Enough with the slogans and statements – it’s time for Europe and its institutions to uproot racism at all levels

Enough with the slogans and statements – it's time for Europe and its institutions to uproot racism at all levels

On Sunday 7 June 2020, thousands of people gathered in front of the Palais de Justice in Brussels, Belgium to demonstrate against racism and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

(Bertrand Vandeloise)

Watching the powerful testimony of the Afro-German MEP Dr. Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana of her violent encounter with Belgian police officers – a day before the European Parliament adopted a resolution on anti-racism – was a reminder of how little in Europe the message of ‘Black Lives Matter’ has sunk in, and how much work is left to be done to achieve justice and equality across the continent.

Herzberger-Fofana, a 71-year-old Green party deputy, told the Parliament that she was grabbed and pushed against a wall by four out of a group of nine armed police officers after she began to film them harassing two Black youths outside Gare du Nord station in Brussels on 16 June. She described the police taking her phone, grabbing her handbag and using physical force to spread her legs. After detailing the traumatic incident to her peers, Herzberger-Fofana can be seen wiping tears from her eyes.

Her brave account of an experience she describes as “humiliating” is all-too-familiar for many Black and other racialised people, and captures the many layers of the structural racism that is rife in Europe: from the disbelief – despite evidence – that a Black woman could be in a position of power, to the dehumanising handling of an elderly Black woman and the indifference of majority-white bystanders to Black people being harassed by a disproportionately large group of police officers. And while the MEP’s statement during the plenary debate elicited sympathy from many within the Brussels bubble, it also resulted in her inbox being flooded with racist emails.

That this happened to one of the six MEPs of African descent (out of a total of 751 MEPs), the day before a parliamentary debate on racism and police violence in Europe, and at a time when the world has been protesting against racism and police brutality and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, is significant.

Over the last four weeks, from France to New Zealand to Ghana, the world has erupted in protests over the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American man who was killed by police in Minneapolis.

Perhaps it was the widely circulated video footage that showed a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, kneeling on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds while Floyd begged for his life, gasping ‘I can’t breathe’ 12 times, that spurred the world to action. Or maybe it was the fact that this extraordinary act of violence, which took place during a pandemic that has disproportionately affected minoritised communities, wasn’t extraordinary at all. Some 1098 people in the United States were killed by police in 2019 alone, a disproportionate number of them were Black. More than three-quarters of the almost 9,000 people killed by police in Rio de Janeiro over the last decade were Black men. In Australia, the national average daily imprisonment rate for Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders was 2,589 persons per 100,000 adults, compared to 223 persons per 100,000 in the general population. And in Belgium, police have been criticised for racially profiling young Black and Arab youths in ID checks, which can be “violent…volatile and humiliating”. Just over a month before the Herzberger-Fofana incident, Adil, a 19-year-old man of Moroccan heritage died on 10 April while trying to escape a police control in Anderlecht during the lockdown.

It’s time to tackle historical and structural racism in Europe

As the writer James Baldwin wrote in his powerful 1972 extended essay No Name in the Street:

“Well, if one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected – those, precisely, who need the law’s protection most! – and listens to their testimony. Ask any Mexican, any Puerto Rican, any Black man, any poor person – ask the wretched how they fare in the halls of justice, and then you will know, not whether or not the country is just, but whether or not it has any love for justice, or any concept of it. It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”

As long as the conversation on racism in the EU fails to go deeper than the self-congratulating assessment of EU Commissioner Margaritis Schinas that “there is no doubt that Europe as a whole has been doing better than the United States in issues of race”, without reflecting on how America’s racial injustices originated in the trans-Atlantic slave trade that brought wealth and development to Europe, little will be done to tackle historical and structural racism in Europe. While the dominant narrative in public and political discourse has been the denial or minimisation of racism in Europe, the opening words of the EU Fundamental Rights Agency’s 2019 survey, Being Black in the EU, plainly state: “It is a reality both shameful and infuriating: racism based on the colour of a person’s skin remains a pervasive scourge throughout the European Union.” Racism in Europe is ingrained in all walks of life, so much so that nearly one in three respondents to the survey said they had experienced racist harassment over the past five years, while 25 per cent said they felt discriminated against while looking for work.

Two decades after the European Commission’s landmark Racial Equality Directive, and in light of existing European Court of Human Rights jurisprudence and countless civil society reports, it is past time for Europe and its institutions to move beyond slogans and statements, towards concrete action to tackle racism at all levels and finally enforce existing measures to penalise all instances of racism and discrimination.

In order to move beyond words and symbolic gestures towards structural change and racial and social justice, current EU policymaking and implementation must be thoroughly re-examined.

As long as the colonial origins of international development are not interrogated, and migration management is designed to “promote our European way of life” redolent of past European ‘civilising’ missions, people of colour will continue to drown in the Mediterranean Sea, be returned to unsafe places, or those that are allowed into Fortress Europe will be faced with exclusion and discrimination. Similarly, as long as #BrusselsSoWhite remains a reality, and the people who have both nuanced analysis and lived experiences of racism are faced with a glass ceiling – both in EU institutions and civil society organisations – little will be done to bring in more empathy and accountability to EU policy circles.

The failure of EU institutions to model the EU’s stated “values of solidarity, equality and fairness” and strive for more will leave far-right and populist politicians – who are already attacking democratic norms and riling up anti-migrant sentiment across the continent – free to take advantage of the economic fall-out of COVID-19 to devastating effect for all those who care about peace, equality and social justice.

When Dr. Herzberger-Fofana decided to record that fateful encounter those two young Black men had with nine police officers in Brussels’ Gare du Nord, a place with a history of recurrent police harassment of racialised people, she used her relative privilege to stand in solidarity, take action and bear witness. We must all do the same. But Black and minoritised people should not have to shoulder the weight of overturning centuries of racialised inequality alone. If you have been afforded the social and economic privileges of whiteness, don’t just walk by when you see discrimination or oppression – take a stand for justice.