Den Haag in the Netherlands has gone through some of the deepest upheavals in the country, including riots in 2015 over the police killing of Mitch Henriquez, arrested on suspicion of carrying a weapon and then throttled, dying in police custody the next day. In this conversation with two anarchist comrades from the city, anarchist journal Avalanche draws out an overview of the context, struggle and projects of Den Haag’s libertarian activities over the last few years.
Tell me a bit about the city itself.
A – Den Haag is a city of 500-600,000 people, it is both the home to poor neighbourhoods, such as the Schilderswijk, the poorest neighbourhood in the Netherlands, and of the biggest institutions of justice of the European Union. The motto of the city is “Peace and Justice”. It is the host of some of the most important military, intelligence and justice institutions of the European Union … Europol, international summit centres, international courts, embassies.
B – There is also an international zone, protected by security delta, this is not only for the State but also companies, it attracts companies, capital. This city has all changed in the last 15 years, someone in charge, from one day to the next, decided to flip the switch … and everything changed, all the dozens of squats were evicted, cleaned up, made the space for its new international role.
You mentioned before the Schilderswijk, this neighbourhood is quite famous, but mostly we hear about it from mainstream news, can you talk a bit about it from your perspective and what kind of presence you have there?
A – The Schilderswijk is densely populated and in the centre of the city it’s a working class immigrant neighbourhood … it’s a quite impressive difference, it changes from one street to the next … two opposite worlds living right beside eachother … a few years ago, particularly this neighbourhood was hit by lots of austerity measures, with many of the public cultural places shutting down, like libraries and social centres, at the same time there was implemented a zero tolerance policy, with many cameras being installed and frequent police controls.
B – A very intense stop-and-search routine. A the beginning it was a test … Police stopped trams, and take everyone out, like a hundred people, and id checks everyone, and could maybe find one knife, justifying this measure, they made it into a permanent routine … this has definitively contributed to increasing the tension in this neighbourhood, with young people being stopped multiple times in one day.
A – Yes, a constant build up of frustration.
Can you talk about the role of religion in the neighbourhood? Would you say that with the disappearance of many social infrastructures, some religious institutions tried fill the vacuum?
A – Religious of structures were always present, but I have the feeling that a lot of the youth don’t go there … or just a very small part.
B – But these structures are very willing and eager to be in good contact with the city authorities.
A – This neighbourhood always had a bad name, but its mostly the work of journalists, like this one from “Trouw”, who 3–4 years ago wrote an article talking about how in the neighbourhood exists the sharia triangle of the Netherlands – a name based on three houses that were apparently Daesh strongholds. At the time he wrote many many articles, “investigating” the religious fundamentalism. But some time later some of his colleagues made a counter investigation about his sources and his theories, and it turned out to be complete lies. Like people he supposedly interviewed didn’t exist, etc. But by then the damage was done, the reputation was fixed.
But I do remember reading about two pro-Daesh demonstrations in the neighbourhood.
A – Yes there were two, but this was also very much distorted by the media. You have to see it like this … The thing about this neighbourhood, is that there are normally many people on the streets, who show curiosity when things happen on the streets. Like when people get arrested, or an accident etc … The people there for the demonstration were around twenty, with around them a lot of onlookers. Out of this the newspapers created something a lot bigger than it actually was … following the narrative “the onlookers were muslims, or looked like muslims, therefore they must be in support of Daesh” … The police obviously could use this really well, to further control and repression.
B – … In those years we were extremely present in the neighbourhood especially to talk about the problem of racism and police brutality, mostly spreading flyers, posters, pamphlets … but also talking to people, really just having many conversations, getting to know them and them us … They [the cops] tried to make it harder to make demonstrations, especially to break down these relationships that were building between anarchists and antifascists and people in the neighbourhood that were curious about our ideas, that wanted to support us, that wanted to act with us.
A – In 2013 we were mostly still talking about racism and police violence, at least these are the basis on which we started to have conversations with people … listen to their stories and share our views … Soon we started organising demonstrations, to not just talk with people but also act together. This was also the time when the police started noticing us, they would follow us around, id check us, and especially when we would talk to people from neighbourhood centres, the cops would immediately approach them, threatening to shut them down if they did not take distance from us. But people came to us to tell us that this was happening.
B – But other people didn’t. There is this story of one neighbourhood centre that had a subsidy of €15,000 a year, and after they went to city council and publicly took the side of the police, their subsidy went to €170,000.
A – But yeah, generally this scared people, but most people didn’t slam their door in our face, and still came to the demonstrations we organised, and were really angry about this police blackmail.
B – But towards us the police harassment continued quite heavy, taking of all our posters, arresting us while we were flyering at the market … But the thing is that in this neighbourhood the anger towards the police was really boiling up. This is still 2013–2014.
You said before that you were mostly talking to people about racist police violence, did your agitation stay on these topics or did it expand to a wider critique?
A – Through all this experience and seeing how the police and mayor were really actively trying to buy people and threaten them, and seeing how the people were reacting, we could also find out better how all this power is specifically at play, the opportunists, the mediators, the pacifiers, the collaborators etc.
