Interview: Belgian Network for Black Lives

The recent case of police brutality by white police officers that resulted in the murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man in Minneapolis, US has sparked a global outcry and protests all over the world.

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, protesters in more than 40 countries
worldwide have called for racial justice
| Video Source: Vice News

Newscoop spoke to Stephanie Collingwoode Williams, spokesperson for the Belgian Network For Black Lives, about police brutality, systemic racism, colonial history and what each of us can do to contribute to a more just society.

Newscoop: Please tell me about your organisation — your mission, goals and activities?

Collingwoode Williams: My name is Stephanie Collingwoode Williams and I am one of two spokespersons for the Belgian Network for Black Lives. I do mostly the Dutch-speaking part, and Joëlle Sambi does more the French-speaking part, because we are in a country that speaks multiple languages. We started a few weeks ago as a joint team. We are a collective of Afro-Belgian initiatives, individuals and organisations. It all came together because we noticed that many things were popping up around our country regarding Black Lives Matter, so we joined forces to make sure it could all happen safely. Our goals and mission are something we are now working on. It is also the first time that Flemish-speaking and French-speaking people are working together in this way. Not only did the Black Lives Matter movement push us to join forces. It is something completely new that we are doing now.

All of us came together because we wanted it [the protests] to go as safely as possible. We started by getting into contact with the first originators of events going on. And then we were like “Okay, how can we work together?” So, it kind of started that way and led to us co-organising in Brussels. Our group has people that already have a lot of experience with activism. First, we put out things that people can do for the protests to go safely. So, we were giving out tips. We centralised safety because we know that police encounters with people of colour can go badly, and it is not something to take lightly.

Newscoop: The murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in the US has triggered global outcry and demonstrations all over the world. What do you think made that case such a trigger for the enormous reaction that followed? Why do you think there was so much attention for his case?

Kadir Nelson’s “Say their names” New Yorker cover in which the murder of George Floyd embodies the history of violence inflicted upon African Americans
| Image Source: Kadir Nelson/The New Yorker

Collingwoode Williams: I think the trigger was that we were also in corona — the virus made everyone more aware of the inequalities that we already knew were present. But this time they took centre-stage. We saw people who were seen as lesser than — often people of colour in Belgium — who still had to work, even though more middle-class people could work from home. So the people who were still seen in shops, the people who were collecting garbage, the way police in Belgium had a conflict with refugees on the street — all of this was going on.

Also, when it comes to education, people from “kansengroepen” (in Flemish) which means ‘people with less chances’, I like to say in brackets because it is a word that makes people responsbile for having ‘less chances’. It does not recognise that the system doesn’t grant them chances. Even in words we see inequality, it is deeply ingrained. So these “kansengroepen” were also struggling when it comes to access to computers and internet. So many forms of inequality towards black people and people of colour were seen during corona in Belgium. All of these elements along with domestic violence, sexism, ableism, racism resurfaced but now it seemed even worse. You quickly learn that a crisis hits those that our society already disadvantages even harder. Racism in itself is often said to be “a sickness that our society has been dealing with longer,” and this coronavirus made that even clearer. When you look at America, most of the people who have died from corona were black people. The system is already working against you and corona made it clear how this is even more enforced in situations that bring more precarity.

There was also a case in the UK. There was this Black woman having to work during coronavirus and then this customer spat on her and she died. This youngster Adil was also killed in Belgium in April. We have a long history ourselves when it comes to police brutality. For example, even Mawda, a 2-year-old who was shot in the head by police. And two weeks ago finally there was a court case of this black teenager who was pushed on the rail. We know many cases of racism, it is institutional too here. Being pushed on the rails over and over again. And when he finally raised his voice, this person was seen as violent. Even when you can’t breathe, literally being pushed on the rails. It’s very interesting to see who is considered violent. It is also very selective what is being remembered and what isn’t. Not too long ago, there was a Kendrick Lamar show where everybody loves black culture. But at the same time screaming “Congo is ours”, “Cut off their hands.”

It is very paniful to see this. When it happens it’s shock — but soon after it’s completely forgotten and again we have to have ridiculous conversations announcing that “yes, racism is real in 2020.”

Over 10,000 protesters gathered in Brussels on 7 June to demonstrate against racism and police violence | Image Source: Rick Zednik/Twitter

Newscoop: How can this momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement be kept alive?

