The images of police cracking down on peaceful protesters are merely the latest factor in the long and steady decline of America’s global image since Donald Trump became president. Trump’s attacks on U.S. allies, his appalling policy of family separation for immigrants and his tolerance for neo-Nazi demonstrators have badly damaged global regard for the United States. But even as the U.S. government elicits disgust and disbelief, American protesters are inspiring a new surge of support for movements against racism and police abuses in many countries.
This past weekend, demonstrators in Europe and elsewhere didn’t just express outrage at what was happening in the United States. They also seized the opportunity for a moment of self-examination. In Berlin, demonstrators chanted, “Germany, you are not innocent,” remembering, among others, Oury Jalloh, the Sierra Leonean who was found burned to the death in police custody in 2005. In London, they recalled Sean Rigg, a music producer who suffered from schizophrenia, who died inside a Brixton police station after police officers held him face down for seven minutes. In the British city of Bristol, marchers toppled and tossed in the harbor the statue of a slave trader.
One of the most remarkable moments came last week in Amsterdam. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Mark Rutte, answering a question about the problems in the United States, responded, “Racism is a problem in the Netherlands.” The next day, speaking in parliament, Rutte announced that he had changed his mind about the contentious matter of Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, the folk character in blackface that traditionally accompanies Santa Claus. Minorities in the Netherlands have long tried to explain why the character is offensive. Rutte’s declaration that he sees their point of view is a possible turning point for race relations in the Netherlands.
In London, Prime Minister Boris Johnson denounced Floyd’s killing in the United States. But the crowds demonstrating in Hyde Park were also complaining about what’s happening at home. “The U.K. is not innocent!” they shouted. Speakers at several rallies over the past few days brought up the case of Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old man killed by police nine years ago. They protested the case of Belly Mujinga, a black woman who worked at Victoria Station and died of covid-19 on April 5 after a man reportedly spat at her, claiming he had the virus. Police quickly closed the case without filing charges, but they may now reopen it.
In Paris, the chants of “no justice, no peace” alluded to the case of Adama Traore, a black Frenchman who died in police custody in 2016.
Similar scenes played out on the other side of the world. Australian protesters shouted, “I can’t breathe!” The harrowing cries of George Floyd in his final minutes were also the final words of David Dungay, a 26-year-old aboriginal Australian who died in police custody in 2015.
In New Zealand, crowds drew attention to the seamier side of what has come to be known as a paradise of good governance. In Auckland, several thousand protested police brutality.
Canada — whose prime minister was struck silent by the news that Trump considered deploying the military to U.S. cities — saw protesters crying out against discriminatory policing and suspicious deaths. They recalled what happened to Regis Korchinski-Paquet, the 29-year-old black Toronto woman who fell from her balcony in mysterious circumstances while police were there responding to a domestic incident call.
Authoritarian countries have tried to capitalize on the images of unrest in the United States. Iran, China and Russia have all used the protests to skewer the United States, sneering at its high-minded lectures on human rights. Yet the many examples of these governments’ own brutality and racism — with zero recourse for citizens who become the victims of injustice — make it unlikely that such efforts will gain traction. (China, after all, holds more than 1 million ethnic Uighurs in concentration camps — for no other reason than the apparent “crime” of their ethnicity.)
This hypocrisy among authoritarians is entirely predictable — but the urge in freer countries to emulate the U.S. protests is all the more remarkable. Protesters around the world are sickened by the killings of George Floyd and other African Americans, and they are appalled by Trump’s response. Yet the activism of ordinary Americans is setting off a new wave of activism.
It seems possible, even likely, that this moment could turn out to be a real turning point in the fight against racism in the United States. Just as heartening, the reverberations have raised awareness and urgency in other countries, too. Even in the Trump era, America, it seems, has not lost its capacity to inspire. How remarkable it would be if the current upheaval could lead to positive change not only at home, but also far from U.S. shores.