The Netherlands are experiencing a wave of racist, sometimes openly violent, actions and street mobilizations, mainly against refugees and the sheltering of refugees. Street mobilizations with an intimidating character have occurred where municipal councils debate whether to establish an AZC (Asielzoekerscentrum, Asylum seekers centre) or an emergency refugee shelter in their city or town. Small scale violence against houses where refugees live occurs repeatedly. Meanwhile, official politics talks about the issue of refugees in a way that portrays them, not as people trying to escape the horrors of war and persecution, but mainly as “fortune-hunters” who only come to the Netherlands to find jobs and social security.
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Combining street mobilization with political activity through parliamentary channels, that’s what Geert Wilders does, the leader of a party which is both the smallest and in some sense the biggest in the country. The smallest, because it has only one member, Wilders himself. The biggest, because he attracts more voters in opinion polls than any other politician. And his party is setting the debate, with mainstream politics shifting more and more to the racist right under its pressure. The fact that Wilders was again elected Politician of the Year a few weeks ago in a well-publicized opinion poll on public broadcasting is telling.
The role of Wilders and his Party of Freedom, the PVV, in encouraging this scapegoating of refugees, is absolutely central in what is going on here. This man started out as a right wing liberal, member of the VVD, the right wing liberal party, on and off in government. He split off from the VVD around the issue of allowing Turkey into the EU. He was strongly opposed, on the grounds of his antipathy to everything Islamic. He then built a strong following for himself, and later his PVV, around the issues of Muslim-bashing and by means of fearmongering against refugees. Exclusionary proposals, like the idea of a tax on women wearing head scarves and banning the building of mosques, accompanied his rise to fame and infamy. From 9 of the 150 seats in the main chamber of parliament in 2006, he rose to 24 seats in 2010. In that year, a right wing coalition government was formed by the VVD and the Christian democratic CDA. Wilders his PVV officially tolerated this government, holding it almost as ransom, as far as refugee policy was concerned. When this government decided even stronger budget cuts, Wilders, fearful of losing support because of his accommodation to unpopular austerity policies, blew up the relationship. The government fell, as did Wilders his support, at least for a short period of time. He gained 15 seats in the elections of 2012.
But he rebuilt his support by playing his anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-refugees cards even stronger, combining this with anti-EU rhetoric. His language became ever more shrill. He reached for the lower depths just before municipal elections in 2014 by asking a crowd of supporters: “Do you want more or less Moroccans?” After which his crowd shouted: “Less, less, less!” This mobilization of open hatred against people because of their origin shocked many people and led to anti-racist mobilization and to some dissension within the PVV itself by followers who thought Wilders had gone a little bit too far. But it probably helped him to consolidate a hardcore base of racist support as well. And he was beginning to encourage his supporters to take to the streets and squares, and to show their support beyond poll stations and online media.
Already in September 2013, the PVV organized an anti-government rally around the time of Prinsjesdag, the yearly announcement of the new governmental budget. Around 1.400 people showed up. Among them, numerous extreme Right wing activists from the various fascist and neo-nazi groups. Wilders showed no sign of objection to this kind of support. Did he not see the Nazi salute, the fascist symbols? Neither did he protest when some of his supporters that day tried to attack Left wing demonstrators holding their own mobilization against the government and it’s right wing policies.
The fascist dimensions, not just amongst many of Wilders supporters but in his whole method of operations, are becoming clearer. The PVV is not just an electoral Right wing party. It is stoking the racist fires outside the polling stations as well. It attacks Muslims and refugees. At the same time it attacks any political force standing in their way and standing up for refugees and migrants, even very meek protestors, as being part of the “left wing, multicultural elite” which need, in Wilders view, to be smashed. Attacking ethnic minorities, attacking ‘Islam’ – i. e. Muslims –, attacking the Left, attacking a supposedly Left-dominated establishment, in often violent language – the parallels with other fascist forces of yesterday and today are getting clearer. The distance between Wilders on the one side and other European extreme Right forces on the other side, is diminishing as well. In November 2013, Wilders welcomed Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French Front National, in The Hague. Antifascists protesting this get-together of fascist leaders were attacked by riot cops.
This is part of the context for what started happening in 2015 and is still going on. As the number of people reaching the Netherlands, escaping the horrors, of, for example, the Syrian war and of the Eritrean police state, rose during the summer and autumn, there was a mixed reaction. First there was an outburst of empathy and generosity, especially after the television showed pictures of the Syrian Kurdish toddler washing ashore in Turkey after he drowned while trying to cross the Mediterranean, which touched many hearts. Soon, however, the atmosphere shifted back to racist mode. Wilders announced his campaign #KomInVerzet! (#StartTheResistance) calling for resistance against any intention of local authorities to establish refugee centers like AZC’s. In small print he called for this resistance to be “peaceful”. But his emphasis was on the resistance part. And peaceful it was not.
And the ‘resistance’ came. In Oranje, a small village where the authorities wanted temporary housing for a large number of refugees, an angry crowd blocked a bus full of refugees, only relenting when people realized that there were children inside. Also, the car of the vice-minister co-responsible for the decision, was blocked by one of the protesters. In the town of Steenbergen things got even uglier. During a hearing held by the municipal authorities, people tried to shout down, amongst others, a very courageous woman who took a stand in support of refugees. She had already received a stone through her window, and was put under police protection afterwards. The shouting against her did not only consist of racist anger. She was, in fact, quite explicitly sexually threatened by participants of the municipal hearing. A new depth of violence was reached in Geldermalsen on December 16th. The municipality prepared a decision on short notice to build an AZC housing 1.400 refugees there. Quickly, opponents hung banners in the town with “Nee tegen AZC” (“No against AZC”). One of the banners that appeared was from Identitair Verzet, a small fascist group of recent origin that is very active in the anti-refugee mobilizations.
