Belgium

Aaron Grabin, Axel Farkas, Hamel Mighty: Black Lives Matter in Belgium

Belgium is reporting 56,569 confirmed coronavirus cases and 9,629 Covid-19 deaths, the worst per capita death rate in the world, 250 percent higher than the United States. As elsewhere, immigrant and poor populations are suffering more intensely, which should come as no surprise given the particular brutality of Belgium’s colonial history in the Congo. Recently, the far right has grown shockingly and may emerge as the second most popular party in parts of the country. But the anti-racist uprising in the United States has energized anti-racists in Belgium who, despite the Covid-19 danger, are hitting the streets.

The following reports were written by Aaron Grabin, Axel Farkas, and Hamel Mighty, members of the Belgium Gauche Anticapitliste (Anticapitalist Left), translated and published by International Viewpoint, and republished by No Borders News.

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On Sunday, June 7 several organizations launched a call to rally in different cities of Belgium. The starting point for this momentum was the desire to show international solidarity with the mass anti-racist movement around Black Lives Matter in the United States, which has taken to the streets of the country since the police murder of George Floyd. These spontaneous calls (often from people who had never organized a demonstration or rally before) sometimes aroused fear or concern, for example, around the fact that the rallies should be an opportunity to denounce racism, violence and police abuse, police killings in Belgium, too.

Over 15,000 nationwide

Almost 1,200 people gathered in Antwerp on the Steenplein, 750 others in Albert Park in Ghent, and 200 people participated in a sit-in in Hasselt. In Brussels, more than 12,000 people gathered at Place Poelaert. And there were many solidarity statements from undocumented people demanding the regularization of their status, from families of victims of police killings who demanded justice, from anti-racist activists and anti-colonial activists. A number of speakers in Brussels denounced the denial of the crimes of Belgian colonialism (severed hands of forced laborers in the Congo, the role of King Leopold II, the looting of rubber and other raw materials, the destruction of villages, slavery, etc.). They called for decolonizing school-books and public spaces.

The crowd was multicultural and muliti-gendered. There was an enormous number of young people and many demonstrators featured, as was true during climate demonstrations, signs with anti-racist and feminist slogans or in defense of the rights of LGBTQI+ people. It was obvious that the people present at this rally did not only want to listen but that everyone wanted to make a political contribution to the movement. The most popular signs were undoubtedly “Black Lives Matter” and “I can’t breathe.” There were also many signs reading, “Human rights are not privileges,” “The silence of white people is also violence,” “Racism is a pandemic, be the vaccine,” “Cowboys in the movies, not in police stations,” etc. Some slogans expressed a radical vision.

[Read next, Alex De Jong: Minneapolis sparks BLM protest in Amsterdam.]

The demonstrators and the organizers were well aware that the pandemic is not yet over and many masks were distributed to guarantee maximum security. If the police in the city of Philippe Close had authorized a demonstration, social distancing could also have been respected. The repression of struggle is not good for our health and there is no doubt that many more would have been in the streets were it not this pandemic.

One difficulty, which aroused some tensions in the days before the protests, lay in the importance of supporting the self-organization of Black and Afro-descendant people, gathered together at a historic moment, while also making possible a broader gathering in solidarity with all victims of police violence and of different forms of racism, all in the context of numerous messages circulating instantaneously on social networks. The absence of the family of Mehdi Bouda, a young Brussels man killed by the police last summer, testified to this difficulty. But the organizers, who did finally include all police violence and discrimination victims in their platform, read a text written by the family of Mehdi, a symbolic high point.

Points of convergence started to be built in preparation for this rally and that is extremely important. Despite the organizational difficulties, all communities came together yesterday to denounce all forms of racism: anti-Blackness, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, Romaphobia, anti-Asian racism, etc. To win, the fight against racism will need to bring together all the communities affected together, respecting the autonomy of specific struggles against these different forms of racism, and connecting these struggles to the fight against capitalism, a system which needs racism in order
to function.

Police provocations

We knew even before we got there that the police do not like the left, hate demonstrators, and despise reports of police violence. In Brussels, some provocations by the police (young people of color were forced to exit the metro before arriving at the right station, comrades were provoked by the police) started before the demonstration, but no one fell into the trap. At the end of the event, the organizers announced that access to the Louise roundabout (the easiest way to enter the metro) was closed. The only possible exit point was the street leading to Place Royale. It was therefore a spontaneous demonstration which marched towards this open square and then found itself face to face with a cordon of mounted police protecting a “neutral zone” – a zone where demonstrating was prohibited. Just a coincidence?

A few minutes later, several police vans drove through the crowd with sirens wailing, provoking general indignation and booing and jeering. This anger set off a panic. The tension was palpable and the atmosphere became heated after these provocations. But how could one contain the anger of these young people who came to demonstrate peacefully, who are harassed on a daily basis by the police and who, once again, had to undergo provocations from the police who did everything they could to raise tensions? The young people have been deprived of everything and were emerging from several months of confinement in extremely difficult conditions. We must reject the demonization of these young people, which is the goal of the police and the far right. We understand their anger and we support their rights in the face of state repression and the fines and convictions that are likely to rain down on them.

