youth leader for social justice group Hackney CVS, said the issues people are protesting in the US also translate to the UK. Black and brown communities in the UK are more policed, more likely to be stopped and searched.
“Defund the police,” he and Alex of Black Lives Matter UK told me, is also becoming a rallying cry, similar to the US — an opportunity to reinvest in communities, especially social service and youth programs.
“The police doesn’t keep us safe, it’s not made to keep us safe — and it’s not even trying to,” Alex told me. “And there are loads of other ways the money can be used to make sure our communities are safe and thriving.”
Much of Europe also saw protests
This sentiment has been repeated elsewhere in Europe, where protests stretched from Ireland to Italy.
About 10,000 people protested against police brutality and racism in Brussels, Belgium, on Sunday.
In April, when Belgium was under coronavirus lockdown, a 19-year-old man identified only as Adil died after his scooter crashed into a police van when he was at a police checkpoint. The neighborhood Adil lived in, Anderlecht, is home to many immigrants, especially from the Middle East and North Africa. His death set off riots in April and has become a cause again during these protests.
Collingwoode-Williams told me that at protests in Brussels, in addition to calls of “Black Lives Matter,” thousands chanted to honor others who died after incidents with police in Belgium: Adil, but also Madwa, a two-year-old Iraqi Kurdish girl struck by police fire, and Mehdi, a teenager run over by a police car in Brussels.
Activists in Belgium have also targeted the country’s ubiquitous monuments and honorifics to King Leopold II. Protesters across the country defaced the landmarks, splashing some with red paint.
One in Antwerp was set on fire and has since been removed — though the right-wing mayor said he did so because it was a “public safety issue,” according to the New York Times. More than 75,000 people have signed a petition asking all Leopold statues to be removed by June 30, the anniversary of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s independence.
Leopold killed millions of Congolese in his exploits, forcing them to work under the threat of cruel violence. Collingwoode-William said to keep the statues up is saying that these, and other black lives, do not matter.
“Sometimes it’s shocking to see that taking down a monument hurts people more than a death,” she said.
In France, protesters are confronting racism and whether the country honors its commitment to equality. “Of course, France and America are very different countries, but they have a common enemy in racism,” Maelle, a 23-year-old protester in Paris told France24. “Nothing will ever change until people are educated about racism.”
The protests have revived calls for justice for Adama Traoré, a 24-year-old French man of Malian descent who was killed in police custody, and many believe was killed by a police chokehold and also couldn’t breathe. This week, the French government said police could no longer use chokeholds when arresting people.
Germany has also seen massive protests, some of the largest outside of the United States, as it reckons with anti-black racism that some activists say is discounted in the country that has strict anti-hate laws because of its Nazi past. “Germany is not innocent,” protesters chanted.
The rest of the world is protesting during the pandemic, too
Many countries outside of Europe have also joined in. The dynamics were the same in many places: solidarity with the United States, and calls for changes at home.
In Israel, protesters crowded around the US Embassy in Tel Aviv. In 2019, Black Lives Matter protests broke out in Israel over the police killing of Solomon Teka, an unarmed 18-year-old Ethiopian Israeli. This week, they revived those calls. In the West Bank, Palestinians also protested, carrying signs for George Floyd and opposing annexation.
In Nairobi, Kenya, hundreds marched against police brutality, which was particularly acute during the country’s coronavirus lockdown. At least 15 people have died from police violence for allegedly breaking curfew; Kenya’s Independent Police Oversight Authority also recorded at least 31 cases of torture or injury.
Boniface Mwangi, an activist, told ABC News that the curfew-related deaths, and Floyd’s killing, showed the “struggles against police brutality are the same everywhere.”
Protesters in South Africa, which has its own deeply fraught history of white supremacy, honored Floyd by demanding change at home. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a far-left opposition party, hosted rallies outside US missions across the country, where protesters kneeled for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the length of time the Minneapolis police officer had Floyd pinned to the ground with his knee.
They also used the protests to demand justice for Collins Khosa, who was allegedly beaten to death in April in Johannesburg by the South African National Defence Force, part of the country’s armed forces. Soldiers allegedly accused Khosa of breaking lockdown rules after finding a half-finished glass of beer in his own yard, and, according to a report, they punched, choked, slammed him against a cement wall, hit him in the head with a machine gun, and poured beer all over him as police officers looked on.
Khosa died of blunt force trauma. The South African National Defence Force said it found no wrongdoing by its soldiers, that there was no link between Khosa’s death and the encounter. Some have pointed out the parallels between Floyd and Khosa: the slightness of the alleged offense and the brutality of the police’s response.
Brazil’s version of the George Floyd protests also decried police violence and the administration of Jair Bolsonaro, who has willfully ignored Brazil’s coronavirus disaster.
Brazil has its own complicated racial history, though the country is mostly black or mixed-race. It also has a troubled present with police violence; last year, Rio de Janeiro had a record number of police killings: more than 1,800, according to a New York Times analysis.
Police and military police often kill with impunity in Brazil’s favelas; a Brazilian Senate report said that “the Brazilian state, directly or indirectly, perpetrates the genocide of the young black population.” That same population is also most vulnerable to the coronavirus, and Bolsonaro, who has a history of racist remarks, is doing little to stop it.
Protests also erupted in Seoul, South Korea, and the K-pop group BTS has raised more than $1 million for Black Lives Matter. Protesters took to the streets in Tokyo and Osaka, in Japan, where the Black Lives Matter chapter of the Kansai region organized a protest in honor of Floyd and against racism and police brutality.
“A lot of friends in the U.S., and their families, are participating in the Washington, D.C., protests. Their power to come together gave those of us in Japan the power to come together as well,” said Alyse Sugahara, a 33-year-old African American woman, according to the Japan Times. A local incident also galvanized demonstrators: a video, a few weeks ago, of a Kurdish immigrant dragged from his van by police in Tokyo.
Canada, Australia, Argentina, Jamaica, and the Philippines also witnessed protests, both those that focused outward on the US, and those that looked inward at their own issues with police brutality and racism against brown, black, and indigenous communities. The protests also became memorials to all those the system has failed.
Although they’re taking place in different time zones and on different days, the demonstrations have become a global mass gathering at a time when many parts of the world are still in lockdown — or just easing out of it — because of the coronavirus.
The pandemic was supposed to be the “great equalizer”; no one immune, everyone vulnerable. Instead, it laid bare the inequities. In how lockdown and curfew laws were applied. In who could afford to stay home and who could not. In who got help and who got left behind. Who got sick and who died.
The violence of George Floyd’s death occurred against this backdrop of discontent, in a world that is unrecognizable in a lot of ways — but one that has also amplified inequities. “The people knew racism is also like a virus that we’ve been dealing with longer,” Collingwoode-Williams said.
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