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Black Lives Matter, European style

Police violence is a topic regularly debated in the United States, and murders of black people by American law enforcement often make headlines all over the world. But in Europe, police violence is not talked about nearly as often. Although Europe is probably where most countries have a colonial history, topics such as slavery are usually kept for the history books. However, growing anti-racist movements are uncovering how colonial stereotypes still dictate the lives of black Europeans, and how police violence against black people and other people of color is not only a supposedly “American tradition”

Protests all over Europe

In London and Paris, protests turned violent and were covered by international media, but in other countries such as Switzerland, Germany, Spain and The Netherlands also had big protests against racism and police violence in solidarity with George Floyd. In Portugal, the Black Lives Matter demonstration was the largest anti-racist one in the country so far.

In each country, activists have sought to highlight black Europeans who were either murdered or abused at the hands of the police. In France, for example, they drew a strong parallel between George Floyd and Adama Traoré, a young black man who died suffocated due to being tackled by police officers in the North of Paris. In Lisbon and other Portuguese cities,  protesters recalled cases of torture, beatings and shootings which hardly ever talked about in what is considered to be the third most peaceful country in the world.

The EU Agency for Fundamental Rights also reacted in support of the demonstrations happening across the country, stating to the EUobserver: “The current protests that are spreading across the continent highlight that discrimination and violence against black people is not only a problem of one country – it is commonplace.”

Tackling the colonial past

Several European countries were colonial superpowers, and the track records of their actions around the world is filled with examples of crimes against humanity. Most people probably know about British colonization, for example, but not nearly as much know about the life in Portuguese or Belgium colonies.

There is a tendency to see the colonial history of European countries as something that goes far back, but it was actually determinant for the trajectory of many European nations during the 20th century. Many activists also point out that the current relationship between many African countries and their colonial counterparts in Europe reproduce the same colonial dynamics of exploitation and dehumanization.

Most importantly, however, Europe’s reluctance to come to terms with its colonial past has a direct impact in the lives of Europeans of color. Many still go to school to learn about how intrepid Europeans brought “civilization” to Africa and other places of the world, while the negative consequences of colonialism are downplayed.

Pretending as if all European citizens are treated the same, regardless of race or ethnic origin, does nothing to promote change, but instead encourages people to turn a blind eye to the blatant inequalities of European societies. Journalist Gary Younge writes:

“Levels of incarceration, unemployment, deprivation, and poverty are all higher for black Europeans. Perhaps only because the continent is not blighted by the gun culture of the US, racism here is less lethal. But it is just as prevalent in other ways. Racial disparities in Covid-19 mortality in Britain, for example, are comparable to those in America. Between 2005 and 2015, there were race-related riots or rebellions in Britain, Italy, Belgium, France, and Bulgaria. The precariousness of black life in late capitalism is not unique to America, even if it is most often and glaringly laid bare there. To that extent, Black Lives Matter exists as a floating signifier that can find a home in most European cities and beyond.”

A European identity

A significant ideological difference between the United States and Europe is the debate about identity. While Americans prize and value their mixed ethnic origins, which they often try to trace back from several generations, Europeans tend to stress a common national identity and erase other markers of identity. In Europe, migrants are considered to be well-integrated when their cultural legacy becomes almost non-existent in their daily lives, and debates about multiculturalism are often much more polarized than in the United States where there is a tradition of immigration from several parts of the world.

Although this type of thought is common across the continent, it is particularly strong in France. As journalist Esther King explains, “Denial is particularly strong in France, which has a deep-rooted image of itself as a neutral, color-blind republic that champions liberté, égalité and fraternité. Efforts to organize around a racial identity have historically been hindered by an insistence — from the government and in society — that a person’s identity as “French” trumps any other, whether that’s black, Arab or Algerian.”

One of the practical consequences of this line of thinking is the lack of data segregated by race or ethnic group. In countries such as France and Portugal, asking citizens to register their ethnic origin or race is considered to be divisive, racist and dangerous, an attempt to “Americanize” European politics and ways of life.

Migration and xenophobia

One way in which anti-Black racism is distinctive in Europe, as opposed to the United States, is its strong linkage with anti-immigration feelings. Most Black Europeans are first, second or third generations migrants, who often came from the late colonies when civil wars ensued after struggles for independence.

Many Black Europeans are also refugees, and the recent refugee crisis has demonstrated how little Europe seems to care about the lives of Sub-Saharan Africans who are drowning in the Mediterranean or taken back to prison and slavery in Libya.

The far-right has taken advantage of the prejudice against Black Europeans and the refusal of European nations to acknowledge a Black European identity, and therefore equates all Black people resident in Europe with outsiders trying to ruin the continent.

If Europe is to defeat the far-right, it needs to demonstrate its support for Black Europeans and dismantle the legacy of its colonial past.

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