Reporting on Belgian BLM for a Norwegian publication

Translation of the article appeared on the Norwegian magazine Minerva on 22/12/2020

The Belgian Anti racist movement between Statues and Police Violence


Red painting dripping on cold busts as statues were teared down their pedestals have been the imagery that accompanied the Belgian Black Lives Matter movement on international screens.
Claiming the havoc of the colonial past of the country stood out as the Belgian distinctive element within the international BLM movements, where King Leopold II has been recognized as the primary enemy if not the scapegoat.

This might have suggested that the surge over the demand of decolonisation of spaces was a response to what had just happened kilometers away in the U.S. as George Floyd was murdered. This might have suggested that it was something momentaneous.

Nothing so far from reality. Colonialism symbols are only one tangible element of the problem faced by people of colour which is way more rooted and hidden within Belgian societal structure.
For decades, in Belgium, panafrican organisations, anti-racism groups and people from minority groups have been denouncing ethnic profiling, which because of political silence and lack of commitment have enabled to foster and build a layered society where structural racism is the slingbar for such inequality.


Setting the scene of structural racism
There are thousands of organisations across Belgium set up by afro-descendants and first or second generation migrants. The first wave of the Congolese diaspora which brought young students to the neighbourhood of Matonge in Brussels in the ‘60s, started cultural hubs and pan African associations.

Most of them have been trying to create safe spaces, cutting out corners within the cities, where to discuss topics and preserve the memory of the so-longed home country.
As increase societal divide was felt by afro-descendants, philanthropic associations started to be more politicised and within the years they have institutionalised their role as political actors addressing the imbalance among citizens. However, due to international conflicts in the Middle East and migration flows from Northern Africa over in the past decades, Belgian society has been diversifying even more and at such a rate that society was not able to keep up as integration tools to understand such phenomena were not put in place.

Furthermore, the suicide bombings occurred in Brussels in March 2016 increased the division among citizens: several international Islamist terrorist attacks had originated from Belgium within the Molenbeek neighbourhood in Brussels, an area densly populated by migrants.
Islamophobia, stigmatisation of migrants and second-generation dwellers have been added to the bag of structural racism already in place, but no one have been publicly addressing if not minority groups unwell represented in the media.

The prejudices leading towards structural racism had created a crippling denial of equal access to housing, work opportunities, health, financial and justice treatments based on one’s origin, often attributed by just looking at the names appearing on CVs or the colour of one’s skin.
 “I was shocked when the landlord of an apartment I was visiting stated that he was not willing to rent it to the Maroccan family that came before me,” said an European foreigner in Brussel. “There is the idea that if you are white, you will automatically share the same ideas and there is no problem to say such a thing,” he continued.

The 7th of June anti-racist march organised by the Black Lives Matter movement, brought to light the sentiment felt by many migrants and black people in Belgium: being racisided: “I think there were a lot of people in our country who were not aware or did not want to be aware of the situation for black people,” said Yasmina Tobbeche, teacher and part of the BLM movement. “Black lives have always been at stake but right now it is a secret no more.”.
 
Black women at the forefront
The health crisis and covid19 measures have further exacerbated structural racism effects over people, while collectives and organisations saw their activities shut, their places closed down, their awareness raising campaigns temporarily stopped.

“We have asked ourselves what to do and who was in need of help and resources in this specific moment,” said Aurélie Malowa, Communication and Community Manager at the ICHEC Formation Center, that decided to join actively the anti-racism movement. “Many of the people that were at the forefront of corona crisis battle, such as nurses, were black women,” she explained.
The lockdown created a temporal bubble for reflection where to rethink on how to connect in other ways. Despite the cessation of activities in the offline world, collectives have quickly absorbed the shock and moved online, possible becoming more visible.

Each and everyone had picked up its battle: whether raising awareness of black women’s rights, police violence, decolonisations, under representation within media, migrants and asylum seekers right.The Black Lives Matter movement has been ephimer, without charter or rules, opening its doors to whomever wanted to contribute to bring the issue of structural racism on the top of the agenda.

