George Floyd just had time to tell his executioners “I can’t breathe”. His words were heard in Belgium, where they succeeded in toppling King Leopold II, whose face was daubed with red paint when he was not simply torn down. Black lives matter! An autopsy of the controversial movement, which is no longer in its test phase.
Fists raised in salute, dressed in dark clothing, their faces masked… More than 10,000 people came together in Poelaert Square in Brussels on 7 June in protest against police violence in Belgium, a few days after the death of George Floyd, a Black American whose murder by a white police officer in Minneapolis was filmed live. The dying man just had time to tell his executioners “I can’t breathe”. Asphyxiating words that still echo today. His words were heard in Belgium, where they succeeded in toppling King Leopold II, whose face was daubed with red paint when he was not simply torn down.
“Lamine Bangoura, Dieumerci Kanda, Adil Charrot, Mehdi Bouda, Mawda… We want justice for these people, who died at the hands of the Belgian police, but also for all those who were killed by Belgium during the reign of Leopold II”. Nearly 2 weeks have passed since the anti-racism demonstration held in Brussels, but Joelle Sambi Nzeba is still angry. The spokesperson of the Belgian Network for Black Lives and co-organiser of the demonstration considers it unacceptable that there are still Belgian citizens who have reason to fear those holding public authority or are simply afraid that they may lose their lives at the hands of the very people who are supposed to protect them.
Like so many others, Ms. Sambi took to the streets to speak out against the treatment suffered by people of Afro-Caribbean origin in the capital of Europe. Explaining, demanding, understanding, expressing her rage, the feelings with which most demonstrators came together before Brussels’ Palace of Justice on 7 June. For many, this demonstration resonated with their personal journeys and lived experiences. Bwanga Pilipili, an actress who, alongside more than a hundred other roles during her career, played Pauline Lumumba in Aimé Césaire’s “Une saison au Congo” (A Season in the Congo, directed by Christian Schiaretti), explains her personal reasons for coming and making a stand. “I owe it to the memory of my father, a teacher and doctor of history and theology, Pilipili Kagabo Gérard, whose life and work were shaped by a quest for justice and reparations for the Belgian occupation of Congo-Zaire. I owe it to my daughter who, like me, was born in Belgium and, despite her youth, is profoundly aware of this country’s systemic racism”.
Christelle Pandanzyla, a Black Business Owner who is behind the Brussels Africa Market (BAM), among many other initiatives, also turned out on that infamous Sunday. “There is no Black community, just communities, despite everything, all with different stories, but we have all personally experienced humiliation, racism, our lives in danger”, the young woman told us, adding: “the fact that you can see it is no longer just a few activists standing up and making their calls to politicians, but thousands and thousands of others have decided to help tip the balance. This gave me the courage to continue to fight”. This fight has been a marathon, not a sprint, and will undoubtedly require all the current debates to be brought together and unified towards a raft of objectives: to denounce and eradicate structural racism, to include Belgian’s colonial history in school textbooks and, finally, to force Belgium to apologise for the atrocities committed by the colonial regime on Congolese soil. In the meantime, the movement is becoming organised and various actions continue, such as the removal of statues of King Leopold II. This issue has been the subject of debate for several days and a great deal more will certainly be written about it. Some individuals, such as Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA) MEP Assista Kanko (who has always described herself as a Sankarist), argue that whole chapters of history cannot be wiped out by tearing down statues. She proposes an entirely different approach. “How can you learn from history if you remove it? We are not going to resolve the problem of racism by erasing history. I am not a fan of Leopold II, he was a cruel man and he committed horrific abuses. I would like to see a clear historical interpretation of the statues. If something needs to be changed, it should be done democratically, not through vandalism. Otherwise, the rule of law ceases to apply”.
This view is by no means shared by all; others consider that this symbolic execution of Leopold II is important and comes within the context of a far broader movement. “The recent toppling of statues is direct action, it is a political act that is not vandalism, I need to stress that point”, explained Gia Abrassart journalist and founder of Café Congo, an artistic space that invites visitors to reflect on current Belgo-Congolese relations; “these acts were carried out and demanded by activists, it is a cry for memorial justice and equality. The Belgian public sphere is not neutral, it is dotted by some hundred colonial statues. These statues need to be removed and put in the basement of the Africa Museum in Tervuren and create a learning path for the political communication of the truth of Belgian’s colonial past”.
The Africa Museum (Royal Museum for Central Africa) is closely following the progress of the statues debate. “To begin with, we do not have room for all the statues of Leopold here at Tervuren”, explains Guido Gryseel, the director of the museum. “From a purely practical point of view, most of them are huge, grand statues. Also, it is not just statues, there are busts as well. We could take some of the busts to put in our reserves to use if we have an exhibition, we could have something to illustrate this period in particular, but they will certainly not go in our permanent exhibition, his busts have no place there. The ideal solution could be a new museum on colonisation, but there would have to be a budget for an initiative of that kind and I don’t think there is”.
In addition to the current demonstrations, we also need to think about getting concrete resolutions, recommends Jean-Jacques Lumumba, great-nephew of Patrice Emery Lumumba. “We must try to move the law and equality forwards. The timing is perfect, as is the course of events, to put what is more than a century-old question back on the table and for the right decisions to be made”, he said. Concrete decisions of the kind that most are hoping for may come about with the inauguration of a Parliamentary committee on Belgium’s colonial past this month.
On 30 June this year, DRC celebrated its 60th anniversary of independence. Events were followed closely in Belgium by the diaspora and activists organised a whole series of events, most notably in Lumumba Square in the district of Ixelles. Here, the Belgian Prime Minister, Sophie Wilmes, unveiled a commemorative plaque to mark 60 years of Congolese independence. It is worth noting that this 30 June saw a major taboo broken; in a huge departure from previous Belgian monarchs, King Philippe wrote to the President of DRC, Felix Tshisekedi, expressing his regrets for the injuries inflicted during the colonial period in the Congo. Injuries of the past that are forced to remain part of the present by the discrimination that still exists in Belgian society.