Europe’s reaction to George Floyd’s death highlights racism at home as well as in the U.S.
On a cloudy Wednesday afternoon in Hyde Park, 22-year-old Londoner Tyra held up with gloved hands a sign that read “Justice for Belly Mujinga.”
The sign refers to a black ticket officer at London’s Victoria train station who died from COVID-19, two weeks after a man who claimed to have the virus spit on her while she was working. Mujinga’s name, painted on cardboard signs, appeared next to George Floyd’s throughout a crowd of thousands who had gathered to protest police brutality and racism following Floyd’s death.
Floyd died after he was pinned to the ground by a white police officer. For Tyra, who did not give her last name, the fact that Floyd’s death occurred in Minnesota was beside the point.
“[Racism] is something that’s affected me all my life,” she said, visibly emotional. Regardless of where she lived, “I’m always going to be a black person first.”
It was a sign of how deeply Floyd’s death and the wave of demonstrations that have followed it have touched young Britons and Europeans. Protests in sympathy with those in the U.S. have taken place across Europe this week, with many demonstrators seeking to call attention to local issues of police brutality and racism as well as expressing outrage about what has happened in America.
In Paris, nearly 15,000 demonstrators took to the streets to protest police violence on Tuesday night, defying police orders to stay home to prevent possible coronavirus infections. In Amsterdam on Monday, Dam Square was packed with demonstrators holding signs saying “Police violence is not an accident” and “Racism is a pandemic.” And thousands held a rally against racism outside the U.S. Embassy in Berlin.
In London, there have been a series of marches and demonstrations. A large rally, estimated at a few thousand people, was held on Sunday in Trafalgar Square and outside the U.S. Embassy. Another protest, drawing several hundred, was held in Hyde Park on Wednesday. More rallies are planned for the weekend. And the Stand Up to Racism campaign is asking U.K. citizens to “take a knee for George Floyd” outside their front doors on Wednesday night.
Videos of Floyd’s death and subsequent protests and civil unrest in American cities have been featured prominently in news coverage in Europe and widely shared on social media, shocking many Europeans.
But protesters were quick to point out the global nature of racism and biased policing. “It happens everywhere. It’s not just the U.S.,” said Cass, a 31-year-old who was attending the Hyde Park rally. Like many protesters, he declined to provide a last name.
“The U.K. is not innocent,” said protester Gary Tatham, noting that the U.K. has also seen police brutality. “Every black person, every person of color in this country has faced racism.”
Alice Mensah, another protester, said that “there is a real sense of hopelessness” in the U.K. over the death of Floyd. Racism in the country is not as “overt” as in the U.S., she said. “It’s tied up in a bow.” But that doesn’t mean it’s not there.
Mensah also said that Floyd’s death, coming as it did during the U.K.’s nationwide lockdown, when there have been few other distractions, seemed to have shocked even some white Britons out of their complacency. To her, she said, the uproar over Floyd’s killing feels different from responses to previous instances of injustice. “This is alien to me,” she said. “This is the first time my white friends are coming to me and wanting to know more.”
For British members of the Black Lives Matter movement, the coronavirus’s disproportionate toll on those of black, Asian, and minority ethnic origin (often referred to collectively by the acronym BAME) has become a key issue. Many accuse the government of failing to do enough to protect members of those groups, and of trying to prevent data showing how much greater the death toll has been among BAME individuals from becoming public.
In Hyde Park on Wednesday, many protesters expressed disgust with U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s record on race, chanting an expletive followed by his first name.
Speaking in Parliament Wednesday, Johnson called Floyd’s murder “appalling, inexcusable” and said, “I perfectly understand people’s right to protest what took place there,” although he added that protests should be “lawful and reasonable.”
The references to Belly Mujinga are just one example of how the protests have sought to draw parallels between racist incidents in the U.S. and alleged racism closer to home.
At the Hyde Park rally, protesters also carried signs referencing Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old London man who was shot and killed by police in August 2011, sparking a week of rioting throughout the city. And during Sunday’s demonstration, some protesters marched to the site of Grenfell Tower, the apartment block where at least 72 people, most of them ethnic minorities, died in a raging fire in the summer of 2017. The local government, which owned the tower, was found to have ignored repeated expressions of concern about the building’s safety.
In Paris, in addition to Floyd’s murder, protesters sought to draw attention to the case of Adama Traoré, a 24-year-old black construction worker who died after being arrested by French police in 2016. Traoré’s death sparked a French version of the Black Lives Matter movement, and many saw clear parallels to Floyd’s case: Investigators found Traoré had suffocated after officers stood on his back.
“We don’t have the same history with the U.S. or the same history as African-Americans, so it’s complicated to compare,” Madjid Messaoudene, a municipal official from the diverse Paris suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis, told the Washington Post. “But the point in common is the impunity of the police.”
European reaction to the George Floyd protests has been filtered through local grievances as well as through perceptions of both the United States and President Donald Trump.
Many Europeans dislike the U.S. President, and there is a long-standing strain of anti-Americanism among European elites. But many Europeans also cherish the U.S. as an ally that has traditionally shared its democratic values. Many have said they want to see the U.S. live up to those ideals and that they have been horrified not only by Floyd’s death, but by the heavy-handed police reaction to the protests and by Trump’s call for the U.S. military to be used to quell the unrest.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Tuesday that the U.S. protests were “understandable and more than legitimate.” He said he hoped the protests would not spark additional violence, but hastened to add that he wanted to “even more express the hope that these protests have an effect in the United States.”
Wolfgang Ischinger, the former German ambassador to the U.S. who chairs the Munich Security Conference, told The New Yorker that “people all over the world understand that their own fights for human rights, for equality and fairness, will become so much more difficult to win if we are going to lose America as the place where ‘I have a dream’ is a real and universal political program.” He said he hoped demonstrations around the globe would remind Washington that U.S. soft power sets it apart from China, Russia, and even the European Union: “It would be tragic if the Trump administration turned a huge opportunity for the U.S. into a moral abdication.”
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