The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How George Floyd’s killing sparked a global reckoning

Police officers on horseback stand next to demonstrators blocking the road outside the Houses of Parliament in London on May 31, 2020. (Matt Dunham/AP)

LONDON — The murder of George Floyd sparked moments of reckoning that reverberated far beyond the United States.

The graphic video that captured the Black man’s final moments under the knee of a White police officer on a street in Minneapolis found broad resonance, sparking demonstrations that forced countries to grapple with their own histories of police brutality, racism, inequality and colonial transgressions. The global movement raised expectations for change, meeting some success and many disappointments.

Protests in Australia, Brazil, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and elsewhere turned Floyd’s name and some of his final words, “I can’t breathe,” into a rallying cry heard around the world.

In the rubble of a ruined building in Syria, artist Aziz Asmar painted Floyd’s face, telling Time that the scene of police brutality thousands of miles away struck a chord with civilians who faced gas attacks.

Other murals in tribute to Floyd sprang up in England, Italy, Kenya, Pakistan and the West Bank.

European countries, facing renewed calls to address colonial histories, responded with varying willingness. Germany agreed to return colonial treasures to Nigeria, but European museums remain littered with looted artifacts. Earlier this year, French President Emmanuel Macron said France would not issue an official apology for colonial abuse and exploitation in Algeria, although he has gone further than previous presidents in acknowledging historical wrongs.

In Britain, anti-racism campaigners toppled statues and questioned controversial street names. In the city of Bristol, crowds pulled down the bronze sculpture of slave trader Edward Colston with a rope as onlookers cheered. But many controversial statues remain standing. Oxford University’s Oriel College has refused to tear down a statue of imperialist Cecil Rhodes.

Several British cities were set to see vigils marking the anniversary of Floyd’s death. In the wake of the killing last year, protests rippled across the nation, to express solidarity and challenge the British government over its handling of race. Many say change has been too slow to come.

Following protests last year, Prime Minister Boris Johnson requested a report on racial disparities in Britain, which was published by experts in April. The 258-page document triggered widespread condemnation after it branded the country a model for race relations and said there was “no institutional racism” to be found on British soil.

Floyd’s death also forced schools to question how Black British history and Britain’s role in the transatlantic history of slavery is taught.

Britain’s opposition Labour Party has backed those calls for a curriculum overhaul. “We need to know our history, the good and the bad, so we can learn lessons for the future,” the party said in a video released Tuesday.

Floyd’s death also thrust British policing into the spotlight, including a controversial power on the part of officers to stop and search those they believe could be carrying weapons or on other suspicions. Official government data shows that Black people are stopped for searches at disproportionate rates.

Britons cheer toppling of slave trader statue but are divided over tagging of Winston Churchill as racist

Protesters resurfaced the names of Christopher Alder, Sarah Reed and Sheku Bayoh, who lost their lives in British police custody.

The Washington Post's Rick Noack goes inside a police training school in Oranienburg, Germany, to look at de-escalation training for officers there. (Video: Alexa Juliana Ard, Rick Noack, Stefan Czimmek/The Washington Post)

In France last June, thousands of protesters took to the streets — defying coronavirus restrictions in Paris to highlight parallels between Floyd and 24-year-old Adama Traoré, who died in police custody five years ago.

During one rally organized by the “Justice for Adama” movement on June 2, nearly 15,000 protesters demanded an end to what they called discriminatory police tactics that disproportionately target minorities on French soil.

French activists saw the global wave of protests last summer as an opening to make their concerns a top political priority for the government. “Today, it’s no longer the fight of the Traoré family — it’s all of your fight,” Adama Traoré’s sister Assa Traoré said during the rally.

But the momentum for France’s social justice movement has so far not translated into significant changes on a policy level. Ahead of presidential elections next year, Macron has instead focused on building a tough-on-crime image, in what his critics say constitutes a turn to the right and an attempt to woo far-right voters.

France recently passed a controversial security law to expand police powers and make it illegal to identify on-duty police officers if the intent is to harm them — a vague rule that may also impact the work of journalists and rights activists, some fear.

Activists have argued that the law would make it less likely that incidents of police brutality become public or lead to prosecutions. France’s constitutional council last week said the rules were too vague, meaning some of the law’s most controversial elements will need to be revised.

Members of France’s social justice movement say the law stands for a broader failure by Macron’s government to take their concerns seriously — a perception that could cost the president support among liberal voters in a potential runoff with far-right candidate Marine Le Pen next year.

The global wave of protests last summer also fed into a debate over France’s colonial legacy.

In recent weeks, that debate largely revolved around the legacy of the French emperor and military leader Napoleon Bonaparte, who reinstated slavery but remains revered in some conservative circles.

Napoleon has long been scorned by social justice activists in mainland France and its overseas territories, including in Martinique, where a statue of Napoleon’s first wife was beheaded in 1991. It was brought down altogether last year, as activists toppled statues around the world.

During a ceremony to mark the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s death earlier this month, Macron condemned the former leader’s decision to reinstate slavery. But social justice activists saw Macron’s decision to participate in the ceremony as an affront.

“The issue of slavery, which has long been downplayed, must now be placed at the center of reflection,” said Olivier Le Cour Grandmaison, a political scientist.

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