The European Parliament, sitting in Brussels, was to debate racism and police brutality on Wednesday (17 June).
Dr Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana, a member representing Germany on the platform of the Green party, was on her way to participate at the discussions on how Europe should respond to the demands of Black Lives Matter protesters calling for a continent-wide action.
The Member of the European Parliament (MEP), originally from Senegal, observed how nine policemen were harassing two Black teenagers at the Gare du Nord train station in the Belgian capital and she brought out her phone and started filming the scene.
The policemen violently turned to Dr Herzberger-Fofana, Germany’s first MEP of African origin. “They grabbed my handbag from me, pushed me against the wall, spread my legs and one of the police officers wanted to frisk me,” she told the Parliament in a moving speech that put police violent racism against Black people in Europe at the centre of public discussion like never before. “And they dealt with me in a very humiliating way,” she added, wiping tears from her face.
The police officers refused to believe Dr Herzberger-Fofana, a co-president of the European parliament’s anti-racism and diversity inter-group, was a MEP despite her efforts to show them several forms of identification – her parliamentary pass, her German passport etc. One of the officers in derision suggested that she was perhaps a cleaner at the Parliament.
Police disrespect for people of African descent is an issue that has been discussed for years. Across the continent, many Black people have suffered violence at the hands of law enforcers who should protect them.
While the ongoing discussion on racism has been motivated by the murder of George Floyd in faraway America, similar tragic incidents have occurred in Europe without global media coverage. And the Black Lives Matter protests across the continent are meant to also draw attention to the problem in Europe.
In fact, ahead of the debate in the European Parliament, Dr Herzberger-Fofana had co-authored an article with a fellow MEP, Alice Bah Kuhnke, representing Sweden, calling for concrete political action to combat the systemic racism that is prevalent in European societies.
“Racism is something we have both personally experienced in our lives. The European Union is not an exception to the problem. We have both been stopped on several occasions by security personnel in the European Parliament asking us what business we had on the premises. None of our White colleagues have reported such experiences,” the two Black MEPs had written.
It is doubtful if Dr Herzberger-Fofana could have imagined that the issue of racism could have assumed such a personal, violent dimension the way it did in Brussels last Wednesday.
“Of course, it was a personal experience, but it is the experience of many people who do not have the opportunity to express themselves, and I have the opportunity to speak on behalf of all these victims, and that is why I did it,” Dr Herzberger-Fofana said in an interview with Euronews after the incident.
“I think it’s important that everybody knows what’s going on, we always tend to say ‘no, no, there’s no racism in Europe, there’s no police violence’, ‘no, it happens to other people’ or when it does happen, we go through the person’s past and try to prove by A plus B that this person is at fault.
“And that’s why I wanted to share my experience, which is really something incredible for me – what happened to me.
“It also allowed the Members of Parliament, who are people who can change laws at European level, to say to themselves ‘yes, it can also happen to a colleague who is at the same level as us’.”
The hope is that the incident will ginger continent-wide soul-searching on why racism against Black people has been neglected for so long and the sympathy expressed by MEPs for Dr Herzberger-Fofana will lead to concrete actions for change.
Meanwhile, attention is also being focused on how the Belgian authorities will treat the assault incident and if the officers involved will suffer any consequences for their brutish action against Dr Herzberger-Fofana.