The Black Lives Matter movement became an international phenomenon in 2020. As protesters took to the streets in cities across the U.S. in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, Minn., so did demonstrators in other countries — all with a similar message: Black lives matter.
"There is a George Floyd in every country," South Africa-based journalist Lynsey Chutel tells NPR's David Greene during a recent roundtable interview.
Joining Chutel for Morning Edition's roundtable are Ana Luisa González, a freelance journalist based in Colombia and Febriana Firdaus, a freelance investigative journalist based in Indonesia. [To hear the conversation, press the audio button above.]
Demonstrations spread across Colombia in June. They were sparked by the May killing of a young Black man named Anderson Arboleda in Puerto Tejada, who was allegedly beaten to death by police for breaking pandemic rules. Activists called for justice for Arboleda and other young Afro-Latino men killed by police.
"This message of this movement — Las Vidas Negras Importan — of Black Lives Matter, were young Afro-Colombians who wanted to speak out against police brutality and structural racism," Gonzales says. Like much of Latin America, Spanish colonialism informs many societal divisions in Colombia today, she says.
Yet, most Colombians don't seem to want to talk about racism and colorism, she says. In the most recent census, a majority of Colombians identified as "no race" and "until we acknowledge this debate, we can't change things," Gonzales says.
In South Africa, demonstrators came together following the police killing of 16-year-old Nathaniel Julies, a boy of mixed heritage with Down syndrome. Julies was shot and killed in August by police near his home in a neighborhood of Soweto allegedly for being outside his home during a pandemic lockdown. Chutel says that in the days after young people marched to the police station out of a sense of "deep frustration with this police station and the police force in general who are able to behave with impunity."
"If you have a police system that was used as the foot soldiers of the apartheid regime, where even though now the police are Black and the communities are Black the culture of policing it still very much that authoritarian, militarized policing system," says Chutel. She says that while protesters directly borrowed some language from the U.S.-based Black Lives Matter Movement, they also made their message uniquely South African by incorporating the phrase "Colored Lives Matter." The word colored, she explains, is an old apartheid segregationist term used to describe someone of mixed heritage in South Africa.
Activists in Indonesia inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement also made the message their own. The phrase #AllPapuanLivesMatter went viral, calling attention to the decades-long secessionist movement in West Papua, which has created tensions between the minority Papuans and ethnic Javanese-majority in the country.
"It's hard for West Papuans to find a rent house [sic] because they always get rejected," Firdaus says. "The landlord literally says it's because they are Black and they are Christian. We are majority Muslim."
Firdaus says ever since Jakarta took control of West Papua from the Dutch in the 1960s as part of the New York Agreement, Indonesia has never allowed Papuans to integrate fully into society. But the #PapuaLivesMatter message might be a turning point "because many young Indonesians right now feel they are emotionally involved with this issue," Firdaus says.
To hear the conversation, press the audio button above.
Ashley Westerman edited and Ryan Benk produced the broadcast version of this story.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We have said goodbye to David Greene this week. Our co-host had his final broadcast yesterday, but on the way out the door, he recorded one more interview on a vital topic - the Black Lives Matter movement and its influence on the world. It has expanded far beyond the borders of the United States. And David spoke with three journalists in countries where the message resonated.
DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: So one of those countries is Colombia. Demonstrators took to the streets in cities across the country calling for justice for Anderson Arboleda.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Spanish).
GREENE: He was an Afro-Latino man allegedly beaten to death in May by police for breaking pandemic rules. Reporter Ana Luisa Gonzalez says protesters were motivated by the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S.
ANA LUISA GONZALEZ: The message of this movement, Las Vidas Negras Importan, of Black Lives Matter, were, like, young Afro-Colombians who wanted to speak out. So the message is just, like, stop killing us. It's just stop doing systematic racial bias against Afro-Colombians.
GREENE: Gonzalez was speaking to us from Santa Marta, the first city founded in Colombia by Spanish colonists in 1525. Conquistadors brought disease, repression and also a racial hierarchy that she says persists today. Gonzalez says rather than grapple with that painful history, many Colombians just avoid talking about race at all.
GONZALEZ: Sometimes it's very common to hear in Colombia that we are not racist, that this is because we don't acknowledge the existence of a racial debate. And for instance, in the last census, the majority of Colombians identify as belonging to no race. So when a country doesn't acknowledge the existence of racism, we normalize racial bias.
