Protestor in Brazil
Category: Featured News, News

Title: SFS On Topic: SFS Community Engages With Global Anti-Racism Movements

Author: Mairead MacRae
Date Published: June 12, 2020

This story is one of a two-part series exploring how the SFS community is responding to George Floyd’s death and the mobilization of global anti-racism movements that followed in its wake. This first piece shares the testimonies of SFS community members who have been involved in direct action against systemic racism and provides faculty analysis on how the Black Lives Matter movement is resonating across the world. The second piece explores how global institutions are responding to the movement as it gathers momentum across the world.

On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, died in Minneapolis, MN, after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Video footage of the killing, in which bystanders and Floyd begged for his life, soon spread around the internet, drawing international outrage and condemnation of police brutality against Black people and people of color in the United States.

Floyd’s killing came just months after those of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, whose deaths also highlight the systemic racism of the U.S. law enforcement system. Taylor was shot in her bed when police raided her home, while Arbery was murdered by two white residents while jogging in a South Georgia neighborhood. Despite knowing the names of his killers, the local police department failed to issue arrest warrants for the two men for months.

Floyd, Taylor and Arbery’s murders sparked widespread protests against systemic racism in the United States, with major demonstrations in more than 2,000 U.S. towns and cities drawing hundreds of thousands of people into the streets in all 50 states. The killings also reverberated globally; Black Lives Matter protests took place in cities all over the world and international leaders ranging from the Chairperson of the African Union Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat to German Chancellor Angela Merkel issued statements condemning Floyd’s death.

As these historic protests continue to spark debate, reform and reprisals around the world, members of the SFS community have been responding to Floyd’s killing, and the widespread movement it has mobilized, by joining protests, taking action from home and contributing their expertise to the discussion of how these events are influencing global affairs.

Read more in the following sections:

  • SFS Community Members Add Their Voices to Black Lives Matter Movement
  • Black Lives Matter in Africa: Connecting to the Continent and in the Diaspora
  • A Latin American Case Study: Policing and Racism in Brazil
  • Confronting Colonial and Slavery Legacies in Europe
  • Human Rights and Geopolitical Implications in Asia

SFS Community Members Add Their Voices to Black Lives Matter Movement

Header image: A protestor in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Buda Mendes/Getty Images. Photo: Matthew T. Rader

Prof. Nicole Bibbins Sedaca (MSFS’97), Deputy Director and Co-Concentration Chair for International Politics and Security in the Master of Science in Foreign Service Program, attended a prayer and protest meeting at the U.S. Capitol building, which was organized by a number of D.C.-area church communities. 

Sedaca Headshot
Prof. Nicole Bibbins Sedaca attended a prayer meeting and protest at the U.S. Capital Building.

She describes the event as “a quiet protest against what’s going on in this country.” In addition to the local faith leaders who led the meeting, the event was attended by U.S. Senator Mitt Romney, who Bibbins Sedaca says stood in quiet solidarity with the crowd. A leading voice on democracy promotion and human rights, Bibbins Sedaca believes that Romney’s participation highlights the importance of national leaders engaging on the issue of racism in the United States.

“[His] show of leadership, humility and engagement is so essential right now to demonstrate to the American population that our elected leaders are committed to ensuring that our democratic institutions function fully and that those democratic values are realized for all people,” she says.

Smith Headshot
Associate Professor Lahra Smith joined protests with her family.

SFS Associate Professor in the African Studies Program Lahra Smith also joined the protests. “I have joined two protests in the last ten days because Black lives matter,” Smith says.  “We have lost too many Black women and men to police brutality and to racist killings and each time this happens we add another name to a long list, and it is time for this to stop.”

Smith says that she knows that, as a professor of African Studies, she has an obligation to critically engage with questions of race in her research and teaching, and to meaningfully support communities of color. 

“I have a particular responsibility and opportunity to teach the histories of slavery and colonialism and their impact on politics across Africa,” she says. “For my students, I always want them to know that they matter to me and I will always use my classroom, my research and my teaching to educate, and advocate for Black, Indigenous and Latinx, DACA and immigrant voices.”

