When the United States and Britain were forced to officially abolish slavery, they had no intention of ending their addiction to free labor. The crimes against humanity on the plantations in the Americas were transplanted to the colonies in Asia and Africa, while millions of Indians and Malays were trafficked to the plantations of the Caribbean, South America, and Southern Africa under a rebranded form of enslavement called indentured servitude.
The lived experience of Black people in the United States was projected onto the world and with it the United States exported its ways, its products, its ideas, its greed, and its violence.
It should come as no surprise then, that the public lynching of George Floyd united the globe, inspiring more than 60 countries worldwide and thousands of cities in the U.S. alone to protest police brutality and anti-Black racism. As U.S. power and trust wanes, its ability to capture hearts and minds remains as strong as ever because of the exploitation of Black culture as propaganda to maintain global goodwill.
Protestors are now using that same platform to export their rage.
The Youth Will Not Be Silenced
Freedom fighters should take enormous strength from the numbers of global youth standing up, speaking out, and collectively rejecting our unequal and unsustainable modern world. They have ushered in an unprecedented reckoning with the anti-Blackness that parasitically lives in societies all over the world. Our histories, traumas, and righteous fury are forever connected. The mistreatment of people with more melanin in their skin is continuously determined by the mistreatment of Black people in the United States.
The world now seems ripe for a fundamental restructuring promised during the decolonization era and the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. This moment of reckoning will pit those who want the status quo to continue against the force in the streets, determined to unravel the indignities plaguing humanity ever since the first colonizers left the shores of Western Europe in 1492.
This is not about white against Black or everyone against racism, but rather a reckoning to guarantee that human decency usurps the murderous legacies of a world system built on the violent kleptocracy of slaveholders and colonizers. It is a reckoning for all of the Atlantic west, which regurgitates their “enlightened values” as justification to exploit and oppress. As monuments of slave owners fall across the United States, and George Floyd’s image is projected onto the statue of Confederate general and enslaver, Robert E. Lee, in Richmond, Virginia, protestors in Britain and Belgium have heeded the call in solidarity.
This moment is just the beginning of a major reckoning for Britain’s Empire, which was assembled on a bloody history of white supremacist violence regularly obscured in favor of fantastical and triumphant narratives. Most egregious are the benevolent tales of Winston Churchill, an avowed racist responsible for the murder of millions of Indians.
British schools do not teach a word of colonial history. Many Britons likely first learned of Colston when his statue was torn down in June, and have no idea that until 2015, British taxpayers were still paying off the £20 million (about £17 billion today) compensation their government guaranteed the mess of human traffickers after slavery was abolished.
Most recently, Britain’s most racist impulses have begun to resurface. In 2018, dozens of Windrush generation migrants and their children – brought from Britain’s Caribbean colonies after the second World War as low paid workers, staffing vital jobs like nursing – were detained and deported. And in early 2020, Meghan Markle was chased out of the royal family as a result of pervasive racism.
We also cannot forget Raheem Sterling, one of England’s finest footballers, who is persistently demonized by the most widely circulated British publications. In 2019, despite the English Premier League’s carefully manicured image, broadcasted to 188 countries, Sterling was racially abused during a football match by a rival fan and it was caught on air. When the world’s most watched sports league resumed play in June 2020, a small group of fans hired a plane to fly over the stadium with a banner reading: “White Lives Matter” in response to all 22 players on the field taking a knee before kickoff.
Neither history nor the present moment caused any pause for UK’s government officials, who declared, in light of protests against anti-Black racism, that Britain is not racist. An op-ed in The Times, Britain’s paper of record, said that Black people have been “inculcated with the unchallengeable belief that they are victims of white society.” This is an insidious talking point found across Western Europe.
A Human Trafficker Drowned
In the port city of Bristol, once the central hub of the Atlantic slave trade – its docks transiting Africans from the Bight of Biafra to the West Indies – a galvanized crowd tore down a statue of Edward Colston, a notorious human trafficker. The protestors kneeled on the statue’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds to mourn George Floyd’s murder, then dragged it to the same harbor where historically slave ships anchored. They drowned Colston’s statue in a symbolic act to condemn the memory of a man whose company was responsible for shackling nearly 100,000 souls and killing 20,000 on the torturous Middle Passage.
Leopold’s Genocide in the Congo
Belgium is also facing a long overdue reckoning of its genocidal past. Young protestors defaced the many busts and statues of King Leopold II, bathing them in red paint and flying the flag of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) above them. In 1884, when Europe split up the African continent, the Congo Free State (today the DRC), was seized not by the Belgian state, but as a personal fiefdom of Leopold himself. The private militia of Leopold’s Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company killed between 10 and 20 million people.
