Violent clashes between police and demonstrators raged for four nights last week in The Hague in the Netherlands—protests sparked by the death in police custody of a 42-year-old man from the Dutch Caribbean territory of Aruba, Mitch Henriquez.
On the streets of the Schilderswijk, one of the Netherland’s poorest inner-city neighborhoods, riot police backed by mounted police and dogs faced off against protestors burning mattresses and throwing rocks; over 200 people were eventually arrested on Friday after the local authorities took the exceptional step of announcing a ban on further public gatherings.
For those of us outside of the Netherlands, the course of events seems all too familiar; in 2011 rioting erupted in London and across England following the police shooting of Mark Duggan, a young black man; in 2005, the deaths of two young boys of North African background sparked unrest that convulsed inner cities across France; in the summer of 2013, there were violent clashes with police in a minority neighborhood of Stockholm after the police shot dead an elderly resident. And in the United States, over the past year, we have seen angry demonstrations, notably in Ferguson, New York City, and most recently in Baltimore, in response to a seemingly never-ending series of deaths of young black people at the hands of police.
But this was the first time clashes like this have broken out in the Netherlands over policing and racial justice, erupting in a community where over 90 per cent are people of color. Yet for those who have been following the increasingly fraught relations between police and ethnic minorities in the Netherlands, it was hardly a surprise.
A 2013 report by Amnesty International Netherlands, for instance, argued that police identity checks single out minority youth—a tell-tale symptom of dysfunctional policing. Last year, the Dutch National Ombudsman’s office published a report following allegations of discriminatory policing in the Schilderswijk. Despite the numerous complaints filed by community members and local associations, the Ombudsman unfortunately concluded that there was “no indication of structural abuses in the behavior of police” in the area, but said “police and citizens need to work to prevent escalation.”
Mitch Henriquez died in hospital on Sunday June 28, a day after he was pinned to the ground in a chokehold by officers at a concert in the city’s Zuiderpark—circumstances that recall the death of Eric Garner in New York in July last year. Exactly what happened is contested. What is known, thanks principally to civilian witness video footage, is that Mr. Henriquez was eventually tackled to the ground by nearly a half dozen police officers. One appears to have applied a chokehold while others hit him with their batons and pressed their knees and weight into his collapsed body. At a certain point, he became non-responsive. Videos show him slumped on the ground, now with approximately 12 officers standing around him. None of the officers appear to provide him with emergency medical care or attention, despite their training and requirement to do so. Instead, his beaten, non-responsive body is loaded into a police wagon.
The official press statement from the police, issued through the prosecutor’s office, initially claimed that Mr. Henriquez fell ill while in police custody in the van (the police were unaware that the civilian video footage existed). A postmortem examination later attributed the death to asphyxiation, apparently as a result of police handling.
After two days of the demonstrations, one of the central demands of the protestors was met: five officers from the city’s police division were suspended from duty on Wednesday after being identified as suspects in the case.
Where do we go from here? If we are to make predictions based upon government responses and trajectories in the U.S. and elsewhere, it is hard to be optimistic about the prospects for justice in the individual case, let alone for broader policing reform. Only in the UK have we seen some deeper reflection with the consultative review and subsequent police reform effort that emerged from the death of Mark Duggan and the subsequent protests in 2011, which has included efforts to address discriminatory police stops.
The Dutch authorities need to conduct a thorough, independent and impartial investigation into the circumstances involving Mitch Henriquez’s death, involving not only those officers who applied direct force, but others present who failed to administer first aid. Further, there should be an investigation of the initial entirely misleading account of events issued by the public prosecutor’s office.
Beyond a proper judicial investigation, the protests should serve as a wake-up call in the Netherlands, where there is still a resistance to addressing questions of institutional racism not only in policing, but across Dutch society. Reflecting this defensiveness, the mayor of The Hague, Jozias van Aartsen, has strongly rejected any comparisons whatsoever between the circumstances of Mr. Hernandez’ death and incidents in the U.S.
True, the Netherlands is not the United States. But it is clearly time for a deep investigation in the Netherlands into the underlying systemic and everyday policing practices and policies that led not only to this death, but to the evident deep anger of the local community towards the police unleashed by the death. It is the least that must be done before another Mitch Henriquez loses his life.