George Floyd protests embolden anti-racism protesters in Europe

Fueled by the death of George Floyd, thousands of young Europeans of color are getting political, many for the first time, and venting their frustration with enduring racism by participating in mass rallies.

While marches in England, Scotland and Belgium were largely peaceful, some protesters were emboldened to take more strident action, toppling statues of slaveholders, slave traders and prominent colonial-era figures — symbols of an imperial past that many want to see confined to the historical garbage can.

Protesters attend a Black Lives Matter demonstration against racism and police brutality in Holyrood Park, Edinburgh on Sunday.Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images

In Berlin, choreographer Jakob Yaw, a Black man born in north Germany, said that while he had attended a few marches over the years as an observer, he felt compelled by Floyd’s death to seize the moment.

Yaw, 29, organized his first protest on May 31. He expected 100 people to show up. Thousands arrived.

“I’m still overwhelmed,” Yaw told NBC News, referring to the crowd size. “To stand up on the stage and look into people’s eyes. That look like me, breathe like me … to have that glimpse of hope that we can change something, and that change is going to come? It was a blessing.”

As a Black man living in Berlin, Yaw said an act as simple as getting an apartment has meant getting a white friend to meet the landlord and vouch for him.

And while issues like police brutality are largely seen as an American issue in Europe, Yaw said there needs to be a spotlight placed on police tactics in Germany.

Criminologists at the Ruhr-University Bochum published research last year that said police violence in Germany may be five times more prevalent than officially recorded.

And according to data from the country’s Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency, the number of reported racist attacks in Germany has jumped recently, with “racial discrimination” in 2018 rising 20 percent compared with the previous year.

Yet these numbers are somewhat incomplete because Germany, like other European Union countries, does not collect information on its residents’ racial or ethnic backgrounds. That data omission has been the practice since the end of World War II, but academics and activists alike say it is a major obstacle to fixing policies that could improve the lives of communities of color.

While the killing of George Floyd in police custody has roiled America and forced a nationwide discussion on how Black people are treated, the flashpoints of protest across Europe are symptomatic of the fact that racism is by no means a uniquely American issue.

Police officers stand guard in front of demonstrators holding banners during a protest against police brutality and racial inequality, in Berlin, Germany on Saturday. Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters

In Europe, the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency caused a stir when it issued a report in 2018 titled “Being Black in the E.U.” that found that 30 percent of nearly 6,000 respondents had experienced some form of racial harassment in the last five years.

Finland had the highest rates of racist violence, with 63 percent of respondents there saying they’d experienced racism. Racist violence was also high in Ireland and Austria. In the U.K., 21 percent of respondents said they’d experienced racism in the last five years.

A true reckoning with Europe’s colonial history — a time that saw white Europeans occupy and subjugate vast swaths of the planet — would go a long way to helping challenge these systemic issues, according to the United Nations.

Last year, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on racism urged the Dutch government to do more to challenge the “histories of slavery and colonialism as histories of systematic racial subordination.”

Demonstrators rise their fists during a protest against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in The Hague, Netherlands earlier this month.Piroschka van de Wouw / Reuters

One Dutch protester, Doja Henshaw, 18, agrees with that assessment.

On June 1, a Black social media influencer from Amsterdam, Henshaw went from being a spectator to commanding a microphone and delivering an impassioned speech in front of anti-racism protesters in Dam Square, many of whom were Black, in the Netherlands.

While not a political activist, Henshaw said the energy of the larger-than-expected crowd ultimately empowered her to vent years of pain at being marginalized.

“The feeling of being there — that prompted me to pour out what I’d been holding inside me for a while,” she said.

Exactly how the underlying systemic issues that communities of color are facing in Europe will be fixed is up for debate.

In the Netherlands, there is still an annual debate over “Black Pete” — a Dutch Christmas tradition involving blackface and minstrel-dress that many people have criticized as racist. Even Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who has defended the custom in the past, last week said he’d be open to abandoning it on racial grounds.

While Henshaw hopes that this moment will turn into an opportunity for dialogue and real change across the Netherlands, she worries that the concerns voiced by minorities will once again be brushed aside.

“People are easily dismissive of our pain,” she said.