In the first week of June, demonstrators in Europe, from London to Rome via Brussels, showed their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter protests sweeping the U.S. from coast to coast. In Belgium, activists targeted statues of King Leopold II in Ghent, Antwerp, and Brussels, amongst other places. They call for the country to acknowledge its racist past and end the idealizing narrative around the King’s realm. Other initiatives include a popular online petition demanding all his statues to be taken down by the end of June in honour of the D.R.C.’s 60th anniversary of independence. Though government officials have yet to comment on these developments, the Prime Minister, Sophie Wilmès, has expressed concerns over the demonstrations due to the current pandemic.
The conversation around King Leopold II and his atrocities are not new in the country. In 2019, Kortrijk’s council, in the West Flanders, announced that it was renaming its Leopold II Laan [avenue] because he had been a “mass murderer.” Additionally, representatives of the city of Dendermonde, 20 miles north of Brussels, had also said that they were planning changes to street names to avoid “further shame” for their residents. However, other large conglomerates did not make similar commitments. Dirk de Fauw, mayor of Bruges, stated that “if other cities start with it, it could trigger a chain reaction, but there are no plans yet.”
Earlier in 2019, the issue was also debated at an international level. A U.N. working-group determined that many of Belgium’s institutions are still racist and the state ought to apologize for, and address its past atrocities to move towards reform. This was, however, met with surprise and contempt by the then Prime Minister, Charles Michel.
So what were these atrocities, exactly? Estimates claim that between 10 and 15 million people from what is now the D.R.C. were murdered or died during King Leopold II’s realm. Ivory and rubber were exported thanks to forced labour which also entailed mutilation when production levels were not met. Famine, epidemics, abuses, and wars were all results of the King’s rule which continued for over 20 years between 1885 and 1908.
Europe, and with it Belgium, the heart of the E.U., must confront its past to look at the future with hope and the so longed unity that the Union has been created for. Tributes such as King Leopold II statues represent the pain of millions of Black Europeans and the heinous past of the countries where they were born, raised, and planning a future in. In light of the Black Lives Matter movement, it is important for public officials to address the institutional racism that prevents many from fully enjoying the values of human dignity, freedom, and equality. This is an opportunity to correct narratives and rebuild social structures out of the shadow of figures such as King Leopold II.
The Black Lives Matter message has conquered numerous corners of the world. It undoubtedly has become a global movement with the potential to shake the foundations of our society in the pursuit of justice and equity. It is time for our current leaders to get behind a movement led by their future counterparts, the leaders of tomorrow.
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