In the evening of December 16th, the municipal council of Geldermalsen met to debate the issue, with citizens’ input. In the meantime, a large crowd of many hundreds of people assembled to protest the coming of the AZC. Estimates vary from several hundreds to up to 2,000 people marching. A sizable group – many dozens, possibly a hundred or more – attacked the fences around the city hall, threw heavy fireworks and stones against the building. Street fighting ensued between the racists of the crowd and the riot cops. Fourteen people were arrested. They were inhabitants of Geldermalsen and nearby towns and villages, thereby showing that the racism that exploded on the streets in Geldermalsen is not a matter of a few fascist instigators from afar. Racism has a local base. Fascists are building on that base; both in Steenbergen and in Geldermalsen, where the presence of NVU activists has been noticed. The NVU (Nationale Volksunie, National People Union) is an openly neo-nazi organization that has been around since the 1970s. Its leader now openly boasts of its members being active around the mobilizations against establishing AZC’s.
Meanwhile, Wilders keeps on calling for “No AZC’s!” before, during and after events like that in Geldermalsen. He refuses to distance himself of the violence of what are, in fact, mainly his own supporters. And both in Geldermalsen and in Steenbergen, authorities are quitting with the original plans for housing refugees, replacing them with either a plan for a much smaller shelter, or postponing any discussion for the time being. Racist pressure clearly contributed to these results. Wilders has reasons to be pleased.
The picture is getting clearer as time progresses. Racist agitation from above, through Wilders his words, interacts with racist street action. The interaction is informal but very clear. The whole phenomenon shows more openly that what has been there in a more hidden sense already; a form of fascism in its early stages. The visible presence of fascists from Identitair Verzet and the NVU is only a symptom of the deeper problem. The whole picture shows what kind of right wing wind is blowing these days.
And these are scary days. There have been an number of violent attacks on refugees themselves, and on migrant communities and their buildings more generally. On October 9th, a gang numbering around twenty masked people attacked a temporary refugee shelter in Woerden with eggs and fireworks. On December 17th, in Pannerden there was an attack on a home where a family of migrant origin was living. Again, the weapon of choice was heavy fireworks, which has a very scary effect. The family included children. A note was found which showed a photo of Geert Wilders, and a text stating amongst other things: “This is only the beginning”. On December 19th people of Identitair Verzet occupied a mosque in Dordrecht. One of the banners showed the text: “Minder, Minder” (“Less, less”) – a clear reference to the slogans of Wilders his performance just before the municipal elections in 2014, mentioned earlier.
The interaction between widespread popular racism, fascist activist groups and Wilders his hate-mongering is getting clearer. All these things point to what is clearly a rising fascist tide in the Netherlands. Efforts of Pegida, an extreme Right wing outfit masquerading as a decent group of “concerned citizens” worried about “Islam”, holding marches in Utrecht and Rotterdam, are part of that tide. Fortunately, these efforts have been opposed relatively successfully by antifascists, under the slogan “Laat Ze Niet Lopen” (“Don’t Let Them March”). Four times they tried to march, with about 150 people at their largest efforts. All these times dozens, sometimes hundreds, of antifascists counter mobilized, yelled at them, tried to block them and so on.
Large police forces kept ‘order’, not allowing antifascists to interfere too successfully, but also giving Nazis less space for the violence against opponents they would love to instigate. Police ‘neutrality’ is a scam, and the whole idea that there can be such a thing as a ‘legitimate’ fascist street action deserving ‘protection’ is ridiculous. Yet, police ideas of ‘public order’ sometimes clash with fascist ambitions. This may change as fascism gets stronger, better organized, gaining more legitimacy in the eyes of official public authority. This makes the rise of Wilders and his PVV even more dangerous, as they can give fascism exactly the face of legitimacy that openly Nazi groups and outfits like Pegida still lack.
The new year threatens to show ongoing trends in the same direction. There will be another Pegida effort, in Apeldoorn on Januari 17th, and in Amsterdam on February 6th. And this week, a new temporary shelter for refugees is opening in Kaatsheuvel. Opponents have been hanging banners, like in Geldermalsen. Especially horrible is the attitude of authorities with respect to children bicycling past that shelter on their way to a school for children with special needs. Volunteers will accompany the children, to reassure parents who appear worried about the ‘risk’ these refugees pose for their vulnerable children. In this way, the whole idea that refugees are dangerous is, again, officially recognized as “understandable” and thereby reinforced. In this way, racism gets a recognition we should not let go unchallenged, to say the very least.
Is there a fightback going on against this tide of racism? There is, as became apparent already with the actions against Pegida. There have been encouraging demonstrations in solidarity with refugees, in Den Haag on November 1st, in Nijmegen on November 21st. Both attracted sizable crowds of many hundreds of demonstrators, refugees themselves prominent among them. Both had a militant and at the same time a sometimes almost festive atmosphere. Both point to the possibility of pushing back the fascist tide and at the same time building ties of solidarity between people form different backgrounds and origins – ties of solidarity that are of the utmost importance.