by Morgan Doll, Zenobia Goodman, and Mary Trimble
June 8th, 2020
As TRIP RA’s, we are encouraged to use this blog as an outlet to discuss important events around the world. Following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Deparment, and keeping true to TRIP’s international focus while maintaining roots at William & Mary, we wanted to bring three RA’s together, each with different perspectives, to address his tragic death and the worldwide protests that followed from both a global and personal perspective .
Global Perspective from Home: Morgan Doll
As an American, there is regrettably more than enough racism to pay attention to and to protest on our own soil. So much so that one can forget that racism happens on a global scale and has been happening on a global scale since the inception of the idea of race. S2:E2 of the podcast “Scene on Radio,” entitled “How Race Was Made” as part of its Seeing White series, describes how throughout human history, we have been lifting up our own cultures and ascribing other groups as “inferior” in order to justify enslaving them. The Greeks did this with the Slavs, the North Africans with the Sub-saharan Africans, etc. A major turning point in this practice was when Prince Henry the Navigator in the mid 1400’s sailed directly to Africa in order to seize black captives to work in the Americas without an African slave trading middle man. This instance signals the beginning of the chattel slavery, a practice that institutionalized systemic white supremacy; the same systemic and institutionalized racial system that America and much of the western world still experiences today.
Thus, racism has always been a global issue. While Canadians protest for George Floyd, they are also protesting for Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a 29 year-old black woman who police say fell off of her balcony after they responded to a domestic incident in her home. Widespread instances of police brutality exist against Aboriginal Australians– at least 400 instances of Indigenous Australians dying in police custody since 1991 with no convictions– including an all too familiar story of an Aboriginal man, David Dungay, dying in police custody with his last words being “I can’t breathe.” Additionally, anti-African Immigrant sentiment, as well as anti-Muslim sentiment, has been growing in Europe for years, and the income gap between minorities and whites persists in English-speaking countries across the world from Britain to South Africa.
Our international adversaries have also been vocal about America’s intrinsic racism, and rightfully so, despite their own human rights violations. China’s state-run media runs reports about George Floyd’s death painting it as “another sign of America’s decline,” while they commit genocide against the Muslim Uyghurs. Officials in Iran addressed racial injustice in America by tweeting: “If you’re dark-skinned walking in the US, you can’t be sure you’ll be alive in the next few minutes.” Iran is a known perpetrator of injustices against women, LGBTQ+, and religious minorities. This is a global problem and will require global solidarity to solve.
Global Perspective from Abroad: Mary Trimble
As a TRIP RA who has lived in Belgium for the past three years, I have been able to watch the European reaction to Floyd’s murder first hand. In Belgium, there have certainly been efforts towards solidarity with American protesters, some more successful in their execution than others. Like in the United States, social media has been an important tool for spreading the word about protests, petitions, and resources. There has also been increasing awareness from my American expat and European friends that Europe also has a racism problem that needs to be addressed in its own institutions.
Over the weekend, a Belgian train was tagged with the words “Please, I can’t breathe,” George Floyd’s final words. The graffiti was the work of the graffiti crew “1UP,” based in Berlin. The Facebook post showing a picture of the train was written in English, referring to the United States as the “Divided States.” The train company, SNCB said that while they were “sensitive to this type of message,” “tagging a train remains an act of vandalism,” and that the tag impedes the view of passengers inside the train. The reaction in the press and on social media, however, seemed positive, and a video of the train was published by the American media company, “NowThis.” A petition to allow the tag to remain on the train for “at least 100 days” received over 8,000 signatures as of Wednesday, June 3.
There was also an effort by “Black Lives Matter Belgium” to plan a protest in downtown Brussels on Monday, June 1, despite the fact that Belgium, which is still in Phase 2 of reopening after its coronavirus lockdown, does not yet allow public demonstrations. Criticism of the proposed march began immediately after it was posted on Facebook on Sunday, May 31, arguing that it put people in danger of catching the virus by flouting public health measures. Those behind the demonstration declined to make their names public, and as a result, rumors flew regarding their identity. Some suggested that the march was organized by the Nieuw Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA), a far right party from the North. Similar to allegations that the marches in the United States were being co-opted by alt-right protesters, many here, including the anti-racism organization “Sans blanc de rien” (“Without Anything White”), asserted that the march was organized in order to draw people of color and their allies into possible confrontations with police.
The protest was ultimately officially cancelled on Monday morning, and the organizers posted on Facebook identifying themselves as “four black women” who were “not N-VA, Nazis, or Donald Trump supporters.” However, around 50 people still gathered in Brussels’ Place de la Monnaie to protest. The police did not disrupt the demonstration, and did their best to enforce social distancing measures which are still in place. During the week, an amalgamation of racial justice groups in Brussels organized another protest for Sunday, June 7. Though it was not an “approved” protest, commune mayors in Brussels and the Prime Minister, Sophie Wilmès, agreed to tolerate the protest. On Sunday afternoon, nearly ten thousand people gathered in the shadow of Brussels’ Palais de Justice, doubling organizers’ original attendance estimates, to show solidarity with US protesters and address racism in Belgium. As the protest wound down, there were instances of looting in the upscale shopping district in downtown and clashes with police.