B – So we then started to also talk about this, expanding our critique against all forms of power, about the system that needs them, etc. We really wanted to agitate around how these people are being used by all forms of power, and propose our ideas of self-organisation, direct action and struggle.
What kind of concrete proposals were you making?
A – In this time we were making, on a regular basis anti-police demonstration, to which many people from the neighbourhood came, like we started with less than 100 people and at the last one we were 250.
B – This was important for us, because it was a way of organising with people, not just talking but also acting, and also to show ways of self-organisation, but propose ways to do something about the rage, and to also show that this could be done outside of the institutional frames.
A – It was good, because people were pissed off and when you would talk about demos, they actually came … I mean as long as it was in their neighbourhood, they wont leave their neighbourhood … haha
And why did these demonstrations stop?
A – After the pro-Daesh demonstration, and after an anti-Daesh demonstration by fascists, they banned all demos in the Schilderswijk. This was 2014.
B – It was clear that the State had a plan, they permitted a far-right group to demonstrate in the Schilderswijk, which they knew would cause problems … to then immediately implement the ban … it was the perfect excuse.
A – So, yeah then we didn’t demonstrate anymore, but we still agitated, kept our connections.
B – Which also played a big role during the days of the revolt, the fact that people knew us, recognised us …
So, yeah the revolt.
A – Mitch Henriquez got strangled to death in June 2015 by cops at a festival in the neighbourhood, there were a lot of people around so everyone was filming it.
B – We didn’t think there would be a revolt like this … it showed that even here in Holland a situation of conflict and rage can exist, spontaneously … we are told over and over that this is such a pacified country we end up believing it … but none of us had expected it.
How do you think you presence in the neighbourhood played a role during this revolt?
A – We could understand the neighbourhood … during the years we could feel the tension was rising, I would say we had a small influence in this, but it’s impossible to measure … repeating over and over it is up to the people themselves to step up and revolt.
B – We were there on a constant basis, for years, something also new for us, a focus, a consistency … but this mostly paid off for us, an ability to understand something well, what’s at play, a long term project … for our
own development this was crucial, a learning process … with the addition that in the end people did rise up for a few days, and we could live these moments together.
Can you tell a bit about how you and your comrades lived these days?
A – We got a message from the mother of a friend of ours, she’s from Aruba [like Mitch Henriquez], she sent us a link to a news site from Aruba talking about what happened in our city that someone had been murdered by the police … the media here were not speaking at all about it … so then we translated it and added our own views and critique. Then we searched on social media for more information and we found many videos from witnesses, we putted the videos on youtube. That day hundreds of thousands of people visited our website … not really the usual amount of people that visit our website … haha … Then the Dutch mainstream media picked it up.
B – Then the public prosecutor put out a statement saying that he was just ill, and people got really pissed, because it was clear in the videos that he had died.
A – We need to remember that in 2012 the police had already killed a 17-year-old boy at the train station, shot him in the neck while he was running away … The police heavily repressed the situation, even beating people up at the vigils and remembrance ceremonies, like young kids, his friends… People still remembered this, and were still pissed.
B – But yeah, with Mitch Henriquez, people immediately announced a demonstration in front of the main police station in the Schilderswijk, a bit the symbol of police racism and brutality … by 5 o’clock that afternoon there were already over 1,000 people in front. There were all kinds of people, some from the neighbourhood, some from other poor neighbourhoods, motorcycle gangs, anarchists, Black Lives Matter activists.
A – Then people stormed the station, the riot cops came out, and then immediately people broke open the street, and then it started raining stones … this clash lasted till four in the morning …
Did it only stay in front of the police station?
B – It was also spreading to other parts of the neighbourhood … attacks against the police lasted for hours … They were not really prepared for this situation … it was really chaotic … but the neighbourhood has many small alleys for people to move really smoothly … they used it well, during the revolt very few people got arrested.
A – The next day the streets were really tense, you could smell it in the air, and by the evening there were again many attacks on the police and fires everywhere.
B – … but a little less than the day before.
A – … on the third day the police admitted to having lied in their statement [saying that M.H. had just fallen ill]. This was another spark.
B – A demonstration was again announced at the police station, the police immediately tried to push people back, and the riot started again, and this was the most hardcore day … people were better organised, in groups, with materials.
A – There were lots of really heavy fireworks … constant heavy fireworks, we really don’t know where such a quantity came from … then there were molotovs, to which the police responded by shooting live ammunition in the air … there were lots of undercover cops, the really nasty ones that usually arrest people quite brutally, on that day the table turned and they got properly beaten up … anyways, all cops were running that night …
Was there only attacks on the police or did the riots expand to other forms of power?
A – There were also many banks that got completely trashed, and the main supermarket was looted … but people didn’t attack the small shops of the neighbourhood … you know they all know each other.
B – Then on fourth day everyone just got mass arrested, and the main mosque send out young people in yellow vests to convince people to go home … but they were mostly ignored… it was people from a radical mosque, but they took the opportunity to ally themselves with the mayor, to become friends …
It sounds really angry … was it also joyful?
A – It depends on the moment I guess, sometimes it felt like people were blinded by rage, while in other moments it felt like they were playing… |21|
What happened after those days?
