But nowhere outside the United States has the Black Lives Matter movement forced a more powerful reckoning than in Europe, where increasingly diverse societies have often done little to grapple with their colonial legacies and modern-day discrimination.
In Rome, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Brussels, Madrid, Lisbon and cities across Britain, protesters have taken to the streets to express solidarity with Americans but also demand changes within their own countries.
“When things come out of black America, we see them. Then there’s an attempt at a boomerang throw,” said Gary Younge, a sociology professor at the University of Manchester, who has written about his experience as a black Briton traveling the American South. “Everybody sees George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner,” he said, referring to other victims of police violence. “And there’s a hope that if we throw that out there, and we highlight it, that it will come back and hit people on the head about the things that are going on here.”
There are signs that the European protesters’ demands are gaining traction.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said his country’s “Black Pete” blackface Christmas tradition needed to come to an end. The Belgian Parliament approved a “truth and reconciliation” commission to reckon with a bloody colonial past.The spokeswoman for French President Emmanuel Macron wrote an op-ed — presumably with Macron’s knowledge and approval — saying her country should revisit its refusal to collect statistics on race.
On Wednesday, the European Parliament held an introspective debate about racism, with at least one lawmaker wearing a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt.
“The diversity of our society is not represented” in the European Parliament or elsewhere in E.U. institutions, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said, looking around the legislature’s chamber.
Just 24 of the 705 members of the European Parliament are people of color, according to an analysis by the European Network Against Racism. That’s about 3 percent, compared with rough estimates that 10 percent of E.U. citizens are people of color.
“The time has come for us to do more than just listen and condemn racism,” von der Leyen said.
Black and minority activists in Europe have been working for years to push for more equitable societies. But they have often gotten a dismissive reception from their nations’ mostly white leaders. This time, though, just as in the United States, Floyd’s death appears to have forced an unusually broad-based reckoning.
The power of the U.S. tumult to change European minds is a testament to the enduring power of American culture in the world, analysts said. It is difficult to imagine police violence in France sparking protests in Germany, for instance.
But the discussion about race and black lives in Europe may also have been made possible precisely because it originated elsewhere, Younge said.
“America is taken notice of by white Europeans in a way that black Europeans aren’t always. And so we leverage that in order to shine a light on the things that otherwise would be ignored,” he said. European societies “still assume that they are white countries to which black people have come, and the black people are visitors who have no right to influence the conversations.”
The American grievance with police killing black citizens echoes in Europe. Protesters have connected Floyd’s death to police encounters in London, the suburbs of Paris and Dessau, Germany.
But partly because European police kill many fewer people overall, the focus of protesters here is broader. They point to discrimination that denies black Europeans educational opportunities, housing and jobs. They decry their governments for, at least until now, failing to recognize that racism is even an issue within their countries.
“Historically, there’s always been this fiction that European states are ethnically based national groups,” said Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch. “So if there was an Algerian or a Turkish or a Pakistani immigrant, they were just immigrants — they weren’t part of Europe. The police mistreatment of those minority communities was still seen as how the police are treating others, not how they treat our citizens.”
In Brussels, which is not only the capital of Belgium but also the de facto capital of the European Union, 10,000 protesters packed a central plaza this month to demand recognition of discrimination by police, as well as the country’s brutal colonial history in what is now Congo.
Belgium is often occupied by disagreements between its white French speakers and white Dutch speakers, with relatively little space for the concerns of Belgians who have other origins.
“It’s the first time since I was born, and I’m 35, that all worlds in Belgium are saying, ‘Okay, we’re willing to listen to what black people have to say,’ ” said Donnay Musombo, a member of Change Asbl, which helped organize the Black Lives Matter protest in Brussels.
She said protesters and members of the Congolese community had been talking about why they were finally being heard, after years of efforts.
“We came to the conclusion that an African American is considered more than an African. An African American is valued more than an African,” she said. “It took George Floyd to have Europe listening to us.”
As the result of the Belgian protests, cities and a university have removed a handful of statues of colonial King Leopold II, whose conquest of Congo cost up to 10 million lives there. The education minister for French-
language schools in Belgium said educators would require the teaching of Congolese history and Belgian colonialism in upcoming revisions to their curriculum. There is talk of King Philippe — the great-great-grandson of Leopold’s young brother — issuing a formal apology for the Belgian rule of Congo. Even the king’s aunt, Princess Marie-Esméralda, called for it last week.
And senior politicians have said a broader discussion about the past needs to take place in a society that still has not had a full reckoning.
“It is time for Belgium to come to terms with its colonial past,” Patrick Dewael, the president of the lower house of Belgian Parliament, wrote on Twitter ahead of a decision in Parliament on Wednesday to appoint the truth-and-reconciliation commission to address colonial abuses.
This is, of course, hardly the first time protests in one country have led to upheaval in another. The Arab Spring revolutions of 2011 started with the death of a Tunisian fruit vendor. America’s #MeToo movement spread like wildfire around the world. And the African American struggle for civil rights has had a global resonance for decades, no matter the ups and downs of power in official Washington.
“There’s this interest in the civil rights movement and the status of African Americans that’s independent of the U.S. government,” said Kevin Gaines, a professor of civil rights and social justice at the University of Virginia, who has written about the links between newly independent African nations and African American civil rights activists in the 1950s and 1960s.
The horrific video of Floyd’s death speaks across nations, Gaines said.
“It almost crystallizes 400 years of anti-black oppression,” he said. “You struggle to find the words to describe what’s before us. It just shows a kind of primal scene that provides an insight into the nature of anti-black oppression across the ages.”