Statues come down as George Floyd protests force Europe to grapple with racist past

"When things are happening in America, we understand here that our society was the parent of that racism and the parent of the slave trade."

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By Saphora Smith

LONDON — Images of statues of colonial figures toppled or defaced in European protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death have sparked a debate about the continent's dark colonial past and the enduring nature of its legacy of racism and inequality.

On Tuesday, campaigners calling for the removal of a statue of Victorian imperialist Cecil Rhodes were protesting at the University of Oxford, while London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced a review of the capital's statues and street names.

In the English port city of Bristol over the weekend, a statue of the 17th century slave trader Edward Colston — who played a leading role in a company that trafficked 80,000 African men, women and children into slavery — was pulled off its plinth and dumped into the city’s harbor by protesters.

Protesters set alight a statue of King Leopold II of Belgium.Jonas Roosens / AFP - Getty Images

While in Belgium, a bust of King Leopold II — who reigned over the death and exploitation of millions of Congolese people in the late 1800s — was defaced, according to images on social media. Protesters clambered over another Leopold statue, chanting “reparations” and waving the Democratic Republic of Congo’s flag, according to Euronews.

“When things are happening in America, we understand here that our society was the parent of that racism and the parent of the slave trade,” Arike Oke, the managing director of the Black Cultural Archives, a center dedicated to preserving and celebrating the histories of both African and Caribbean people in Britain, said referring to Europe.

Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees told NBC News’ Global Hangout that while he does not condone the destruction of public property, as a black man and the son of Jamaican immigrants, he saw the bronze statue of Colston, which was erected in 1895, as a personal affront.

“I’d be lying if I tried to claim that I'd miss the statue being on that spot in the middle of the city,” Rees, who is the city’s first black mayor, said.

In the United States, some protesters demonstrating against Floyd’s death have targeted Confederate monuments, which have been a source of tension for years, as some say that they glorify the Confederacy and skim over the dark and painful history of slavery.

Meanwhile, in Belgium, tens of thousands have signed a petition to remove all statues of Leopold, whose troops decimated the Congo region.

His statue was also removed from the Antwerp suburb of Ekeren to be cleaned and restored Tuesday.

Ekeren's district mayor, Koen Palinckx, said it remained unclear whether the statue would be restored to its former place, but that it would depend on its condition rather than the calls for Leopold's statues to be removed.

"It's part of our history and what we were in the past," he said, adding that he understood the calls and that context was important but that removing the statues was not the answer.

Primrose Ntumba, a parliamentary assistant in the Brussels Parliament and an activist focusing on the representation of African minorities in Belgium, said Floyd’s death had given momentum and attention to a conversation about race and Belgium’s colonial history that activists like herself had been having for years.

“We have a lot of history that a lot of people don’t know about and it really impacts people of color and particularly black people in Belgium,” she said. “A lot of the white majority citizens in Belgium do not understand why black people are so angry because they have never been taught about it.”

Ntumba said Belgium had also witnessed cases of police violence.

Despite the symbolism of toppling statues, some British activists believe the reaction to Floyd’s death should focus instead on police violence against black citizens, an issue they feel is more readily associated with the United States than with the United Kingdom in the minds of many.

“We have many George Floyds,” said Temi Mwale, the director of The 4Front Project, a youth organization that supports those who have experienced violence and those who have experiences with the criminal justice system.

“We want to educate and raise the consciousness of the British public who are so angered by this who were saying George Floyd and Breonna Taylor to talk to them about Rashan Charles and Edson da Costa,” Mwale added. Charles and da Costa are two men who died after being restrained by police in separate incidents in London in 2017. Taylor, a young black emergency medical technician, was shot dead by Louisville, Kentucky, police officers in March.

In Charles' case, an inquest found his death to be “accidental” but his family said the process had been a “farce,” the BBC reported at the time. And a jury ruled that da Costa died by “misadventure,” according to Inquest, a charity that provides expertise on state-related deaths.

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The footage capturing Floyd’s death, after then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin dug his knee into Floyd's neck for more than eight minutes, reminded black people in Britain of deaths in or following police custody in the U.K., Oke said, adding in many cases people felt the police had not been brought to justice.

“It brings back all of these traumas that the black community in Britain have been facing year after year after year,” she said.

The video footage of Floyd’s death, combined with the fact that the coronavirus pandemic disproportionately affected the black Caribbean population in England and Wales and has offered people the time to reflect, have intensified the feeling of racial inequality in Britain, she added.

Perhaps, she said, what we’re seeing now is that the “immune system of society is finally trying to rid itself of this thing that holds us all back.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani contributed.