How Black Lives Matter Has Spread Into a Global Movement to End Racist Policing

The next Baltimore could be somewhere in Europe.

Amien Essif June 29, 2015

Protesters on the Trocadéro esplanade in Paris demonstrate against police violence in France and the United States on Dec. 6, 2014. (Francois Guillot / AFP / Getty Image)

When Bal­ti­more erupt­ed into protest this April over Fred­die Gray’s death, it was clear that the move­ment against racist police bru­tal­i­ty that began last August in Fer­gu­son, Mis­souri, had sur­vived the win­ter. Bal­ti­more, many said, was the next Ferguson.

The predicament of black people in Europe is distinct from that of black Americans in at least one regard: It’s inseparable from the experience of Muslims and immigrants.

But where, then, is the next Bal­ti­more? Per­haps some­where in Europe.

On May 18, hun­dreds of Parisians gath­ered to protest the acquit­tal of two police offi­cers who, in 2005, alleged­ly did noth­ing to pre­vent the acci­den­tal elec­tro­cu­tion death of two teenagers— one black, one of Arab descent — who had run into an off-lim­its pow­er facil­i­ty while being pur­sued by police.

I’m dis­gust­ed,” the broth­er of one of the boys said exit­ing the cour­t­house. The police are untouchable.”

At a May demon­stra­tion in Lon­don, the name on pick­et signs was Julian Cole, a 21-year-old black Briton who has been in a veg­e­ta­tive state since 2013, when police alleged­ly left him with spinal injuries uncan­ni­ly sim­i­lar to those suf­fered by Gray in the back of a police van.

At Berlin’s May Day parade, activists with Berlin’s Fer­gu­son Is Every­where cam­paign dis­trib­uted signs embla­zoned with the names of Christy Schwun­deck, Dominique Koua­ma­dio and Oury Jal­loh—peo­ple of col­or killed by Ger­man police in the past 10 years.

The slo­gans that have defined the U.S. protests have crossed the Atlantic: Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and Black Lives Mat­ter” are com­mon chants. At a Novem­ber 2014 protest in Ams­ter­dam, a young black man being vio­lent­ly sub­dued by police gasped, Ik kan niet ade­men,” Dutch for I can’t breathe” — echo­ing Eric Garner’s last words.

The Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment has sparked sol­i­dar­i­ty actions around the world, from São Paulo to Del­hi. But in Europe, actions have been par­tic­u­lar­ly fre­quent, insis­tent­ly draw­ing atten­tion to the plight of black minor­i­ty pop­u­la­tions policed by major­i­ty-white forces.

We face the same prob­lems, just in a dif­fer­ent place,” says Jes­si­ca de Abreu, board mem­ber of the New Urban Col­lec­tive in Ams­ter­dam, point­ing to the Nether­lands’ his­to­ry of slav­ery and colo­nial­ism as the com­mon bond between African Amer­i­cans and Afro-Dutch.

The Nether­lands, like France, Eng­land, Italy, Spain, Por­tu­gal, Bel­gium and Ger­many, were instru­men­tal in the transat­lantic slave trade and main­tained colonies in Africa well into the 20th cen­tu­ry. His­tor­i­cal­ly, waves of migra­tion from Africa have been close­ly bound up with slav­ery and colo­nial­ism, from the some 200,000 slaves brought to Europe between the 15th and 19th cen­turies, to the thou­sands of North Africans invit­ed to France to fight in WWII and to rebuild after the war.

Since the turn of the 21st cen­tu­ry, hun­dreds of thou­sands of migrants from North Africa — and, increas­ing­ly, West Africa — have flood­ed into South­ern and West­ern Europe, flee­ing famine, drought and con­flict. Many live undoc­u­ment­ed, and that, com­bined with the refusal of coun­tries such as France and Spain to track eth­nic­i­ty, makes the size of Europe’s total black pop­u­la­tion dif­fi­cult to esti­mate. It may be more than 8 million. 

