Image courtesy of Katie Crampton, via Wikimedia Commons

How the United States’ Black Lives Matter movement became transatlantic

What effect has the backlash against police violence in the United States had upon racial injustice across the Atlantic? Alisa Wadsworth examines how the Black Lives Matter movement expanded worldwide and discusses the prospects for real change in Europe.

The Black Lives Matter movement gained significant momentum after the murder of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed on 25 May, 2020 after a white police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly eight minutes. Floyd’s death catalysed protests not only throughout the United States, but across the United Kingdom (UK) and Europe. Anti-racism protests were organized across Belgium, France, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, the UK, Ireland, Italy, Denmark, and more, with some protests drawing tens of thousands of protesters. The shift of this movement to Europe has not merely been a form of support for protests against police brutality and institutionalised racism in the United States. Rather, they have reflected the ongoing prevalence of colonial anti-Black racism that persists throughout European culture, politics, and legal institutions.

In many ways, protests against systemic racism in Western countries outside the United States are reminiscent of ongoing debates over issues of migration and refugees in Europe. European countries such as Hungary and the UK have seen the rise of right-wing populist parties and politicians, many of whom made use of xenophobic rhetoric to grow their voter base. The link between anti-Black racism and xenophobia manifests itself in the case of Adama Traoré, a Malian-French man who died in police custody. Traoré was arrested by the police for not having his ID during an identity check and was declared dead hours later. While the details of Traoré’s death are less clear than Floyd’s, the Traoré family’s independent autopsy indicated asphyxiation. However, until the Black Lives Matter movement made its way across Europe, anti-Black racism was not something that was discussed as openly and frequently as issues of migration and xenophobia.

British journalist Gary Younge has described the “selective amnesia” that plagues Europe when it comes to European countries’ legacies of colonialism and historical oppression across the world. Historically, many European countries practised forms of institutionalised racism and oppression against Black people in the countries they colonised, rather than directly at home. As a result, many European countries have skirted around effectively addressing their colonial histories of violent racism.

One result of the protests thus far has been the takedown of statues of slave traders in countries such as the UK and Belgium. Furthermore, in mid-April, the European Parliament voted to condemn white supremacy and racial discrimination, specifically citing the death of George Floyd. However, the resolution does not acknowledge police brutality within the European Union. Systemic racism continues to run deep throughout Europe, and the death of another Black man in the US has catalysed a continent-wide discussion about racism that is demanding a stronger response.

In countries like France, this is not the first time that police brutality and racism were protested; in 2005, riots broke out in largely working-class neighbourhoods of colour in and around Paris because of the deaths of two young boys who were electrocuted while hiding from police. Fifteen years later, albeit inspired by the American Black Lives Matter protests, anti-racism protests in France have centred around the aforementioned Adama Traoré, whose sister, Assa Traoré, is leading the fight against police violence and systemic racism. These are not isolated cases of police violence against people of colour in France. While the French interior minister, Christopher Castaner, said that there were merely a few “black sheep” in the police force, a Human Rights Watch report from June 2020 details police violence and abuse against Black and Arab men in France based on interviews with nearly 100 individuals.

Anti-racism protests have also been met with fierce counter-protests, for example in the UK with far-right protesters and counter-demonstrators defending the statues that were torn down, such as the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol. The French police forces also protested reforms such as the recent ban on chokeholds, throwing handcuffs down across the country.

While the protests have been met with a severe backlash in the US as well, they have resulted in some noticeable changes. The largest wave of protests in US history has shifted public opinion, with people increasingly agreeing that anti-Black discrimination is a significant issue. National support for the Black Lives Matter movement has also risen substantially. In the private sector, a number of companies have recognised Juneteenth as a paid holiday, pledged to reform hiring practises, and promote initiatives to support people of colour. Mayors of cities like Los Angeles have proposed budget cuts to the police department, monuments of racist historical leaders have been taken down, and U.S. Representatives have proposed a bill that would reverse qualified immunity, which largely protects police who violate civil rights.

Yet, many of these initiatives are largely performative. For example, the Minneapolis City Council’s proposal to completely overhaul the police department has been tabled, and Mayor de Blasio of New York City agreed to cut $1 billion of the New York Police Department’s budget but only ended up cutting $484 million, and critics have argued that this budget cut amounts to a reallocation of resources for the police. Furthermore, initiatives such as recognising Juneteenth in the corporate sector are reactive and insufficient, with the president of the Ford Foundation, Darren Walker, arguing that “corporate America has failed Black America.”

Will these anti-racism protests in Europe sustain momentum and initiate effective change? In Europe, anti-Black racism is strongly linked to xenophobia. As the European Network Against Racism noted in a report, police brutality in countries including Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Croatia, and more has been targeted against racialised communities. A number of these communities have been Roma, Muslim, Black, refugee, or migrants. More specifically, many of the individuals targeted by police violence have been African migrants.

As such, the anti-racism protests across Europe can be connected with the fight against xenophobia across Europe, which has been linked to increased right-wing populism in various European governments. The United Nations has classified xenophobia in Europe as “the new racism.” While this perhaps incorrectly implies that racism is no longer prominent across the continent, it highlights the similarities and interconnectedness between the two struggles.

United Nations member states adopted a recommendation in 2007 to combat racial discrimination in policing; however, the transatlantic Black Lives Matter reflect that institutionalised forms of racism remain rampant throughout the continent. Perhaps the Black Lives Matter movement will catalyse change to better protect not only Black Europeans and Europeans of colour, but migrant populations. Reports of police brutality in Europe mentioned earlier make it clear that there are links between racism and xenophobia, and one cannot be addressed without considering the other. The pressure put on governments by Black Lives Matter protests worldwide have resulted in countries being forced to reckon with their ongoing legacies of racism, and time will tell how this movement will impact future European policy and reform. The aforementioned Human Rights Watch report proposed reforms for the police’s stop, search, and frisk practices; Dutch activists have advocated for ending the Zwarte Piet celebrations, in which many white people wear blackface; and European governments are increasingly pressured to systematically collect data on the impact of race on issues such as employment and housing.

Ultimately, the protests are forcing Europe to begin viewing racism as an injustice that persists on a systemic level, rather than an individual one. While this is important, the issue of systemic racism in Europe cannot be resolved with a surface-level attitude adjustment. This is particularly the case as the global COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated racial inequities; economic and health disparities between white and Black/non-white individuals are widening due to the virus. Beyond non-white individuals being more likely to die from the virus, the enforcement of lockdown measures are also disproportionately stringent in non-white neighbourhoods in Europe. Like police violence, those most vulnerable to the negative consequences of COVID-19 are Black, refugee, migrant, and Roma communities. Thus far, significant anti-racism efforts that would rectify such inequities in Europe are lacking; however, the Black Lives Matter protests have highlighted the urgency and importance of such work. It remains to be seen whether European countries will effectively address its ongoing systemic racism beyond performative efforts, or if the selective amnesia will persist during a time of great need.

Alisa Wadsworth is a student at the University of Pennsylvania and a research intern at LSE IDEAS.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.