‘Say Their Names’: Why the George Floyd protests resonate globally

Why We Wrote This

The killing of George Floyd has sparked protests outside the U.S., and not just about American police injustice. Those abroad are taking the moment to raise their voices about racist policing at home.

Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters
A woman attends a banned demonstration planned in memory of Adama Traoré, a 24-year-old black Frenchman who died in a 2016 police operation which some have likened to the death of George Floyd in the United States, in Paris on June 2, 2020.

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The killing of George Floyd beneath the knee of a white police officer in Minnesota has not just fundamentally changed the American conversation on race. Protests have spilled to several countries – and a gaze that has often been fixated on the deeply entrenched racism and violence in the U.S. has shifted domestically.

In recent days, thousands of citizens have protested, from the German capital of Berlin to Barrie, Ontario, from Montreal to Mexico City. While many march in rage at the death of Mr. Floyd, protesters also honor those victims who have died in the custody of their own law enforcement.

In Paris, nearly 20,000 people protested in the streets over the death of Adama Traoré, a 24-year-old Malian Frenchman who died in 2016 after police pinned him down and suffocated him following a chase. In Toronto, in the days after the death of Mr. Floyd, a Black Canadian, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, died in a fall from her high-rise apartment balcony in Toronto in the presence of police. The tragedy has led to a week of peaceful protest urging Canada to face up to its own racism.

And protesters and activists say they believe today’s anger and anguish, which has rarely garnered such international attention, could be a pivotal moment to renew proposals and policies against racial discrimination worldwide.

Adama Traoré.

Amine Bentounsi.

Regis Korchinski-Paquet.

Chantel Moore.

Giovanni López.

Collins Khosa.

They are names that may have remained unknown beyond the circle of family who bury them. Now their memories are being invoked in marches, written in marker on cardboard signs, and commemorated across social media as victims of police brutality against racial and ethnic minorities that spans well beyond the United States.

The killing of George Floyd beneath the knee of a white police officer in Minnesota has not just fundamentally changed the American conversation on race. Protests have spilled to several countries – and a gaze that has often been fixated on the deeply entrenched racism and violence in the U.S. has shifted domestically.

In recent days, thousands of citizens have protested, from the German capital of Berlin to Barrie, Ontario, from Montreal to Mexico City. While many march in rage at the death of Mr. Floyd, protesters also honor those victims who have died in the custody of their own law enforcement.

In Paris, nearly 20,000 people protested in the streets over the death of Adama Traoré, a 24-year-old Malian-Frenchman who died in 2016 after police pinned him down and suffocated him following a chase that ensued after an ID check. “We live with these tragedies, and each subsequent tragedy brings us back to our own,” says Amal Bentounsi, who lost her own brother in 2012 after he was shot in the back by police. “George Floyd’s death resurrected awareness about what is going on in France.”

In Toronto, in the days after video captured Derek Chauvin putting weight on Mr. Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, a Black Canadian, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, fell to her death from her high-rise apartment balcony in Toronto in the presence of police. Though the details are unclear, the tragedy has led to a week of peaceful protest urging Canada to face up to its own racism. “This is happening all over the world, it’s not just a single situation in the U.S.,” says Keenan McFoy, a university student in criminology, at one of several marches held in Toronto over the weekend.

And protesters and activists say they believe today’s anger and anguish, which has rarely garnered such international attention, could be a pivotal moment to renew proposals and policies – from mandating body cameras and collecting better race-based data to more politically divisive calls like “defunding” police – against the deafening silence of resignation and denial about racial discrimination worldwide.

***

For Ms. Bentounsi in France, decades of discrimination made her brother Amine, a young man of North African descent with multiple theft and drug charges, a perfect candidate for police violence in a country that has long been taught to fear those like him.

She is not naive about her brother. At the age of 13, Mr. Bentounsi became the youngest French person to be imprisoned at the time, after setting a garbage can on fire outside a preschool. He spent the next decade in and out of jail. Then in 2012, after going on the run during a prison leave, police were called on him in a Paris suburb.

When they approached him, he threw a fake grenade and police shot him as he ran. He died at age 29.

Ms. Bentounsi says it’s almost as if her brother knew his fate before everyone else. His favorite song had been “Hexagone,” a 1975 French song that called France a police state. When Ms. Bentounsi poked fun at him for humming the old-fashioned tune, her brother scoffed back, “You don’t understand a thing.”

