Benjamine Laini Lusalusa is a decolonial activist with an anthropological approach. She is belgo-congolese and lives in Belgium.
Media coverage of the coronavirus forced us to face our challenges. Thus, the events we have experienced in recent months are unprecedented and plunge us into uncertainty as is the case with every major crisis. These events also open up new gaps and reinforce long-standing struggles by partisans anxious to show the world another side of history that is often misunderstood because it is so cleverly hidden.
The context of the pandemic was very conducive to mobilization and indignation was present despite the fact that people were confined to their homes. Indeed, the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police while he was begging to be allowed to breathe was a catalyst. This murder brought to light those caught up in the racial system and its murderous violence. There is a global dynamic that has happened quickly through social networks, but people who saw the violence of racism through George Floyd's death did not necessarily measure the systemic aspect.
These images broadcast around the world showed the horror experienced by minorities in the United States, but also in other European countries. Of course, these outrages have had an echo in Belgium, because Belgium is not excluded in terms of police violence, racism, colonial and slavery denial.
Indeed, the Belgian state has great difficulty in considering that its society and therefore its institutions are racist. We know that racism is a system and like any system, it has its power structures. Besides, there is a big paradox among the Afro-descendant people in Belgium. While they are generally better educated than the national average, they are more excluded from the labour market and unemployment is four times higher than the average (for the first generation).
In the context of coronavirus we know that the US and the UK have more deaths due to covid-19 among ethnic minorities. In Belgium, where there are many health professionals among Afro-descendant people, we do not have any figures (as the ethnic statistics are minimal). The racial question is always skilfully discarded even in the fight against discrimination.
Just like the pandemic that spread around the world, the Black Lives Matter movement has gained momentum within a few days. From Paris to Berlin to Montreal, all over the world, rallies are being held in cities to show outrage at this barbaric crime.
Beyond the issue of police violence, criticism of Leopold II and his management in the independent state of Congo in the 19th century has also been rekindled with the recent death of African-American George Floyd. Nearly 15,000 people came to Brussels on Sunday June 7 for a peaceful rally in front of the courthouse to put the black agenda and the colonial heritage out on the table.
This historic gathering acted as a catalyst and barely two days later, just as in Bristol, in the United States and Fort-De-France, the statues began to fall one by one. Since the first statue came down in Antwerp, other cities have followed the movement.
Statues bearing the effigy of Leopold II are frequently attacked by anti-racist and anti-colonialist activists because they crystallize the whole colonial denial. These actions question the nonsense of their presence, which allows colonization to persist in our streets and in our imaginations.
It so happens that the figure of Leopold II enjoys a privileged place in the history of Belgium. The one who was named the "King Builder" left a colonial imagination that is transmitted through time. The symbolism behind this figure shows the greatness and glory of Belgium. That is why his presence haunts the Belgian consciousness and our spaces through statuary and toponymy.
Thanks to the fortune that his colony brought him, he worked to build many sites in Belgium: railway stations, monuments, parks and large broadways. Leopold II brought to Belgium a wealth that it did not expect. It was the young and small Belgium that, through him, invited itself to the table of the great nations and proudly displayed itself to the other European countries.
The prestige that the colony brought to the international scene sealed Belgium's destiny and wrote the national narrative. Who would we be without the Congo? Belgium wonders. Many racist rituals, taboos and traditions stem from this problematic heritage. Consequently, the fear of change is linked to the idea of having to rewrite another national narrative, one that is less sulphurous but also more respectful of the many stolen lives.
As a result, the streets of Belgium were named after its executioners, those who made the colonial History, the history that is still taught in its textbooks.
So it is our entire space that is stamped with this suffocating presence. If we want to desecrate the personalities who participated fully in the colonial crime, it is necessary to tell the story as a whole, a story that does not hide the murders of the natives, the rapes, the abuse and all the humiliations.
France is not doing better. Recently President Macron even said: "I tell you very clearly, the Republic will not erase any trace or name from its history. It will not forget any of its works. It will not unbolt any statues".
This means that they have neither willingness to erase any trace of their slave and colonialist past in the public space, nor all traces of their racist acts from the present.
