“I can’t breathe”.
It’s been a year since these three words have permanently etched themselves into our collective minds as we watched a 46-year-old African American man plead for help as a police officer knelt on his neck.
His name was George Floyd, and for 9:29 minutes, Derek Chauvin slowly took his life with complete indifference.
As videos of the incident hit the internet, there was a moment of stillness as the entire world watched helplessly. For the first time, it seems, there was no denying the very real problem of racism and police brutality that pervaded society.
Internationally, protesters and activists quickly took to the streets to denounce racialised police brutality.
While in the United States around 1,000 people are killed each year at the hands of the police, there is a lack of consistent data collection in Europe on deaths in custody for racialised groups. This absence of data allowed European leaders to suggest that the protests following the murder of George Floyd were a sign of solidarity towards America, thereby denying the existence of similar issues in Europe.
To truly understand our present-day experience, it is important for all Europeans to acknowledge the impact and history of race and racism in Europe. Professional police forces developed in tandem with the European colonial practices. Today, while the police may have evolved, their primary function remains relatively unchanged: a means to monitor and control groups. With new technologies to identify, surveil and analyse now being deployed, we see that racialised communities from formerly colonised countries are disproportionately impacted.
The pandemic highlighted the disproportionate policing of racialised spaces like poor urban areas, informal settlements and refugee centres. In France, 10% of the entire country’s fines issued on the first day of lockdown were in Seine-Saint-Denis, a post-colonial immigrant community in the Paris region.
These patterns of racist police violence affect not only the individuals but the entire communities. There are several examples of police violence against people who suffer from mental health illnesses, where increased use of force led to death. ln many parts of Europe, the police respond to social situations lacking the capacity and resources to safely address them. In others, they respond with disproportionate and unnecessary use of force.
In 2020, the death of George Floyd sparked one of the largest, peaceful uprisings in European history. Alongside these protests, recorded videos emerged, showing police officers hitting protesters with batons, pepper-spraying, pushing, or dragging them. Policing protests in Europe has become a significant method of stifling dissent, freedom of assembly and association. We must ask if these police responses are proportionate and if there are better ways the police can keep people safe when they protest.
Protest leads to progress and the EU finally recognised the urgency to take action. As a result of ENAR’s work in the last year, the EU Action Plan Against Racism includes key and long-standing recommendations that recognise structural, institutional and historical dimensions of racism, and plan a review of the legislation to address racism in law enforcement. Whilst these policy developments are promising, there are other EU policy areas that still reinforce the status quo, like the EU’s agenda to fight irregular migration and migrant smuggling which can make migrants less safe and more susceptible to state violence and unjustified criminalisation.
Globally, we breathed a sigh of relief following the guilty verdict of George Floyd’s murderer, Derek Chauvin. It was a rare moment of accountability. Efforts from 165 Families and 250 civil society organisations from around the world are continuing this work, recently calling for the United Nations to set up an independent inquiry into police killings of black men and women and hold the US to account.
In Europe, meanwhile, we continue to see incidents of police impunity that go unpunished. Last year, a 19-year-old man of Moroccan descent, Adil, died after being hit by a police car in Brussels. Lamine Moïse Bangoura, a 27-year-old black man, died after suffering from asphyxiation and acute stress during a house eviction in 2018. Multiple officers lay on him, resulting in his death. 3 years on, his family is still campaigning and demanding answers that they may never get. In February 2018, a 45-year-old black woman was assaulted by security guards at a metro station in Stockholm after filming another violent encounter between security guards. The victim herself was accused of assault and convicted, whilst the security guards escaped punishment.
The words “I can’t breathe” still haunt us today as they bear witness, not just to the onslaught of brutality incidents, but to an entire system of oppression that allows them to happen. The mere fact that there have been zero convictions of police officers in cases of murder or manslaughter of a racialised individual in Europe, in the last few years, should be enough to raise major concerns. Until we can ensure accountability for police actions, the safety of society’s most vulnerable groups remains at risk, leaving many still unable to breathe.
George Floyd’s murder was a turning point in Europe’s history by lifting the veil on racism within policing. Acting both as a catalyst and a wake-up call, the event fuelled a new level of awareness in Europe and encouraged more honest conversations about its past and its decolonisation. Just a few weeks ago, Germany decided to return looted Benin bronzes to Nigeria, while in June last year Bristol sent the statue of slave trader Edward Colston into the depths of its harbour.
The unprecedented uprisings across the continent have propelled race-related issues to the forefront of politics forcing EU leaders to act and deliver an Anti-racism Action Plan. In March, the EU organised its first summit against racism, and last week the EU Commission appointed the first EU anti-racism coordinator. These policy developments have been paramount in addressing racism, yet, they still may not be enough to address the issue of racist policing and law enforcement.
For us to move forward, we must reevaluate what we truly mean when we talk about “public safety”. We need transformative policies that address (neo)colonial systems and institutions that have consistently failed to protect racialised and marginalised groups. The US is leading the way with successful divestment campaigns and programmes that have seen millions of dollars moved from police budgets and reinvested into social programmes.
Can European countries follow, by reallocating funds from increasingly militarised police forces to investing in our communities, improving the lives of Europe's racialised communities? For George Floyd and the many other victims of police brutality who have helped push the fight this far, we must certainly hope so.
Ojeaku Nwabuzo is a senior research officer at the European Network Against Racism (ENAR); Nabil Sanaullah is ENAR's communications and press officer.