Background to the Recent Dutch Riots

A protest to the curfew, a reaction to reminders of WWII or a conspiracy theorists’ gathering. What has caused the “anti-curfew riots” in the Netherlands?

After five nights of rioting and looting in villages, towns and cities across the Netherlands, people are left wondering what caused the usually lawful Dutch nation to rise up in violence. Shops were looted and destroyed, businesses and properties vandalised and police were sieged while trying to control the crowds.

Photo credits: AFP

The police have described the events as the “worst riots” in the country since the 1980 coronation riots when squatters and police angrily clashed in Amsterdam on the day of Queen Beatrix’s coronation.

Curfew Brings Unrest

On Saturday 23rd January, after COVID-19 hospitalisations soared, the government announced a nationwide curfew in the Netherlands. The country had already been back in complete lockdown since December 2020 with the closure of all contact businesses, bars, restaurants and non-essential shops. The majority of the population immediately adhered to the curfew and roads were deserted across the land by 9pm.

However, it appears as if the additional curfew measure was one step too far for some. That same night, riots broke out in the small fishing village of Urk, in Flevoland. A COVID-19 testing centre was burned down and rioters clashed with police.

By the third night, riots had spread across the Netherlands with almost 500 people arrested and dozens of police injured. Businesses were vandalised and looted, projectiles were thrown, police were attacked and many vehicles were set on fire. Fireworks were the war flag of choice in many locations.

For more information, here is a timeline of the Dutch anti-curfew riots and the run up to them.

What is behind the anti-curfew riots in the Netherlands?

First Curfew Since WWII

The Dutch House of Representatives acknowledged the complications that a nationwide curfew would cause when they refused to support the idea back in September 2020. The main concern at the time was the strong association with World War II, when curfews were imposed by the Nazis upon the occupied Netherlands.

However, once the British Variant of the coronavirus began to spread to the Netherlands, extreme measures needed to be taken urgently.

With the average demographic of rioters being young men, it is unlikely that these anti-curfew riots are due to unpleasant reminders of World War II curfews.

Conspiracies and Protests

On the morning radio show “De Ochtend”, criminologist Henk Ferwerda told Dutch broadcaster NOS that the perpetrators of the recent violence in the Netherlands are “virus deniers, politically motivated people, and types who saw an opportunity to go crazy.” Dutch correspondent Joris van Poppel reiterated on the show that the majority of Dutch people are in support of the curfew and any measures the government deem necessary.

So, who are these outliers? Al Jazeera spoke with a rioter they called “Luke”, involved in the riots in Amsterdam on Wednesday:

“They are limiting our freedom, so we need to fight back”, he said, discussing his belief that lockdown measures are part of the “Great Reset” – a conspiracy theory that the political elites are using the pandemic to reorganise the global economy and world order. “It’s all part of their agenda.”

Jelle van Buuren, of the University of Leiden, told the newspaper NRC that the riots are filled with a diverse group mostly consisting of young people, football hooligans, radical-right groups and anti-vaxxers. There seems to be no unifying element to their riots other than the riot itself.

Organised in Advance

There are claims that the riots were organised en masse in advance via social media. Certainly, Al Jazeera found their contact “Luke” through a page he runs on Instagram sharing riot videos. “Luke” said he was actively engaged with the riot movement on social media. However, the main calls to organise spread quickly across various social media platforms after the initial unrest began.

Sad that he had to threaten teargas for the first time in his career, Rotterdam Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb said of the rioters: “These people are shameless thieves, I cannot say otherwise.” In a video where he addressed the culprits directly, Aboutaleb outlined the contrast between the heroes who rebuilt the city after the Rotterdam Blitz and those currently destroying it.

It certainly doesn’t help matters when extremist right-wing politicians such as Geert Wilders and Thierry Baudet vowed to oppose the curfew from the moment it was announced. Once violence broke out, they were both quick to blame immigrants. The pair were blasted in an op-ed in NRC by Leo Lucassen, director of the International Institute of Social History. He said “their crocodile tears do not seem very credible” now.

Translation:

Scandalous scenes on our streets and in the shops of ordinary entrepreneurs. This has nothing to do with protest and everything to do with the failed mass immigration. These people don’t care about our freedom at all. They just want to plunder and destroy. Tackle hard!

– Forum voor Democratie (@fvdemocratie) January 25, 2021

So, for now, order seems to have been restored in the Netherlands. However, one thing is clear. Regardless of who is responsible, stress is high and nerves are frayed in the country. Looking at the recent supposed “anti-curfew protesters”, it isn’t possible to distil a single political program from their objections. And, after twelve months of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is not clear what could be the next catalyst to cause tensions to bubble over again in the Netherlands.

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