Many who participated in Sunday’s protest pointed to issues of racism and police brutality inside Belgium. A petition to remove all statues of Leopold II in Brussels was launched last week and quickly gained traction on social media. The legacy of Leopold II and his personal ownership of the Congo in the 19th and 20th century has been largely unaddressed in Belgium. Modern historical estimates place the number of Congolese killed during Leopold’s colonial reign somewhere around 10 million, and it is widely considered one of the most brutal colonial regimes in Africa. The murder of George Floyd has provided an impetus to look more closely at Belgium’s exploitative history. The petition, which notes that “we do not want to erase the past, but we do want to erase any homage to this man,” will close at the end of the month, to mark the 60th anniversary of independence for the Democratic Republic of Congo.
As an American living abroad, it has been both inspiring and disappointing to see the response overseas. Inspiring, because so many worldwide care about ending racism, discrimination, and police brutality. The murder of George Floyd has allowed introspection on the European continent as well, which is certainly long overdue. It is disappointing because, to me, it speaks to how poorly the United States is perceived on the world stage. There is a reason the women behind the BLM Belgium protest were quick to point out that they were not Donald Trump supporters. There is a reason the 1UP Facebook page called us the “Divided States.” If anything positive can emerge from this horrible tragedy, let it be that the United States works to be just that: United. United in our condemnation of racism, bigotry, and discrimination. United in our efforts to prove with every personal interaction and with every police confrontation that a black life is worth every bit as much as a white one in our own eyes and the eyes of the law. May we prove to the world, and to Europe especially, that while maintaining a multiracial democracy takes hard work, it is work worth doing. As President Obama wrote this week, “If, going forward, we can channel our justifiable anger into peaceful, sustained, and effective action, then this moment can be a real turning point in our nation’s long journey to live up to our highest ideals.”
W&M Perspective: Zenobia Goodman and Morgan Doll
When the protests surrounding police brutality and the injustices of black people in America began, I could not help but reflect upon the college town that I’ve called home for the last two years. The former slave quarters that have been turned into classrooms for students and the town that I walk through that was primarily built on the oppression of African American slaves. I found myself thinking about my educational privilege and how I can best help those in need. I then realized that a large part of fighting racial injustices, is holding those around you accountable. As an institution that was primarily built at the hands of racism and oppression, I find that we have even more responsibility in the fight to promote anti-racism. This first starts by educating one another on what it means to be an anti-racist and going from there. Acknowledging history is so important when it comes to those things, but after this the next step must always be accountability.
These recent events have brought a lot of things to light that I did not know about William & Mary. The history of the second oldest college in the United States is as disturbing as it is inspiring. The college was chartered to educate the white, elite men of the south, many of whom owned slaves, and, the college itself owned slaves who, among many other things, harvested tobacco to provide scholarships for poorer white men to attend. The beloved Wren Building was built by slaves. The college only became public after the Civil War because it gave its entire endowment — in addition to many of its students and professors — to the Confederate cause. In fact, the Civil War was the only time period during which William & Mary has closed in its over 300 year history, precisely because the College was so committed to upholding slavery and supporting the Confederacy.
During the Jim Crow Era, the black staff was not paid a living wage and their children were not allowed to attend the college. The first black, undergraduate student, Oscar Houser Blayton, was admitted in 1963 but was not allowed to live on campus. Four years later, the first black women, Karen Ely, Lynn Briley, and Janet Brown were admitted and roomed in the basement of Jefferson Hall.
Speaking for white people in general, we might hear about efforts such as the Lemon Project and we are exposed to conversations about diversity during our Freshman Orientation. But, if I didn’t choose to take a freshman seminar on Race, Law, and Memory, I wouldn’t have known much about my black classmates’ experiences at W&M. I thought we were pretty diverse as colleges go; 59% white, 41% BIPOC. Breaking that down, our school is only 7% black. This is not representative of the demographics of our country and it is a very unsettling reality, especially given how much William & Mary benefited from African American and Black people throughout our troubled history. Additionally, the vast majority of professors are white, while the staff is almost all black; this serves a painful reminder of how the odds are stacked in this country and how important white privilege is in determining education and professional outcomes. One not only has to be open to having these vulnerable conversations, but also has to seek out these conversations to have them in a largely white environment like W&M.
There is a lot of listening that has to be done. Higher education institutions committing to anti-racism will require drive and education by both the students and the administration, which is why ideas of requiring a diversity focused freshman seminar is one solution that is being considered. Thankfully, the recent events have encouraged students to ask questions of themselves and our administration regarding changes we would like to see in our community. In fact, student organizations banded together to raise money for the Cooperative Change Fund that raised over $30,000 in 24 hours for legal organizations that focus on policy changes and training to reduce the rate of police violence. This, in addition to the Lemon Project and other initiatives, gives me hope that we are moving in the right direction.
Morgan Doll is a junior at the College of William and Mary majoring in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. She started working as a Research Assistant for TRIP in September 2019. On campus, Morgan is a member of Camp Kesem William & Mary and Kappa Alpha Theta Women’s Fraternity. Her interests include human and civil rights, law, and decision making.
Zenobia Goodman is a junior at the college, majoring in International Relations with a concentration in Global Education. She has worked at TRIP since the Spring semester of 2019. On campus, Zenobia is a member of the International Relations Club, a classroom assistant for a group of kindergartners, and a member of a social sorority. She is interested in the human rights violations and global development issues.
Mary Trimble is a sophmore at the College hoping to double major in European Studies and French and Francophone Studies. Mary began work at TRIP in February 2020. She is also an associate news editor for The Flat Hat student newspaper and a Tribe Ambassador with the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. Her interests include US-EU relations, national identity, and the rise of populism and far-right nationalism in the US and abroad.