Netherlands: What’s behind violent anti-lockdown riots?
Hundreds have been arrested after participating in dangerous riots, among them conspiracy theorists and far-right sympathisers.
*Names marked with an asterisk have been changed to protect identities
Amsterdam, The Netherlands – “Fireworks, dynamite, gasoline, bricks,” said an invite to the riot that erupted in Amsterdam, on Molukkenstraat in the city’s east, on Monday. “Get everything.”
The invites were shared on social media, in Snapchat posts, Instagram stories, on Telegram and WhatsApp groups.
Monday was the third day of violence to shake the Netherlands, where hundreds of rioters in several towns and cities have been clashing with police. In some of the ugliest scenes, a COVID testing centre was attacked, and knives were thrown at police officers.
The protesters are angry at strict social distancing measures to curb the coronavirus, but authorities say the new rules – which include a night curfew – are essential to bringing down infections and deaths.
Fiona Hoogveld, a charity worker who lives in a third-floor apartment on Molukkenstraat with her husband, heard about the riot from her neighbour, who warned her to stay safe.
“The invitations were alarming and so aggressive. I spent the afternoon nervous”, she told Al Jazeera.
At about 7pm local time, from their window, Hoogveld and her husband saw riot police preparing for the protesters to arrive.
Soon, about 150 police officers wearing reflective yellow jackets were clashing with a mass of people wearing black hoodies and coats.
The rioters were mostly young and set off fireworks in the street.
They tried to block the avenue while screaming “Jews, Jews!”, according to a report by Het Parool, an Amsterdam daily newspaper.
The police tried to contain the rioters as they threw rocks that reached nearby windows and a police van.
One rock struck a photographer, who quickly fled the scene in fear.
But the riot in Molukkenstraat, compared to other demonstrations, was not among the worst. Only nine were arrested.
At the same time, riots broke out in other cities, including Eindhoven, Urk, Roermond, Apeldoorn.
The riots started as a response to recent curfew measures adopted by the Dutch government, which began on January 23.
The nighttime curfew, the first in the country since World War II, makes it illegal for residents to be outside from 9pm until 4:30am, with a few exceptions.
It was imposed after a particularly infectious variant of COVID-19, first discovered in the UK, arrived in the Netherlands, sending hospitalisations soaring and prompting a warning from the National Institute for Health (RIVM) of a new wave of infections.
The Netherlands was already under tough lockdown measures, with bars and restaurants closed since October. From December, schools and non-essential shops had been shut down.
Meanwhile, the decision to further restrict people came in the middle of a political crisis after Prime Minister Mark Rutte resigned over a corruption scandal involving child tax benefits. His cabinet will continue to govern until the next elections, on March 17, which have now taken on a sense of greater importance following the violence.
‘They are limiting our freedom’
Luke*, who has a deep distrust of the government, started to actively engage with the riot movement on social media.
Al Jazeera contacted him after finding an Instagram page he runs, on which he shared videos of the riots.
“The police are targeting the youth to fill their pockets [with money],” he said.
Luke believes that the latest lockdown measures are part of the “Great Reset” – a conspiracy theory based on the assumption that political elites will use the pandemic to reorganise global societies and economies to their benefit, at the expense of ordinary people.
“They close the restaurants, but the coffee shops and supermarkets, where people stay so close to each other, stay open. It’s all part of their agenda”, he told Al Jazeera. “They are limiting our freedom, so we need to fight back”.
Hundreds arrested as frustration boils over
Almost 500 people were arrested nationwide during three days of riots.
Hoogveld, who witnessed the rioters revelling in the chaos, from her window in the capital, said: “I think it’s a combination of [frustration over the] curfew and their way of fun.”
She believes young people were both expressing their anger over the lockdown and taking some emotional pleasure from it.
Bertjan Doosje, a professor of radicalisation at the University of Amsterdam, said the extension of the lockdown, combined with the curfew, was a direct trigger for the unrest.
“Generally speaking, all people have three needs: the need to belong, the need for structure [in their lives, and in the world] and the need for control over their lives. When this need for control is being undermined, people can take action to regain [a sense of] control,” he told Al Jazeera.
Doosje added that rioters may have taken to the streets in groups seeking a sense of belonging.
“It looked like that during the first night, a group of people came together to directly protest against the new curfew measure. But on subsequent evenings, [the movement] attracted other people, such as youngsters looking for some sensation and thrills.
“I guess it helps them to think that most other people in their social environment agree with the fact that the curfew is too much and in their view, is affecting the young people in particular.”
The situation led to police officer Lieke Hester, from the Burgwallen district in Amsterdam, writing an open letter to the rioters.
“I actually grant you the harsh reality of a lockdown, a lock-up. In a cell,” she wrote on her blog.
Looking ahead, Doosje suggested ways to deal with the riots, for example not treating all protesters as criminals.
“That can only result in further escalation,” he said.
“People are frustrated. It is important to try and take their perspective, and try to understand why they feel inclined to use violence, even though you disagree with their actions,” he said, but admitted this approach was “easier said than done”.