B – After the revolt many people got arrested … many people weren’t masked, and they released all this footage and pictures, lots of raids.
A – These arrests went on for a year, some people stayed a long time, but most of the people we didn’t know, and we didn’t really know how to deal with it, we supported a few people that we knew.
B – Then we made an anarchist newspaper, a wall newspaper, speaking of the revolt how it should continue, and against this rhetoric that the media pushed saying that the only people there were thugs and hooligans from other cities and anarchists.
A – They especially blamed anarchists for organising the riot, this was not fair, in the sense of disrespectful for the people of the neighbourhood, who rose up themselves.
B – … of course it’s typical, they want to find their small group of people to focus on and separate from the rest, the bad apples … but they also continued the narrative that the people of the neighbourhood, poor, marginalised people are not capable of taking matters into their own hands … it keeps portraying them in this helpless role.
A – So they started to really focus on us … they arrested one person putting up a newspaper, at first he spent three days in prison and then got charged with eight weeks for incitement to violence and discrimination.
B – Hundreds of posters were put up during a few days … Then we made an other poster … the amount of attention they put on this is pretty crazy, it was on national news.
Why do you think they are so scared of a poster?
A – It’s hard to say if they are just paranoid that our ideas become contagious, and that people rise up, or if it’s just a tactic to put all the blame on the anarchists to avoid and deny talking about the fact that actually it is an entire neighbourhood that is angry and is capable of doing something about it.
B – I mean I don’t think it’s just paranoia, it’s a strategy … because it’s just a poster … a revolt does not start just from a poster, that would be great … I mean if it did our job would be a lot easier.
A – But anyways the neighbourhood was a bit quiet, there was an intense manhunt, people laid low.
Can you talk specifically about the kind of repression that hit the anarchists since the revolt?
A – Since then there has been a lot of repression … eviction of our social centre, arrests, area bans for the neighbourhood … I suppose it also made us quite tired … still determined but repression was working.
B – The mayor is on a quest to get rid of us. He is furious … he used all his weapons … from our files we know that he called out this special meeting to discuss about the anarchist problem. This meeting is called CTER (Counter terrorism, extremism and radicalisation) in which he sits at the table with authorities with different repressive functions, like national secret services, local secret services, prosecutors, tax agency. Then all these institutions accumulate their information about a certain group and put it in one file, called the CTER file, they do mapping of the group, pick people out, and then they strategise together on ways of building the repression from different angles. So we had a lot of surveillance, harassment, evictions, controls, bans, arrests, fines, court cases. Eventually this might lay the ground for charges like “criminal organisation” or “terrorist organisation,” but yeah, nothing is sure … And all the individuals in this file get a different treatment, and they experiment with their arsenal of repressive measures to see what works best.
How did you react on this? Or better usually when people are hit by repression they just react, it’s hard to build a perspective.
A – We discussed about it, wrote about it, spread it, put it into context, not to just say that these are random incidences, but to say that they have an agenda, this is a strategy.
B – But every time a small thing happened we acted, we made a spontaneous demonstration in the Schilderswijk after the person got arrested for the newspaper, after the area ban we did a flyering action at the city hall, with quite some disturbance … but these were small things.
A – The accumulation of all this bullshit and also seeing that we were not the only anarchists facing repression in this country gave us the idea of calling out for a big demonstration [Fight Repression, November 2016]. The “Fight Repression” demonstration of November 2016, right? What was behind the idea of making an open call out? I mean it is quite a big risk in the Netherlands, anti–authoritarian demonstrations are heavily repressed since years in this country.
B – We wanted to make an open call out, we wanted many people to come, to show that we are not alone, and that we are supported, to include different stories of repression, in fact to talk about the fact that everyone faces repression, and give the opportunity even for those who are not organised to fight against it.
A – At the starting point there was lots of police, they immediately kettled us in, said that we were not allowed |22| to wear masks, closed it up even more and arrested everyone, one by one, it took them hours.
B – People got released a few hours later. 25 people managed to remain anonymous, to not be identified.
A – It was really shit how it went, but we are not defeated, people there were motivated, were up for it. We were really impressed that more than 250 showed up…I mean these days it does give a lot of strength and courage to see that you are not alone, and that many people are angry about repression, feel it on their own skin, want to fight it, but we also need to find new ways of expressing this fight, ways of being more unexpected, a new imagination.
What projects do you have for the future?
A – We need to build some new points of reference for ourselves and for people interested in our ideas, to gather and discuss, organise. A lot has been taken away from us and to continue to struggle with some kind of consistency we need to have some points of reference. We are building a social space, where we will have a bookstore and a meeting space for a little bit of stability. This will be on the edge of the Schilderswijk. But we want to especially continue the struggle in this neighbourhood, it would be a pity to let all this effort go to waste, so we will continue to agitate, act, be present.
Why did you agree to this interview?
B – It’s a way to confront ourselves with an experience of struggle, to talk about it, so we can share it and think about it … the problems we are facing, how we and others can learn from them, sharpen ours and their struggle … and perhaps there are some elements of our situation of the last years that can be interesting and helpful for other comrades.