Europe, like the U.S., is riven with racial tensions and injustices with historic and contemporary causes.
(CN) — Protests inspired by the anti-racism movement in the United States broke out in European cities over the weekend, with demonstrators pulling down a statue of a famous slave trader in the United Kingdom and Brussels seeing looting and clashes between protesters and police.
Protests drawing thousands of people onto the streets of a continent only beginning to exit lockdowns is also giving rise to concerns the mass demonstrations may inadvertently lead to a new wave of infections from the novel coronavirus. Mass gatherings for soccer matches and demonstrations were linked to outbreaks of disease at the beginning of the pandemic and large gatherings are still banned across Europe.
“Crowds of people in the middle of a pandemic worry me,” said German Health Minister Jens Spahn after tens of thousands of people took part in demonstrations in about 25 German cities.
Dramatic scenes unfolded in Bristol in southwest England when protesters on Sunday surrounded a bronze statue of 17th-century merchant and slave trader Edward Colston and wrenched it off its plinth. Once it crashed to the ground, protesters cheered and danced on top of it. The statue was then rolled through the streets and hurled into a harbor on the River Avon.
“That statue represents years of oppression, it represents years of hurt,” a black protester said, according to Deutsche Welle, a German news broadcaster. “There’s a lot of hatred that’s been internalized for years… That coming down today hopefully signifies change.”
Brussels also witnessed a dramatic Sunday when peaceful protests turned violent as groups of protesters smashed store windows, set small fires, looted stores and hurled objects at police. Police used water cannons, tear gas and horses to disperse crowds. About 200 arrests were made.
Peaceful protests took place in numerous other cities — including Rome, London, Berlin and Madrid — in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. The European protesters expressed anger at the U.S., European colonialism, racism and police brutality.
Europe, like the U.S., is riven with racial tensions and injustices with historic and contemporary causes. There are long-established African populations in countries like the U.K. and France that have suffered racism and inequality. More recently, the number of new immigrants from Africa and Asia fleeing war and poverty has grown across Europe, leading to a rise in far-right politics and racism.
Racist taunts and chants against black players are common at soccer games in Europe, as are racist attacks on Africans. Police across Europe also have been accused of harshly handling immigrants seeking to enter the European Union often without permission.
Europe is now seeing its own Black Lives Matter movement with demands for reparations, an end to racism and police brutality and the removal of statues deemed offensive.
In London, protesters surrounded the U.S. Embassy with signs demanding change and calling for action. American embassies in Spain, Italy and Denmark were also scenes of protests.
“Stand up together,” one protester’s sign in London said. “Racism is a pandemic too,” another said. Another sign read: “Black Liberation Movement.”
The London protesters then descended on Parliament Square near Westminster. A statue of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was spray painted with the words: Churchill “was a racist.” Later, London police and demonstrators also clashed.
In Brussels, demonstrators climbed onto a statue of King Leopold II and chanted: “Murderer!” and “Reparations!” In Congo, Leopold’s administration carried out atrocities and policies that historians say led to millions of deaths.
“We are still oppressed by the system,” a young black female protester in Brussels told broadcaster Euronews. The news outlet interviewed another black woman who said racism “is a worldwide problem.”
“We’re not here just for the European persons, but for all the persons in the whole world,” she said.
The toppling of the statue in Bristol, though, became the defining moment for the protests in Europe and left British politicians divided, with conservatives generally disagreeing with the act and those on the left expressing sympathy with the protesters.
Priti Patel, the Conservative home secretary, called tearing down statues an “utterly disgraceful” act that takes attention away from the cause of the protests.
“We respect the right to protest, but we do not respect and it is completely unlawful to participate in acts of disorder, vandalism, violence and assault,” she told reporters.
Brendan O’Neill, a columnist in the conservative Spectator magazine, said the protesters behaved like a “woke Taliban,” comparing their actions to the destruction of historic carvings of Buddha in Afghanistan by Taliban extremists.
“It was the glee with which they tore down Colston’s statue that was most unnerving,” he wrote. “They yanked him down and started cheering and screaming as they stomped on his head.”
He argued that Britain “has had its reckoning with the horrors of slavery” and that Brits learn about its evils in school and from museums while popular culture has “depicted slavery in all its horror in recent years.”
He worried the movement to remove statues will not end with Colston. Activists are seeking to take down a statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oxford University because of the British colonialist’s racist views and a statue of Oliver Cromwell near Westminster is being targeted because of his persecution of Irish and Catholics.
Many on the left, meanwhile, cheered the removal of the Colston statue.
“Good. If statues of confederates who fought a war for slavery and white supremacy should come down then why not this one?” said Clive Lewis, a Labour Party member, on Twitter. He called Colston “someone responsible for immeasurable blood and suffering.” He added: “We’ll never solve structural racism till we get to grips with our history in all its complexity.”
Labour leader Keir Starmer also said the statue needed to be removed, though he said tearing it down as part of a protest was not the right way of going about it.
Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees, who has Jamaican roots, called the statue an “affront” to him and many others. He said the statue will be retrieved from the harbor and will “likely end up in a museum.”
The plaque on the Colston statue called him one of Bristol’s most “virtuous and wise sons” but made no mention that his wealth was derived from the slave trade. Colston used his wealth to fund a number of schools and alms houses in Bristol. The city had considered adding text to the statue to show he was a slave trader.
On Sunday, someone wrote on the plinth: “Today we made history.”
“He didn’t deserve to stand there,” a woman protester told Sky News on Monday. “I am really emotional today. We need to tell the truth and celebrate the culture of Bristol as it truly is.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.