SFS students have been joining the protests, too. Many are spending the summer at home as COVID—19 restricts travel. William Hammond (SFS’23) marched in downtown Los Angeles.

William Hammond (SFS’23) demonstrated in downtown Los Angeles.

Hammond admitted that his family was concerned for his safety at the protests. “My family advised me against it due to the fact that, you know, I’m a 19-year-old Black man,” he told the student news magazine The Voice. “Who knows what’s going to happen? And that’s just sort of the reality of what we’re living in.”

“I believe [the protests are] justified because of the years of torment that Black people have lived under in our country,” he continued. “This is during slavery, this is after slavery, this is everything. Everything that we’ve had to endure is sort of culminating right now in this huge movement that might even surpass the Rodney King riots.”

Christina Ruder (SFS’23) joined the protests at the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge in Dallas, Texas. Police fired rubber bullets and tear gas into the crowd, and Ruder was detained on the bridge by police, who restrained her using zip tie handcuffs.

Christina Ruder (SFS’23) was subjected to aggressive police force during protests in Dallas.

Ruder, who is half-Ethiopian, told The Voice that she was terrified by the experience. “I knew there was no reason I should get shot, but I was still scared of making any movements,” she said. “I was completely still. The people in front of me were crying. I was crying.”

Ruder was later released without charge and attended two more protests, which were organized in conjunction with local police departments. Ruder expressed her frustration with these later actions, which she says mostly confined demonstrators to side streets, out of the public eye. The proximity of police officers did enable her to speak directly with the local police chief about racial profiling, but she said that, “I really did not get a satisfying answer.”

Though Ruder has been taking action in the streets, she says that some of the most vital anti-racist work individuals can do right now is to educate family members and peers.

“I think the most important work is in checking your friends, checking your family and making sure that if they say something that sounds off, you don’t just sit there passively,” Ruder said. “I think that’s where the real work is: making other people realize that this is actually an issue.”

SFS graduate student Ishanee Chanda (MSFS’21) has not been able to join the street protests due to the risk it would pose of bringing COVID—19 home to her younger brother, who is immunocompromised. Instead, she has been working tirelessly from home, amplifying online resources detailing protests and demands, signing and sharing petitions and encouraging those in her digital network to donate to nonprofits in support of Black lives. 

Ishanee Chanda (MSFS’21) has been taking direct action from home.

“Protesting on social media, online and in your home is very different from being on the ground. It requires being ‘on’ all the time in a way that people might not imagine,” she says. 

Chanda is no stranger to advocacy work on issues of racial justice. For the past semester, she has served as the President of Diversity and Inclusion @ Georgetown, a graduate student group that works to educate peers on issues relating to identity and inclusivity. 

Chanda has used this moment to have difficult but vital conversations with family and friends and challenge them to think more deeply about how racism operates in the United States and around the world.

“I’ve been watching news media with my parents, pointing out the things that are missing and misinformation as it is dictated to the audiences of cable news,” she says. “I’m having hard conversations with friends and parents who might not understand why America has erupted in protest. Being anti-racist is a verb, not a stand-still adjective and I do it every day.”

Black Lives Matter in Africa: Connecting to the Continent and in the Diaspora

Photo: Gordwin Odhiambo/AFP via Getty Images

Across the world, George Floyd’s death drew people into the streets and onto social media platforms to denounce racist violence. #BlackLivesMatter was soon trending across African social media, local residents painted a large mural on the side of a building in Kibera—a slum in Nairobi, Kenya—and protests were organized in many major African cities, including Nairobi; Lagos, Nigeria; Johannesburg, South Africa and Monrovia, Liberia. 

Prof. Scott Taylor explains that George Floyd’s death resonated with African communities, and many Africans joined protests denouncing global anti-Blackness as well as police brutality in their own countries.

Prof. Scott Taylor, Director of the African Studies Program at SFS, says that the African protests are reflective not only of cross-continental Black solidarity, and a shared experience of racism, but also of a common outrage at police brutality. In some of the cities where protests took place, such as Nairobi and Lagos, local police have used deadly force against citizens breaking coronavirus lockdown restrictions.

“Kenya has experienced several police killings of civilians in response to COVID—19. It’s very recent and very, very fresh,” Taylor says. “The internet is abuzz with activity, concern and alarm about what’s happening vis-a-vis the Black community in the United States.”

