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Crowd of 10,000 at Black Lives Matter protest in Brussels
A 10,000-strong crowd of all ages and all skin colours joined the Black Lives Matter protest around Brussels' Justice Palace on Sunday - the only mass gathering of its kind since the coronavirus restrictions were imposed in mid-March.
Organised by the Belgian Youth Against Racism group, the demonstration condemned racism and police violence, in the wake of the killing of African-American George Floyd by a white police officer in the US.
Several protesters climbed on the Leopold II statue on Place du Trône, waving a Congolese flag and shouting "murderer" and "shame". Another 1,200 people joined a protest in Antwerp, 750 in Ghent, 700 in Liège and 200 in Hasselt.
The demonstration had not authorised by the City of Brussels - but was "tolerated". Most of the protesters wore a mask, but due to the crowds, physical distancing was impossible to respect.
Prime minister Sophie Wilmès said it was "regrettable" that an alternative to the mass gathering could not be found. "There were other ways of expressing solidarity than breaking the basic health rules," she said.
Wilmès added: The cause is just - there is no doubt about it. But looking at the images, I regret that it wasn't possible to find an alternative which respects health regulations and the efforts of those in frontline, fighting against the epidemic."
Virologist Marc Van Ranst said: "If the demonstration had taken place six months ago, I would probably be among the crowd. But I think such a demonstration is dangerous.
"I can say with certainty that the virus was passed on in that crowd today. This would have been life-threatening two months ago. Now hopefully its consequences are limited."
Flemish nationalist party N-VA wrote in a letter to Brussels mayor Philippe Close: "It is irresponsible to bring together 10,000 people without any social distancing. Several politicians even took part in this demonstration. This dangerous virus is still raging."
Virologist Emmanuel André, who is in charge of Belgium's coronavirus contact tracing operation, said: "If racism didn't exist, 10,000 people would not have been in Brussels to remind us that we are not all equal. I ask these people who attended to strictly respect the barrier gestures for a fortnight and to continue their fight for the rest of their lives."
While the Brussels event passed peacefully, there were violent scenes afterwards in the Matonge district, where vandals attacked police cars with bottles and paving stones, set fire to bins, smashed windows and looted shops on the Chaussée d'Ixelles and Boulevard de Waterloo.
Police used water cannon to disperse the crowd and about 239 arrests were made. Brussels mayor Philippe Cloese said: "Delinquents have disturbed the end of the tribute to George Floyd. Our police were there in large numbers."
A spokesperson for the protest's organisers said: "We are sad and sorry - this has nothing to do with the event we organised."
Photo: Nicolas Maeterlinck/Belga