Raquel saw a whole new generation at the protest
“Student Raquel Williams (second-year International Bachelor Arts and Culture Studies student) recalls that she was impressed by how many people of her own age and even younger turned up. “I love to skate at the skate park on the Westblaak. During the protest, I actually saw a lot of young skaters. A whole new generation were standing near the bridge that day. I’ve never seen that before.”
Raquel stood on the Leuvehoofd together with a mannequin named Beatrice. Beatrice is half white, half black and she has ‘BLM’ painted on her body, the abbreviation for Black Lives Matter. Raquel explains that she wanted to use this mannequin to show that racism is not just a problem of black people. “It’s bizarre that people are treated differently because of the colour of their skin.” This also affects her personally. “I stood there for my mother. She’s a woman of colour, I am white. She gave me my life, yet she has a voice that’s hardly ever heard in society. I stood there for her and all those other unheard voices.”
The fact that thousands of people were present at the protest gives Raquel hope. “I believe that change is possible, but the fact that so many others also showed, by just being present, that they also want change gives me even more hope.” But there is still a long way to go before people are treated equally, Raquel points out. “Turning up at a protest is not enough. You can do your bit in everyday life to bring about change. Call out your friends when they make offensive ‘jokes’ and criticize people on their use of language if it’s not okay.”
As an example, Raquel talks about a party where she went the night after the protest. “A white guy used the N-word there. That very same night! And he didn’t understand the problem with that,” she says, her voice still sounding slightly outraged. “He had never, ever been called out on that before. I feel lucky to have people around me who will correct me if it’s necessary.”
Protest against the slavery system and its legacy is anything but new. It is as old as the transatlantic slave trade itself. Protests have long since reverberated through Rotterdam too. For instance, as early as the seventeenth century recounts Professor Alex van Stipriaan in the fourth episode of Nooit Bewust Opgeslagen, de podcast over het Rotterdamse slavernijverleden (Never Wilfully Enslaved, the podcast about Rotterdam’s history of slavery). Protests were then voiced on the grounds that slavery was in conflict with the Christian faith; believers thought it was inhumane. “And sometimes the protests were not even founded on moral principles, but on the conviction that slavery was simply inefficient.”
These protests were also echoed by prominent Dutch people. The renowned Rotterdam writer and jurist Hugo de Groot (1583 – 1645), whose statue stands on the Coolsingel, was one of them. “He opposed slavery on legal as well as moral grounds. He referred to the literature on slavery dating back to antiquity because he was well acquainted with it.
Michelle remembered the feeling of unity the most
Michelle Tran (recently graduated from the master Econometrics) was at home studying on the day of the protest. She wanted to go anyway, alone or with others. A friend asked on Whatsapp who still wanted to go and so they went together. They did not let the coronavirus stop them. “Of course, we wore a face mask, just like almost everyone else. The only people I saw who didn’t wear face masks were the police officers.We were actually just standing on the Erasmus Bridge, close to the intersection, and we were also able to keep our distance from other people at that spot.” ‘Racism is a deadly virus’ was written on their protest sign, it was their way of demonstrating how important they thought it was to participate in the protest.
“What stuck with me the most was the strong sense of purpose that I got from the whole event. The slogans we were all shouting, like ‘no justice, no peace!’ And also, the feeling of unity. I remember thinking: racism is still a topic that triggers people a lot. Everyone participating in this protest has the same goal, which is to fight against racism. I hope that the people who saw the protest on TV will learn more about this topic and that there will be more awareness, because racism mainly arises from ignorance.”
The movement at the bridge still gives Michelle ‘hope for change’ four months later. She sees that the protests around the world have stirred things up a lot. “People are starting to think more about what they say.” Michelle hopes that, thanks to the protests, people will see that racism is not only about big things like police brutality, but also about everyday behaviour. “I may be able to laugh at a joke, but when you hear something a hundred times, it’s not really funny anymore. The ‘jokers’ often don’t realise that. Change takes time, but I do hope that we are getting the message across that racism is not okay.”
‘Racisme staat op de agenda, en dat is de eerste stap’
“What I remember most?”, repeats Sheetal Nicolaas, master student Health Economics, Policy & Law. “The solidarity of so many different people, age differences, backgrounds and cultures. All those differences that are normally there, were not there for a brief moment in time. We all stood there with the same goal and it felt very powerful.”
It did her good to see that Sheetal was not alone in all the pain and emotion that she felt after the death of the American George Floyd. “It was an intense period. So many people who shared their experiences of racism, who finally shared their own story. And also here in the Netherlands! It really affected me. I could relate to it all so much. Despite racism being invisible to some people in the Netherlands, I could relate to these situations. I felt helpless and sad. Being able to participate in a peaceful protest against racism felt good. ”
Sheetal stresses that a protest does not solve everything but thinks that a discussion has started. ” If that discussion is still going on? Yes, but not so intensively anymore. I see that the will is there. Racism is on the agenda, and that’s the first step.”
Sheetal thinks it is important to talk about subjects that are difficult, awkward or painful. ‘I will not stay silent so that you can stay comfortable,’ was on her protest sign, which she still has in her room. “People are afraid to say the wrong things, but we need to engage in those potentially uncomfortable conversations. That way people who previously did not understand the problem of racism may feel safe enough to change their mind and position.”