By Tal Ben Yakir
On Sunday the 24th of January, a message began to circulate on social media calling people to join a riot planned for the next day, on the Molukkenstraat at 8 p.m. The message instructed readers to bring anything that could be used to vandalize, including hammers, stones, fireworks and homemade bombs. The riot was one of many taking place all over the Netherlands, to protest the latest corona regulations set in place by the interim-government, such as the 9 p. m. curfew that was effective since Saturday.
On Monday the 25th of January around 7.30 p.m., I left the Carolina MacGillavrylaan to assess the situation myself, together with two friends. We walked along the Kramatweg towards the Lidl, parallel to Flevopark. The supermarket was closed— as was every other store in the vicinity— and there were shopping carts placed inside, in front of the entrance, to create a makeshift barricade. Stores had been looted in other protests, including several supermarkets.
Along the entire street, police officers were dispatched, as well as “street coaches”, a type of enforcement strictly with a monitoring function. Several dozen police wagons and approximately two-dozen officers were stationed at the main location of the riot, at the junction of Molukkenstraat and Insulindeweg. The atmosphere was tense. Compared to a normal pandemic-evening, the junction was teeming with people. All around, smaller groups of four to eight people stood dispersed over the square, careful to not yet form one crowd. Bystanders from around the neighbourhood— easily discernible from the younger looking, masked and dark-clad rioters— had come to see what was going on. All along the Molukkenstraat, silhouettes dotted the windows and balconies, people watching from apartments. Everyone was restless; we were all anticipating something strange, something unprecedented.
The police officers stationed at the junction were visibly stressed and refused to comment on the situation. Further down the street at Javaplein, two more police wagons were parked. One police officer in a friendly mood was open to explain what they knew. He said that police had been aware of the plan since Saturday, when the message had begun to circulate online.
“We watch social media closely, just like you. Police have been stationed around this area since the late afternoon,” he told us. “We suspect it’s mostly young people who want to protest the corona measures, similar to what’s been happening in other cities.”
When asked if he knew how many people to expect, he admitted they could not be sure, but hoped everyone would be inside by 21:00. “That includes you all, eh?” he laughed, winking at us.
More people started flooding in, most of them on foot, some arriving in groups of three or four on scooters. The junction grew busier; Rioters threw stones at vehicles, crossed through red lights and flung fireworks into the road. Loud bangs sounded through the air, accompanied by blaring car horns. A little way down the street from us, a boy got arrested for throwing a flare.
Three girls standing by the side of the road shook their heads at what was happening around us. They told me they lived just around the corner, and had been watching the situation unfold for a while.
I asked them if they were afraid. “No,” one of them answered, “unless I would have to pass by really close. But we know none of this is directed at us, so we do feel safe walking on the streets.”
“I might not go out by myself, though,” another girl commented.
When asked what she thought of the situation, the first girl answered, “It’s pretty ghetto. You just wouldn’t expect this kind of thing to happen here.” The rest nodded.
“It’s pretty ghetto. You just wouldn’t expect this kind of thing to happen here.”
Another bystander who overheard the conversation chimed in: “I heard some of the groups talking about waiting until it is time to intensify the protest. They all expect it to escalate after nine.”
A resident of the street, sitting in a windowsill to watch, said this is the first time he’d ever seen anything like it. His actual house was high up, so he was not not scared of looting, but his car was parked in this street. “I think people are just really bored during this time, are fed up and looking for some sensation,” he said. “Everyone’s been locked up for a while, so they go out to the street to riot, to have something to do.”
Meanwhile at the junction, the crowd had grown, with people gathering in groups of ten and fifteen. Fireworks were set off continuously, a large flare was lit and shot at a police wagon. The constant honking of car horns made it hard to pinpoint where other sounds came from. Along the Molukkenstraat, rioters stood in anticipation. Something would happen any moment now.
We tried asking several of them why they were here, if they could explain what was happening, what they expected to go down. None of them were willing to talk, some responded with aggression: “We all know what this is about. I’ve nothing more to say to you, understood?”
At 20.30, one of the police wagons opened up, and a dozen riot police officers streamed out in full gear, batons at the ready. They formed a line, blocking off the Molukkenstraat about 200 meters down from the junction. They were met with shouts from the rioters. Bystanders backed away and some left the scene; meanwhile the crowd at the junction had become a veritable mob. One of the officers shouted a command, and the unit charged towards the junction. The mob stormed back at the police in response. People on the street began running. Everyone was shouting as rioters ran at the police unit, and by extension, towards us.
Some of the rioters tried to fight the officers, but it soon became clear they could not win the confrontation. At this point, over a hundred rioters and bystanders were running away from the scene. Barks from police dogs rang through the air. People dove into side streets as the police chased fleeing rioters, yet some were just arriving, ready to join the fight, holding sticks and fireworks in their hands.
Via an alternate route we ended up on the Insulindeweg again, opposite the Lidl. By that time it was quarter to nine, and curfew was approaching. Across the street a group of rioters tried to topple a police wagon. While my friends continued walking, I ran into a hysterically crying woman accompanied by a friend consoling her. I asked her if she was okay.
“My child!” she shouted.
“It’s okay,” the friend said. “He will be fine.”
“No, no. My child is out there! He always does this! My son is out there.”
As I tried to calm her and convince her not to go into the mob looking for him, I realised I had lost my friends. I looked around, taking a few steps to the side. While I was focussed on scanning the street, a boy standing next to me threw a flare. Before I knew it, eight riot officers came charging with their batons out. I put my hands in the air and stepped away, weaving between the riot police. One of the officers grabbed my arm and shouted, “Go home! Go home, now!”
“Before I knew it, eight riot officers came charging with their batons out.“
As soon as he let go, I spotted my friends running to me, making sure I was okay. We hurried away, torn between getting away from there as fast as possible and wanting not to seem suspicious. We had about ten minutes left before the clock struck 21.00.
As we hurried home, a boy was walking next to us facetiming his friend.
“No, there was nothing going on tonight,” he said. “It was really timid compared to Eindhoven, there were only two units of riot police. I was in the mob when we ran at them, and everyone bolted when they charged back.”
I tried to keep close to the boy to hear the rest of the conversation, my friends ahead of me.
“Most of the people there were 16 or 18 year old boys, they just wanted to mess around,” he told his friend. “The location was also fucking dumb. The police can easily block the street from just two points. And what are we gonna do [at this location]? Enter some random barber or Turkish Dönner place?”
The friend asked if the riot was over already. The boy shook his head.
“No, they’re gonna escalate it after 21:00. I don’t think today will be that intense, though. But tomorrow there’s another one.”