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Has the Black Lives Matter movement really started to change things in Europe as well? Interview with a London-based journalist

In an interview with Barbara Matječić for, Angelo Boccato analyses how the Italian and British milieu stand when it comes to racism.

Angelo Boccato is an Italian freelance journalist who moved to London in 2013 and writes for Italian and British media about, among other things, racism and the extreme right.

We talked about the echoes in Europe of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and how Europe, especially the Italian and British milieu that he knows best, stands on the issue of racism.

MATEJČIĆ: You are an Italian journalist living in Britain. How would you compare these two societies in terms of racism?

BOCCATO: I feel more at home in Britain, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t a society with deep problems with racism. In book ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’, journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge brilliantly shows how institutional racism is strong in Britain and, although it is about different levels of racism than in Italy, does not mean it is less dangerous. In Italy, the most racist statements can be made in prime time television.

Part of the problem is that there is a lack of understanding in Italy, and it can be a deliberate misunderstanding, about what racism is. A banal example: in the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests in America, memes spread on social networks in Italy on which the Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio who was tanned, was presented as a black man. His face was placed on Michael Jordan’s body, for example. And the minister obviously found it funny so he shared those memes as fun. If this is how people in his position behave, then what can we expect from ordinary citizens?

The issue of citizenship is a big problem in Italy. Italian laws are based on blood law, which sounds very primitive, and in practice means that if you are from, for example, Uruguay or Bolivia and have a great-grandfather who was Italian, you can get citizenship. But if you are a child of immigrants and were born and educated in Italy, Italian is your mother tongue and you have not lived anywhere else, you will still find it difficult to obtain citizenship. That is why many people in Italy do not have citizenship.

It is common in Italy to be asked where you are from if you are not white, and when you say you are from Italy, they will ask you: “And where are you actually from?”. You are seen as a foreigner or “not entirely Italian”. British society is more diverse and that is not the case. But to quote British rapper Dave: if the UK is the country with the least racism in Europe, as some research has shown, it means racism still exists.

MATEJČIĆ: Former police chief Michael Fuller, who was the first and so far the only such high-ranking black police officer in Britain, said that a murder similar to that of George Floyd could have happened in Britain as well. Would you agree?

BOCCATO: I think it’s possible to happen. Fuller pointed to the frequent discriminatory police practice of stopping and searching those of other skin colour, the same as in the U.S. One of the most important cases of racism in the history of the British police is certainly the one of the young black man Stephen Lawrance, who was killed in 1993 for racist motives. The suspects were arrested but not charged with what was speculated to be racism within the police.

An independent investigation has confirmed this and this case has initiated the reform of the London police, but I think that the previous police reforms in Britain have not been very successful and that there is a lot to do to combat institutional racism in the British police. In general, there are many examples of discrimination and stereotyping, such as knife attacks are often referred to as a crime among the black community – “black on black”, and in fact have been a problem among working class white youth for many years, but the phrase “white on white” crime is not being used.

MATEJČIĆ: The British extreme right is even more racist after the Black Lives Matter protest in Britain, showed the report of the organization Hope not Hate, which deals with the suppression of racism and fascism. How does this reflect on society and politics?

BOCCATO: Hope not Hate is doing an amazing job at tracking the extreme right and hate groups in the UK. In London, the extreme right marched through the streets to protect colonial monuments, and many BLM protests were canceled to prevent street clashes with right-wingers. The extreme right also played an important role during the Brexit referendum. A reflection of the strengthening of the right is that the Government, as well as part of the public, is not ready to address the problem of racial discrimination.

MATEJČIĆ: How strong is the Black Lives Matter movement in Europe?

BOCCATO: Although thousands of citizens took part in the anti-racist protests in Rome, the movement in Italy is not very strong. But it still managed to bring some changes, for example the City Council of Rome voted that the metro station would be named Giorgio Marincola, after an Italian anti-fascist, a member of the resistance movement, who was killed by the Nazis. Marincola was of Somali descent and was called a black partisan.

In Bristol, protesters tore down a monument to slave owner and slave trader Edward Colston, which stood downtown. This monument has been the site of controversy for many years, but the authorities did not want to remove it even though Colston is actually the architect of the transatlantic slave trade, which brought great wealth to both Bristol and Europe.

Only the protesters managed to forcibly remove it and throw it into the river, and then the local authorities renamed the city concert hall named after Colston, just as the Church announced that it would remove the memory of Colston from Bristol Cathedral. Europe is unable to confront and condemn colonialism on its own. In Italy, the colonial past is seen as a time of prosperity, similar to Britain.

MATEJČIĆ: What changes in Europe would you like to see?

BOCCATO: I think we need serious police reform and that attacks on minorities should be clearly addressed. I also think it is important to rewrite the history of colonialism and that we need to talk about how the history and culture of some nations are represented. Let’s just take the exhibits of the British Museum and the Louvre and how much of the cultural property there has been stolen from other countries. Changes are necessary precisely in representation, from the media, education to cultural institutions, but also in understanding what racism is.

MATEJČIĆ: Thanks to BLM, media houses are starting to open in North America, which mainly consisted of whites with a middle-class background. But, as Canadian journalist Pacinthe Mattar wrote, non-white journalists are called under the banner of diversity to give their perspective, but that invitation is only valid as long as they don’t shake the existing order too much. What are your experiences?

BOCCATO: In Britain, the issue of diversity in the media is important and is being discussed, but at the same time there is not enough diversity in the newsrooms themselves. Here, too, BLM has increased interest in black voices in the media, especially when it comes to topics of racism, but I hope we don’t just stick to it, and that we don’t forget everything when time passes. Black journalists shouldn’t just write about “black” topics, as my friend was recently hired to be practically a generic black woman in the newsroom. We need different perspectives on all topics.

This material was created with the financial support of the European Union within the project ‘Towards an open, fair and sustainable Europe in the world – EU Presidency Project 2019 – 2021’. The author is solely responsible for the content and cannot be considered the official position of the European Union.