Amsterdam violence has sobering effect on permissive Dutch society
"I don't know how the fighting started," said No-Name. "It's not that simple. "There was a fair, and everyone was selling things. There was a music tent. There were games for kids. One demonstration for 'No housing, no crowning' started at the monument. The squatters and their symphatizers from all over Holland said they would go to the Dam [Amsterdam's main square] to prevent the crowning. They said if the police would be aggressive, they would be aggressive. And then another demonstration that was just against royalty arrived on the Blue Bridge."
No-Name -- the common pseudonym adopted by Amsterdam's 8,000 squatters to prevent eviction proceedings that require specific names -- was sitting in her tent on Waterloo Square describing the April 30 Waterloo battle between police and street people during the investiture of Holland's new Queen Beatrix a few blocks away.
No-Name didn't approve of the violence. But she think the police were more to blame than the demonstrators. She found it repugnant that some friends who were squatting on Damstraat (the last segment of the street leading from Waterloo Square to the central Dam Square) were pinned down in their houses by the police from noon until nightfall and could hear the police saying things like "Let's clean them up."
Many citizens of Amsterdam -- a city that feels somewhat guilty about its capitalist prosperity but at the same time is proud of its historical tolerance and compassion for the underdog -- share No-Name's suspicion of the police and all authority, if not the squatters' active hostility toward the police. Typically, one woman who had had a rock thrown through her trailer window in the violence still expressed sympathy for the squatters and distinguished between them and the juvenile delinquents.
The woman pointed out that over 50,000 people are offcially registered as urgently looking for housing in Amsterdam, that it will take almost 20 years to settle these searchers, and that there just isn't enough low-cost housing in the city.
The rest of the country is much more upset by Amsterdam's permissiveness, and its magnet-like attraction of Europeans and Americans to the Dutch capital's lively youth and drug countercultures. And after the latest violence even amsterdamers are beginning to wonder if there shouldn't be some limits to their tolerance. The earlier police-squatter clashes over street barricades were taken in stride. But the new burning of cars, vandalism, deliberate wounding of police horses -- and the heavy police casualties -- have shocked many Amsterdam burghers.
Waterloo Square, a block that was almost totally razed some years ago for still unfinished subway construction, is one of the few open blocks in the cramped 17th-century inner city. It was the last place police thought they could prevent the demonstrators from getting through the Dam square to carry out their aim of disrupting the Queen's investiture ceremony. And it proved to be the site of the worst single battle in an afternoon and night of unprecedented violence that injured 194 policemen and a lesser number of demonstrators, and caused several million dollars of property damage.
The 3,000 demonstrators on Waterloo Square fought with rocks, bricks, broken bottles, and sticks. Four hundred police (800 after reinforcement) fought with tear gas, water cannons, and vehicles they drove at high speed. Following strict city government rules, the police did not use guns.
As No-Name witnessed the fighting, "It was really strange. There was a really strong wind before it started. The police came very fast. First the demonstrators came, then the police. They just drove the demonstrators back, with cars, horses, water cannons, everything. We started shouting, 'Go away from the tents! There are childen in the tents! A policeman with a horse rode over one tent and fell. The English people got a stone right through their tent.
"No, the children didn't get hurt. Strangely enough. I think they accepted that there were children here. I was the only one who was hurt, because I came close to the fighting to shout that there were children here.
"The demonstrators started to go over the fence into the children's farm [a ramshackle wooden structure.] But one guy [running the farm] said, 'I have a knife. I'll kill you if you come in.' The people were so afraid they jumped back over the fence to the police. Then the police attacked, and they were ready even to jump into the water [the Amstel River and the Oude Schans Canal that form two sides of Waterloo Square] to get away."
The demonstrators eventually broke through the police lines anyway and surged down Oude Hoog Street toward Dam Square by such tactics as burning a few cars and shoving them toward the police. And after nightfall a new type of rioters took over. "Boys 16, 17, and 18, who started to get really aggressive," No-Name called them. The police called them "juvenile delinquents." These youths threw Molotov cocktails, broke shop windows, and looted freely under the slogan of "autonomous shopping." One motorcycle gang appeared a few blocks away and began beating leftist demonstrators with chains, according to one squatter.
By May 1 the Dutch were inundating the hospitalized policemen with flowers and fruit and donating sugar lumps and apples to the wounded horses. The Policeman's Association was asking for stiffer sentences for rioters.
The police commissioner is now suggesting that the police must be able to shoot in self-defense. And at least some citizens who had strongly backed the city's ban on police use of guns in demonstrations in the past decade are beginning to call not only for a right to shoot into the air, but even to shoot the legs of otherwise uncontrollable demonstrators.