Colonial Race Relations Laid Groundwork for Institutional Racism in Belgium
Racism and the discrimination of people of color are not unique to a specific time period nor are they specific to one geographic location. Unfortunately, the horrors of race relations between white individuals and people of color are ever present all across the globe and have managed to adapt as society has progressed. One country with a history of such race relations is Belgium. The Belgian king, Leopold II, colonized the Congo in 1885 and declared it his private property. Under the guise of philanthropic interest, he claimed he wanted to bring the benefits of Christianity, Western civilization, and commerce to Africa when in reality he used the forced labor of the Congolese people to expand his economic ventures and political power. During his reign over the Congo, he was likely responsible for the death of millions of Congolese yet the monarch’s name is still found on many streets and statues that commemorate him in Belgium. Since the colonial era, have race relations improved in Belgium or have they merely just adapted to institutionalized forms of racism and violence?
After seeing the worldwide protests following George Floyd’s death, they have added fuel to a movement to confront Europe’s role in the slave trade and its colonial past while advocating for the removal of statues and street names of individuals like Leopold II. When the U.S. protests led to protests in Europe, and tens of thousands gathered in cities like Brussels to demand an end to police violence, commentators claimed they were baffled. They stated that they didn’t understand why so many people — many of whom were young people from ethnic minority backgrounds — would take to the streets for something that had happened in the U.S. These commentators, who I am sure are not alone, seem to be oblivious to the fact that the same things are occurring in their own backyard. A 2020 survey gives a great sneak peak into the current race relations present in Belgium as more than half of Belgians stated that they think colonialism brought more good than harm to the Congo.
Conversations surrounding current racial dynamics in Belgium have come to the forefront as people of color voice their concerns for the way their communities are being harmed by law enforcement. Racism and discrimination by police is unfortunately commonplace in countries like Belgium that have large populations of people of color. Sadly, these individuals' voices have not been heard. Ibrahima Barrie, a 23 year old Black man, died while being in police detention in Brussels, Belgium on January 9th, 2021. To no one’s surprise, what happened to Ibrahima while being in police custody and the exact events that transpired have been explained by the police differently multiple times. At first, law enforcement claimed that he was arrested for violating the city’s 10 p.m. curfew. However, we know that this cannot be possible as his time of death was declared by hospital staff to be 8:22 p.m. After they were confronted with this discrepancy, they claimed he was taken into custody because he attempted to flee from police. This was once again contested once bystanders came forward and stated he was arrested because he was trying to film police officers carrying out COVID-related police controls.
These contradictions in law enforcement’s story not only demonstrate their unwillingness to take responsibility for their actions, but it is also extremely frustrating for Ibrahima Barrie’s family as the truth is being systematically withheld from them. According to the official autopsy, he died of a heart attack which police claimed was a result of ecstasy found on his person and stated was the result of his arrest. However, the medical examiner stated that there were no traces of drugs in Ibrahima's toxicology report and there is still no clear answer as to how he died in police custody. As news of Barrie’s death was covered by the media, there were protests held across Belgium in an effort to seek justice for his case and to hold police accountable for their acts of violence. His case raised further scrutiny regarding Brussels police and their treatment towards people of color.
The public put pressure on law enforcement to acknowledge and explain why there is a pattern of police killing young men of mostly Middle Eastern or North African descent. However, police seemed reluctant to acknowledge that issues of racial dynamics are a real problem in Belgium and not much change has come about in the last month. Along with that, most politicians in Belgium have shied away from speaking out about this incident because their votes are more important to them than fighting against police brutality in their own country. Seeing racial indifference and denial is exhausting as people unaffected get to go on with their daily lives while communities of color have to mourn loved ones or live in fear for their lives. Allowing institutions such as law enforcement to evade accountability and continue their racist practices will only lead to more deaths for people of color and leaves very little hope for the improvement of race relations within our current society.