'If you’re paralysed by fear, you don’t achieve anything, you’re losing from the start': Black Lives Matter on the Continent
June 7, 2020 Black Lives Matter demonstration in Gothenburg, Sweden. The sign reads: ‘Sweden is involved in this, Sweden must solve this’ | PA Images
David Lammy speaks to Cécile Kyenge and Momodou Jallow, two prominent Black European politicians, to discuss Black Lives Matter on the Continent
Despite the truly global reach of the Black Lives Matter movement, conversations around race and Black History in this country rarely surpass a transatlantic comparison with the United States. To start to recitfy this in my capacity as guest editor, I (virtually) sat down with two Black politicians from mainland Europe, Cécile Kyenge and Momodou Malcolm Jallow. Cécile was Italy’s first Black cabinet minister, serving as the minister for integration in the 2013-14 Letta Cabinet. An immigrant from the Democratic Republic of Congo, she was an MEP between 2014 and 2018. Momodou is one of only two Black members of Swedish Parliament and is originally from The Gambia. Subject to deep-seated racism in their personal and political lives, both Cécile and Momodou continue to fight for the freedom and empowerment of Black lives in Sweden, Italy, Europe and across the globe, as we discuss here...
David Lammy: The reason I’ve been asked to guest-edit this edition of The House is because it’s Black History Month in the UK. Neither Italy nor Sweden seems to celebrate Black History Month. Why do you think this is? What would a Black History Month mean to you?
Cécile Kyenge: You’re right to point out that, in Italy, we don’t have a Black History Month. It’s very important to have these occasions to inform people of the presence of Black people in Europe, especially in Italy, a country that nowadays counts a remarkable number of immigrants. In its absence, we have many, many problems. Primarily, we don’t have a strong programme of integration. I’m a former minister of integration and, after me, we didn’t have another one. Many people said that if we keep talking about integration, if we keep talking about migrants, populism will rise. That’s not right! If you don’t have a strategy to integrate people, it’s populists that will take advantage of the inevitable fallout. We have many young Black people, most of whom have not been granted an Italian Citizenship yet.
DL: We see something similar for communities here in the UK. You end up having a non-status, if you like. You end up in the shadows, not being able to live your life, and sometimes you’re driven into working illegally. Can I bring you in Momodou?
Momodou Jallow: First of all, you have to understand that Sweden is still yet to acknowledge its historical past, its colonial legacy, or its role in the transatlantic slave trade. Sweden continued enslaving Black people for 40 years after the United Kingdom. The parliament made a decision to abolish slavery on 9 October 1847. When the UK abolished the slave trade, it asked other European nations to do the same. And when they asked the Swedes, the Queen said, “Sweden is not involved in the slave trade. We would not do anything like that. It’s immoral.” Even in the 1800s, we had a culture of exceptionalism and denial. That hasn’t changed.
DL: Do you, can you, feel that there is any understanding of this history in Sweden?
MJ: No. Not at all. It is not taught in schools. This is something that organisations have fought for over so many years. There have been two motions placed in parliament for the Swedish parliament to officially acknowledge its part in the transatlantic enslavement of Black people. Both motions were rejected. In fact, my party has a motion right now in parliament to ask the Swedish parliament to acknowledge Sweden’s role in the transatlantic slave trade, and to have 9 October as an official Remembrance Day for the abolition of enslavement of Black people in Sweden. We’ll be voting on it soon, and I’m quite sure the same thing will happen and it will be rejected.
That’s one of the reasons we don’t have a Black History Month. By failing to acknowledge our role in slavery, it’s become a non-issue. And if you don’t acknowledge there is a problem then you don’t start talking about solutions. However, we have decided to take it into our own hands at a municipality level. We [Malmö] have managed to be the only municipality that officially recognised our role in the slave trade. So, every year for the past seven years, we commemorate the abolition of the transatlantic enslavement of Black people. And from having one day of the 9 of October, now we have a week. Gradually, I hope we’ll have a month.
DL: Do you feel very alone in championing this cause?
MJ: That’s an understatement.
DL: It’s interesting because people think Sweden is a leftist paradise. And in Italy, we know that the populist right is on the rise. To that end, I know that both of you have experienced really high levels of abuse. Could you speak a little more about those experiences?
CK: Before I became the Black minister of integration, my life was normal. The day after the nomination, everything changed. I was suddenly dangerous. People said I had many ideas that would damage the country. The problem was not my ideas, though. The problem was that I was Black, female, and born in another country. In 2013, after my nomination, the government gave me a bodyguard. The government put me under a protection scheme, which is still active today.
