He Shall Overcome? Meet the Londoner Aiming to Build a European NAACP
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Former DJ Larry Olomoofe plans to take a page from America’s Civil Rights Movement to get justice for Black people in Europe.
By Linda A. Thompson
One of the most bewildering things about Larry Olomoofe’s unconventional career path is that he’s made a living telling police officers, attorneys and judges how to apply the law without having been a lawyer. He doesn’t even have a juris doctor; he studied political and social sciences.
But Olomoofe doesn’t see the contradiction. His lack of legal bona fides makes perfect sense to this DJ turned human-rights crusader. In fact, he doubts he’d be doing this work if he’d trained as a lawyer. “The people I have the biggest challenge with about applying the law are lawyers, because they go by precedents or common practice,” he says. “They’re part of the problem. Our job would be to move these people out of the way.”
And Olomoofe, 53, wants to push a lot of people out of the way. At a time when anti-immigrant and nativist sentiment is on the rise across the continent, this Poland-based Black Londoner wants to take a page from the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and use the law to force governments, police officers and judges to uphold the human rights of Black people, no matter whether they came to Europe two days or two generations ago.
Based in Warsaw but active across Europe, his resource center, PADLINK (People of African Descent-Link), will replicate the NAACP’s legal activism strategy, take strategic discrimination cases and appeal time after time until Europe’s highest courts are forced to set the record — and local judges — straight.
Like with the Emmett Till case, [perpetrators] feel free to do this and get away it because the sanctions are not really sanctions.
Although strategic litigation has been used to varying degrees of success in the areas of Roma (aka gypsies), gender and disability rights, no one has ever tested this legal activism strategy on behalf of Black people, who account for an estimated 15 million out of the European Union’s population of 508 million, making them one of the continent’s largest minority groups.
One of Olomoofe’s main missions with the new organization is to ensure that Black lives matter in Europe too, and to shatter the impunity with which minorities, typically migrants from African countries, are attacked by vigilante groups and extreme-right individuals in eastern Europe. Having seen racially motivated cases of attempted murder minimized to public-order offenses while training law enforcement, prosecutors and judges how to respond to and prevent hate crimes, he points to the historic parallel with America’s pre-civil rights era. “Like with the Emmett Till case, [perpetrators] feel free to do this and get away it because the sanctions are not really sanctions; they’re little slaps on the wrist,” he says.
For instance, a 2015 Amnesty International report included the story of a Black French woman who was beaten at a bus stop in Bulgaria by a group of several men who allegedly made monkey noises before they started kicking her. According to the report, the woman was never called to testify in court nor informed about the court hearing, and the suspects were given a fine and exonerated from criminal liability.
While Iyiola Solanke, a professor of E.U. law and social justice at the University of Leeds, supports Olomoofe’s idea, she points out that in 1960s America, grassroots organizations like the NAACP and the Congress of Racial Equality supported strategic litigation. “We don’t have that institutional support across Europe,” she says. “We’re starting from a very different place.”
Bringing a case before Europe’s two highest courts, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg (which carries more weight), is a difficult process that can take years. To get a case before the Luxembourg court, Olomoofe will need a national judge to refer his case. And for that, you need a baseline amount of wokeness on the bench. With the exception of the U.K. and maybe France, Germany and the Netherlands, Solanke points out, law schools in Europe tend not to include any courses on race, so many lawyers and judges won’t treat a case of discrimination as just that. “That might make [Olomoofe’s] life a bit harder,” she says.
For someone trying to launch a European version of the NAACP, Olomoofe, a single father of a teenage daughter, is surprisingly quiet about his own experiences as a Black man living and working in eastern Europe, saying simply that in Hungary he faced “personal challenges, being visibly different.”
But Marwan Muhammad, a former colleague and close friend, says Olomoofe is someone who excels at rallying people because he started from the bottom, often as the only Black kid in the room. “The main reason he’s convincing is that he went through it. So people know it’s not fake and it’s not a rhetorical figure but his real life experience,” Muhammad says.
Olomoofe’s Nigerian parents moved to the U.K. in the 1960s after his father was offered an engineering scholarship at a local university. After a knee injury shattered his dreams of becoming a professional soccer player, he started DJing in and around London (mostly hip-hop and reggae under the stage name Larry B). Although he earned a good living behind the turntables, he did a one-eighty at the age of 26, earning degrees at Oxford and later Cambridge. It was while doing his Ph.D. in liberal studies at the New School in New York that he was invited to teach a sociology course at a university in Budapest.
Not long after, the European Roma Rights Center recruited him as a human-rights trainer and then as the director of its human-rights education department. From there, he moved on to become adviser for combating racism and xenophobia at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the intergovernmental organization’s first senior staffer of African descent. In February, he left the OSCE to launch PADLINK.
For now, Olomoofe is doing consultancy work to stay afloat while he assembles a board of directors and tries to secure donors (he’s hoping for €1 million for the first three years). And even though “no one’s pledged a dime” thus far, NGOs have expressed great interest in donating and backing PADLINK’s strategic litigation component, with one group in Germany already scouting for cases.
“Everyone has been telling us, ‘This is what is absolutely necessary, because it’s the one thing we haven’t tried,’ ” he says. “Other people have taken lessons from the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, but we haven’t.” In other words, Olomoofe’s movement is not unprecedented, even if the pesky lawyers think otherwise.
OZY’s 5 Questions With Larry Olomoofe
- Who do you admire? My mom.
- What’s your favorite hip-hop album? KRS-One’s Return of the Boom Bap.
- If you could live in a different age, what would it be? I guess I would like to have lived at the end of the 18th century or beginning of the 1960s — the African liberation movement and the civil rights era in the USA.
- What’s the last film you saw? The 13th Amendment.
- Which important historical figure would you like to have dinner with? Malcolm X.
- Linda A. Thompson, OZY AuthorContact Linda A. Thompson