Collingwoode Williams: What can be done is something we are doing now at the Belgian Network For Black Lives— that we’re really connecting different people with different expertise and working together to create a policy. We have a gofundme to support the people who were brutalised after the march by the police. So that protesters can get medical care and even receive therapy.

We are really trying to do things not only for now, but also thinking in the long-run: what can we do together to create something new? Because what we often see is policy makers or people in power using more correct words but still continuing the same thing. It’s often nice promises and nice words or gestures. When it comes to a statue being taken down in Antwerp, first it’s like “Oh, we’re taking down the statue,” and then two days later it’s like “Oh, we’re maybe going to put it back once it’s cleaned or repaired.” So it’s also interesting to see how it is like a band aid. A quick thing we’re doing now because we feel pressure and then you can still go back to business as usual once it’s forgotten.

So it is also this performative aspect that is dangerous. For example, LGBTQ — one month the rainbow flag is hanging, but none of the employees are trans women or trans men. So it’s interesting to see the difference between the performance and action. We’re really pushing for things that have already been talked about, if not now, for decades: creating an anti-racism action plan, having stop action. For example, stop ethnic profiling, all of these things are already there, we want it to be enforced. Anti-racism isn’t something left or right. It’s something we should all have as a basis.

When it comes to Black Pete, again people look away and try to focus on racism elsewere: “Oh, the US, the US.” We always want to portray ourselves as ‘better than’ and not look at racism here. But also here in the Belgian context there is a normalisation of facsist thought and right-wing politicians in power. The way that race is talked about in our mainstream is horribly outdated. It’s often easier to talk about another case, another place than to be like “Okay, but now let’s talk about Adil, let’s talk about what’s going on here.”

There is this idea that our country is inherently anti-racist which it isn’t. That in itself silences the whole conversation about the topic. Everything is done to avoid it, to just not talk about it. And this keeps racism alive.

The tradition of Black Pete in Belgium and The Netherlands around Christmas is criticised by activists and politicians for being racist and outdated | Image Credit: Pixabay

Newscoop: The protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder sparked a renewed debate about systemic racism — what needs to change on a national and European level?

Collinwoode Williams: I think when we think about the Belgian case, that about 60% of Congolese people are highly educated but then we don’t see this at all when it comes to organisations. It really shows how white supremacist culture is really deeply ingrained. Even when you look at the work culture: if we hire a black person it is as a freelancer but not permanently. This idea of people of colour being someone we invite but don’t keep. Preferably, even invite but not pay. That you can come to the table. For this one evening on “Latin America,” let’s invite a Latin American person. Oh, interesting and let’s take nice photos but let’s not do the actual work of inclusion. This I think can be led back to ‘inviting migrants’ to work here but when it is done “go home.” Racist ideology.

I think this again touches on performability. One should be asking “so many people are highly educated, why don’t we have them in the job market?” Really enforcing laws for example in which the housing market cannot say “we’re not going to let people live in our houses that are refugees. We’re not going to have people live in our house who have a “foreign” background.” The actual work of making it a crime to discriminate, making it a crime to be racist. And that applies to all fields — education, the way that we talk about our colonial history. We don’t even talk about it and when we do they’re empty debates.

“Maybe” our colonial past should be in our curriculum. It is a question of withholding information from young minds. We deserve to know and we deserve better. We can’t only talk about just one thing when talking about institutional racism. It is everything: education, the way the housing market works, the way hiring works, who is working where and who isn’t present, all of these questions need to be translated into policy.

It’s hard to answer because it really hits all levels. Instiutional racism is everywhere and it’s everything. It’s physicians who can’t provide proper care for you. It’s blackface traditions which are fed to you as a child and you learn are racist. Even the things that are being sold — we have cakes in Belgium that are black tarte cakes. It’s called “Negerine tieten” which means n***** teet. This kind of thing is immensely triggering yet seen as “normal”— we still have to fight for a lot.

Even when I go to the doctor, I’ll get scientific racism. This happened recently. I went to the doctor and she told me “Oh, but black people don’t get sick from this because your skin is different.” This means that even when you’re seeking care that you can’t access it. Also in American reports you see how Black pregnant women are often more likely to die in hospital than White pregnant women. This is because black people are still not treated as white humans. Black bodes are seen as being stronger, so then we don’t get the correct medication. It’s really intense. 

