Following a wave of protests in the United States and many other European cities against police violence after the killing of the African American George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, a demonstration was held in Prague on Saturday. Hundreds of protesters gathered in the centre of Prague and marched towards the US Embassy to express their solidarity in the fight against racism. We spoke to some of them about the demonstration and the goals they believe it could achieve.
It has been less than three weeks since the 46-year-old African American George Floyd was killed while being detained by a police officer who placed a knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes. The reason for Floyd’s arrest was that he allegedly used counterfeit money to buy cigarettes.
The action was recorded and the video shared via social media across the world, sparking outrage and leading to large-scale demonstrations against police brutality and racism not just in America but Europe as well.
One of the cities that witnessed such a demonstration was Prague, where several hundred people gathered on Saturday to express their anger at what had happened and their support for the Black Lives Matter movement, which says it campaigns against violence and systemic racism towards black people.
Evan Krieg, a 24-year-old American student from Illinois who is currently undertaking a semester abroad at the Palacký University in Olomouc, was among the protesters that day. He described the protest to Radio Prague International.
“I saw [that it was taking place] on Facebook by accident, but just before that the State Department sent out an email to American citizens who live in the Czech Republic. They were like: ‘Do you know there is a protest planned outside the embassy?’ I was like: ‘Oh, cool! Maybe I should go there.’
“They simply said that it starts at Old Town Square and then goes on to the embassy. That is all that I knew until I saw three or four Facebook pages about the protest.
“I did not know which one was the original, so I just went to the Old Town Square and saw a few reporters and police everywhere around the square. I did not really see any groups of people until right before the start time. No one really had a set location. We just appeared.”
Mr Krieg says that a smoke bomb was then lit to signal the start of the rally. A few of the demonstrators gave speeches and answered questions to reporters, among them Radio Prague International’s Jordan Joseph, who spoke to protester Emilio, a young Caribbean man who studies in Prague.
“Police brutality is a real issue. I have heard a lot of counterarguments that it is not a race thing and that racism is not systemic. I hear a lot of conservatives telling me: ‘What about the fact that black-on-black violence is more prominent?’ They tend to come up with things like: ‘Why is that the case? You are complaining about racism, but why do you not fix the cultural issue?’
“I would not say that the whole system is racist, but to not acknowledge that some people were given a head start by birth predominantly…For example, if you were born in a ghetto area you are not going to have the same opportunities as somebody else. Why is there more crime? Because historically you boxed them into these areas, you red-lined them, you did all sorts of things to keep them in these areas.”
Following the start of the demonstration on Old Town Square, the crowd began walking towards the US Embassy in Prague over Charles Bridge, chanting through the streets and accompanied by police who supervised the event.
Evan Krieg says the protesters followed much the same script once they reached the embassy.
“People did more chants again and took a knee. It was a similar type of thing where we repeated what we had done on Old Town Square. They had this tent set up outside the embassy door, so everyone laid out their homemade signs and lit candles. Then the rain put out the candles and all of the paint was running. It was really cool.”
One of those who also attended the event was a 44-year-old man named Seymour, a British citizen of Jamaican origin.
“I came here, because I have experienced the struggle that black people have gone through all around the world for centuries, for decades in my own instance, and it is fascinating. I think that finally our white brothers and sisters are acknowledging that something needs to change. Maybe now we will see that kind of change.
“I came just to see how Czech people, how Prague citizens were going to show their support.”
Asked about the changes that the wave of protests in the United States and in Europe could potentially bring about, Seymour was careful to jump to conclusions.
“Time will tell on that. I am cynical. I will wait and see. This is a positive step in the right direction. I would say that I do not agree with the violence that is happening in the United States and how it is being commercialised in some senses with big corporations throwing their support around it. It is a very strange, almost kind of surreal atmosphere, but it does feel like there could be genuine change.
“However, this issue of racism is closely entwined with the capitalism. When we have a system where African resources are exploited and Asian labour, humans are exploited to support this capitalist structure that we have. Maybe my brother George being murder may not be enough to make that kind of shift, but maybe we can make steps in the right direction.”
Many European capitals, including London, Paris and Berlin have borne witness to similar protests over the past weeks. Asked about what he makes of the fact that Black Lives Matter protests are also being held in on the Old Continent Evan Krieg says it is a consequence of today’s interconnected world.
“I am 24, so I have grown up in this instantaneous world where almost everybody in the West is on their smartphone. Plus I study liberal arts, so it is not strange at all. I love my country and I have seen the horrible issues there. Even when I am physically away from home, my actions still matter because I am able to share it socially and have the message seen at the embassies.
“There have been protests in London, Prague, Paris, Berlin as well as, I believe, in other cities too, such as in Greece. If the same message can be seen at these State Department locations, it will add geopolitical pressure because the world is how it is right now. Not everyone understands or is aware of it, but it certainly exists and it strengthens social changes in America.”
Several proposals for changes in American policing have already been brought up by American politicians. Evan Krieg says he has noticed European police behave differently to officers in America who, he says, can sometimes act like “military soldiers”.
According to Mr Krieg, this difference is also noticeable in Olomouc, the Moravian town where he studies. It is these differences in the experience with policing that his fellow students have, which caused shock when they heard about the death of George Floyd.
“The police are just so different over here, compared to in America where only really I have the experience. So it is more about just giving a few examples of why African Americans face so much more violence in the United States and why you cannot compare this experience to here in Europe.”
Despite the reputation for a softer approach to policing, many people of African descent who live in Europe say they do experience racism. Earlier this week, emotions ran high among some Britons when a statue of Winston Churchill in London was sprayed with the word “racist”, bringing attention to the wartime British leader’s statements of such a nature and his role concerning what was then the crown jewel of the British Empire - India.
On Thursday, the same act occurred in Prague, when the local statue of Churchill in Prague was sprayed with the words: “He was a racist BLM” (Byl to rasista BLM). I asked Mr Krieg what he made of that.
“I haven’t heard about the statue in Prague, but I have heard about the one in London. Several have been taken down in the United States. In Belgium, I believe, they have taken down two statues of King Leopold II.
“I think that is incredible. I think it is great that this increased focus on Black Lives Matter has finally brought about attention to the nastiness of Leopold II and what he did. He was without doubt a horrible man. With Winston Churchill I think he is sort of being preserved with his involvement with the world war. He is not so much seen as a villain due to his involvement in the world war.
“However, nobody is perfect. There are horrible things about everybody and I think now with this increased attention on Black Lives Matter, these issues that were once ignorable are now at the centre of attention and saying: ‘Well, this is not ok!’ Sure, they have done other great things, but these are grave issues which cannot be ignored anymore.”