Just how often minorities like him are killed at the hands of police is a narrative without data, since the government does not track race-based killings and censuses on race or ethnicity are banned in France. Instead anecdotes mount, often explosively.

In 2005, when minority youths were chased by police and two electrocuted after hiding in a power substation in the outskirts of Paris, it led to three weeks of rioting. France was roiled anew in debates about the marginalization of ethnic minorities after the terrorist attacks in 2015 in Paris. But little has moved to fully address the issue of inclusion in France and less to tackle race head-on.

Nacira Guénif-Souilamas, a socio-anthropologist at the University of Paris 8, says the concept of the “other” traces back to France’s foundation as a colonial power and slave state. “This idea of the ‘other’ was always entrenched in how the French state thought of itself and how it exerted power,” she says.

Even today there has been an unwillingness for the government to recognize race as a central issue of poverty, crime, or discriminating police surveillance. After the June 2 Paris protest, Christophe Castaner, France’s minister of the Interior, told the nation there was no structural racism within the French police. After a second week of protests exploded across the nation, he reiterated that the police as a system was not racist, but said that there would be zero tolerance for officers who are.

Sebastian Roché, a sociologist of police and security at the French National Center for Scientific Research, says a growing alliance of intellectuals, leftists, and minority voices are challenging the traditional narrative. “There is a divorce between civil society and the state,” he says.

That introspection is not limited to France. Over the weekend, as thousands took the streets in peaceful marches across the United Kingdom, signs bearing Mr. Floyd’s name and Black Lives Matter shared space with those linking U.S. racism to British colonialism. In Bristol, protesters tore down a controversial statue of a slave trader.

Ms. Bentounsi says now is the time to push changes that are garnering more mainstream attention beyond devastated families or activists. Her nonprofit has created an app called UVP (Urgence Violences Policieres, or Police Violence Emergency). Because the use of body cameras by French police has been spotty and victims complain they destroy phones or erase images taken by bystanders, the app would allow users to quickly upload images to the nonprofit to be reviewed by a lawyer to give society a broader view of discrimination at play.

“We as a nonprofit are deeply hurt by the comments being made [by the government or media] about this racist crime taking place in the U.S. when no one is even talking about what is happening in France.” 

***

In Canada, that kind of denial has been easier to promulgate with its position next to the U.S., where racial divides often rage to the surface. Instead Canada promotes its tolerance and diversity as part of its national ethos, particularly in its biggest city, Toronto, which is among the world’s most multiethnic. But that’s not the Canada that many indigenous and non-white Canadians experience.

Race-based data is not systematically collected in Canada either. But the Ontario Human Rights Commission published a landmark report in 2018 that showed between 2013 and 2017, a Black person in Toronto was nearly 20 times more likely than a white person to be involved in a fatal shooting by the Toronto Police Service, despite Black people making up only 8.8% of Toronto’s population.

Blair Gable/Reuters
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wears a mask as he takes a knee during a rally against the killing of George Floyd, on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa, Ontario, June 5, 2020.

As protests mounted over the week eulogizing Ms. Korchinski-Paquet, Chantel Moore, a young First Nations woman living in New Brunswick, was shot by a police officer during a call to check on her well-being that is now under investigation. Denise O’Neil Green, vice president of equity and community inclusion at Ryerson University in Toronto, says both cases have amplified the movement here, shattering the myth that racism doesn’t exist in Canada.

“What I see here as a pivotal movement, not only in Canada but around the world, is that people see themselves reflected in this experience in terms of interactions with the police,” she says. “This moment I really see as a catalyst for people to begin to speak their own truths and be critical of their institutions of policing and how to begin to disrupt that.”

It is a demand that is harder for leaders to ignore, as they field questions about requiring law enforcement to wear body cameras or reprioritizing funds from police to more robust social services. Last week the premiers of Quebec and Ontario denied systematic racism in their provinces, but under fire, Ontario Premier Doug Ford the next day walked back his statement.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took a knee at a protest in Ottawa in a sign of solidarity with protests in the Canadian capital. Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders did so on Friday, and then later announced he is resigning this summer. Blasted as hollow publicity stunts by some critics, other protesters say it’s a sign that white privilege can no longer remain unquestioned. Clive McFoy, a hospital worker originally from Jamaica who was at the Toronto protest Friday, says he brought his two college-aged sons to bear witness to what could become a moment of “social change.”

