Dutch riots not just about fatigue with pandemic restrictions

There is the sense of a message being conveyed, weeks before a general election

What the Netherlands has been experiencing over the past three nights of violent rioting has been a number of competing anti-government agendas finding common cause in destruction – and using the pandemic as cover.

Caretaker premier Mark Rutte said as much on Monday when he dismissed the idea that the violence was the work of citizens legitimately opposed to the societal impact of the second Covid-19 lockdown, and, from Saturday evening, the new overnight curfew.

“This has nothing whatsoever to do with protest,” Mr Rutte declared. “This is criminal violence.”

That view has more than a little support across Dutch society, both left and right. The police union, NPB, has described the rioting, looting and vandalism as “the worst sustained violence in 40 years”.

Police chief Willem Woelders said that watching the trouble spots ignite on Monday evening was like watching a switch being flicked. "Things were relatively quiet until 7.30pm and then all hell broke loose."

At the other end of the spectrum, "shameless thieves" is how the longstanding Dutch-Moroccan mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb – the only Muslim mayor of a major European city – described the youngsters on the rampage on Monday evening.

“I had to threaten to use tear gas, something I have never had to do before in my career as mayor.”

Racist caricatures

Coming from that same background, Aboutaleb – a Labour Party stalwart – is always conscious that when youngsters of Arab or North African descent let rip they are playing to the racist caricatures exploited by the right, most infamously by Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party.

And that’s exactly what’s been happening – the mainstream political parties played a tit-for-tat blame game all weekend as pockets of the country burned.

GreenLeft leader Jesse Klaver, for instance, blamed both the Freedom Party and right-wing relative newcomers the Forum for Democracy, tweeting: "This is exactly what happens when these parties claim that NOS [the national broadcaster] is fake news."

Within minutes, Wilders responded: “These are your supporters, Jesse! Do something!”

In fact, it’s nowhere near that clear-cut.

The worst of the violence on Saturday evening – the start of the curfew, the first since the second World War – was in Urk, a small, staunchly conservative Protestant village where there’s widespread scepticism about the reality of Covid-19 combined with a high proportion of convinced anti-vaxxers.

Centre burned

It’s inexcusable, but those viewpoints appear to have prompted the burning-down of a local coronavirus test centre – set alight as the curfew began on the stroke of 9pm.

As befits a capital city, the protesters in Amsterdam were more diverse, from those who believe their civil rights were being grievously compromised by the lockdown and white supremacists to the anti-immigrant campaigners of Pegida and those who seriously believe Covid-19 vaccinations have been adulterated with 5G nanochips.

Many of these could reasonably be described as denizens of the lunatic fringe. On the other hand, there is, says academic Berend Roorda, a sense of a message being conveyed here amid the mayhem – weeks before a general election.

The ignominious collapse of the Rutte government a fortnight ago in a row over a child benefits scandal, in which thousands of families were wrongfully pursued to the point of penury, has left not just a political vacuum at the heart of Dutch government but a sense of moral bewilderment as well.