Sociologist Bram Peper on the curfew riots: ‘Rutte ignores the social aspects behind it’

Sociologist Bram Peper on the curfew riots: ‘Rutte ignores the social aspects behind it’

The Netherlands was plagued by a series of violent incidents. Riots broke out in several cities and ended in an encounter between demonstrators and the mobile unit. A trail of destruction was left behind. Who were these rioters and what drove them? Bram Peper, sociologist at Tilburg University, answers these and other pressing questions about the events of past week.

De deur van de Albert Heijn aan de Westermarkt in Tilburg die is vernield tijdens de rellen. Beeld: Univers

How would you explain the riots?

“The riots are a combination of factors coming together. Many people are done with COVID-19, or rather: who isn’t? There is also a long-standing undercurrent of people who do not feel heard by the majority of established politics, and any form of patronage evokes the reaction to oppose this.

“In addition, there is increasing criticism of government policy, something to which the child benefits affair has not contributed positively. In short, the riots seem to be a consequence of a whole range of sometimes dormant, sometimes more explicit discontent.”

How do these riots relate to the curfew?

“The curfew serves as a framework for a range of different interests and agendas. For some, it is seen as the epitome of ‘taking away our freedom,’ giving rise to a short-lived outbreak of violence.

“However, this aggression against emergency workers, police officers, shopkeepers, and special investigating officers (boa) is nothing new and has been around since the first lockdown. It stands out now because it is concentrated and has full press attention.”

Who were these rioters?

“It’s a pretty diverse crowd: from 5G-wappies (fools) to concerned citizens who feel too little attention is paid to a different voice, but bored or sensation-seeking (older) youth and soccer hooligans also participated.

“Some will also have felt addressed by the PVV and FvD, who first call for a revolt against the system and then after one evening of rioting suddenly start shouting law and order very loudly. Fortunately for the PVV, there were also young people with a non-Western migration background, so their standard scapegoat was quickly found.

“Probably they are mostly from their own town, but people who are very politically driven as well as people who see rioting as their lust and their life may have gone to places where something was going on, in the absence of a riot in their own towns.”

What binds all these subgroups? An anti-government sentiment?

“Partly, perhaps even more so, the idea in general of not being heard. And the idea that policies, anywhere in society, are not made with or by them, but mostly for them. And when you couple that with increased inequality, their frustration is understandable.”

What do the protesters want to achieve?

“That’s actually pretty unclear, since a lot of people are mostly against everything. Their freedom is being taken away, but what that freedom should look like remains somewhat obscure. Also, the disregard for the democratic way to bring about change makes one wonder what kind of freedom in what kind of country they have in mind.

“As long as it is not clear what people want, which is difficult with so many different groups, they are heard although engaging in conversation is difficult.”

What does it mean that mostly young people participate in these actions?

“Traditionally, elderly people are not usually the ones who jump on the barricades. Young people have the future ahead of them and, of course, have not lived as long, so the time this crisis lasts is relatively longer for them than for a person over 40. Again, this kind of action requires physical activity, and protests are also easier if you don’t have a (steady) job, children, and a mortgage.”

What role do parents play in this issue?

“A large proportion of the rioters are over eighteen and therefore responsible themselves. This is exactly as Rutte wishes: individual responsibility. However, he has forgotten to pay attention to society and living together. Therefore, it can happen that some people will develop other values.

“So when the government says: don’t do this, or this isn’t supposed to happen, the question arises as to what common frame of reference is being referred to. Even more so because little to no attention is paid to this commonality.

“Rutte doesn’t ‘want to give a sociological explanation of the riots,’ which in itself is right because he’s not a sociologist, but he does ignore sociological aspects that underlie the riots. You don’t get there by just pointing to individual personal responsibility.”

To what extent is social inequality at the root of these disturbances?

“There has been growing inequality in the Netherlands since the 1980s, and more than three decades of neo-liberal policies have done little to address this, other than placing the responsibility for social success or failure on the individual.

“If we look at the past ten years, Rutte seems to be propagating Thatcher’s adage: there is not such a thing as society. The levelling and redistributive role that the government has played since the Second World War has very much been pushed into the background.

“The recent Yellow Jacket revolt, which was also represented this past weekend, has as a major complaint that lower and middle incomes have barely improved in the past decades, while the very rich and large corporations have only seen their wealth grow.

“The coronavirus crisis has brought the existing inequality, which had been growing for years, into sharper focus. Look at healthcare and education, which are now proving to be crucial professions but have been cut back for years. Work in the hospitality industry that is suddenly disappearing and thus creating unemployment, along with dark times for SMEs.

“The pandemic shows that all of these groups, at least, have built up few buffers. While unemployment is rising in these sectors, other work, such as that in higher education, continues almost effortlessly.”

Is the rule of law threatened by these riots, especially now that it also appears that some are taking the law into their own hands, with soccer hooligans coming to defend their own city?

“Yes, it is of course worrisome that the democratic system, which has historically brought greater equality and prosperity to most people, appears so fragile. But here too, politics needs to accept responsibility. We have a prime minister who at various times in recent years has not disapproved of taking the law into one’s own hand.

“So undermining of the rule of law seems less important if it you can score electorally with populist rhetoric, but problematic if people start behaving accordingly. This, of course, does not contribute to trust in the rule of law.”

What is the best way to respond to these riots?

“Twofold: making it very clear that those who violate our democratic laws and regulations will be punished, but at the same time thinking about how to enter into dialogue with people who do not feel represented by politics. And that will not be easy, because it means you will have to put yourself in the shoes of someone who sometimes has vastly different ideas.”

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