Protesters highlight deaths in police custody throughout Europe
Black Lives Matter demonstrators mark the many deaths during dealings with police
A protester holds up a placard demanding justice for Tamir Rice, David McAtee, Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, Eric Gardner, George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery – all African-Americans who’ve recently lost their lives in allegedly racially-motivated killings. Photograph: EPA/Christian Bruna
They gather outside the police station where the 21-year-old from Sierra Leone died in 2005 on that date in circumstances still unexplained, and was discovered bound by his hands and feet to a mattress in a bare brick cell, his body incinerated.
The case is just one of many deaths of people of colour during interactions with police forces that are fuelling momentum for protests that have swept Europe in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
Tens of thousands have marched across the continent, some bearing posters with the names of local people who were shot or suffocated, and insisting that racial profiling, excessive force, and discrimination should not be considered a solely US phenomenon.
“It took us a very long way to make people... believe what happened, because they even cannot imagine that things like this happen. But it happens, and there is proof that it happened, and they have to face the reality,” says Nadine Saeed, a long-time campaigner with the Initiative in Remembrance of Oury Jalloh.
“It’s not like a single case, it’s like a structure that’s completely institutionalised,” she added. “If you have open eyes you can see it everywhere.”
In Germany, protesters remember the deaths of Ousman Sey and Dominique Koumadio in Dortmund, Christy Schwundeck in Frankfurt, Slieman Hamade in Berlin, and N’deye Mareame Sarr in Aschaffenburg, to name just some.
Across different cultures and police systems, similar details emerge.
The family and friends of those killed often complain of denial, victim-blaming, and being forced to wage interminable battles for justice or even mere clarification of the facts of how their loved one died. In Germany, France and Britain, campaigners have accused law enforcement of excessively policing them in response to their efforts to find out the truth.
Suffocation is a common theme. The manner of the death of George Floyd, who died after repeatedly saying “I can’t breathe” as a Minneapolis policeman kneeled on his neck, has resonated in places with their own cases of black men and women who suffocated in forceful encounters with police or security.
These include Rashan Charles (20) in London in 2017, Sheku Bayoh (31) in Scotland in 2015, Semira Adamu (20) in Belgium in 1998, William Tonou-Mbobda (34) in Germany in 2019, Mitch Henriquez (34) in the Netherlands in 2015 and Adama Traoré (24) in France in 2016.
“There’s no coincidence that black people are dying in the same kind of ways in police custody. Suffocating, chokeholds, why is that? Because across the world, black people have been characterised as untameable beasts,” says Musa Okwonga, a writer and broadcaster based in Berlin.
“You don’t get so many white deaths in police custody, because they are treated as humans.”
The data collected on how policing affects people of colour is a patchwork from country to country, and in France does not exist because the state does not recognise race or ethnicity as a valid category for data collection.
A United Nations body, the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, has found racial profiling to be “endemic” in Spain and Germany, and that jails in Italy are disproportionately filled with migrants awaiting trial, who are routinely punished “for less serious crimes than Italians”.
Half of Belgian police officers surveyed by Amnesty International in 2018 said racial profiling was an issue in their work. “I’m doing ethnic profiling, it’s true, but I do not see how I could do my job otherwise,” one officer said.
‘Tip of iceberg’
A string of young people, mostly teenagers of Moroccan heritage, have been injured or died in interactions with Belgian police in recent years, particularly in places known as immigrant neighbourhoods where residents say aggressive police checks have become part of daily life.
In April, 19-year-old Adil was killed in a crash with a police vehicle as he fled a check. Mehdi Bouda (17) died in similar circumstances last August. A two-year-old Iraqi-Kurdish girl, Mawda, died in 2018 after a police pursuit of the vehicle she was travelling in. Public prosecutors initially suggested the toddler had been ill or died due to erratic driving, but following an autopsy police admitted she had been shot in the face.
Such deaths are “the tip of the iceberg... a very specific example of wider systems of institutional racism” according to Dr Eddie Bruce-Jones, who has researched equality, law and policing across Europe as reader in law and anthropology at Birkbeck, University of London.
“There’s this idea that if you’re not white you don’t belong in this first place, so there’s this way in which people of colour and black people in particular are surveilled, thought to be drug dealers, thought not to belong, thought to be without correct immigration paperwork,” he says.
“There’s a disbelief by police of their stories, there’s a suspicion of them even when they are asking for help. Sometimes people of colour don’t even want to call police because they know it will be an ineffective process because they’ll be seen suspiciously.”
Fight for truth
Long-time campaigners for an end to deaths in custody and against broader racism in Europe are heartened by the sudden swelling in their ranks since the death of George Floyd sparked protests and unrest across the United States. In many cases they have been taken aback by the numbers of people who have marched with them, thought to number some 15,000 in Berlin, 20,000 in Paris, and 15,000 in London.
But they have mixed feelings about statements of solidarity now coming from people in power who have ignored local deaths in police custody in the past.
The United Families and Friends Campaign, a coalition of people whose loved ones have been killed in custody that campaigns for changes to prevent more deaths, has marched to Downing Street with a list of demands for the British prime minister each year since 1999.
“There has never ever been any acknowledgment from the state, from any government, about the issue,” their spokesman, Ken Fero, told The Irish Times. Comments by prime minister Boris Johnson that the death of George Floyd was “appalling” and “inexcusable” rang somewhat hollow.
“We find it entirely hypocritical that the current prime minister can say he condemns what he sees in the United States, and makes reference to the George Floyd murder, and yet the very same prime minister has made no responses to any of the deaths in police custody in this country,” Fero said. “The families are faced with obstruction across the whole legal process, from the inquest to prosecutions.”
Ingrained beliefs that racism is not a significant local problem has been a persistent obstacle to fixing discrimination in education, health, housing, and employment across Europe, the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent has found.
“Problematically, racism is one of those issues where there’s this conventional notion that racism is really a problem of the United States, and that Europe has other issues,” says Dr Bruce-Jones.
Now, campaigners are hoping that the current momentum translates into real change, and an end to discrimination that black people describe encountering continuously in day-to-day life.
Musa Okwonga, the writer, attended protests in Berlin and described the atmosphere as different to previous rallies, as there was a sense that people’s patience had run out.
“I’d never heard so much fury and exhaustion. Previously at these protests there was almost a vigil type atmosphere, a sense of sadness, of grieving, but this time there was fury. A sense of ‘my goodness, we’re here yet again’,” Okwonga says.
“It’s not enough to come here and cry with us... It’s not enough to say we don’t like racism. It’s about practicing that. There are rooms where black people will never enter, where we need people to speak for us,” he adds. “It’s not just about deaths in custody, it’s about black lives mattering.”