• SERSER
  • ‘I can’t breathe!’: Europe

    The issues of systemic racism, discrimination and police brutality do not take a break during the time of pandemics. Although often overlooked or ignored, these problems are not exclusive to the US, but are a reality for many people living in Europe, too.

    Thousands of Europeans have taken the streets of big cities like London, Paris and Berlin, not only expressing their solidarity with the protestors from across the pond, but also taking a stand against what has been going on in their own countries.[1]

    What has triggered the protests?

    Ever since a video of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American man, being murdered by a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota on 25 May went viral, a wave of protests has not only spread across the US (350+ different cities[2]), but went global.

    Unfortunately, Mr Floyd’s murder is not an isolated case in the US when it comes to police-related deaths of African Americans, and the protests which bear the slogans ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘I can’t breathe’ symbolise a deeper frustration with systemic racism and police brutality black Americans face every day.[3] The protesters are not only asking for accountability[4] for what has happened to Mr Floyd, but also reacting to the ongoing police violence and mass incarceration of black Americans, racially biased justice system, socio-economic racial divides (these have inevitably contributed to African Americans being disproportionately affected by the coronavirus outbreak), Trump’s presidency and his racist remarks which are adding fuel to the fire, militarisation of the police etc.[5]

    Is Europe innocent?

    The answer to this question is straightforward – no.

    Police brutality and racial profiling are not unknown occurrences to the black ethnic groups living in countries like Britain, France and Belgium. In Brussels, only in the past year, two teenagers of Moroccan heritage, Adil and Mehdi Bouda, lost their lives as a result of police violence[6]. In Paris, on 2nd of June, 20,000 protestors were demanding justice for Adama Traoré, a black man who died at the hands of police officers in 2016.[7] In Britain, in 2017, two young black men, Rashan Charles and Edson Da Costa, died in similar circumstances after being restrained by police officers, while in 2010 a man named Jimmy Mubenga died on a plane on a Heathrow runway while being restrained by three immigration officers.[8]

    Stories like this are not rare across Europe. However, the issue of systemic racism is rarely talked about, let alone addressed, leaving many white Europeans undereducated and ignorant of its extent.  In reality, almost no European country has been taking the necessary steps to combat police violence – France, the Netherlands and Belgium are still discussing weather racial profiling even happens and if it should be recognised by law.[9]  The media often cover the instances of police brutality without investigating them, and take police statements at face value. The victims are usually depicted as perpetrators and are blamed for his/her own death. For example, when a Caribbean man Mitch Henriquez was killed by the police in The Hague, a police statement said that he was ‘violent, intoxicated and resisted arrest’, in an attempt to justify his murder. [10]

    In addition, the narratives in the media and school curriculums have done very little to transform how people see race.[11] In the UK, it has been widely acknowledged that the curriculum is ‘whitewashed’ (meaning: making something bad seem acceptable by hiding the truth[12]), where black history is either completely excluded or taught in terms of colonialism and slavery only.[13]

    Does the EU play the part?

    Responding to the events in the US and Europe, the EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrel acknowledged that this was an ‘abuse of power’ that is not limited to the US and should be combated everywhere.[14] However, a question arises – how can the EU effectively combat racism when the voices of the minorities living in Europe cannot be heard in its institutions? Currently, in the European Parliament, 4% of the seats are taken by the members of racial/ethnic minorities, while they make up at least 10% of the EU population.[15] When it comes to the European Commission, the College of Commissioners contains no non-whites. When asked about it, the Commission’s President Ursula von der Leyen replied: ‘I hope one day that changes, that would be good’. Although it is quite early on to judge whether she has done enough to address this, when the reporter pushed her on whether she intends to, von der Leyen said: ‘It is the right of the member states to present candidates, so I had to fight hard to get the commission composed. So we’ll see’.[16]

    Will anything change?

    It remains open, will Europeans see any change in the years to come?

