Under the banner of Black Lives Matter (BLM), thousands of people have broken lockdown rules and taken to Europe’s streets. In Brussels, 10,000 people demonstrated; calling for European leaders to take more action to tackle systemic racism.
Co-president of the European Parliament’s anti-racism intergroup (ARDI), Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana, welcomed the protests saying, “The way the world is rallying against racism right now is something unique, which I have not seen in my lifetime.”
The Greens deputy, who recently addressed a BLM rally in Germany, said, “I am proud of all the people throughout the world, coming on to the streets to demand change.”
Condemnation of George Floyd’s killing and a call to tackle racism received cross parliamentary support, with Belgian ECR group deputy Assita Kanko describing Floyd’s death as something that “has shocked us all and sparked global outrage”.
She said, “It has created a movement that has shone a light on racism, the abuse of power, and the social economic inequality that black communities endure.”
“European politicians are more comfortable condemning the US without addressing the real human experience and suffering brought about by intolerance here” Volt Europa’s Kim Smouter-Umans
While the BLM protests began in the US, French GUE/NGL deputy and ARDI co-president Younous Omarjee believes that systemic racism is very much a European problem too.
“It is time to step out of denial and open our eyes to racial inequality and violence in Europe,” said Omarjee, who added, “In France, before the police and courts, being Black or Arab makes you guiltier, and less innocent.”
German Greens deputy Romeo Franz, one of the few MEPs with a Roma background, said he wants to highlight the issues this community faces too. “Under lockdown, police violence against Romani people was more visible than ever before. Many Romani men, women and children from Romania, Bulgaria and Slovakia were brutally beaten up”.
Franz argues that now there should be a “focus on breaking the silence surrounding police brutality, racial profiling and other racist acts of the police and authorities” in Europe. “This is the everyday experience of Romani people, Muslims, and people of African descent in Europe.”
Renew Europe Deputy Samira Rafaela reiterated that, for many people, dealing with racism was a “daily living experience”, adding, “Racism and discrimination, is an exhausting, denigrating experience that is inflicting mental and physical harm, with people truly suffering, and it is through this lens that you see why protests are taking place despite a pandemic.”
ARDI vice-president and fellow Renew Europe MEP Hilde Vautmans, drawing upon on her own personal experience, said, “My children and husband are people of colour. I strongly support the Black Lives Matter movement, and all people who are exhausted by unfair treatment by institutions or other people who assume their superiority only because they are white.”
Reflecting on the racism her family faces, she said, “I see how racism affects my own daughter, can you imagine what it does to a mother’s heart when your daughter comes home from school saying she wants white skin? I also see how it affects my sister in law, who has been refused a taxi many times only because she is black.”
However, Vautmans, who is concerned about the mass demonstrations taking place during the current pandemic, added, “We have been working hard for months to fight the Coronavirus and we must now avoid mass gatherings and overcrowded places, and find alternative ways to voice our anger and concerns.”
“It is time to step out of denial and open our eyes to racial inequality and violence in Europe” French GUE/NGL MEP Younous Omarjee
Kim Smouter-Umans, a senior member of the pan-European federalist movement Volt Europa, believes tackling discrimination has unfortunately not been a political priority.
“For years, it has been pushed down the agenda of EU priorities, which in the process meant that the racism non-white and people of African descent experienced was ignored to appease increasingly xenophobic positions and win votes”.
He added, “We take a blind eye to the socioeconomic injustice faced by Europeans who have a different skin colour.”
As one of the few mixed-race public affairs professional’s working in Brussels, he said he believes that if Europe is to get serious about tackling racism, it needs to start recognising the legacy of colonialism and slavery in particular.
Smouter-Umans said he supported the removal of statues associated with racist, colonial legacies, arguing, “We refuse to acknowledge that Europe is wealthy in large part due to colonialism, which was brutal. Yet we still have statues of colonial ‘heroes’ like King Leopold II.”
During the Belgian king’s reign over the Congo colony, he oversaw the murder of an estimated 10-15 million Africans. In this context, he asked, “Would we accept a statue of Hitler in our city squares?”
He believes that “European politicians are more comfortable condemning the US without addressing the real human experience and suffering brought about by intolerance here”.
He called on EU leaders to help young black and mixed raced Europeans, saying, “There must be real change, and not just pretty words.” Similarly, Rafaela said there’s also a need reassess controversial cultural figures like Zwarte Piet (Black Pete).
“Perhaps soon a generation of Dutch children will grow up without the despicable figure of Zwarte Piet. If so, it will mean the protests work,” explained the Renew Europe deputy.
ARDI co-president Evin Incir wanted to remind EU policymakers that, “Last spring this parliament adopted an important resolution on fundamental rights of people of African descent in Europe. It needs to be implemented at once.”
The Swedish Socialist deputy joined calls for further EU action to tackle racism, and concluded, “It’s now time to abolish racism in the EU and beyond.”