In such terms, they have been able to accelerate political action and increase people’s awareness that has stagnated for such a long time, within the online world. “Fascism as already been working with such tools, it was very important to occupy this space, creating a real debate and counter arguments,” said Tobbeche, “Thanks to social media, we’ve been able to touch people that have never been politically engaged”.

Many collectives went online, many were born online as a response to the killing of George Floydd: “After all the things that have happened, I told myself: I have to see black people, that are making it, who make something positive within Belgium,” Malowa continued. She started her Instagram page project Belgian EntrepreNOIRES (a mix of the word “entrepreneur” and “noires”, the feminine and plural of the word “black”) in her own room: “The aim was to share profiles of women that participate actively to the Belgian economy, a force in the economy that needed support as shops closed down” she added.

Women, and most likely black women still find it difficult to break the barrier of financial stigmatisation and structural racism: “The financial sector is not spared from this sentiment” she continued: “Many women of colour struggle to have their entrepreneurial ideas financed, simply because their gender and colour,” said Malowa.
“There was no other way than selling my apartment to start my business” confirmed Maya Diagnede, owner of Saabou, a shop selling natural cosmetic products. “My business plan was solid, but the bank refused me a loan”. After two years, her shop is still running smoothly, with the support of customers, mainly white women: “It is a question of mindset, a country that works well is a country where women have power”.
 


Decolonisation, the “easy” part


The 30th of June signed the 60 years of independence of Congo and organisations had already put this date on the calendar at the beginning of the year. Similarly, local political figures have tried to overcome possible criticism by securing removals of colonialist symbols prior to the date. 
However, the international vicissitudes happening in early May, the Black Lives Matter march and the online dimension reached by local organisations had been a catalyst for visibilitisation, creating momenta and the basis to raising the bar.
An online petition had been able to collect over 150,000 signatures in favour of the removal of all the Statues of King Leopold II.  The Belgian media landscape found itself unprepared for such debate at national level, but quickly international news was shading lights over the massacres of the Belgian colonisation within Africa – hardly ever explained in school curricula, and not widely touched within the public opinion.
Given the unexpected and constant pressure of collectives and with the will of moving towards a pacific conversation, in July, Pascal Smet, State Secretary for city planning and heritage for the Brussels region, had announced the will to establish the “Decolonisation of public space Working Group” in Brussels. What feared to be a political promise, in late November materialised into a 84 candidates from all over Belgium, where 16 experts have been selected to be responsible for deciding on the fate of the statues and other signs of colonialism in public spaces.
It is not an easy job: “We really need to set the basis, the ground. It is a work that Belgium has never done before on its colonial past” says Gia Abrassart, founder of the cultural organization Cafe Congo, part of the BLM movement and one of the 16 selected experts. The first meeting of the Working group happened virtually, in late November: “We will need to do a lot of methodological work on all architectural buildings and spaces that could include colonial elements,” she said. 
The real question remains how to decolonize the colonial symbols: should there be given an historical contextualisation of the statues?  Should we erect a monument to the dead of colonisation? Should street names be changed?  “We want to make a deep reflection on these symbols to understand how to make these places more “accessible” for afro-descendents and the rest of the population,” continued Abrassart.
The decision to be taken collectively aims to put out a report in May 2021, but this is only one of the demand of the Belgo-congolese and Congolese community: “We should be discussing as well economical reparations and restitutions to local communities, but we are now at the very beginning of this process,” added Abrassart.