The violence and riots that followed are only the consequence of a racist and extremely unequal society, defended by the police. Yesterday’s event was a massive and politicized movement of rebellious youth. The society of spectacle promotes the circulation of images of the riots rather than the speeches made during the rally: let us not fall into the trap. Another sign that the police wanted to tarnish the image of the rally was a video made by a journalist who was trying to film the arrest of a person who was face down on the ground with two police officers with a knee on the him (an image that reminds us of what happened to George Floyd). The journalist was verbally assaulted by a police officer who prevented him from filming and who resorted to physical assault by pushing him back.

[Read next, Marie-Hélène Duverger: France opens schools, Covid-19 stalks the halls.]

We remember, however, that the police themselves broadcast images of arrests in Anderlecht a few days ago. We therefore note that the press and citizens are prevented from filming when it is not convenient for the police. But filming is a right.

The testimony by a young person named Mounaime, 19 years old, has also come to light after they were beaten up in a police van by five hooded policemen. We demand that light be shed on this violence and that justice be done.

In Antwerp (the city where hard-right Bart De Wever is mayor), between 100 and 150 people were arrested on the pretext that they did not respect social distancing… to be then piled up together in police vans. They were released during the night with a fine of € 250.

The anti-racist wave is still in its infancy

For several decades, in Belgium as in many other countries, the fight against racism has struggled to attain a mass scale. Bourgeois politicians have played the racism card to maintain their ideological domination. Despite the attempts by the police and the Liberals to discredit the movement, what happened last Sunday was an important step which saw the self-organization and the collaboration of Black, de-colonilizing, and anti-racist organizations, all this with the support and the presence of members of the CCIB (Collective Against Islamophobia in Belgium), the UPJB (Union of Progressive Jews of Belgium), human rights organizations, leftist organizations, and unions, even if there were not enough of the latter.

One of the challenges for the future is to build a broad movement to combat police violence and abuses, challenging the institution of the police itself, integrating the fight against racism, against patriarchy, against LGBT-phobia, etc. Likewise, the focal point of convergence between anti-racist collectives made up of Black people will undoubtedly lead to new mobilizations on the issues of anti-Black racism. This movement will have to develop and popularize concrete demands which can continue to mobilize thousands of people in the near future.

Union activists and affiliates, the heart of the organized working class in Belgium, must join this movement for the rights of all workers and our democratic rights because the police regularly attack (legally or not) our right to demonstrate, our right to strike, our right to report on police brutality and other abuses. They must do so because the multi-racial youth that mobilized yesterday will be one of the motor forces of the struggles to come. The working class cannot win by letting hundreds of thousands among us be crushed because of our race or religion. The Gauche Anticapitliste (Anticapitalist Left) will continue to support these battles as best it can.

After one of the biggest anti-racist demonstrations of this century in Belgium, it is a time for hope.

Special report from Flanders

Despite ban more than 1200 antiracism demonstrators in Antwerp

More than 1200 demonstrators of all possible colors and faiths took to the streets of Antwerp on Sunday, June 7. They responded to an appeal circulated on social media. The organizers called for a peaceful and silent demonstration with respect for necessary health measures, such as maintaining social distance from each other.

Nevertheless, the demonstration was not permitted by the city council. Fortunately, many were not to be intimidated. Stewards from Antwerp’s progressive associations were responsible for maintaining order. The police were hardly noticeable during the action itself. Unfortunately, the Antwerp police did find it necessary to detain more than 100 people in and around the Groenplaats (a public square) after the action, transporting them in vans and giving them a GAS (local administrative fine) fine.

[Read next, Martina Gomes: Black Lives Matter and the antifascist struggle in Brazil.]

The demonstrators first and foremost wanted to express their solidarity with the African American residents of the United States who are targeted by white policemen. At the same time, this was only one of the reasons why so many wanted to demonstrate. As one of the speakers put it, “Racism is a virus that kills people in Belgium, too. But enough is enough!”

The organizers had tried unsuccessfully to get permission for similar events in six cities in Flanders. Only in Halle did the mayor allow formally an event to take place. Everywhere else organizers got negative answers, although the actions elsewhere were “tolerated” even thought local organizers were each given a GAS fines. One speaker received enthusiastic support for these words, “From tomorrow onwards, (June 8), we will be allowed to go to a café with ten people to get drunk. Surely it can’t be that we are not able to exercise our constitutional freedoms one day before that!”

This event in the largest city in Flanders (the Flemish-speaking section of Belgium) is an important and hopeful sign. While polls indicate that the fascist and racist Vlaams Belang might become the biggest party in Flanders (with around 25 percent in the polls), the protests shows that the opposition is not only numerous and diverse, but also determined. While observing eight minutes of silence — a moving tribute to George Floyd — we rightly raised our fists en masse in the manner of the Black Panthers.

[For international news and analysis from working-class and socialist points of view, read No Borders News.]

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