Can Europe Make It?

The Netherlands' disgrace: racism and police brutality

A disturbing trend in the Netherlands towards more intense forms of racial profiling is converging with increasingly frequent and violent forms of police repression against minorities.

Marijn Nieuwenhuis
23 July 2015
A man wearing a t-shirt commemorating Mitch Henriquez. Demotix/Jaap Arriens. All rights reserved.

A man wearing a t-shirt commemorating Mitch Henriquez. Demotix/Jaap Arriens. All rights reserved.Despite the murder of Aruban-born Mitch Henriquez by police late last June in The Hague, the Netherlands has largely been ignored by the international press. Nonetheless, the event is important because it is symptomatic of a broader international trend towards an ever-increasing level of police violence against minorities in the western world. The kind of violence which led to the death of Henriquez is similar to that which led to the demise of Eric Garner. Official reports from the Dutch public prosecution department suggest that the cause of Henriquez’ death was asphyxiation. Suffocation seems to have become a popular means of police repression internationally. The bodies on which such lethal techniques are used are mostly male and of colour.

The case of racial police profiling in the Netherlands has taken on a dangerous dimension. An Amnesty International report published in October 2013 demonstrates that what Dutch enforcement officers categorise as “suspicious behaviour” is strongly correlated to specific ethnic characteristics. “This suspicious profile [verdacht profiel] is related to characteristics such as age, colour of skin and ethnic origins. Police officers consider young men with dark skin – and people from Central and Eastern Europe – as especially ‘suspicious’… According to [Amnesty’s] research, these are the features that characterise the dominant stereotypical mode of thinking of police forces.” Such findings correspond to written accounts of racism given by former police officers. Speaking during a TV interview in 2010, the current district police officer of The Hague implied that certain peoples are culturally and/or genetically more inclined to violent forms of behaviours.

Interviewer (Anil Ramdas): Why is it that Dutch nationals with a Moroccan heritage [in Dutch often problematically grouped together under the label of “Moroccans”] are often involved in criminal behaviour? Is this a cultural phenomenon? Or does this relate to other causes? What do you think?

Police Officer (Paul van Musscher): I have been taking classes on multiculturalism with a Moroccan male teacher. We take this issue seriously. The person teaching us informed us that the people responsible for violence in Gouda [a Dutch city] come from the Rif Mountains. They are Berbers. The word Berber derives from the word ‘barbarian’. And that naturally means they are culturally somewhat more tempered. They find it easier to live on the streets. You could say that it is a genetic trait.

Interviewer: Genetic?

Police Officer: That is what he says.

Interviewer: What do you think?

Police Officer: You can see immediately that they share habits that are culturally different to ours.

Rally held on UN International Day Against Racial Discrimination. Demotix/Hans Knikman. All rights reserved.

Rally held on UN International Day Against Racial Discrimination. Demotix/Hans Knikman. All rights reserved.The relation between the construct of race and the environment shares a history which can be traced back to nineteenth and early twentieth century Europe. The imagined relationship seems however to have remained stubbornly present in today’s Dutch law enforcement culture. When asked in 2014 to retract his words, Van Musscher denied any responsibility. “I do not know whether or not there is a relationship between criminality and genetics. I am a police officer, not a scientist”. Despite such self-acknowledged ignorance on the politics of race, Van Musscher was recently put in charge of the national police budget for “Diversity and Discrimination”.

The lack of knowledge is certainly not the only contributor to the widespread racial profiling among Dutch law enforcement officers. The national chief of police, Gerard Bouman, recently revealed that phrases such as “fucking Muslims” (kutmoslims) and calls for the “burning of mosques” are frequently overheard in police circles. He warns that “a poison has started to infiltrate the organisation.” More recently, a retired officer of Moroccan descent wrote a letter to the municipal government in The Hague, explaining that “discrimination is much more of a problem in the police than in many companies. The police have a monopoly on violence and can exercise it in illegitimate ways.”

Such alarming developments are, however, not the root cause for racial police violence. I argue instead that such trends need to be socially and historically contextualised. Racial profiling among Dutch police forces should be seen as symptomatic and deeply embedded in contemporary popular attitudes towards those considered as 'non-Dutch'.

From the soil

Silent March for Mitch Henriquez. Demotix/Jaap Arriens. All rights reserved.

Silent March for Mitch Henriquez. Demotix/Jaap Arriens. All rights reserved.The very word for a person publically and institutionally classified as non-Dutch, allochtoon (in Greek literally referring to a person from another soil) versus autochtoon (autochthon, in Greek “from the soil itself”), serves as evidence of the still persistent environmental determinism in Dutch nationalist imaginings. Dutch national identity is in fact firmly rooted in ‘primordialist’ ideas that the soil shares specific genetic characteristics. Those imagined belonging to another ‘genetic’ make-up or thought of and seen as ‘culturally’ different continue to be considered primarily as guests who have to compensate for their lack of rootedness in the ‘Dutch’ soil by strictly adhering to the cultural codes and rules of the land.

A former right-wing MP, now member of the European Parliament, Marcel de Graaf, argues in a 2014 interview that “Moroccan culture is inferior to Dutch culture.” Such sentiments are widely echoed by fellow members of the right-wing PVV Party but also find resonance in less explicitly extreme forms. A well-discussed example of the normalised practise of racial Othering is the infamous traditional character of “Black Pete” which not that long ago received outright condemnation by representatives of the United Nations. They noted that “many people, especially people of African descent living in the Netherlands, consider that aspects of Zwarte Piet are rooted in unacceptable, colonial attitudes that they find racist and offensive.” The result of the UN intervention was a national backlash against anyone inside and outside of the Netherlands who even dared to allude to the idea that racism could exist in the country. Popular responses to the critique soon relapsed into dismissive comments on popular online forums: “if you don’t like it here, why don’t you go back”, or “this is not racism, but freedom of speech.”

