The Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the killing of 46-year-old George Floyd have quickly spread across the world, inspiring a wave of solidarity demonstrations in the UK, France, Spain, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and other European countries. These protests will certainly go down in history – but too often, discussions of race in Europe are filtered through the lens of what is happening in the United States.
Protesting racism in the US can help us to reflect and draw parallels, but it can also make us think that the main problem is over there, not here. In her book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, author and activist Reni Eddo-Lodge wrote that civil rights discussions across the pond are important, but also “a million miles away” from the realities of a Black woman living in the UK. “The US struggle against racism is globalised,” she writes, “eclipsing the Black British story so much that we convince ourselves that Britain has never had a problem with race.”
In a 2018 survey of 6,000 people of African descent from 12 EU states, conducted by the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), 24 percent of respondents said they were stopped by the police in the five years before the study. Forty-one percent of them thought it was because of racial profiling. Plus, 11 percent of people in the study who experienced racist violence said it was from a police officer. As another survey from 2017 found, of 10,500 Muslim immigrants and descendants of Muslim immigrants interviewed, 16 percent were stopped by the police in the year before the survey, and 42 percent of them believed it was because of their background. These figures are not only disproportionate in comparison to the populations of colour in most European countries, but also an underestimate according to the FRA.
Public trust in the police is relatively high in many European countries. And yet, every year, people of colour are dying after experiencing police brutality. Below are some of the most famous cases from across Europe over the past five years, focusing on stories where your action could make a difference. This is by no means a complete list, but a starting point for a wider conversation.
2015. Glasgow, Scotland.
What happened: Sheku Bayoh, 31, was a trainee gas engineer. He came from Sierra Leone to the UK as a teen and was described by his sister as a “much-loved father and family man, and a well-liked member of his community”. On the day he died, Sheku went to watch an MMA fight at a friend’s house, where he took MDMA and flakka, a synthetic stimulant. According to his family, the drugs made him act erratically.
Later that day, Sheku’s neighbours saw him walking around his home in Kirkcaldy, Scotland with a knife, and called the cops. By the time the police arrived, he was unarmed. Within an hour-and-a-half, Sheku was pronounced dead in hospital, having sustained 23 severe injuries. The police said they used aggressive restraining techniques because he was acting “like a zombie”, but CCTV footage showed many of their claims were exaggerated. According to the official version, Sheku was only pinned to the ground for 30 seconds, but an eyewitness said nine officers laid across him for minutes. “I heard him screaming. It sent chills through me. I heard the man shout to get the police off him. They never moved,” the bystander said.
The legal battle: In 2018, prosecutors decided not to charge any of the officers involved, after an investigation. But in a rare move, the Scottish government launched a public inquiry into the case in January of 2020, over five years after Sheku’s death. The results will come out in the next few months. “Sheku Bayoh was under the influence of drugs but he did not deserve to die,” explained the family’s lawyer, Aamer Anwar.
2016. Paris, France.
What happened: Adama Traoré died on his 24th birthday. His family remembers him as a “generous brother” and a “good listener”. They have worked tirelessly to make his case the symbol of antiracism in France. On the day of his death, Adama and his brother Bagui were stopped by the police, who were looking for Bagui, suspecting him of extortion. Adama fled because he had no ID. He was caught but managed to escape again. Finally, three police officers found him at a friend’s place. There were no witnesses to his arrest. According to the police, Adama had trouble breathing and felt faint while being taken to the station. He later died at the precinct. When the paramedics arrived, he was handcuffed and lying face down on the floor without a pulse. When his mum came looking for him at the station, she was lied to and told he was at the hospital, when he’d already passed away. The family was only informed of his death hours later.
The legal battle: In the past four years, three police autopsies and three counter-autopsies commissioned by Adama’s family were performed, each finding Adama suffocated. The police version blames his suffocation on a pre-existing heart condition combined with his weed consumption. The latest family counter-autopsy blames his death on the police use of a “prone restraint”, a technique – where someone is pinned to the ground – that can cause suffocation. The officers were exonerated in 2018, before the investigation was reopened in 2019 and a judge absolved them again in March of this year. On the 5th of June, the case was reopened to hear from two new witnesses – a woman who saw Adama’s first arrest and the friend he took shelter with before being caught the second time.
2017. London, UK.
What happened: “Rashan was 20 years old, a beloved son, brother, cousin, friend,” said his great uncle, Rod Charles, a former police chief inspector. In the early hours of the 22nd of July, the young father-of-one was followed into a convenience store in east London by an officer who suspected him of drug possession. Inside the shop, Rashan put a package in his mouth, later found to contain a mix of caffeine and paracetamol. The officer body-slammed him and searched his mouth while on top of him. The shop’s CCTV footage shows Rashan thrashing his limbs around. Interpreting his reaction as resisting arrest, the officer asked a member of the public to help him handcuff Rashan, who seemed unresponsive by that point. When he realised Rashan was unconscious, the officer called for back-up instead of an ambulance. A police medic performed first aid, but the object in his mouth had blocked his airways, giving him a heart attack. By the time the paramedics arrived, his heart had stopped beating.