A history of police violence


In 2016, the Belgian capital had already experienced a short lockdown of five days straight after the terrorist attacks. At that time, decisions were made so to make possible for law enforcement bodies to carry out thorough searchers and controls especially across specific neighbourhoods.
Similarly, yet to a lesser extent, the 2020 lockdown brought back a prioritisation of street controls and enhanced the presence, responsibilities and power of police in neighbourhoods. In a climate of securisation, within a state where structural racism seems rooted, law enforcement is not stranger of such phenomena. 
Since the beginning of the confinement, Yasmina Tobbeche has been looking into the issues of individual liberties and police violence. She decided to set up Quarantine Watch, the monitoring platform to keep civic society informed and vigilant of the freedom restrictions laws that were risking to be enacted due to the corona crisis. “But very early within the lockdown, I received witnessing of police violence, where we know that the controls had very racist take,” she said.
The analysis by Police Watch revealed that within 2020, more than 70% of the abuses took place in the poor neighborhoods of Brussels.  Racialized people made up to 40% of the victims, despite most of the victims linked their supposed ethnic origins to the abuses they suffered: “Young migrants are afraid of police as they are easily targeted,” she continued.
In April, prior to the death of George Floyd the Belgian public opinion had already witnessed the death of Adil, a 19-year-old that after fleeding from police who were checking if he was obeying current lockdown measures, was hit the police car, dying in the streets of Anderlecht.
His death spurred into neighbourhood sized revolts where organisations returned in the offline space and tried to pacify the tension risen in that moment: “We are aware that the situation is complicated on the side of the authorities and the police, but we cannot ignore the pleas for help from young people in the face of the injustices they suffer and denounce.” had said Mr. Bilal Chuitar, coordinator of the Marolles Youth Center in central Brussels.
Quarantine Watch aimed at collecting testimonies in order to alert the public opinion and civil society on the increased police violence. “There are people that have received police control just because they have attached to their windows a sign saying “Justice for Adil”. And they’ve noticed how fast their repressive machine can move,” said Tobbeche.


There’s a limits to justice
At the Black Lives Matters protest signs calling out for justice for the colonial past, alternated with the ones with the names of victims of police violence within Belgium where the profiles seem to be similar: young, men, migrant or people of colour. “It is a racial dehumanization because it is accepted that we put violence on specific bodies and not to all of them,” continued Tobbeche.
Quarantine Watch provided as well useful information on how to counter amends, and what are the actual rights that people have facing controls of police. People most often victims of police abuse are also those who have the most difficulty in mobilizing the resources needed to file a complaint and thus to have their rights respected, securing police of impunity over their acts
In the past months the strategy to apply pressure towards political bodies had revealed to be useful over the issues of decolonisation of space. Fighting against statues of a past King had however nothing comparable to counter police violence, where their efforts feel like they almost volatized: “When we touch the police system we are more in danger. We have never seen police condemned for acts committed during the exercise of their function. It is an untouchable system,” said Abrassart.
 
Something Has Changed, Something Has to Change
Despite quarantine, in Maya’s shop it is possible to pick up beauty products. “Sometimes I receive thank you messages because the promotion made with the project was able to help re-establish women’s business,” said Malowa, who continue sharing profiles of black business female owners across Belgium.
Similarly, in Celestina’s bookshop Pepites Blues, novels and essays by black authors are keep being shipped. After the Black Lives Matter demonstration, she has seen an increased interest in the authors and books that she selects, which talk about gender, decolonisation, and racism. People want to know and understand.
If the health crisis would have not taken place, Celestine’s bookstore, opened in 2019, was supposed to host collectives for events and discussion on civic rights, feminism and decolonisation fight.
Nevertheless, individuals and collectives have been able to connect and create invisible nodes of a network, a safety net where to rely on each other’s strength to fight for the common cause.
Facing similar situations, French and Belgian victims’ collectives have been creating a link.  The focus of their work has been on how do societies relate to its citizens of migrant background and how democratically are they treated when they enter these countries. “We feel like that in Belgium, we are at the turning point where we can collectively put in place an action of antirepression,” said Tobbeche.
Although the Belgian Black Lives Matter movement pays tribute to online platforms and the ability to re-engage online, the virtual space is not enough. Hopes for the post corona crisis setting is linked to the possibility to move again to the offline world: “We created these resistance poles where the citizens can meet. But we don’t have the pretention to say they are “safe spaces”, rather “safer” than the average,” said Abrassart. “We need to re-appropriate of the street, where citizens should be free to be who they are,” said Abrassart.



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