What’s clear, accord­ing to a June 2012 brief­ing paper from the UK Race and Europe Net­work, is that racist stereo­types about skin col­or are preva­lent in Europe, and anec­do­tal and coun­try-spe­cif­ic evi­dence shows that peo­ple of African descent are con­sis­tent­ly and dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly dis­crim­i­nat­ed against” in every­thing from hous­ing to employ­ment. That includes polic­ing: Blacks are six times more like­ly than whites to be stopped by Paris police, for exam­ple, and in a 2010 sur­vey, Sub-Saha­ran Africans in Spain were by far the most like­ly group to report hav­ing had police check their IDs in the street.

It’s not hard to see why the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment res­onates. Since August 2014 there have been reg­u­lar actions not only in Paris and Lon­don — Euro­pean cap­i­tals with large and impov­er­ished black pop­u­la­tions — but also in cities with small­er black minori­ties, such as Ams­ter­dam and Berlin.

Accord­ing to orga­niz­ers from Lon­don, Paris, Berlin and Ams­ter­dam who spoke with In These Times, Euro­pean sol­i­dar­i­ty with Black Lives Mat­ter goes beyond sym­pa­thy for black Amer­i­cans. Rather, it is part of a move­ment to end racist polic­ing in Europe.

This may come as a sur­prise to those who point to Euro­pean police as role mod­els for their U.S. coun­ter­parts. Busi­ness Insid­er, for exam­ple, has called the rate of police killings in the Unit­ed States alarm­ing” in con­trast to the rest of the devel­oped world, cit­ing the FBI’s con­ser­v­a­tive esti­mate that 404 peo­ple were killed by police in the Unit­ed States in 2011, com­pared to 14 in Aus­tralia, Great Britain and Ger­many com­bined. The British Econ­o­mist not­ed proud­ly that even after adjust­ing for the small­er size of Britain’s pop­u­la­tion, British cit­i­zens are around 100 times less like­ly to be shot by a police offi­cer than Amer­i­cans,” attribut­ing the vast dis­crep­an­cy to the fact that British police offi­cers — often fond­ly car­i­ca­tured as whis­tle-blow­ing, trun­cheon-twirling bob­bies — aren’t hyper-mil­i­ta­rized” like their U.S. counterparts.

Black activists in Europe, how­ev­er, tell a dif­fer­ent sto­ry. The British bob­by is a stereo­type that hard­ly if ever exist­ed for Africans and African Caribbeans liv­ing in the UK,” says Kojo Kyere­waa, coor­di­na­tor of the Lon­don Cam­paign Against Police and State Vio­lence (LCAPSV), in an email to In These Times. Police in Britain may not car­ry firearms as stan­dard issue, [but] they have shot and killed unarmed black people.”

Kyere­waa cites the shoot­ing death of Mark Dug­gan in 2011 and the dev­as­tat­ing injury to Julian Cole in 2013 as just the most high-pro­file exam­ples of the bob­by bru­tal­i­ty against peo­ple of col­or, not­ing that, unlike in the US, no British police offi­cer who killed a civil­ian in the line of duty has ever been sen­tenced. He also points out that Great Britain impris­ons black peo­ple in even greater dis­pro­por­tion to their share of the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion than the Unit­ed States, accord­ing to a new report from the Equal­i­ty and Human Rights Commission.

We do not think that the British mod­el of polic­ing is any­thing to aspire to,” says Kyere­waa. It may pro­duce less deaths, but our aspi­ra­tion should be the abo­li­tion of racial­ized state-sanc­tioned mur­der, not mere­ly the reduc­tion of its pace.”

In Decem­ber, after Garner’s death, LCAPSV helped orga­nize an occu­pa­tion of a shop­ping mall in a Lon­don sub­urb. About 600 pro­test­ers par­tic­i­pat­ed and 76 were arrest­ed, accord­ing to Newsweek.