The legal battle: In 2018, a jury ruled Rashan’s death an accident. They believed the officer’s restraint technique, a “seatbelt” hold, was appropriate. Although the officer failed to follow protocol and call an ambulance first, they said his actions did not amount to misconduct. Rashan’s great uncle Rod disputed the verdict, claiming the jury was heavily influenced by the coroner called to testify in the case, who had deep ties with the London police. The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) also conducted a separate investigation, which Rashan’s family described as “flawed” from the get-go. The IOPC concluded that the officer’s restraining technique was uncommon but did not contribute to Rashan’s death. The Crown Prosecution Service took no further action. “The absence of admission of any responsibility does not stall community relations by weeks or years, but sets it back generations,” the family commented in a statement. “Our work to receive answers continues.”
Mike Ben Peter
2018. Lausanne, Switzerland.
What happened: Mike Ben Peter, 37, was a Nigerian citizen and father-of-two. In 2018, the police stopped him during a “preventive control against street dealers” near the train station in Lausanne, saying he was behaving suspiciously. During his arrest, he was pepper-sprayed and hit in the genitals and knees, until he was forced to the ground, with six officers on top of him. According to the official report, he was held down for six minutes. Swiss police guidelines instruct a maximum of two minutes. When he became unconscious, the police called an ambulance and performed first aid. He died of a heart attack in hospital 12 hours later. The officers said they found cocaine balloons in his mouth, but his toxicology report was negative.
The legal battle: His death was ruled accidental in 2018. The officers involved in his arrest were never suspended and are still on duty, although the investigation is still ongoing.
2018. Kleve, Germany.
What happened: Amad Ahmad, 26, was a Kurdish refugee who fled northern Syria with his family to seek asylum in Germany in March of 2016. “He loved life,” said his mother Fadhila. In July of 2018, Amad was arrested after four girls complained that he’d made sexually suggestive gestures at them. His identity was run through the computer system, where the police found two outstanding arrest warrants from the city of Hamburg corresponding to another man, a young Malian with a similar pseudonym. The two had different personal descriptions – Amad wasn’t Black and was born in Aleppo, not Timbuktu. Nevertheless, Amad was arrested and held in custody for two-and-a-half months, even though the police had been notified by a public prosecutor that they had the wrong guy. He also complained about the switch to a prison psychologist.
In September, a fire broke out in his cell. Two weeks later, Amad died in hospital of his injuries. The police claimed he set his clothes on fire to take his own life, closing his window to go undetected. However, other inmates said Amad banged on his cell door and cried for help through his window in the 15 minutes it took for the police to intervene. Records show he also asked for help through his intercom. An expert also said the fire couldn’t have burnt to that extent with the cell window closed. “My son was imprisoned for three years in Syria,” said Amad’s father Malak Zaher. “He was tortured. Why would he have killed himself in Germany?”
The legal battle: In December of 2018, an inquiry was launched by a parliamentary committee. They investigated seven police officers and a prison doctor for false imprisonment. The investigation was ended one year later, citing a series of mistakes but no foul play. The family appealed this decision. In January of 2020, an expert sent the committee a confidential report explaining that the incorrect merging of Amad’s personal records with the Malian suspect named Amedy Guira happened three days after Amad’s arrest, meaning the two couldn’t have been mistaken for each other. The expert said Amad’s data might have been manipulated. Amad’s case reminded many of another famous incident of police misconduct in Germany, involving Sierra Leone refugee Oury Jalloh. Both Amad and Oury died in a cell fire under mysterious circumstances; both incidents were identified by the police as suicides.
2020. Zwolle, Netherlands.
What happened: Tomy Holten, 40, was a Dutch citizen of Haitian descent, who was about to become a father. He was arrested outside a supermarket on the 14th of March after employees said he harassed some customers. According to the police, Tomy – who went by Tony to family and friends – became unwell while being pinned down by up to six officers. An ambulance was called, but the paramedics said he was fit to be taken to the police station. Within 90 minutes, Tony was dead. “He was my dearest brother. He was always there for me,” said his brother. He said Tony struggled with drug addiction and had been in trouble for asking people for money in the past, but that his petty crimes did not warrant what happened.
The legal battle: The case will be investigated by the Dutch National Criminal Investigation Department, which is common after someone dies in police custody. His brother isn’t hopeful the investigation will be fair. He’s looking for witnesses willing to help.
2020. Brussels, Belgium.
What happened: Adil, 19, was a teenager from Brussels and a motorcycle enthusiast. His family decided to keep his surname and other personal details private. On the night of the 10th of April, a police patrol car started chasing him and a friend, both on their scooters, because they weren’t respecting the lockdown rules. The two took different routes and Adil made it to 700 metres from his parents’ home. According to the police, Adil was trying to overtake a van when his scooter hit a police car driving in the opposite direction. But a traffic expert noted there were no skids marks on the road and that the police car crossed the median strip by over 70 centimetres, a sign that the police might have hit Adil, not the other way around. Meanwhile, Adil’s friend had given up the chase and parked by the side of the road. As the officers wrote him a fine, he claimed he overheard someone saying, “We got him, we hit him” on the police walkie-talkie.
The legal battle: A judge has been appointed to conduct a pre-trial investigation and to recommend if someone should be indicted. This is the standard procedure in Belgium.