Newscoop: That’s what many people don’t understand or realise — that it has so many levels and layers, and that it affects so many aspects of your life that most people could not even imagine. That’s why I think it’s so important to have these conversations and to make people aware of this. Recently there was a case of police brutality involving a German MEP of African origin and two black youths in Belgium — how can we ensure that the police are held accountable?

A protester holding a sign demanding and end to police brutality | Image Source: Pottstown Mercury

Collingwoode Williams: Of course, it’s a hard conversation because the police are also part of a system. Police is the reinforcement of what our thoughts are. So if we are working towards different systems, then who we see as violent etc., has to be changed. Within our white supremacist, ableist, patriarchal, heteronormative, capitalist system black people and people of colour are seen as guilty before proven innocent.

So tackling police means also training them differently, not teaching them “If it’s a Muslim person with a beard, double-check.” It’s about police because they are part of an institution that is violent against people of colour. Recently as well, I think last week, this Black woman who is an MEP was treated violently by police. Even when I went to Brussels North, there were people that were black there and the police were already being violent towards them. Of course, in America it is happening on a broader scale — completely defund the police, put the money into social work, mental healthcare all of this. So, to hold the police accountable for what they’ve been trained to do. How?

Newscoop: Yes, I think it’s also about the way the media is reporting or not reporting on these cases. I could not find too much information about the cases you mentioned. I think that’s also one of the problems. It’s just not being reported enough, and people don’t know enough about it.

Collingwoode Williams: That is erasing history in the making. The Belgian media is still owned by people who were once affiliated with Belgian colonialism. If the people who control the media are also legacy of the families that were in Congo, it’s quite hard. What I know about Leopold and also many others is by searching for this information myself. The fact that you as a journalist had to look for all these other stories already shows how the narrative is being controlled. Only the really bad cases are brought to the mainstream and this creates the idea that “we aren’t that bad, we don’t have racism here.”

Newscoop: What would you recommend to citizens who want to get involved to fight racism in Belgium and elsewhere?

Collingwoode: Start where you are. Fighting for equality takes place on many levels, not only on social media. It’s about doing. It’s about trying, failing and trying again. You read things, you help people, you do things. There is a lot to unpack. Even when it comes to this idea of helping, there is a lot to unpack. But just start. Start where you are. See what’s going on where you live. Is there a refugee centre there? Do you have extra time? Maybe pass by. Try to see what you can do. Listen to people of colour who are around you. Listen to their stories. Take those stories as valid and real. There are a lot of ways and a lot of lists out there for what you can do.

Take the time to really educate yourself. Don’t expect people to do the work for you, because we have Google. It’s also this space, privilege, you expect people to do everything for you which can also be linked to sexism in the way that it’s “women have to care for.” But you can also do it yourself.

I think even the answering of what to do. You can do so many things. You can do so many things where you’re at. If you’re working and you’re part of an HR team — hire black people! Hire people who don’t get hired usually. If you’re a cook somewhere, think about how your space could be more accessible. Can we make it wheelchair-accessible? Is this possible? If you’re a hairdresser, make it open so that not only people conforming to gender boxes can come. Be inclusive to people who are trans and nonbinary. If you have toilets anywhere do something about it. Start treating humans with care.

Aerial view of the Black Lives Matter mural in uptown Charlotte | Image source: Maleek Loyd/Qcitymetro

There is so much that you can do. Just even talking to your racist uncle or your racist aunt. It’s not like “Oh, we are from another generation — therefore, we can be racist.” Even in your generation, even during the Holocaust, there were people fighting facism. There is no excuse. “I’m old and I can’t learn new tricks” — No! Respecting each other and harbouring each other’s humanity is something we should do at all times, anywhere. Interrupt that racist joke, break the silence, use your voice. Be an ally when no one is looking. We need to start speaking up for each other and defend each other’s humanity.

If you want to stay up to date with news of the Belgian Network for Black Lives follow them on Facebook.

If you want to educate yourself about systemic racism, police brutality and white supremacy check out the following list of videos and books:

  • Me and White Supremacy: How to Recognise Your Privilege, Combat Racism and Change the World by Layla F. Saad
  • Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reno Eddo-Lodge
  • Superior: The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini
  • White Privilege: The Myth of a Post-Racial Society by Kalwant Bhopal
  • How to Argue with a Racist: History, Science, Race & Reality by Adam Rutherford
  • White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard or White People to Talk About Racism by Robin Diangelo
  • How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
  • So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
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