Dutch anti-racist orga­niz­er Jes­si­ca de Abreu believes the dif­fer­ence in rates of police vio­lence across the Atlantic should not dis­tract from the com­mon expe­ri­ences of peo­ple of col­or in major­i­ty white coun­tries. In the Nether­lands, you don’t have this mas­sive mur­der,” she says. But as Euro­peans — espe­cial­ly in the Nether­lands — we like to hide behind this image of being lib­er­al and tol­er­ant, which we def­i­nite­ly are not. And if you talk about racism, you’re silenced.”

We’re frus­trat­ed because this is not spe­cif­ic to the North Amer­i­can con­text — it’s just that it’s a lot more shushed in the Ger­man con­text when things like this hap­pen,” says Jamie Schear­er, founder of the Berlin-based Euro­pean Net­work of Peo­ple of African Descent. She attrib­ut­es the invis­i­bil­i­ty of racist police vio­lence in Ger­many in part to a small­er and poor­ly net­worked black com­mu­ni­ty. Where­as the U.S. has a long tra­di­tion of civ­il rights orga­ni­za­tions and insti­tu­tions,” she says, Ger­many does not. 

But the accel­er­a­tion of anti-racist orga­niz­ing in the Unit­ed States in the past few years has giv­en Euro­pean cam­paigns like hers a boost, she says. Schear­er and her fel­low Ger­man activists launched a cam­paign against racial pro­fil­ing in the wake of the 2012 killing of Trayvon Mar­tin, march­ing in hood­ed sweat­shirts in sol­i­dar­i­ty. Since Fer­gu­son and Bal­ti­more, there has final­ly begun to be a dis­course around racial pro­fil­ing” in her country.

The predica­ment of black peo­ple in Europe is dis­tinct from that of black Amer­i­cans in at least one regard: It’s insep­a­ra­ble from the expe­ri­ence of Mus­lims and immi­grants. In the low-income hous­ing projects on the out­skirts of France’s larg­er cities, for exam­ple, black peo­ple live side by side with first- or sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Mus­lim immi­grants from North Africa. More than 50 years after Alge­ria became France’s last major colony to win inde­pen­dence, many of the country’s black and Arab res­i­dents feel that lit­tle has changed in the rela­tion­ship between the country’s white and non­white pop­u­la­tion. And through­out Europe, hate groups tar­get Arabs and black Euro­peans alike, as well as Roma and Jews. Because of this, the Black Lives Mat­ter ban­ner has been picked up by umbrel­la anti-racist groups like the French Par­ty of the Indige­nous of the Repub­lic (PIR).

No one can say when or where the next act of police vio­lence will trig­ger unrest, but the Euro­pean activists who spoke to In These Times are not wait­ing around to find out. Both Schear­er and de Abreu are col­lab­o­rat­ing with Opal Tometi, co-founder of the U.S. orga­ni­za­tion Black Lives Mat­ter, to build a stronger transat­lantic alliance. In Paris, PIR held a 10-year anniver­sary cel­e­bra­tion in May with Amer­i­can activist Angela Davis as a guest speak­er, and, at the behest of the sis­ter of Amine Ben­toun­si — a 29-year-old man from a Moroc­can fam­i­ly killed by French police in 2013 — is help­ing orga­nize a march against racism on Octo­ber 31.

When asked if PIR would con­tin­ue to make con­nec­tions to the strug­gles in Fer­gu­son and Bal­ti­more, orga­niz­er Meh­di Mef­tah sounds sur­prised at the ques­tion. We always make the con­nec­tion, in all of our actions,” he says. Whether it’s the Unit­ed States, Ger­many, Great Britain, France — it doesn’t mat­ter. The con­nec­tion is obvious.”

Amien Essif is a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to Work­ing In These Times and main­tains a blog called The Gazine, which focus­es on con­sumerism, gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, and tech­nol­o­gy with a Lud­dite bent. His work has also appeared on the Guardian and Coun­ter­Punch. You can find him using Twit­ter reluc­tant­ly: @AmienChicago
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