He also highlights how African writers, many of whom live throughout the diaspora, are using their reach and influence to voice African support for Black Americans. On June 2, 105 African writers penned an open letter of support for the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States.

“This is an expression of African writers, many of whom are global in terms of their geography, expressing solidarity,” he says. “There’s a movement afoot to align all those who are concerned about equality, rights, democracy and the fair application and equal application of the laws,” he adds.

Taylor explains why it is important that scholars take a long view when exploring cross-continental linkages between anti-racist movements in North America and Africa. “There has always been a notion of incipient pan-Africanism [between African-Americans and Africans],” he says. “Those two communities have found kindred spirits. You saw this in the anti-apartheid era in the eighties and in the intersection between the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. and African liberation in the 1950s and 60s.”

African Studies Assistant Professor of Teaching Khaled Esseissah expanded on this reciprocal relationship, pointing to historic ties between Ghana and the United States as an example of the longstanding bonds between Africans and people of Afro-descent globally.

Assistant Professor of Teaching Khaled Esseissah details a long history of connection between Africans and Black communities around the world and emphasizes the importance of intellectual diaspora networks in building global Black solidarity.

“There was a memorial service that was held to honor George Floyd in Accra, organized by the Ghaninan authorities and the African American community in Ghana,” Esseissah explains. “There is a strong African-American community in Ghana that goes back to the ‘50s and ‘60s and to the first president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah. He studied in the United States and had strong connections with African-American intellectual figures such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X and others.”

George Floyd’s name will be added to the memorial wall at the Diaspora African Forum in the W.E.B. Du Bois Center in Accra, Ghana, which depicts deceased heroes and leaders of pan-Africanism. Esseissah argues that Floyd’s killing and the protests that followed has tapped into international Black solidarity and provided a space for people of African descent around the world to challenge anti-Blackness.

“Over the last months, in the midst of this global pandemic, we’ve seen anti-Blackness on the rise,” Essessiah says. “For example, French doctors went on TV and talked about testing a COVID—19 vaccine on Africans. They falsely claimed that Africans don’t observe proper hygiene practices. To them, that justifies testing a vaccine on Africans. This was blatant racism.”

“In China, African students and migrants have recently suffered discrimination over fears they could spread the COVID—19 virus. There was a wave of hate against African communities in Guangzhou province in China,” he continues. “Black Lives Matter protests resonated well with people in Africa.”

“This is really a sad moment in our history, of outrage and anger. But it is also a moment of hope, a moment when we see many young African-Americans standing up and saying loud and clear, ‘enough is enough,’” Essessiah adds. “This sends a strong message to all of us to move quickly and act boldly to end racism in the United States and around the world.”

A Latin American Case Study: Policing and Racism in Brazil

Photo: Getty Images

Prof. Bryan McCann, Latin American Studies Concentration Advisor and Professor and Chair of the Department of History, discusses how recent developments in the historiography on racism in Brazil illuminate the ways that George Floyd’s death impacted people in the country.

“A generation ago, we still imagined that understandings of race differed dramatically in the U.S and Brazil, but the similarities, based in parallel histories of slavery and racial inequality, grow ever more apparent,” he says.

Prof. Bryan McCann discusses the parallels between racist policing in the United States and Brazil.

One particularly important facet of this comparative analysis is police violence, McCann continues. “Racial profiling and police violence against people of color are strikingly similar in Brazil and the U.S., with far greater intensity in Brazil,” he explains.

Noting that police in the state of Rio de Janeiro killed more than 1,800 people in 2019, McCann says that there are clear parallels between the lack of accountability for police officers in Brazilian cases and the recent police killings in the U.S., which fueled anti-racist protests in Rio’s favelas. “While police try to justify these killings as based on an ‘act of resistance,’ favela residents know that police often shoot first and claim resistance later.” McCann says. “Recent killings in Rio are very similar to those of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Favela residents in Rio joined in the global protests, as did their counterparts in other Brazilian cities.”

