Shouts of George Floyd’s name, and the slogan “Black Lives Matter,” became a global phenomenon during the weekend, as anti-racism protesters took to the streets of cities around the world.
Defying calls to stay home and maintain physical distancing amid the COVID-19 pandemic, marchers in Europe, Africa, South America, Asia and Oceania expressed their solidarity with a protest movement that was ignited in the United States by the May 25 death of Mr. Floyd, a Black man who was suffocated when a white policeman knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
While other social causes, such as the push for action to prevent climate change, are either on pause or have been forced online by the pandemic, the anti-racism demonstrations have become the first global protest movement of the COVID-19 era.
Some of the largest protests occurred in Europe, which has its own long and tangled history with colonialism, slavery and institutional racism. Protesters in several cities took aim at statues of white political figures who had reigned in previous eras, when racism was the commonplace.
In the English port city of Bristol, a statue of Edward Colston, a 17th-century politician who made much of his fortune through the West African slave trade, was torn from its plinth in the centre of town. Colston had long been celebrated in Bristol for his philanthropic work – there are still roads, schools and other buildings that bear his name – but he had few defenders on Sunday as a cheering crowd pitched his bronze likeness into the city’s harbour.
Earlier, demonstrators had knelt on the toppled statue’s neck in an apparent reaction to how Mr. Floyd was killed.
Thousands of protesters marched through London on Saturday and again on Sunday, clashing sporadically with police during demonstrations that began outside the U.S. embassy before marching toward the Westminster district that houses the offices of the British government. Many of the protesters wore masks, though it was difficult to maintain physical distancing on the tightly packed streets.
Fourteen police officers were injured during Saturday’s protests. Sunday’s clashes saw bottles, rocks and the occasional firework tossed toward a line of helmeted officers who blocked the way to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s official residence and other key buildings. Tensions between protesters and police lessened after a female protester put herself between the marchers and the officers on Sunday evening, shouting “Remember why you’re here!” at her fellow demonstrators.
At London on Sunday, 12 protesters were arrested and eight police officers were injured.
Mr. Johnson posted on Twitter on Sunday that while people had a right to protest, they crossed a line when they attacked police. “These demonstrations have been subverted by thuggery – and they are a betrayal of the cause they purport to serve. Those responsible will be held to account,” he wrote.
During the demonstrations, Winston Churchill’s statue on Parliament Square was defaced with graffiti that described Britain’s Second World War Prime Minister – whose writings are replete with undisguised bigotry – as a racist. A Black Lives Matter sign was taped around the statue’s waist.
There were similar scenes in Brussels, where a statue of King Leopold II, a 19th-century monarch who oversaw the brutal exploitation of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was defaced with the word “shame.” Millions of Congolese were killed during a campaign to extract rubber from Belgium’s then-colony, but on Sunday, protesters climbed the statue – which stands in front of the Canadian embassy in the city – and held aloft the flag of the DRC.
Several people were later arrested in the city after Belgian police dispersed crowds using tear gas and a water cannon.
Multiethnic crowds rallied under the Black Lives Matter banner in European cities including Madrid, Budapest, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Edinburgh, Lausanne and Manchester.
In Berlin, 93 people were arrested and 28 police officers suffered minor injuries during scuffles that broke out near the end of a rally on the city’s Alexanderplatz. Marchers in Rome took a knee for eight minutes and 46 seconds of silence, the precise amount of time Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin had knelt on Mr. Floyd’s neck before the Black man died.
Solidarity protests were also seen in Nigeria, Kenya, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong. In Israel, a small crowd of demonstrators in Tel Aviv drew comparisons between Mr. Floyd’s death and that of Eyad Hallaq, a 32-year-old autistic Palestinian man who was shot dead by Israeli police on May 30. Some of the protesters carried signs reading “Palestinian lives matter.”
As the protests spread across the globe – in many cases taking on board local instances of injustice – there was also heated debate over the targeting of monuments.
British Home Secretary Priti Patel said the destruction of Colston’s statue in Bristol was an “utterly disgraceful” act. She called for police to “make sure that justice is taken, undertaken, with those individuals that are responsible for such disorderly and lawless behaviour.”
But Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees – who is the first directly elected mixed-race mayor in Europe – said that while he could not condone criminal activity, he also couldn’t say that he was sad to see the statue gone.
“I would never pretend that the statue of a slaver in the middle of Bristol, the city in which I grew up – someone who may well have owned one of my ancestors – was anything other than a personal affront to me,” the 48-year-old, who was born to a Jamaican father and an English mother, told Britain’s Channel 4.
“We [had] a statue up to someone who made their money by throwing sometimes the bodies of his commodities, our people, into water. There’s a piece of almost historical poetry here – now he’s on the bottom of the water.”
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