On 1 July 2021, the Mayor of Amsterdam Femke Halsema issued a public apology on behalf of the city council for the involvement of former city governments in the slave trade and slavery. Femke Halsema is a member of GroenLinks, the Dutch Green Party.
'It is time to engrave the great injustice of colonial slavery into our city's identity'
Halsema held her speech on the day of Keti Koti, which marks Emancipation Day in Suriname and is the celebration of the abolition of slavery in 1863. It was given from a lectern decorated with vivid colours depicting a tree. The object was designed by artist and woodworker Abu Kanu and inspired by the poem 'Wan bun / Wan tree' by Surinamese poet Dobru, which ends with the lines:
so many hair types
so many skin colors
so many tongues
In her speech, Halsema underlines the role of previous city officials: "In Amsterdam almost everyone made money from the colony of Suriname: above all the city government, which was the colony's co-owner and administrator." She details how they 'traded enslaved people as they did spices'. She connects the slave trade to the entrenchment of racism in Europe and abroad:
"This history has left a legacy in our city. It is grandly visible in the historic canal district and our wealth of art. Far less visible – and for a long time ignored – in the exploitation then and the inequality of today. The city officials and the ruling elite who, in their hunger for profit and power, participated in the trade in enslaved people, in doing so entrenched a system of oppression based on skin colour and race. The past from which our city still draws its distinctive commercial spirit is therefore indivisible from the persistent racism that still festers."
"For the Amsterdam city government's active involvement in the commercial system of colonial slavery and the worldwide trade in enslaved people, on behalf of the College of Mayor and Alderpersons, I apologise."
A report from an independent advisory panel commissioned by the government that had been working on recommendations on issues of race and discrimination had indeed already emphasised the need for a formal apology. The report also calls for 1 July, Keti Koti, to become a national holiday. GroenLinks supports this proposal. Although it is an important day for many Dutch citizens, it is unfortunately still unknown to others in Europe and around the world.
Evelyne Huytebroeck, co-chair of the European Greens, states:
"Apologies, from all levels, are not only a symbolic act to take. They also show that we recognise our responsibility for colonialism and their consequences, including the suffering they caused and that remains today. As Mayor of Amsterdam, Femke Halsema's apology on behalf of the city government has a huge importance for communities who suffered from slavery. The work on that matter from all Green parties, especially ones member of their national or regional government, push for a European continent that faces its own past as well as the discrimination and racism still happening in our societies."
Tackling systemic racism and addressing colonial legacies
For the past years, European countries and their national museums and institutions have taken some steps to reckon with their colonial past. And last year, Black Lives Matter protests sparked a new wave of anti-racism protests after the killing of George Floyd by a police officer. But racist remarks and violence during the UEFA Euro 2020 Football Championship are just another solemn reminder that this fight is far from over.
There is still a lot to be done to tackle systemic racism and to reckon with the colonial histories of many European countries. At the 31st European Green party Council held on 10-13 June 2020, Green parties got together to urgently address this topic.
In our resolution on Black Lives Matter, among other demands, we called for:
- critically processing colonial history and its lingering effects which still negatively impact our societies today
- acknowledging the influence that European colonial history has on modern society in public spaces and address this through a process of active decolonisation in our streets, city squares and museums
- a comprehensive implementation of education programs on colonial history, decolonisation and anti-racism;
- the reinforcement and establishment of anti-discrimination trainings
- independent supervisory bodies for police and effective prosecution of violations of justice by police
- condemning the excessive force used by law enforcement in all cases, but in particular against protesters, members of the press and volunteer medical personnel
- ending racial profiling
- effective implementation of existing laws and, when applicable, for changes in criminal laws so that they enable prosecution of discriminatory and racist acts
- putting measures in place to prevent discrimination and ensure equal opportunities in housing, education, health care, employment, including for migrants and asylum seekers
Greens in government have also been undertaking action across Europe to address structural racism and the legacies of colonialism. Kalvin Soiresse Njall, a deputy in the Brussels parliament and member of Ecolo, has organised many activities related to colonial memory; such as city walks and initiatives to rename places. His bill on decolonizing public spaces was adopted last year in the Brussels parliament. Just recently, GroenLinks' proposal to fight discrimination on football fields, tackling racist speech in stadiums or on the pitch, has been accepted.
As the Greens, we are committed to this common fight against racism and see it as part of our common struggle for equality, justice and freedom. We believe that tackling structural racism and addressing the legacies of colonialism is the task of the entire society, and that doing so is crucial in order to live in democratic societies.