Beyond the US: Police brutality, structural racism are a problem in Europe too

A protester clenches her fist as she stands in front of German police officers following a Black Lives Matter vigil at Alexanderplatz square in Berlin, Germany 06 June 2020. [Omer Messinger/EPA]

Thousands of people have taken to Europe’s streets not only to protest the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the US but to denounce police brutality and structural racism, which is an issue on this side of the Atlantic as well.

Semira Adamu was suffocated by a police officer while she was being repatriated from Belgium, Adama Traoré died in custody hours after he was arrested in France, as did Ousman Sey in Germany. The list, unfortunately, goes on and on. 

“It is absurd to consider that racism is an exclusively American scourge. It gangrenes all over the world and in Europe in particular,” French MEP and co-chair of the European Parliament Anti-Racism and Diversity Inter-Group Younous Omarjee (GUE/NGL) told EURACTIV.

The issue is that Europe just is not talking about it as much. 

Omarjee argued that it was in the US but also in Europe where “the worst theories of the racial hierarchy were born, which in Europe served as a justification for slavery, the holocaust and colonisation.” The consequences of which are still present in our societies.

Karen Taylor is an anti-racism activist and the chairwoman of the European Network Against Racism (ENAR). She believes that a lack of official data is part of the problem. When information is not collected, the problem does not officially exist. 

The lack of aggregated data related to police violence, racist crimes and fatalities “leads us to be able to pretend that there aren’t such problems, which grassroots organisations have been reporting on for years,” Taylor told EURACTIV. 

The last report published by ENAR in 2019 looking at race-motivated crime and institutional racism suggested that such offences are on the rise in Europe but often go unreported. 

In 2018, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) published the study ‘Being black in the EU’. Its survey showed that only 14% of racist harassment incidents were reported, only 37% denounced when suffered police abuse.

“For victims of racially motivated crimes, police mistreatment, abuse and brutal violence are a determining factor in a victim’s decision to not report crimes to the police,” the ENAR report says. 

Racial profiling by the police has been denounced systematically in countries like Greece, Spain and Italy too.

According to FRA’s survey, 24% of respondents were stopped by the police in the five years leading up to the survey and 41% felt they were stopped because of the colour of their skin. 

“We’ve become so used to black and brown bodies being controlled by the police that nobody even tries to get behind the reason for this,” Taylor explained

The organisation pointed to ideological bias and structural problems as well. “The police response to hate crimes is often inadequate, not simply because they do not record the hate bias but due to the wider institutional assumption that hate and violence occur in a vacuum,” the study says. 

Many people pointed at EU migration policy as a vivid example of structural racism in Europe. In March, a man was shot dead at the Greek border, but thousands have lost their lives trying to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean.

Taylor believes this shows a different perception of the right to life and dignity for some people compared to others.

“The demonisation of people of African descent and people are often minority background leads to this kind of policies, where now we make this divide between white Europe and the rest of the world,” the activist argued.

Racial discrimination on the rise in Germany

Last year, Germany’s Anti-Discrimination Agency received more than 3,500 complaints for discrimination incidents, of which cases of racial discrimination saw a marked increase. Experts are now calling for a modernisation of federal laws. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Europe in denial 

“It’s always easier to turn towards a different country, to turn towards a different society and say, well something is going wrong over there, we are the good ones,” Karen Taylor argued and criticised the “denial of structural racism within our institutions and within our societies.”

The activist referred to European Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas who recently denied the existence of police brutality and structural racism in Europe, though he admitted existing inequalities. This, Taylor said, “is wrong.”

Messages coming from political figures resonate in society. “Decision-makers have a responsibility to look at the facts and turn to civil society organisations who have been working on the ground,” Taylor added. 

A quick look at the Commission college is enough to see that while the gender-balance goal was nearly achieved, the EU executive totally fails to represent the bloc’s population as a whole.

“It is not just a matter of fairness,” Taylor argued, “if you are not touched by one issue or several issues, you are not as likely to address them within your policies. This lack of representation at the end is dangerous for our communities,” she added. 

EURACTIV spoke to MEPs Younus Omarjee (France) and Alice Kuhnke (Sweden), two of the few racialised members of the European Parliament, about the subject. 

While Omarjee considers the fight against racism just as important as his fight against inequalities, gender discrimination and climate change, he acknowledged the important aspect of his role as a political representative. 

“When you are elected, it is less personal experience that counts than your ability to listen to everyone. But it is obvious that the low representation of racial minorities in the “top jobs” in the European institutions makes me aware of embodying something,” he explained. 

Kuhnke said racism has been present through her whole life, even more now that she is a public figure.

“As a black woman, as a progressive politician and as a feminist, there will always be people who hate me, for what I look like, for what I stand for and for speaking out. But it doesn’t stop me, it strengthens me,” she said. 

EU lawmakers demand condemnation of police brutality in Europe

A group of 118 MEPs have called on the European Commission to condemn police brutality within the EU and convene an anti-racism summit on combatting structural discrimination in Europe, while urging member states to unblock an anti-discrimination law that has been stuck in the Council for 12 years.

Dear white people… 

Many white citizens are being confronted with their own racist attitudes and wonder what they can do to contribute to the cause without stealing the voice of the groups concerned. 

“Start from the bottom by educating yourself and really consuming and reading what has been published by those communities,” Karen Taylor explained, “then, accept that white privilege does exist.”

The activist encouraged white people to give or share their platforms with members of other communities “but when you see it in a private context and social media always react towards it and call it out as racism.”

“You don’t have to be a woman to be a feminist, you don’t have to be gay to be an LGBT activist, and you don’t have to be black, Arab or Roma to be an anti-racist activist,” Omarjee said.

“One cannot be an LGBT activist, feminist or environmentalist if one does not take part in anti-racist struggles and mobilisations,” he added.

“Silence is violence,” Kuhnke said, adding: “have the guts to speak up every time you see someone being exposed to racism and discrimination – our silence becomes a powerful weapon in the hands of racists.”

US protests reignite Belgian colonialism debate

In today’s edition of the Capitals, find out more about the Czech Republic lifting all its travel restrictions with border countries, Italian beachgoers who are not cohabitants having to maintain distances, including in water, and so much more.

[Edited by Sam Morgan]

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