While a Black man’s death in police custody in Brussels triggered fresh protests, calls on Belgium to reckon with its colonial past have only grown louder.

As the news of a young Black man's death in police custody spread across Brussels on January 9, hundreds of people came out onto the streets to protest the killing. At least 110 protesters, including 30 minors, were arrested as clashes broke out, injuring several police officers. 

The police say the demonstrators who vandalised the streets and injured 5 police officers, must be brought to court. Water cannons were used to push back protesters, some of whom were seen exchanging blows with law enforcement officials. 

Carrying Black Lives Matter banners, the protesters shouted, "We want the truth". They believed this was another case of racial profiling by the police, in which the victim, who was identified as Ibrahima B, ended up paying with his life. 

The protests were the latest signs of frustrations over longstanding allegations of police brutality and discrimination against minorities and people of colour that critics suspect are rooted in the country’s colonial past.

  • Arrest of 23-year old Ibrahima B.

The police carried out an ID check on a group of people who had gathered outside on Saturday. The police claim the group was violating coronavirus measures and as they asked for their IDs, Ibrahima tried to run away. This led to his arrest. Inside the police lockup, as per newspaper reports, Ibrahima fainted and later died in the hospital at 8.22 pm.

Ibrahima's family says the police notified them about the death at around 2 30 am, and told them Ibrahima had been arrested during the Covid-19 curfew. However, the curfew - from 10 pm to 6 am in Brussels - was not yet in force in the capital at the time of the arrest, AFP reported. 

According to Belgian media, Ibrahima was seen recording the police on his smartphone as the officers asked him for his ID. 

CNN quoted  the lawyer of the young man’s family, Alexis Deswaef, saying that “the family was told that their son had a cardiac abnormality.” But that wouldn't be the sole cause of death, or explain the death as well as the traces of narcotics the toxicology tests found.

The prosecutor’s office said they seized the videos that captured the moments of arrest and Ibrahima’s time at the police station.

An independent body overseeing police services is investigating the incident.

  • Longstanding frustrations over selective police brutality

“I know one thing -- if that was my son, who's white and the same age, that would not have happened" said Deswaef on Belgium TV. That’s a sentiment that was discussed in the country long before the death of Ibrahima B.

In June last year, a Black MEP in Belgium said she was the victim of police brutality at the hands of Belgian police officers. Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana, Germany’s first MEP of African origin, said the incident took place when she saw nine police officers harassing two black youths. Like Ibrahima did, she wanted to film the police. Four Police officers then “brutally pushed her against the wall” and took her phone. 

“They grabbed my handbag from me, pushed me against the wall, spread my legs and one of the police officers wanted to frisk me. And they dealt with me in a very humiliating way,” the 71-year old former teacher told the Guardian.

Critics say the country’s legislations are too insufficient to acknowledge the institutional level of racism.

“All the existing legislation in Europe and also in Belgium focuses only on the individual level of racism,” Juliana Santos Wahlgren, the senior advocacy officer at European Network Against Racism, told Belgian magazine Bulletin last year. 

“Everything structural – for instance, discrimination in the labour market, or Zwarte Piet –  and everything institutional, for instance, police brutality, is not covered by these frameworks,” she said. 

The European continent was shaken by the claims of institutional racism around the same time the United States saw the killing of a black man, George Floyd, at the hands of the police. While nationwide Black Lives Matter protests sparked once again in the US, French police came under fire for discriminatory and abusive checks on people of colour.

In the US, the statues of and memorials honouring racist figures were torn down by the protesters upon the killing of Floyd in May last year, leading State and local governments to consider removing other statues commemorating Confederate soldiers and generals. 

There were echoes of this in Belgium, too. The statue of Leopold II in the city of Antwerp was set on fire by the locals, before authorities took it down. Another bust of King Leopold II was dyed in red paint and later removed in Auderghem, near Brussels, on June 12. King Leopold II is known for his violent colonial rule in what is now Democratic Republic of Congo that led to the deaths of millions.