The linkages between protests movements internally in Brazil and the rest of the world are fueled by social media, says McCann. “Brazilians of all political affiliations are extremely active on social media,” he explains. “Twitter and other apps have been useful in creating national and international networks connecting people in Rio, for example, with those in other cities in protests against police violence.”

However, social media can also serve to undermine anti-racist efforts. As McCann asserts, social media has been far more effectively utilized by Brazil’s right wing and was decisive in Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s election victory.

McCann says that the divisive leader has played an important role in the increase in police brutality in recent years, and believes that the Brazilian protests could have some impact on reducing the number of police killings. Yet, he is less confident in the ability of the demonstrations to achieve more expansive reform of Brazilian policing.

“I am hopeful that these protests represent an inflection point in the United States, and that we will see clear changes in police tactics,” he says. “I am modestly hopeful that the current spike of police killings in Brazil, clearly linked to the Bolsonaro government, will diminish. But I am less hopeful for thoroughgoing police reform in Brazil.”

Confronting Colonial and Slavery Legacies in Europe

Photo: Giulia Spadafora/NurPhoto via Getty Images

In Europe, people joined their counterparts in the United States and protested in the streets of cities and towns across the continent, including in Amsterdam, The Netherlands; Paris, France and Budapest, Hungary. As Prof Katrin Sieg, Director of the BMW Center for German and European Studies, notes, these demonstrations expressed outrage at George Floyd’s death but also drew attention to cases where people of color had died at the hands of police in their own countries.

Professor Katrin Sieg headshot
Prof. Katrin Sieg explores how European Black Lives Matter protesters called out racism in their own countries, as well as in the U.S., and targeted powerful symbols of the continents colonial and slave trading legacies.

“In each place, George Floyd’s name was also linked to that of victims of homegrown racism,” she says. “Oury Jalloh in Germany, who died in police custody in Dessau; Adil (last name withheld), a 19-year old Belgian of Moroccan descent in Brussels, who died while being chased by police; and 24-year-old Adama Traoré, a Frenchman of Malian origin, who died in police custody in France four years ago.”

Protesters also called out racial inequalities in other areas of public life. In London, UK, protesters remembered Belly Mujinga, a railway ticket seller who died of COVID—19 in April after a man who said he had coronavirus allegedly spat at her and a colleague at Victoria Station in the city.

“Her name underscores that in the UK, too, black Britons are four times as likely to die of COVID—19 as whites. They also received a disproportionate number of fines for breaking lockdown rules, according to official statistics,” Sieg says.

In Germany, Sieg states, renewed public discussion about racism has highlighted blind spots among national leaders. In 2018, she explains, a UN report found that people of African descent in Germany suffer racial discrimination, Afrophobia and racial profiling in their daily lives, but that their situation is often unacknowledged in wider, German society. 

“Efforts to pass an anti-discrimination bill in the German parliament, and public criticism of police harassment and racial profiling over the past two weeks, elicited a backlash among the police union and some conservative politicians,” Sieg says. “The interior minister for the state of Baden-Württemberg, for instance, asserted that ‘Germany is not the U.S.A. We have no racism problem in the police here.’”

In the German capital, the Afro-Caribbean artist Eme Freethinker painted a portrait of George Floyd on a remnant of the Berlin Wall, which Sieg characterizes as a highly potent symbolic act. “This year is the thirtieth anniversary of peaceful protests that tore down the Wall. Since that time, it has become a global symbol for the unjustifiable, deadly divides between people erected by any authoritarian regime,” she says.

She continues, “But the Wall—now an open-air gallery of murals—also reminds those who now cower behind one on Pennsylvania Avenue, of the power, creativity and resolve of people to counter all attempts to segregate the inhabitants of a common world from each other.”

The European protests also provoked a reckoning with the colonial and slave trading legacies of cities and their white elites, the profits from which still contribute to European wealth. In cities across Belgium, statues and buildings dedicated to King Leopold II, whose colonial rule in Congo resulted in the genocide of millions of Congolese, became the site of protests and many were defaced. 

As Sieg explains, the slave-labor system the monarch presided over continues to generate wealth in Belgium. “[King Leopold] made a fortune from his privately-owned colony—in excess of $1.1 billion in today’s dollars,” she says. “A 2007 survey showed that the fortunes of nine of the 23 richest families in Belgium, too, had roots in the colonial Congo.”

