The Black Lives Matter movement protests in the Netherlands

In this blog, Nugah Shrestha, research master student urban and economic geography at Utrecht University and active in the Black Lives Matter movement, reflects on the most recent BLM campaign.

BLM in Utrecht
BLM in Utrecht © Bruno Meeus

In the Netherlands, protests against institutionalized racism have been ongoing now for weeks. They support the Black Lives Matter movement in the USA, but equally address the problems with racism existing in our country. People from various backgrounds are being empowered and united to speak out and organize against racism. Young, old, black, brown, white, religious, non-religious, men, women, non-binary and so forth: people from all segments of society are joining the protests.

After years of populist and racist anti-immigrant sentiments in Dutch politics and public debate, it appears that a new anti-racist and harmonious movement is growing. A movement that is tired of the everyday racism individuals and groups in our country have to experience and criticizes racist EU migration policies that have the drowning of tens of thousands Black people and people of color in the Mediterranean as a macabre side-effect. In this blog, based on my own experience as a Newah Nepalese migrant and student in the Netherlands, I will further reflect on how this movement that is in close connection to the BLM movement in the US, is growing in the Netherlands.

#Black Lives Matter

Worldwide protests against institutionalized racism and police brutality have erupted following the brutal killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis. Floyd is one of the many unarmed black lives that have been taken by the police. The US has a long history of cases with killings and excessive violence by the police, which has been affecting the black community disproportionately for decades. Videos showing the graphic images of the murder spread globally causing outrage among people all over the world. Demonstrations and protests have been ongoing in all US states and major cities around the world. In the US, peaceful protesters have been met with even more police brutality, fueling more sympathy for the Black Lives Matter movement in many other countries.

With a rich history of civil rights movements, the US has witnessed various waves of protests in the past decades and centuries. The most recent movement started to organize around the slogan and hashtag #Black Lives Matter in various US states. The Black Lives Matter movement which started in 2013 by exposing police brutality against the black population in the United States has brought the conversation about racism again to the forefront. In the beginning there was little success: changes were made in some places in the police force to improve the situation. However, the deeply rooted problem of racism did not disappear.

How could it? Racism has been institutionalized in American society throughout decades and centuries. This institutionalization is for example shown in the Netflix documentary 13th, which reveals how racism has manifested itself in the prison system of the United States since the abolition of slavery. The recent wave of still ongoing protests, attended by thousands and thousands in all US states, has for now led to more direct measures for the transformation of the police system in some cities. A collective awareness about the issue of institutionalized racism also appears to be emerging among large parts of the US population and among people around the world, uniting people in what is becoming a major global movement against the virus of racism.

Institutional racism versus the Dutch tolerant self-image

In the Netherlands, and as documented by for example Philomena Essed, racism has long been an uncomfortable topic in Dutch public debates. Dutch people have viewed themselves as very tolerant for many years, denying the existence of any forms of racism within the country. Conversations about racism often focused on situations in foreign countries, because it was assumed not to be prevalent in the Netherlands.

This tolerant self-image has been constructed over many years and has made a critical everyday discussion about the colonial and racist Dutch history almost impossible, even though research has proven that racism is institutionalized in the Netherlands as well. Institutional racism is a sociological concept that refers to the systematic exclusion and/or discrimination of groups based on written and often unwritten rules, traditions, manners and behaviours.

You will find institutional and everyday racism in the Netherlands in the housing market, in traditions, in our language, in the education system, in a variety of application procedures, in the practices and attitudes of police forces and so forth. As such, what we witness in Dutch society is a conflict between the tolerant and non-racist self-image versus existing and scientifically proven mechanisms of institutional racism. It is a central paradox in Dutch society, richly documented in the book White Innocence by Gloria Wekker.

In recent years, debates about racism in the Netherlands have started to take a more prominent position in the public sphere. Especially during the months of November and December, when the Dutch festival Sinterklaas is celebrated with ‘Blackface’ Black Petes as helpers working for Sinterklaas. This blackfacing of Black Pete is seen as an element of the broader institutional racism Dutch Black people and people of color face in their daily life.

As black people and people of color in the Netherlands have to endure harassments and blatant racism during the festival of Sinterklaas, the discussion around this topic is used to fuel a broader discussion about institutional racism in the Netherlands. The discussion to abolish “Black Pete” has been ongoing since the 1940s and the recent uprise of the debate was answered with a lot of aggression by pro-Black Pete people in the Netherlands, but it has also given black Dutch people and people of color a theme to mobilize around and to battle the more general problem of institutionalized racism on the micro and macro level. Together with the debate around this topic, the Dutch public has seen the rise of organizations such as Nederland wordt Beter, The Black Archives, Kick Out Zwarte Piet, STAR, ControlAltDelete, Black Queer & Trans Resistance Netherlands, organizations that play an important role now in facilitating the most recent demonstrations.

The battle has only just started

The protests against institutionalized racism in the Netherlands have been going on now for almost three weeks. Demonstrations have taken place in many big cities: Amsterdam, Utrecht, The Hague, Rotterdam, Eindhoven, Enschede, Maastricht, Arnhem, Nijmegen, Groningen, Tilburg, Middelburg, Leeuwarden, Almere, Leeuwarden, Den Bosch, Leiden and Zwolle. Almost every major city in the Netherlands, and more and more cities are following. Over 50.000 people have taken to the streets now in the Netherlands to show that it is time for structural change. As a person of colour myself with a Newah Nepalese migrant background, I actively engage in this movement as well. The racist encounters that I have experienced whilst growing up in the Netherlands, and that I still experience in everyday life now, encourage me to actively commit to represent the voice of people who have not been heard for too long. A few years ago I started the platform Politieke Jongeren (Political Youth) on Instagram to make young people aware of inequality, racism, the climate crisis and many other societal issues.

But peripheral issues surrounding the demonstrations and the uncomfortable feelings of white people about these issues keep shifting attention away from the topic of the demonstrations themselves: institutional racism in the Netherlands. In the first week of the protests, the focus was for example put on the corona measures and the handling of Mayor Halsema of Amsterdam. In the second week, the speech by artist Akwasi on the Dam was intensely scrutinized for its supposedly fueling of violence, decontextualizing his words and overlooking the pain he has been experiencing for years. Our prime minister, Mark Rutte, would also rather talk about a British television series, totally irrelevant for the Netherlands, instead of seriously discussing the developments here of the past weeks. This, according to me, is illustrative for the political discourse around racism in the Netherlands and the way Dutch politicians refrain from adequately addressing the issue and from speaking and listening to anti-racist activists and organizations. The rhetoric of politicians, journalists and other opinion-makers who look away from everyday systematic racism in our country needs to change.

Over the last few weeks, the Black Lives Matter Movement has shown en masse that the old rhetoric of looking away is no longer accepted and that anti-racism is widely supported in the Netherlands. The silent majority is starting to rise. And this is a powerful message to all people in the Netherlands, especially for young people like me who want a different future where they will not be discriminated against and feel part of Dutch society.

Nugah Shrestha