by Ruben Timmerman
Over the past week, protests and demonstrations have swept across nearly every major city in the United States in grief and outrage over the killing of George Floyd—one of countless incidents of police brutality against African Americans in recent years. Protests and demonstrations have also been accompanied by nation-wide rioting and looting, causing numerous US Governors to call in the National Guard and declare a State of Emergency. These measures were in turn followed by images of widespread police violence against protestors and journalists. This past week, however, protests also spread to major cities around the globe, including various cities in the Netherlands. These protests may be seen both as a demonstration of international solidarity with protestors in the US, and at the same time a call to recognize and fight against the continued systemic racism and police violence at home in the Netherlands.
The current protests are also unique in that they emerge simultaneously alongside an unprecedented global pandemic, presenting a difficult tension between, on the one hand, protecting public health by enforcing social distancing rules, and on the other hand, widespread enthusiasm among the public to speak out. This tension was made particularly evident during demonstrations that took place in Rotterdam this past Wednesday, which I attended. In this blog post, I report on the events of the demonstration in Rotterdam in light of the global protests surrounding the death of George Floyd, and offer a critical reflection on the need to confront the challenges of police violence and systemic racism in the Netherlands and in our own city.
This was the third major demonstration in the Netherlands, with similar protests being held in Amsterdam and The Hague earlier in the week. The previous protest in Amsterdam drew criticism for its failure to maintain social distancing rules, and raised considerable debate among Dutch politicians as to whether or not demonstrations should be allowed to continue. In the wake of these debates, Rotterdam Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb finally decided to allow demonstrations as long as they managed to comply with social distancing rules. The demonstration was initially set to take place at Schouwburgplein, but due to expectations of large numbers of people, was finally moved to the Erasmus Bridge—Rotterdam’s most distinctive and iconic aesthetic feature.
The demonstration program featured a moment of silence, a performance of Bob Marley’s Redemption Song, and the testimony of a young black woman who two days earlier reported on social media that she had been violently arrested by police in a park in Rotterdam. Observers looked down on the crowd from their balconies and a drone hovered watchfully overhead, reminding protestors to maintain their distancing. Within a half hour of the start of the official program, it became clear that the volume of people would overwhelm the space designated by the municipality for the demonstration. While traffic and trams stopped on the bridge deck to open more space for demonstrators, this space also quickly filled up.
Since the protests began in Amsterdam, some in the Netherlands have questioned the need to demonstrate in protest of an incident that happened over 6000 km away, on the other side of the globe. However, while the world’s eyes might be directed at the situation in America, the Netherlands is also far from immune to the challenges of systemic racism and police violence. In 2015, Mitch Henriquez, a man of Aruban-descent, was killed while being arrested by police at a festival in The Hague. It was later confirmed that Henriquez died of suffocation as a direct result of police violence during his arrest, drawing clear parallels with the death of George Floyd and the unofficial slogan of the protests: I can’t breath.
Over the past several years, a large body of research produced by various Dutch academics and human rights organizations has also repeatedly demonstrated the prevalence of ethnic profiling and discrimination toward minorities by police in the Netherlands.[i] In some ways, these issues surrounding police violence and systemic racism towards non-whites are especially alive in Rotterdam. The city is no stranger to high-profile instances of police violence against minorities. In 2016, the city was ground zero of an Anti-Zwarte Piet protest during which nearly 200 protestors belonging to the group Kick Out Zwarte Piet were arrested by police, including the violent arrest of Jerry Afriyie.
However, the city has also faced broader challenges. Rotterdam has been regarded as a case-study in post-industrial European ‘superdiversity’, with over 50% of the population having a first or second generation migration background.[ii] Nevertheless, the city has long struggled with institutional discrimination and racism. Some scholars have argued that the city’s challenges in coming to terms with its ‘superdiversity’ gained new meaning post-9/11 with the rise of local populist movement under Pim Fortuyn—a controversial local politician and populist leader (in)famous for his critical stance towards Islam and local integration policy, killed in 2002 by an activist.[iii] Since then, the city continues to struggle with anti-immigrant sentiment and Islamaphobia—although undoubtedly the massive numbers of people at Wednesday’s demonstration serves as a testament to the widespread desire for inclusiveness and demand for greater action to combat racism. Sometime during the protest, the statue of Pim Fortuyn in Rotterdam’s city center was defaced, spray-painted with the words: “racist”.
In relation to the issue of local policing, Amnesty International NL has reported on the prevalence of ‘preventative body searches’ by Dutch police in so-called ‘security risk areas’, drawing comparisons with the controversial ‘stop-and-frisk’ policies of US law enforcement. Amnesty identifies that various predominantly non-white neighborhoods in Rotterdam have become de facto permanent ‘security risk areas’ where such practices have become commonplace.[iv] Various local studies have furthermore documented the widespread experiences of discrimination among non-white residents of Rotterdam at the hands of police.[v] For many of these residents present at Wednesday’s demonstration, it was not just about an incident that occurred on the other side of the globe, but about issues that are very much alive at home and part of their own lived experiences.
About half-way through the program it was clear that there was some unease among the organizers, who were beginning to receive word that the demonstration would have to shut down if demonstrators did not spread out and maintain social distancing. While standing on the bridge deck, the competing messages began ringing out from either side: In one ear, demonstration organizers attempting to rally demonstrators chanting “Black Lives Matter”; and in the other ear, a different message crudely delivered from loud speakers mounted to armoured vehicles of the Mobiele Eenheid, the public order and anti-riot unit of the police: “Attention demonstrators, this is the police, you are required to keep 1,5 meter distance”. While demonstrators clumsily attempted to spread out, the sheer volume of people made it impossible. The mayor, alongside partners from the police and the prosecution service, finally made the decision to stop the demonstration approximately 30 minutes before it was scheduled to end. As it became clear that the demonstration was being shut down early, there was a natural feeling of frustration and anger, mixed with chanting: “no justice, no peace”.
There was a brief sense that the situation could escalate, with organizers asking protestors to stay peaceful, and emphasizing that “the most important thing is that we all get home safe”. As people began to disperse, smaller groups of demonstrators continued to protest in various places around the city in Schouwburgplein, Stadhuisplein and the Central Station. Some fireworks were shot off and two people were arrested, but the protests for the most part ended peacefully.
In some ways, the protests in Rotterdam reflects a collision between two historical moments. Since late-February, nearly 6000 people in the Netherlands have died of COVID-19, and there are continuing concerns of a potential ‘second wave’ of infection. Over the past several weeks, politicians and experts have tried to distinguish between ‘essential’ and ‘non-essential’ activities in an effort to respond to the crisis. But as protests break out in the major cities of liberal democracies around the world, the question is raised: at what point does rising to the moment—to exercise one’s right and duty to protest against systemic racism and injustice—become essential?
The current moment offers much to digest for criminologists, including questions surrounding the disproportionate impact of public health and economic crises on traditionally marginalized communities; the efficacy and justice of law enforcement efforts and police violence in maintaining public order; the serious health risks for incarcerated or detained persons; the suspected role of criminal groups and other non-state actors, such as white supremacist groups, the Boogaloo movement, and Antifa (which President Trump inexplicably vowed to designate a ‘terrorist organization’). The protests this week should reawaken the urgency with which we as criminologists approach these questions, including in our own backyard.
Time will tell whether or not the death of George Floyd and the global protests that followed will represent a genuine turning point in the ongoing struggle against police violence and systemic racism in the criminal justice system. For now, there is no question that this past week a major historical moment arrived at our doorstep, and we can be proud that, however briefly, our city was able to take part in it—recognizing that there is still much work to be done.
All photos were taken by the author.