Thousands of protesters gathered in Dam Square, Amsterdam’s city center, to protest the death of George Floyd and to demonstrate their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Enraged by the injustice of Floyd’s death and the prevalence of police brutality in the United States, civilians have organized demonstrations in cities across Europe including London, Paris, Berlin, Milan, Dublin, Krakow, and Copenhagen.
A massive shift in global consciousness has encouraged even Europeans to engage in anti-racist dialogue at this time, whether through protest, social media, or other forms of activism. Sara Demmel, an Irish-German student studying in London says that “police brutality isn’t just a US problem” and believes that “the protests that are going on in the US have highlighted the racism in Europe.”
Molly Christophers, an English and Australian national living in Amsterdam, described why she was affected so deeply by the violence against the Black community in the United States, writing “beyond the fact that I care about the unnecessary and horrific loss of human life in any circumstance, police brutality in the US is such an avoidable issue that wouldn’t occur in a society that confronted its history. Additionally, whether it be politics or media, the US is the heart of western culture and thus I am to some degree a stakeholder in its affairs.”
While both Demmel and Christophers agreed that the protests had led them to reflect on the extent to which racism affects the nations they are from and live in, Demmel also pointed out that this concern is not universal among Europeans, saying that “a lot of people are turning a blind eye to what is happening to the Black community. . . it’s very easy for people to be like ‘it’s an American issue. We don’t have riots here so it’s not an issue here.’” She further elaborated, saying, “We are a step further than the US, I think, in terms of social issues: we have free education, free healthcare...and I think that allows us to live in the illusion that Europe has no problems.” While free education and healthcare are not universal throughout Europe, governments do provide greater social security for their citizens in general than in the United States. For example, the cost of attending the University of Amsterdam is under $5,000 per year, while it costs over $70,000 per year to attend Boston College without financial aid.
Such differences often make Europe seem utopian, but Demmel warns that this perception can blind people to issues that are ingrained within European society such as racism. Statista demonstrated the pervasiveness of racism within Europe, releasing a report based on surveys of 6,000 Black individuals, highlighting how Black people continue to be oppressed in a society that is often considered idealistic.
Furthermore, the European Commission annually releases a report against Racism and Intolerance, abbreviated ECRI. Its 2019 findings found significant anti-black sentiment, as well as antisemitism, Islamophobia, and anti-Romani sentiment across the European continent. The report notes that “old stereotypes, often rooted in colonial legacies, are mixed with recurrent anti-immigration sentiments and result in an environment that in many member states makes effective equality for Black persons unlikely.”
Demmel wished European nations would officially take a stance against human rights violations in the US. However, she also believes that many are refraining from doing so because “the US is such a powerhouse and is such a big influence in Western society that governments are afraid to take a stance.”
Several members of the European Parliament have a similar view and 118 of them have asked the European Commission to release “an official statement condemning the ongoing violations of fundamental rights in the United States of America, including the right to life, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly,” especially in light of the violent nature of the government’s response to protests across the country. Furthermore, their letter asked the Commission to organize a summit in order to address structural racism in Europe, citing instances of police brutality in France and Belgium, which involved the killing of several people of color by police authorities. Furthermore, they urged for an anti-discrimination law originally proposed in 2008 to be passed in Parliament. The law would implement “the principle of equal treatment between persons irrespective of religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation” and would establish “a uniform minimum level of protection within the European Union for people who have suffered such discrimination.”
Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, condemned the murder of George Floyd, and Berlin has passed its own anti-discrimination law which protects citizens from discrimination by public authorities. However, police unions across Germany have expressed their aversion to the law. In an interview by Euractiv, the chairman of the German police force, Rainer Wendt, said, “The law is driven by distrust and contempt for the police and the entire public service in Berlin.” The American movement thus poses the risk of escalating tensions between the European public and the police.
While the struggle against systemic racism and police brutality is currently primarily concentrated in the United States, these are not solely American issues The current Black Lives Matter protests may not only be a catalyst for change within the US but for change around the world.