But here in Belgium, in order to remember those who participated in colonial crimes as 'sacred' figures, the state has made the timely choice to maintain ignorance of colonial history among the population while leaving bloodstained and criminalized people in the public space. It should also be pointed out that the presence of these statues contradicts the absence of black bodies in the public domain, mainly in the media.
At this time, the streets of the many parts of the world are haunted by the spectre of the "heroes" of colonial slavery who are the supreme emblems of the Eurocentric national narrative of several Western countries.
Demonstrators who destroy monuments to slavers and genocidaires are often accused of erasing the past. But, nowadays, activists are gradually managing to ensure that their actions draw our attention instead to the characters that these monuments celebrate, allowing history to be told from the perspective of their victims.
These colonial symbols remain despite the fact that Afro-descendent people in Belgium who are committed to social justice have been active for many years and question the presence of these glorifying colonialist symbols in our public space in abundance. The struggle for the dismantling of the colonial public space which has intensified in the last decade is part of the momentum of the rally this Sunday 7, June. And thanks to several generations of activists, this non-institutional movement has become a central point of political anti-racism in Belgium.
Doing without us is no longer possible in the current context because the fight against racism must recognize the primacy of the word and action of the people who are victims of it. From now on, the racialized people have broken the underhand injunction to silence and want to make it obvious what the global population refuses to see.
I was photographed by a passer-by while taking a picture of a colonial perpetrator General Storms who committed crimes against congolese civilians on a large scale. Photo: Benjamine Laini Lusalusa.
Here at Café Congo, a place everybody can breathe. Here, during the celebration of the Independence day of the Congo DC - June 2020. Photo: All rights to @ Eric Gruloos Sama
The removal of monuments is a strong symbolic measure, but more than the symbolic aspect, it is the input about the systemic change that is most important. Removing a statue will not solve the problem of social justice and racism. It is only the tip of the iceberg of a bigger, inconvenient issue.
We’re tasked constantly to prove that we're humans and deserve the right to breathe, that we are not subjects of our public space but only spectators of a triumphant political struggle against the perpetual denial of our dignity, of our radical right to live. This is how those who valiantly fought as freedom fighters of colonization are forgotten in the bed-rock of History.
We have passed the stage of being astonished and regaining awareness of this heritage that undermines our society. The struggles against police violence and the crime of colonialism must not remain hashtags and plunge into oblivion once the media has turned its back. Today more than ever, we are clearly aware of the situation and we must show our determination to change the systemic racism in our society.
In an increasingly global post-covid world, the need to create places to breathe is becoming more and more apparent. Let us dispel our monuments, our colonial spaces, our colonial mentalities that still exist today. Renaming our spaces means renaming ourselves, relocating ourselves in our different roles inflicted by the founding fathers of the European states. It is an opportunity to change the narrative of how we are perceived and not imbued with this colonial heritage.
While I was finishing writing my article, an important event occurred. King Philip I, who has been reigning since 2016, sent a letter to the Congolese president Félix Tshisekedi on June 30th 2020. He acknowledged that acts of violence and cruelty were committed during the reign of Leopold II (without naming him), but also afterwards when Congo was a Belgian colony, that was from 1908 until June 30, 1960. It is therefore for these two periods that he would like to express his deepest regrets, for these wounds of the past.
"During the time of the Congo Free State [1885-1908], acts of violence and brutality were committed that still weigh on our collective memory. The colonial period that followed also caused suffering and humiliations. I would like to express my deepest regrets for the wounds of the past, the pain of today, which is rekindled by the discrimination all too present in our society."
Current events have rekindled the debate about racism in Belgium, the king refers here to the case of George Floyd, the black man suffocated by the knee of a policeman who held him down.
The king thus evoked the future, through the reflection that is underway in our country. Indeed, a parliamentary commission will look into Belgium's colonial past in the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi in September.
Those regrets are historical but are not formal apologies for the brutal colonial rule. This measure of symbolic reparation is a first step towards a shared memory. A re-reading of our common past is essential. Without deference, as we emerge from all this, let us build together.