One year ago on Tuesday (May 25th), George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in the city of Minneapolis in the US.
The city was subsequently rocked by huge racial justice protests, which spread first across the US, and then further afield, with massive demonstrations taking place in many major European cities.
These protests didn’t just centre on police brutality. As the Black Lives Matter movement gained recognition in Europe, the issues of systemic discrimination and even Europe’s colonial past started to be raised.
A year on since the murder that sparked a summer of protest, how much has actually changed in Europe?
Police brutality ‘a problem in Europe too’
“Where there have been promising changes, we’re still in the implementation stage, but the impact hasn’t yet been felt on the ground,” says Ojeaku Nwabuzo, a senior research officer at the European Network Against Racism.
She tells Euronews the Black Lives Matter uprising “was the spark of a lot of development and discussion in Europe around police violence,” but concrete changes are yet to be seen.
Nwabuzo is in the midst of researching police brutality in Europe between the years 2015 and 2020, and points out there is a “major data gap” across the continent when it comes to recording police violence against minority groups.
“What we do know is there is a problem with police and law enforcement disproportionately brutalising, profiling and surveilling racialised groups,” she says.
But many of the demands organisations like hers have been working on for years – “such as looking at structural, systemic forms of racism” – were quickly listened to and acted upon following the outbreak of protests, she says, “specifically in the EU”.
EU ‘action plan’ on racism
In June last year, the European Parliament passed a resolution on the George Floyd protests, tackling structural racism and police brutality in Europe.
This was quickly followed up by a Commission anti-racism action plan – drawing some praise from campaigners.
“This is a direct response to the Black Lives Matter movement,” says Nwabuzo. “The way in which these plans were developed, the language used, acknowledging structural and systemic racism in a way we have not seen the Commission do before.”
Evin Incir MEP, a co-president of the European Parliament’s Anti-Racism and Diversity Intergroup, tells Euronews the action plan was “an important sign the Commission immediately took this situation seriously”.
She says the protests put pressure on politicians “even we thought might not vote for such wording that the resolution contained,” and says the recent appointment of the EU’s first anti-racism coordinator – Michaela Moua – is “very important”.
Moua’s role is to coordinate the implementation of the action plan, which Incir says hasn’t yet borne fruit in people’s everyday lives.
The action plan contains proposals for improving law enforcement policies, security from extremists, and greater equality in areas such as employment, health and housing – but additional legislation to fill any gaps won’t be until 2022.
ENAR’s Nwabuzo says the protests in Europe were “really significant” in forcing concrete action on a legislative level.
“The protests put anti-racism and racial justice on the policy agenda, where policymakers could no longer ignore the issue,” she says.
“It’s important we continue making our voices loud on the matter, that we don’t stop,” Incir says.
“Some part of the knowledge has reached the legislators, but also the people need to continue rising up for anti-racism because otherwise, unfortunately, there are some legislators who have a very short memory.”
The protests also forced some European countries into a reckoning with their colonial pasts.
Demonstrators targeted statues in public places commemorating figures linked to colonial violence and the slave trade.
In Bristol in the UK, a crowd tore down the statue of Edward Colston – a wealthy ‘philanthropist’ who made the bulk of his fortune in the slave trade – and threw it in the river.
Similar acts occurred in Belgium, where many statues of King Leopold II – notorious for his rule over the Congo Free State – adorn the streets.
Daphné Budasz, a PhD researcher at the European University Institute, says the debate over statues existed long before the protests in 2020, especially in countries such as the UK and Belgium.
But it did widen the debate, opening up similar conversations in countries that until then hadn’t paid it much attention.
“Living in Switzerland, Swiss people don’t usually consider they have a link to colonial history, but even here last year we had a debate about a statue in Neuchâtel, a guy called David de Pury, who made his fortune from the slave trade,” she tells Euronews.
“This was a non-existent debate, and suddenly because of Black Lives Matter it became visible even here.”
However, the momentum around this issue appears to have stalled. Just last week in the UK, the long-running campaign to have a statue of colonialist Cecil Rhodes removed from a college at the University of Oxford saw defeat once again.
Despite Oriel College claiming it agreed the statue — at the centre of a years’ long #RhodesMustFall campaign — should be removed, it said high costs and complex heritage planning rules meant it won’t be taken down.
It said instead it will work on the “contextualisation” of the college’s relationship with Rhodes.
“I have the impression there’s no real political willingness to properly discuss this question,” says Budasz, who points to French President Emmanuel Macron’s response to calls for statues to come down.
“The Republic will not erase any trace or name from its history,” he said in a television address last year.
“It will not forget any of its works, it will not remove any of its statues.”
“What they’re suggesting is that the people asking for removal are the reactionary ones, the ones who want to change history,” says Budasz.
“We don’t want to change history. The debate is too polarised and there’s a kind of refusal to understand the symbolic element in monuments and the meaning in commemoration,” she adds.
Her view is that the debate over statues was perhaps more of “a buzz”, which did reach a wider audience at the time, but now those still fighting for [the] removal of colonial relics are in the minority again.
“We still use history as a tool to build or reinforce national identities, when history should be a critical tool to understand today’s society,” she argues, pointing out monuments are for the purpose of commemoration.
“A statue is not an historical artefact, it’s not an archive, it’s a narrative of history. It’s been put there on purpose.”
Every weekday, Uncovering Europe brings you a European story that goes beyond the headlines. Download the Euronews app to get a daily alert for this and other breaking news notifications. It’s available on Apple and Android devices.