Says his son Keenan: “When I saw the video of Floyd, I was so angered. But I didn’t want to sit there and be angry,” he says. “Seeing everything going on in the U.S. inspired me to want to do more. They are doing a bunch of stuff, why can’t we?”

***

The pandemic has ground the world to a halt. But it has put racial and class divides in sharp relief as poor minorities have been among the worst hit by COVID-19. That has lent more urgency to the anti-racism movement that is growing internationally – and given police more room to abuse powers, the very tactics for which protesters are demanding justice.

In the Mexican state of Jalisco, a young bricklayer named Giovanni López was detained by police last month for reportedly not wearing a face mask. He died after being taken into police custody. Over the past several days, angry, mostly young protesters have taken to the streets calling for an end to police brutality – a movement that was inspired by protests in the U.S. “If this news about Giovanni came out before [the George Floyd demonstrations] we probably wouldn’t have seen protests like this,” says María Inclán, a professor of political science at Mexico’s Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (CIDE) who focuses on social movements.

Race has not risen to the fore at protests in Mexico, where the history of the Mexican Revolution defines all Mexicans as mestizo, a mix of indigenous and Spanish blood, history, and culture. That narrative has long served to shut down conversations on race, even though darker-skinned Mexicans live a daily reality of discrimination.

“It is based on this argument that we are all equal,” says Valeria Angola, a member of the Afro-Mexican women’s collective Flores de Jamaica, which was founded to draw attention to the realities of being Black in Mexico. “But when you start to see who can access higher education or who can stay home or maintain a healthy distance during COVID-19, you realize in reality we are not equal.”

Edgard Garrido/Reuters
A man holds a candle during a demonstration against the killing of George Floyd, in front of the U.S embassy in Mexico City June 4, 2020.

A 2017 study published by Vanderbilt University’s Latin American Public Opinion Project found that “race is the single most important determinant of a Mexican citizen’s economic and educational attainment.” There’s a 45% gap in educational achievement between the darkest- and lightest-skinned Mexicans, the report found.

Report co-author Daniel Zizumbo says that because racism doesn’t exist in the national discourse, there are few studies on how racial bias plays out in policing or the judicial system. “We know this [bias] happens in the U.S., but in Mexico everyone assumes that we are colorblind. And because of that, we don’t have the chance to study it profoundly or implement policies that cite these biases.”

But now some Mexicans are calling for recognition of how much discrimination penetrates every facet of Mexican society, often with life-or-death stakes. Celebrities like actor Gael García Bernal and director Guillermo del Toro have spoken out about police brutality and the need for justice in Mr. López’s death. And individuals are trying to start conversations among their peers about the role of race in everyday life.

“Are you against racism in the U.S.… ? But in Mexico you say chacha [infantilizing slang for a housekeeper], indio [Indian], you make fun of [Oscar-nominated indigenous actress] Yalitzia [Aparicio] ...” wrote Ana Carlota Hervel, a lawyer in Mexico City, on her Facebook page.

“I have seen a lot of reactions here in Mexico [to the George Floyd protests in the US] that have surprised me,” says Ms. Angola. “This wave of indignation has been ignited.”

***

In South Africa, some activists have drawn strength from the movement growing around the globe.

When a man named Collins Khosa was killed by soldiers enforcing South Africa’s strict lockdown in April, there was an initial outcry. But it grew in strength and intensity after protests began in the U.S. following the killing of Mr. Floyd.

Young Black activists like Tumi Moloto, who is referred to as they, said they saw it as their responsibility to speak out against both Mr. Khosa’s killing and that of Mr. Floyd. Such international solidarity in the anti-apartheid movement was a crucial part of the fight, they say. “So we as South Africans need to see the struggle of Black people anywhere as the struggle of Black people everywhere.”

“The silver lining here is that what’s happening in the U.S. right now is showing us that a different world is possible. The conversations are beginning in the U.S. and South Africa [around police brutality],” they add. “Maybe they are the start of that different world we’ve been dreaming of.”

But for many that global fight begins with the fight for justice for each individual life, including Mr. Traoré, Mr. Bentounsi, Ms. Korchinski-Paquet, Ms. Moore, Mr. López, and Mr. Khosa. It’s a movement that has also grown from Minneapolis, where Mr. Floyd was killed, across the world. Activists in the American city have erected memorials shaped like tombstones across a green lawn, listing 100 African Americans who have died in the U.S. at the hands of police. In white block letters laid out in the grass, three words that have become a rallying cry now around the world, spell clearly: “Say Their Names.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct names and misspellings.

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