GREENE: All right. That's Colombia. I also spoke to journalists from two other countries, South Africa and Indonesia. Journalist Lynsey Chutel says activists in South Africa also invoked the Black Lives Matter message after police killed Nathaniel Julies. He was a 16-year-old boy of mixed race heritage with Down's syndrome killed in August near his home outside Johannesburg.
LYNSEY CHUTEL: Young people marched to the police station demanding answers. And I think - because we have social distancing rules here because our COVID-19 numbers are quite high - for them to have broken those rules, it was out of a real sense of deep frustration with this police station and the police force in general. And it just highlighted not only in this particular neighborhood but around the country in poor neighborhoods, formerly segregated neighborhoods, a very difficult relationship between the police and the communities, even though the police are mostly Black and the communities themselves are mostly Black.
GREENE: Chutel says the message became uniquely South African.
CHUTEL: South Africa has something of the opposite of the one-drop rule where if you have white ancestry or you have ancestry of South Africa's Indigenous peoples or if you have mixed racial heritage in any form, you would then carry the moniker colored as opposed to being Black. And it was - it's an old apartheid segregationist term. And, you know, colored people are about 8% of the population. And so they see themselves as a minority. And so they then use the language of Black Lives Matter and said colored lives matter.
GREENE: In Indonesia, the West Papua region has been trying to secede for decades, and that's led to long-running tensions between the ethnic Papuan minority and the Javanese majority. Investigative journalist Febriana Firdaus says the Black Lives Matter movement inspired West Papuans to speak out.
FEBRIANA FIRDAUS: West Papuan took that moment by using their own hashtag, #PapuanLivesMatter, and they tried to explain to Indonesian audience why they feel oppressed.
GREENE: How are West Papuans treated differently?
FIRDAUS: It's hard for a West Papuan to find a rental house because they always get rejected. The landlord literally said because they are Black and they are Christian because we are majority Muslim. And also, for example, they take, like, a public transport usually, Indonesian will close their nose and say that, oh, West Papuan are stinky, for example, and Indonesian also like stigmatize West Papuan. They always get drunk, not friendly and committed to crime.
GREENE: Febriana, did you say people will put their fingers, like, over their nose and call West Papuans stinky?
FIRDAUS: Yes, it's happened. So many of my friends complain about this.
GREENE: Lynsey, let me ask you about South Africa. One of the things we've seen in the United States, you know, has been a backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement. Have you seen that kind of backlash in South Africa?
CHUTEL: No, we haven't seen any real sort of backlash. But what we did see was officials and political leaders sort of chastising protesters, talking to them as if they were children, saying that, you know, you as a community should take responsibility for the crime in your area, right? And I think - and this is a conversation that South Africa isn't quite ready to have yet - that if you have a police system that was used as sort of like the foot soldiers of the apartheid regime, the culture of policing is still very much that authoritarian militarized policing system. And I think you see that echoed in the United States, for example, where police emerged out of slave patrols partly. And so even if you change the race of the police, if you don't change the culture of the police system, if you don't change how the police interact with the community, you are always going to have that relationship of violence and suspicion.
GREENE: Febriana, let me finish with you. I mean, you describe such a difficult reality for West Papuans. After what has happened this year, after the Black Lives Matter movement gave them a feeling of maybe the ability to speak out, do you see anything changing anytime soon?
FIRDAUS: I think so because many young Indonesian right now feel that they are emotionally involved with this issue because they saw, like, during the Black Life Matters campaigns this year in West Papua, a 19-year-old West Papuan named Eden Bebari was shot dead by the Indonesian security force. And Indonesian media, who only quote Indonesian security force, describe him as a member of rebel army. And this claim denied by his parents and friends. So his friend took Twitter and questioned the death of Bebari with the hashtag of #PapuanLifeMatter (ph). And it went viral. There is progress because more Indonesian right now getting involved in the campaign.
CHUTEL: Well, Febriana, thank you so much for sharing that story. I had no idea that that was the undercurrent that was happening because that's not a side that we see.
CHUTEL: And that's what's so great about this hashtag - right? - and the movement is that we all find out that our struggles are so similar. There's a George Floyd in every country, I think.
(SOUNDBITE OF SON LUX'S "DBML")
INSKEEP: Our colleague David Greene talking with journalist Lynsey Chutel in South Africa, Febriana Firdaus in Indonesia, and journalist Ana Luisa Gonzalez in Colombia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.