Leopold’s ravaging and the corporations that moved in after condemned Central Africa to perpetual dysfunction. The vestiges of authoritarian theft, brutal militias, and child exploitation still provide companies worldwide with essential raw minerals like cobalt and coltan – essential components of your smartphones and Tesla vehicles. The gleaming cities of Antwerp, Ostend, and Brussels – the seat of the European Union – were all built on blood and stolen resources siphoned from what is today Africa’s fourth largest country with 87 million people.
France’s Special Violence
And let’s not forget about France’s reckoning. A clear denial of its horrific past was put on display once again when the former French ambassador to the U.S. declared France’s “history and historical fabric are different” from the United States. Adding that, “A lot of African-Americans didn’t think we are that bad.”
As history has proven, France has no moral high ground to stand upon. It ran the most vicious slave colony in Haiti, where its human traffickers deployed what C.L.R. James called “a special violence,” in his seminal work on the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins. Backed by U.S. naval power, France forced Haiti to pay 90 million Francs—or more than $20 billion in 2020—after the successful uprising (known as the Haitian Revolution) that forced France off the island, yielding the first independent Black republic.
France has routinely overthrown African leaders, who stood in opposition to its economic interests, since 1945. Even after facing the horrors of Nazi occupation, France did not hesitate in killing over one million Algerians in the North African country’s liberation struggle between 1954 and 1962. And the French treasury has controlled the currencies of its former West African colonies, denying any real economic freedom or true independence. France announced that they will stop pulling the strings of the West and Central African Franc in July 2020, over a half century after granting “independence.” But we all know that their multinational corporations will remain.
Germany is also facing a reckoning, despite being hailed as a leading model of atonement and reconciliation with its own genocidal past during World War II. In 1970, then German Chancellor Willy Brandt got on his knees in the Warsaw Ghetto, and pleaded for the Jewish community’s forgiveness. But not so much as an acknowledgement, let alone an apology, has ever emerged from Germany’s highest political offices for its colonial genocide of Namibia’s Herero and Nama people. Between 1904 and 1908, the German Empire’s General Adrian Dietrich Lothar von Trotha murdered tens of thousands of people by trapping them without food or water in the deserts of southwest Africa. Survivors were interned in concentration camps.
Vidas Negras Importam
Perhaps the single most urgent reckoning that the United States must export, is to its closest sibling, Brazil. Its society reels from the same damning legacy—human traffickers brought 10 times as many enslaved Africans to Brazil as they did to the United States. In Brazil, the fifth largest country in the world, Black people now make up 80 percent of all police shooting victims.
In 2018, Jair Bolsonaro, a keen admirer of Brazil’s former military dictatorship, strolled to victory on a brazen anti-Black and anti-Indigenous campaign. Within one year, police killings reached a record high. Confrontations with special military police tasked with subduing the favelas peaked last year, when an 8-year-old was shot dead in a van in front of her own mother. And within a few days of George Floyd’s killing, 14-year-old, João Pedro Matos Pinto, had an assault rifle unleashed on his back. In response, crowds marched with banners reading Vidas Negras Importam (Black Lives Matter).
Abolish Zwarte Piet
The North American uprisings will soon trigger more reckonings in Europe. In the Netherlands, lauded as a bastion of tolerance, the grotesque annual celebration of Zwarte Piet or “Black Pete,” a Dutch tradition of blackface, divides the country but continues on. Far right icon Geert Wilders tweeted in response to Black Lives Matter protests that #ZwartePietMatters. His “Party for Freedom” is the second largest in parliament. The abolition of Zwarte Piet should awaken a reckoning of untold Dutch atrocities from South America to Southeast Asia.
Time to Look in the Mirror
This momentous global reckoning was merely set off by the cascade of events in the United States, but it has been gaining momentum for decades. Young people, armed with a knowledge of the past, and confronted with the incremental demise of a fiercely protected status quo, are boycotting the world created by the Atlantic west through its many depredations of slavery, genocide, imperialism, and plunder committed with impunity.
The ruling classes must confront the reality of how this world came to be. The world they have inherited and are determined to uphold. If they do not accept and address that it is not only unsustainable for the planet and humanity, but also a form of daily terrorism and indignity for Black and Brown people around the globe, the non-violent reckoning of direct action could turn bloody.
The outcome of the 2020 uprisings will determine which Black experience is now projected onto the world. And the question remains; will we continue to slide towards barbarism or will we commit ourselves to creating a more equitable and tolerant world for all?
Vik SohonieEditorial Board Member
Vik Sohonie is a Grammy-nominated producer and founder of Ostinato Records, a label dedicated to sounds from the global South. Born in India, Vik was raised in Southeast Asia and the US and spent extended periods of time in Europe and Africa. He is based in Bangkok and New York.