Today, we must work for a strong programme of integration, for a good communication in the media, a programme to say that Black people or migrants can have a place in government, Parliament and the European Parliament. Particularly given that, after my experience, the only party who put a Black person in the parliament was the (far-right) Lega Nord, the party who attacked me with racist abuse. The Left have so much fear that if we put Black people forward, we will lose the election. If you’re paralysed by fear, you don’t achieve anything, you’re losing from the start. Today, I’m not in the government, I’m not in the parliament. But I proudly keep fighting against racism in Italy.
MJ: If you become a policymaker where you push issues concerning your community, the attacks that you face have nothing to do with the policies, but everything to do with your identity as a Black person. When a Black policy maker makes policies that will somehow directly benefit the Black community in Sweden, people complain you are somehow supporting your own people, but when white people make policies that directly benefit white people every single day, nobody thinks there’s anything wrong with that. That’s just the democratic process, they say!
I have been an activist my whole life, and I never wanted to get into politics because I thought there is so much hate and lies, and hypocrisy, and that I want to be on the outside and be able to influence the outcome. After years as an activist, I decided at one point that I’m tired of, you know, lobbying and lobbying and then not seeing any results – and that pushed me to become a member of parliament or at least a policy maker from my local level. One thing that pushed me was an incident in 2011, at one of our elite universities here. The students decided to have a mock slave auction. You know, they had a party, in which all these white students came where they were dressed like enslaved Africans. And in the middle of the party all these white people were bidding on them. Just having that in an institution that is supposed to educate us – that is supposed to create leaders of this country – is deeply, deeply distressing. The fact they did not realise how disturbing that was defines exactly the colour blindness, and the culture of denial, that exists within this country.
I filed the complaint against the university. At that point, the kind of racism that I started facing was at a level that I’ve never experienced before. Death threats not only to me but my family. It was on a daily basis. Phone calls threatening to kill me. They’d send pictures of me and my children decapitated. That forced me and my family to move from one place to another, because I didn’t feel safe when I was leaving, and I didn’t feel any form of protection from the police or any other security agency that was supposed to protect me. So it was all in my hands, I had to do everything myself, I have to protect my family I have to protect myself.
After that came a picture of me, my face photoshopped on the body of an enslaved black man in chains, with my name underneath, and they said this is a runaway n-word slave. “If you find him, please call the number below.” And this picture was put around the town and the city I lived in. Some people got so angry that I filed a complaint against a university that they decided I needed to leave this country. And because there was almost no reaction from policymakers, that really pissed me off, because it showed that Black lives did not matter. I decided to join the only party that stood side-by-side with me, organised demonstrations on the streets on my behalf, and spoke up on my behalf.
Being an MP, now, it means the victimisation process has escalated to a level where, today I have a secret address, that you cannot find on any national database, because that’s the only way I will be able to do my job as a member of parliament, without feeling that somebody’s going to kill me or do something that will hurt me and my family.
June 6, 2020 Black Lives Matter demonstration in Turin, Italy
DL: Cecile, did the murder of George Floyd resonate in Italy, and if so, what happened?
CK: Yes, we had many, many young people who went onto the streets to say that enough was enough. However, I think that if you do not have economic support, it’s very difficult to do something. Lots of people have good ideas, but they don’t have strong organisations. And without money or organisational architecture, it’s difficult to organise!
We need to work on diversifying representation. When that goes missing, it’s really difficult to work towards a broader vision of community. We have only one Black person in the parliament at the moment
Now, I’ve left parliament. I’m a doctor, but I’m still working politically to try and create this kind of society. We can go into schools. We can have a Black History Month! We can tackle oppression with this initiative. Grassroots organisations, charities, foundations are the future of the Black Lives Matter movement in Italy. Hopefully, we can involve people like you and Momodou to guide us through this cultural revolution and to share your experience with us.
DL: Are you hopeful about this BLM moment, or are you feeling depressed?
MJ: It is an incredibly important moment, especially in the Swedish context of denial and colour-blindness.
One of the things that I’m very humbled about, is the fact that the Council of Europe appointed me as the person responsible for combating racism and intolerance in Europe, and that gives me the platform to be able to raise this issue, to make sure that it is discussed at the highest level of policy, and I think that is a step forward. I’m writing an important report, right now about Afro-phobia, which will offer many recommendations. However, we need to keep pushing to make sure that they are not only on paper, but actually implemented. I was really surprised to see the EU pass a resolution to acknowledge the role the EU played in the slave trade. I’d never seen the EU do that before – and the majority of the European Parliament voted for that.
CK: In this moment, we can change something. Now, you can find many people who want to help you. Not only Black people. White people too. This is very important. I think that if a country does not give the same opportunities for everybody, it is not a democratic country. After the murder of George Floyd, I saw that many people were beginning to understand that racism is not my problem. It is a problem for everybody. Now, we can work together.