These are not incidental examples but form part of a much wider existing and (worryingly) growing societal trend of what ‘at best’ should be described as racial Othering. A particularly damning report by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance concluded that the “settlement of Eastern Europeans in the Netherlands – as well as of Islam and Muslims – has been portrayed by politicians and media as a threat to Dutch society.” The report’s suggestions for improvement have largely been ignored or loathed by Dutch authorities. The question of race and racism in a country, which praises itself for its liberal values, is naturally a very sensitive issue. In fact, the political spectrum has recently started to shift so far to the right that you will find it difficult to find a Dutch person willing to even discuss the very idea. Indeed, as a Dutch anthropologist has explained, “those that bring up the idea of exclusion are put aside and labelled as soreheads… Over the last couple of years we have shown ourselves to be insufficiently capable of coming to terms with structural forms of inequality and exclusion within our own society.” She continues, noting that “this is odd considering that we notice the same mechanisms in situations of police violence in the US.”

Police brutality

100 protesters arrested during unrest in The Hague. Demotix/Geronimo Matulessy. All rights reserved.

100 protesters arrested during unrest in The Hague. Demotix/Geronimo Matulessy. All rights reserved.Meanwhile, however, trends towards more intense forms of racial profiling run parallel to increasingly more frequent and violent forms of police repression against minorities. A national news website counted a daily average of 35 reported instances of police violence. Information on police brutality is widely said to be opaque which suggests that the actual number of such cases could be much higher. Other sources show that information requests are often denied, while investigations are “no longer independently conducted”. A Vice commentary notes that only 0.7 percent of the annual 15,000 reported cases of police violence gets transferred for official investigation. Empirical research conducted by the national ombudsman shows that official investigations into police violence are often ignored as a result of a lack of institutional “self-reflection”: “The first reaction of police leadership to situations of police violence is often one that attempts to protect the officers involved.” The same report notes that there is often a feeling of ambiguity among the police over the legitimacy of police violence. When the researcher confronted an officer by saying that the police should not hit people in their face, the officer responded: “But when confronted with football violence, I’ll hit them anywhere I can.”

Such reckless and lawless attitudes in combination with common and politically sanctioned practises of ethnic profiling seem to have led to the death of the unarmed Mitch Henriquez who was thrown to the floor before being strangled to death. There has been little response from the ruling political parties to the tragedy. Instead, the mayor of the city stated repeatedly that “racism exists neither among local nor national police”. Politicians on the national level were instead quick to focus their attention on the riots and protests that followed after the death of Henriquez. Hundreds of people were arrested while MPs and mainstream media outlets denounced the enraged crowds by labelling them hooligans [relschoppers] and retards [achterlijke gladiolen]. The mayor of The Hague, a former Dutch MP, depoliticised the riots and protests further by blaming warm weather and Ramadan. Indeed, as one Dutch researcher notes, "these are 'utterances that are shot through with condescension'. Politicians seem to voluntarily embrace a state of denial, which characterises previous experiences in London, Paris, or Ferguson, to mention but a few places on an increasingly growing list of marginalised and politically enraged minorities".

Even Dutch academics seem to find it difficult to come to terms with the radicalisation of police violence and the increasingly visible phenomenon of ethnic profiling. An article written by academics from the University of Leiden on ethnic profiling instead seems to attempt to trivialise these issues by arguing that there is no “hard empirical evidence [for ethnic profiling]” and that “[the] disproportionality [of ethnic profiling]” is a term open for interpretation. It is perhaps of little surprise that the “Journal for the Police” [Tijdschrift voor de Politie] decided to reward the article with an annual prize. The article goes as far as trivialising the very concept of “ethnic profiling”, which the researchers argue is of American and British origin; “[it does not seem] productive to link the term automatically to discrimination without considering the tasks of police officers on the street.” Law enforcers have themselves however acknowledged that there is a serious problem with the construct of race among their ranks. Such research also too willingly ignores the wider societal and historical contexts from which police brutality and ethnic profiling emerges and proliferates.

Schilderswijk. Flickr/Elvin. Some rights reserved.

Schilderswijk. Flickr/Elvin. Some rights reserved.One should not shy away from the fact that the killing of Mitch Henriquez did not occur in a white middle-class neighbourhood but in the predominantly coloured Schilderswijk, which mainstream media and the politicians have stereotypically stigmatised as the “Sharia-triangle”. Police violence is known to be rampant in a neighbourhood in which officers enjoy a ‘zero-tolerance’ mandate. A local TV documentary and a news agency conducted interviews with former police officials who told them that “mouthy suspects had to be silenced with the fist... We covered each other, files went missing, local police offices were labelled ‘cowboy bureaus’ etc. We used to say that we would go on ‘Murk hunting’ [ie. a Dutch contraction of the words ‘Turk’ and ‘Moroccan’]. It is all good fun, everybody laughs, nobody protests…” One of the former police officials revealed that many officers share the views of the extreme right-wing PVV and associate with the Party leader’s fanatical call for “fewer Moroccans".

Police brutality and political responses from local politicians and national MPs are reflective of a much wider societal problem which the liberal Dutch population seems very reluctant to engage with. The murder of Mitch Henriquez should not be seen as an incidental occurrence, nor should the tragedy be detached from wider societal currents. Dutch society seems to live in a comfortable shell of denial that condones, tolerates and therefore legitimises racial profiling, increasing police violence and extreme-right-wing rhetoric. Rather than confronting the discourse of race and the problem of racism, Dutch society seems to be more disposed to allowing for a further escalation of what is already a worryingly dangerous development. What is urgently needed, therefore, is a thorough and honest public discussion on the problem of racial Othering in the Netherlands.

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