In Bristol, UK, demonstrators tore down a statue of slave trader and Conservative Party Member of Parliament Edward Colston and dumped it in the very river where his slave ships docked in the city. “Such actions are not ‘just’ symbolic protests against figures of colonial genocide, ruthless extraction and enslavement,” Sieg says. “They call out in the strongest possible terms the long, unprocessed history of colonialism that manifests in contemporary violence and inequality.”

“Such topplings and defacements channel grief for George Floyd into outrage over racism in Europe,” she adds. “Impatience with white, wealthy European elites’ lack of responsibility for colonialism and its contemporary racist manifestations is translated into urgent demands for repairing centuries of predation.”

Human Rights and Geopolitical Implications in Asia

Photo: Thomas Maresca/UPI

News of George Floyd’s killing, the U.S. protests and the local and federal governments’ forceful responses reverberated in Asia, too. Among the international responses getting the most global exposure is that of South Korea, where young people in particular have mobilized around the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Protests took place in Seoul and, when white supremacists attempted to get #WhiteLivesMatter and #WhiteOutWednesday trending on social media, vast numbers of K-pop fans spammed the hashtags with concert footage and memes to drown out racist posts. 

Prof. Michael Green, Director of the Asian Program at SFS, explains that the Korean response is unsurprising. “South Korea has a strong tradition of social protest, including most recently the huge candlelight vigils protesting President Park Geun-hye’s corruption that led to her ouster and imprisonment. Social media fueled those movements,” he says.

Prof. Michael Green outlines the geopolitical implications of the U.S. federal government response to the Black Lives Matter protests, as well as how U.S. anti-racism movements are influencing civil society movements in Asia and vice versa.

“Protest is part of Korea’s national political culture now,” he continues. “Meanwhile, K-pop and Korean pop culture more broadly have strong followings around the world. So these gestures are the confluence of those two things—a modern Korean tradition of large scale protests leading to peaceful change and the connectivity of Korean pop culture to the world.”

According to Green, the Korean example can also offer insights into how social movements can maintain momentum and successfully instigate change. “If U.S. protest movements can learn anything from Korea, it is that movements succeeded in Korea only when they broadened the base of participation to include moderates from the middle class,” he says.

“When the protests include housewives pushing baby trams and office workers taking time from their paid jobs—in other words, the kind of people who don’t normally protest—that is when politicians take notice and change legislation,” he adds. 

In addition to local activism on the ground, this latest mobilization of the Black Lives Matter movement, and especially local and federal governments’ reactions to it, is already having a significant impact on geopolitical relations and civil society movements in the Asia-Pacific region.

Green draws attention to the propaganda boost the violent U.S. police response to protesters offers authoritarian governments in the region. “We can clearly see that Beijing, Moscow and even Pyongyang are claiming that the United States has no right to criticize those countries’ use of force against their own citizens,” he says. “This is not new. Moscow has been propagandizing about American racism since 1917 and Beijing’s aggressive new ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy over the last year has targeted racism to blunt American criticism of China.”

“This is an attack on the United States, of course, but the sub-text is that democracy brings chaos,” he adds.

How the U.S. government responds to these protests could have serious consequences for communities suffering human rights abuses at the hands of states in the region, including Uighurs held in re-education camps in China, hundred of thousands of individuals held in North Korea’s “Yodok” concentration camps, Africans expelled from China at the beginning of the COVID—19 pandemic and Tibetans and prisoners of conscience held in China. 

“These victims of repression have no more powerful advocate for their own human rights than the United States, no matter how flawed we are,” Green says. “They would be horrified if we retreated from their cause because of our own challenges with police brutality and systemic racism at home.”

Green continues, “The most important thing the United States can do is demonstrate that peaceful protest can lead to a new consensus and change—which it seems is possible as one watches the protests continue on a large scale with broad participation and none of the violence we saw in the first few days.”

“That would be a powerful example for the world if we can do it. It would show that democracy works—that we are not afraid to shine a light on our own deep flaws and make changes in a peaceful way—even if that requires people to do so in the streets rather than in the legislature,” he adds.