Anti-lockdown demos in the Netherlands this week have generated many shocking images. But there is one that may yet become iconic.
During a protest against the imposition of a nationwide 9pm curfew in Eindhoven last Sunday, a police truck turned its water cannon on a young woman who was hurled against a concrete wall so hard that she appeared to bounce off it.
She slumped to the ground and was photographed with blood pouring down her face. The woman, later named as Denisa Stastna, sustained a fractured skull and a head wound that required more than 15 stitches.
According to police, she was targeted because she and her boyfriend ignored repeated instructions to leave an area of the city where anti-curfew protests had been raging for several hours.
A video of the incident quickly went viral, one of many shared online by a public stunned by the sudden eruption of violence in a country long renowned for being one of the most liberal, tolerant and civilised in the world.
During a protest against the imposition of a nationwide 9pm curfew in Eindhoven last Sunday, a police truck turned its water cannon on a young woman. Pictured, a rubbish container and bicycles were set alight
This week thousands of its normally law-abiding citizens have engaged in an orgy of rioting and looting, attacking police with Molotov cocktails, fireworks and any projectiles that came to hand. More than 400 people have been arrested and 5,700 fines imposed.
And it surely begs the question: if a peace-loving nation such as Holland can be driven to such extremes by an increasingly authoritarian approach to policing the pandemic and relentless lockdowns, can we expect to see similar scenes on the streets throughout Europe?
What prompted this extraordinary response was the government’s introduction last Saturday of the first curfew — from 9pm to 4.30am — since World War II.
The aim was to reduce the spread of coronavirus, but it left the public baffled because it was imposed at a time when infection rates were actually falling.
She slumped to the ground and was photographed with blood pouring down her face. The woman, later named as Denisa Stastna (pictured), sustained a fractured skull and a head wound that required more than 15 stitches
But that reaction soon escalated into something far more sinister. By the following afternoon, hundreds had gathered in Amsterdam’s Museum Square to protest at a rally that rapidly turned violent, with riot police deploying water cannon on the crowd, many of whom were throwing stones and fireworks.
The violence was echoed in other major cities across the country, including the busy port of Rotterdam, before spreading over subsequent nights to smaller cities and towns. In the fishing village of Urk, a coronavirus test centre was set on fire.
As the nightly news broadcasts footage of burnt-out cars, looted shops and riot police firing tear gas, Dutch police have described the disturbances as the worst riots the country has seen since 1980, when squatters and authorities clashed over proposed housing reform. John Jorritsma, the mayor of Eindhoven, went further, declaring that the country was ‘heading toward civil war’.
Until recently, the use of such language here in Holland would have been unthinkable. Yet, arguably, it is the much-lauded qualities of the Dutch — our liberal instincts and tolerance — that are fuelling growing public unease at the government’s response to the pandemic.
The violence was echoed in other major cities across the country, including the busy port of Rotterdam (pictured), before spreading over subsequent nights to smaller cities and towns. In the fishing village of Urk, a coronavirus test centre was set on fire
While there was general support for the first lockdown last year, this has been eroded in the wake of weakened ministers deploying mixed messages and enforcing a long-standing lockdown in the midst of a particularly dismal winter. Bars and restaurants here have been shut since October, and schools and non-essential shops closed since mid-December, leading to frustration among people who are already more hostile to state control than many other European nations.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte and his governing VVD party — in charge in a caretaker capacity until general elections in March after a benefits scandal forced them to resign — are also facing criticism for a slow vaccination rollout, crushing hopes of an early return to normality.
While the UK had administered 10.5 vaccine doses per hundred members of the population by Monday this week, the Netherlands had vaccinated just 0.8 per hundred. Against this backdrop, the curfew ignited the touchpaper of national unease and resentment, particularly given that the number of new cases was down by eight per cent over the past week, and 20 per cent the week before.
The daily death toll now hovers around 80, and the total coronavirus-related death toll in the Netherlands stands at 13,816.
Meanwhile, hospital bed occupancy is also dropping. This despite ominous warnings on an almost daily basis by the RIVM (National Institute for Public Health and the Environment) and at government press conferences of the dangers of what has been labelled the ‘British Mutation’ or ‘English variant’ of Covid.
The Dutch public has been told it was 30 per cent more contagious than its predecessor and had been responsible for a massive spike in cases in the UK.
Yet to date those catastrophic numbers have failed to come to pass, fuel to the fire especially for bored teenagers and frustrated students, trouble-seeking opportunists, coronavirus deniers and political protesters who are among those who have taken to the streets, lured by social media campaigns.
‘It’s a diverse group,’ said Willem Woelders, the Dutch police chief responsible for enforcing anti-pandemic measures. ‘One group is out to demonstrate against the lockdown measures, but a larger group has joined these demonstrations, out for vandalism and rioting.’ The heavily encrypted social media channel Telegram has been utilised by anti-curfew rioters across the country to rally the troops.
‘Take as much fireworks, gasoline and everything else with you, and let all your friends know that we are going to destroy this curfew!!!! Today our plan is to take the police down and to f*** them!!!,’ writes one user who goes by the handle Skkrr Mishtooo.
But not all are intent on violence: some teenagers anonymously quoted on one Dutch media show said they had gone because they believed the measures were completely out of proportion.
‘By going to this protest, I tried to make a statement, but it was non-violent,’ said one.
According to police, a woman was targeted with a water cannon because she and her boyfriend ignored repeated instructions to leave an area of the city where anti-curfew protests had been raging for several hours
Rotterdam’s Dutch-Moroccan mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb has been one of the most outspoken critics of the rioters. The first Muslim mayor of a major European city and also the first immigrant mayor in the Netherlands, he has won plaudits for his tough anti-crime stance.
He posted a hard-hitting video on Tuesday directly addressing both the rioters and their parents. ‘How did you wake up this morning?’ he asked. ‘Did you feel good about smashing our city last night? About harming hard-working people and their businesses? Were you satisfied with your stolen goods? What does your conscience say? And parents . . . are you paying attention? Where was your son last night?’
His broadcast won widespread support, yet the fact remains that while only a small percentage of the Dutch back the lawless nature of the riots, many remain deeply frustrated by a curfew they see as an unnecessary infringement of personal liberties.
That same party, meanwhile, continues to broadcast a message of zero tolerance for the rioters. ‘This is criminal behaviour,’ Mr Rutte said in a statement this week. ‘So no, we will not look for sociological backgrounds or what might have driven these people.’
The question of whether the curfew might be reconsidered drew an equally vehement response from his deputy, Wopke Hoekstra, who, drawing on wartime vocabulary outside parliament in The Hague, insisted that ‘our country will not capitulate to some idiots’.
Rhetoric that is scant consolation for business owners facing ruin, among them Eugene Sloots, proprietor of an antique and interior design shop in the southern city of Venlo.
His once-thriving business has been reduced to little more than a pile of smashed glass and burned and broken fragments after it was targeted by rioting protesters on Sunday night.
Rampaging through the city’s streets, a 50-strong gang hurled bricks and concrete blocks through his front window with local police — outnumbered to the tune of at least five to one — largely powerless to stop them.
‘Business owners are already struggling to keep their heads above water under the lockdown restrictions. Now, we are also suffering damage we can’t afford,’ he said. ‘Why us?’
It’s a question being echoed by many of his countrymen and women. For now, they can only hope it does not get worse — while the rest of Europe must pray that its citizens don’t follow suit.