The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Protesters in Europe push for a new reckoning of their own countries’ racism

Protesters in Bristol, England, on June 7 pulled down the statue of Edward Colston, who made his fortune through slavery in the 17th century. (Video: The Washington Post)

ROME — George Floyd was killed thousands of miles away, but demonstrators packed public spaces around the world over the weekend in the hope of triggering a new reckoning over race in their own countries.

In London, protesters gathered outside the U.S. Embassy on Sunday for a second day of demonstrations. In Germany, “silent demonstrations” on Saturday drew 150,000 people; participants in Berlin chanted “Nazis out!” And in Rome, protesters pointed to far-right campaigns against migrants and the industries that they say exploit them in off-the-books jobs.

“Italy is not innocent,” read the sign held by Sara Mattei, a 22-year-old university student.

Floyd’s killing has inspired demonstrations from Australia to Brazil to Mexico to Canada. But it has struck a particular chord in Europe, where leaders have struggled to integrate a wave of migrants and refugees from Africa and the Middle East over the past seven years. A third of people of African descent in Europe report facing racial harassment.

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George Floyd's death on May 25 has spurred people around the world to call out what they see as racial injustices and police brutality in their own countries. (Video: The Washington Post)

“We learned, being in lockdown, what is important in our lives,” said Sheila Kinsey, 73, a Franciscan nun from Wheaton, Ill., who has lived in Rome for 10 years. “And it’s spurred us on to say: ‘Here is something else that is a pandemic.’ ”

The protests were largely peaceful, although a handful of demonstrators clashed with police. After a peaceful protest in Brussels on Sunday had mostly dispersed, some who remained smashed windows and looted a nearby shopping street. Police used a water cannon to break up the looters; an acrid burning smell wafted for miles. Fourteen officers in London were injured Saturday, police there said; they included an officer who fell off her horse after she hit a traffic light.

The protests bucked guidelines against large events, as in Britain, where the government has urged that gatherings be limited to no more than six. Organizers in Rome reminded the mask-wearing protesters to keep their distance from one another, but given the size of the crowd — several thousand — it was impossible to comply.

Many at the London protests said they were concerned about the stark figures that show ethnic minorities are being hit disproportionately hard by the novel coronavirus. Government data last month showed that black Britons were four times as likely to die of covid-19 as whites.

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“I’m here to support those in the U.S., but also for me, my protest has to do with coronavirus,” said Denise Lewis, 60, a midwife for Britain’s National Health Service. “How can a virus discriminate? We need answers.”

The protests have prompted renewed discussions about inequality and structural racism in Britain.

“We have our own problems here,” Labour Party lawmaker David Lammy told the BBC. He noted that black Britons are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police.

In Bristol, protesters on Sunday pulled down a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston.

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Demonstrators in Brussels denounced racism in the United States and in Belgium, where citizens of African and Middle Eastern descent say they routinely face discrimination. Police estimated that 10,000 people, most of them in masks, packed central Brussels. They crowded in front of the Palace of Justice — a symbol both of the rule of law and injustice because its construction allowed the 19th-century monarch King Leopold II to dominate the Brussels skyline while he presided over a brutal rule in Congo in which as many as 10 million people died.

Protesters have called for a deeper reckoning with Belgium’s colonial past, including tearing down the statues of Leopold that still stand in most big Belgian cities.

“It’s as though they still had statues of Hitler in Germany,” said Jenny da Costa, 35, who is studying to become a real estate agent. “I can’t even understand why those statues are still here. He is a murderer.”

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Some carried signs that read “Justice for Adil,” in memory of a 19-year-old man in the heavily immigrant Brussels area of Anderlecht who was struck and killed by a police van in April after he fled a police checkpoint during the coronavirus lockdown. The death of the man, whose family name has not been made public by authorities, has drawn accusations of police brutality and carelessness.

In Berlin, 39-year-old Abdoulie Jarju said Germans tend to dismiss racism as a problem that was solved when the Nazis were defeated.

“People are ignoring the truth,” he said.

Germany has seen allegations of racially motivated police violence. In 2005, Oury Jalloh, an asylum seeker from Sierra Leone, was burned to death in a police cell. Police claimed he set fire to himself by lighting his mattress — even though his hands and feet were tied to it. Fire reports contested that version of events. Only one officer was fined.

Tahir Della, an activist with the Initiative for Black People in Germany, said that racially motivated attacks are dismissed as one-off incidents and that there’s a reluctance to address systemic problems.

“Very often, people talk about misconduct by individual officials, and even when it becomes clear that there is an overarching nationwide problem in institutions, in investigative agencies,” he said.

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Anti-discrimination legislation introduced in Berlin last week drew a strong backlash.

“Germany is not the U.S.A.,” said Thomas Blenke, the interior minister for the state of Baden-Württemberg. “We have no racism problem in the police here.”

But Floyd’s killing has triggered a new discussion in Germany. Questions about representation and discrimination have filled newspaper columns and dominated government news conferences.

German soccer players took a knee before weekend matches.

Della said he has received as many media inquiries in the past few days as he has at any time in the previous 33 years, and that he has never read the words “systemic racism” in the German press so often as in the past week.

“I’m curious as to how long it will last,” he said.

Jarju said he had already noticed a difference in the way his colleagues treated him at work. He was cautiously hopeful.

Coronavirus infections haven’t spiked since Europe loosened lockdowns. There are many theories about why.

“When you see something happen in America, and thousands of people are on the streets in Berlin fighting for justice,” he said, “it feels like something will change.”

In Madrid, several thousand people gathered in front of the U.S. Embassy before marching peacefully to Puerta del Sol in the city center.

“This is against racism. And it’s against Trump,” said 22-year-old Jorge Martinez.

Participants included Samuel Spadaccini, a 24-year-old American who teaches English in Madrid.

“I feel guilty I can’t be protesting in my own country,” he said.

The protest in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo had a relaxed feel. Though there were speakers, they were hard to hear, especially when the church bells were ringing. The piazza is a familiar spot for rallies, including one held by the far-right League party in December 2018.

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Saikou Sanneh, 22, came to Italy from Gambia in 2016 and now has legal status — and a job at McDonald’s. He said he’d experienced some discrimination here.

“Racism is a disease that will never be fully cured,” Sanneh said. “But not everybody is racist — just look around.”

Morris reported from Berlin. Birnbaum reported from Brussels. Karla Adam in London, Quentin Ariès in Brussels, Luisa Beck in Berlin and Pamela Rolfe in Madrid contributed to this report.

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