    Ultimately, it is of vital importance to take a look at a historical context – European countries, including Belgium, the UK, France and the Netherlands, still have not come to terms with legacies of slavery and colonialism which shape the lives of Afropeans today.[17] Until they do, it will be hard for Europeans to accept the fact that the problem exists and condemn it in an appropriate way.

    Photo credit: June 7, 2020. People gather in Rome calling for justice for George Floyd, who died in May after being restrained by police in the US.   –   Copyright  AP Photo/Andrew Medichini

    [1] Euronews (4 June 2020). Analysis: Is Europe any better than the US when it comes to racism? Available at: https://www.euronews.com/2020/06/04/analysis-is-europe-any-better-than-the-us-when-it-comes-to-racism

    [2] Aljazeera (2 June 2020). Mapping US cities where George Floyd protests have erupted. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/interactive/2020/06/mapping-cities-george-floyd-protests-erupted-200601081654119.html

    [3] Deutsche Welle (1 June 2020). African Americans face deadly endemic police violence in US. Available at: https://www.dw.com/en/african-americans-face-deadly-endemic-police-violence-in-us/a-53646354

    [4] ABC News (2 June 2020). Black Lives Matter co-founder says what protesters want is simple: Accountability. Available at: https://abcnews.go.com/US/black-lives-matter-founder-protesters-simple-accountability/story?id=71008710

    [5] BBC News (5 June 2020). George Floyd: Five pieces of context to understand the protests. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-52904593

    [6] Euronews (4 June 2020). Analysis: Is Europe any better than the US when it comes to racism? Available at: https://www.euronews.com/2020/06/04/analysis-is-europe-any-better-than-the-us-when-it-comes-to-racism

    [7] Time (4 June 2020). A Young Black Man Died in France  Years Ago in Police Custody. Now Thousands Are Protesting in His Name. Available at: https://time.com/5847396/france-protests-anti-racism/

    [8] The Guardian (4 June 2020). Systemic racism and police brutality are British problems too. [Opinion piece by Kojo Koram] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jun/04/systemic-racism-police-brutality-british-problems-black-lives-matter

    [9] Politico (3 June 2020). In Europe, we also can’t breathe. [Opinion piece by Yassine Boubout]. Available at: https://www.politico.eu/article/in-europe-we-also-cant-breathe-black-lives-matter-anti-racism-protests-george-floyd-police-brutality/

    [10] Politico (3 June 2020). In Europe, we also can’t breathe. [Opinion piece by Yassine Boubout]. Available at: https://www.politico.eu/article/in-europe-we-also-cant-breathe-black-lives-matter-anti-racism-protests-george-floyd-police-brutality/

    [11] Deutsche Welle (1 June 2020). Opinion: George Floyd killing opens racism wounds for European blacks. Available at: https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-george-floyd-killing-opens-racism-wounds-for-european-blacks/a-53648169

    [12] Cambridge Dictionary. Available at: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/whitewash [Accessed 16 June 2020].

    [13] The Telegraph (5 June 2020). Racism isn’t just a US problem; to fight it in the UK we need to change how it’s taught in schools. Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/education-and-careers/2020/06/05/racism-isnt-just-us-problem-fight-uk-need-change-taught-schools/ [Accessed 16 June 2020].

    [14] The Guardian (2 June 2020). ‘Abuse of power’: global outrage grows after death of George Floyd. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/02/abuse-of-power-global-outrage-grows-after-death-of-george-floyd

    [15] Euronews (4 June 2020). Analysis: Is Europe any better than the US when it comes to racism? Available at: https://www.euronews.com/2020/06/04/analysis-is-europe-any-better-than-the-us-when-it-comes-to-racism

    [16] Euronews (4 June 2020). Analysis: Is Europe any better than the US when it comes to racism? Available at: https://www.euronews.com/2020/06/04/analysis-is-europe-any-better-than-the-us-when-it-comes-to-racism

    [17] The Guardian (11 March 2020). European colonial powers still loth to admit historical evils. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/11/european-colonial-powers-still-loth-to-admit-historical-evils [Accessed 16 June 2020].

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