November 22, 2021

When hundreds of rioters piled into Rotterdam centre on Friday night, attacking police, throwing bricks, setting off fireworks and rampaging through the streets, it was no small irony that they left a police car burning outside the Erasmushuis. This cultural building represents one of Rotterdam’s most famous exports: the humanist and Renaissance scholar, Erasmus, known today as a beacon of tolerance and liberty.

But from the images of the violence that were soon shared across the world, there didn’t seem to be much of that famed Dutch moderation, openness and reasonableness on show. While the rioters left destruction in their wake, it later emerged that the police had directed live rounds of fire at rioters, leaving four people with gunshot wounds. As Dutch virologist Marion Koopmans — who initially likened the protests against the Netherlands’ latest coronavirus restrictions to a World War Two bombardment (before retracting the war analogy after facing a barrage of criticism) — said, there was a “bitter irony” to the location of such wanton violence.

Dutch leaders were quick to paint the riots as acts of hooliganism rather than protest, with commentators citing the existence of group chats where people reportedly said things such as: “Where’s the protest? I want to riot.” Rotterdam mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb called it “an orgy of violence” that drew “a number of people who had no intention of acting peacefully, but who were there to riot, to confront the police, and to destroy public property”. Dutch caretaker justice minister Ferd Grapperhaus echoed his comments, saying that a protest against a controversial (and as yet unimplemented) idea to restrict access to certain areas for unvaccinated people was hijacked by football hooligans and criminal low-life.

But just 10 months after a the country was gripped by nationwide riots in protest at an earlier coronavirus curfew, such an explanation seems overly simplistic. I can’t be the only person here in the Netherlands left wondering why some of the country’s 17.6 million citizens are so visibly out of control and alienated from the majority. This isn’t some new phenomenon: the Dutch police have been highlighting the increasing violence of protesters for several years.

According to the latest reports, it seems that rioters in Rotterdam were made of a number of disparate groups, motivated for a range of reasons. Football hooligans, young men with nothing to do, harbour workers with low wages and job security, and those suffering from the national shortage of decent housing were all ripe for civil disobedience. As MP Attje Kuiken says: “It’s a poisonous cocktail.”

But behind their resentment — which includes recent anger at a nationwide ban on fireworks this New Year — there are clearly bigger social problems. A widespread disaffection with government is evident in the peaceful protests in major cities practically every weekend (sometimes for things as trivial as wearing face masks).

As in many other Western countries, there is a deep polarisation in Dutch society, and increasing distrust in politicians. This was exacerbated when the Government fell in January over a scandal in which tens of thousands of parents — most of dual nationality — were wrongly accused of childcare benefit fraud and forced to pay back every cent they had ever received, with devastating consequences for their financial, personal and children’s wellbeing. Last week, the Dutch highest court officially apologised for upholding unlawful tax office rulings. But while 15,000 people have received €30,000 in compensation so far, the apparent racism engrained in government institutions has not yet been fully investigated.

After elections in March, resulting in a hugely splintered outcome, Dutch political parties are still unable to form a government — a telling picture about the difficulty in finding common ground. Those who voted for change are no doubt disappointed by the continued presence of the same establishment faces around the table, led again by liberal Mark Rutte. Meanwhile, newish far-Right parties such the Forum for Democracy have delighted in exploiting the pandemic to undermine “the political elite”. As Amsterdam University cultural anthropologist Dr Danny de Vries tells me: “Just a few days ago one of them publicly threatened another politician in the chamber, saying his time would come when tribunals are held to hold him accountable for ‘corona crimes’” Only last week, the leader of FVD, Thierry Baudet, compared corona measures to Nazi Germany.

Yet the country’s political leaders have hardly earned a glowing report. For all their confidence in their liberal, efficient and wealthy society, they have been behind at every step in the pandemic. The Government was one of the slowest in Europe to start vaccinations, and now that it has one of Europe’s highest infection rates, it has just started offering boosters. Moreover, despite being perfectly well aware that there have been at least 31,000 corona deaths (as recorded on death certificates), the Government continues to put a much lower figure of “officially-tested positive deaths” front and centre on its dashboards. Conveniently, this number (18,966) is less than neighbouring countries like Belgium, which have always recorded suspect deaths too.

And so while there is broad support for vaccination and the Dutch have fully vaccinated 84.7% of adults, trust in government policy and leadership has plummeted recently. There have been U-turns on policy, with nightclubs open one minute, and then closed the next, and an imprudent loosening of most restrictions at the end of September. With coronavirus infections at record highs in the past week, and hospitals saying they will soon have to make decisions about who gets the IC beds, virologists are talking once more about the need for a full lockdown — and it’s not only the coronavirus sceptics or protesters who are looking at December with sinking hearts.

When he appeared on a morning chat show yesterday, Nijmegen mayor and chairman of the National Security Council Hubert Bruls was keen to emphasise that most people are not out on the streets rioting. That’s true, and it’s difficult to say whether the Dutch have more coronavirus sceptics — or, indeed, hooligans — than anyone else (although the head of Viruswaarheid corona protest group Willem Engel, adds a certain flair to events with his experience as a former dance teacher).

But anyone who has ever tried to stand in a queue in the Netherlands will realise that there’s a widespread sense of assertive individualism here, which is not often restrained by social norms such as politeness or the-other-person-was-actually-first. Basic rights like freedom of speech, movement and protest, are also grounded in the constitution, which has meant that it is very difficult for a government to restrain them. This has led to a surprising number of civilian court cases about coronavirus policy (eventually overturned by the courts).

As a Brit living in the Netherlands, I’ve been surprised how much opposition there has been to following relatively minor rules such as wearing a face mask in certain places; the mere prospect of showing a coronavirus pass for entry is enough to cause a spiky hour of debate in most social groups, where it’s likely that at least a few people will disagree with their existence as a matter of principle.

Another element that might sit behind recent discontent is something that the Netherlands is often praised for: a light-touch legal system and emphasis on alternatives to prison and processes like mediation. Although Grapperhaus has pledged to fast-track stiff justice for rioters, and police are busy scanning camera images to round up the Rotterdam culprits, the Netherlands has recently been seen by organised crime as a “low-threshold” entry point to Europe.

The current struggle with organised crime has laid bare gaps in policing capacity, and a sense that a liberal but illogical weed policy is not helping (because smoking weed is tolerated, but growing it commercially is a punishable crime). Young men are apparently attracted to act as “collectors” of drug shipments in containers at Rotterdam harbour or criminal errand boys, and there’s a desperate need to offer other opportunities to certain groups of young people — something that has been recognised by the new mayor of Utrecht, Sharon Dijksma.

The recent violence in Rotterdam cannot, therefore, be dismissed as mere hooliganism. As the authorities launch an official investigation into the gunshot wounds sustained on Friday night, and police forces are deployed across cities to stop-and-search as bars close at 8pm, this isn’t a time to sit back and dismiss the rioting as an “orgy” of criminal activity. It’s time to sift through the ashes.