It has been an unusually violent week for Amsterdam’s western Slotervaart district. Cars were torched and youths clashed with police on several consecutive nights after a 22-year-old ethnic Moroccan was shot dead at a police station. He was killed by a policewoman he had just stabbed a number of times. The riots that followed reminded Amsterdam’s Chief Commissioner Bernard Welten of a major nightmare for Western European cities: violence on a Parisian scale.
Every major town in the Netherlands has its share of so-called problem youths, the type of violent adolescents who gang up to terrorise the neighbourhood. Many of them are the children of migrant workers of Moroccan descent who arrived in the Netherlands in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Dutch called them guest workers, the operative idea being that they would return to their country of origin when they were no longer needed. So nobody bothered to teach them Dutch, or much of anything else for that matter. The guest workers had their wives come over, but they, just like their husbands were not expected, or encouraged, to integrate into Dutch society.
The next generation
However, very few went back. What they did do, much to the government’s surprise, was have children. These children were raised in a strange and often openly hostile environment, by parents who did not speak the language and tried to instil moral values completely at odds with those of the country they lived in. So, kids being kids, they began taking advantage of the language gap by playing off their parents against their teachers and pretending not to understand what any Dutch person in a position of authority was saying.
The situation was substantially exacerbated by successive governments that chose to ignore what people in the streets knew was an increasingly serious problem. For years, political correctness dictated that problems with migrant children could not be openly discussed. Anybody trying to do so would be accused of blatant racism and Islamophobia. So by the time the social climate began to change, in the late 1990s, the situation had spun well and truly out of control.
Slotervaart, a district in the west of Amsterdam, is not very different from any other poor district in the Netherlands’ major cities. What sets it apart from similar districts is a recent series of violent incidents. On 11 October, a 16 year-old Moroccan boy died of a stab wound he sustained in a fight with a 14-year-old classmate after the two got into an argument over a pen. Only three days later, a disturbed Moroccan man walked into the local police station and, without any provocation, stabbed and seriously injured a police woman and one of her colleagues. The man was shot dead by one of the officers.
In the following days, local Moroccan youths torched four cars in the district and smashed the windows of the police station. Since then, police have been intensively patrolling the district, which led to the arrests of eight youths who were detained when officers found jerry cans full of petrol in their vehicle. In the past few days, senior police officers have been making comparisons with the riots that raged in Paris in which more than 9,000 cars were torched two years ago.
However, both Interior Minister Guusje ter Horst and experts on the Moroccan youth gangs issue say that the two situations are fundamentally different. There is reportedly far more poverty, unemployment and racism in the Paris suburbs. Criminologist Frank van Gemert from the Free University said in today’s de Volkskrant that another major difference with the French situation lies in the fact that the Dutch government is spending millions of euros on aid to the Slotervaart district. And police are in regular contact with religious leaders and other representatives of the local community. Mr Van Gemert says these youths may feel frustrated, but they can’t say that they are being abandoned by the government.
His argument that they are simply using the recent incidents as an excuse to raise hell is born out by police reports showing that they are dealing with a limited group of around 35 youths, all of them repeat offenders. In NRC.Next, district council chair Ahmed Marcouch says that the vandalism in his district has nothing to do with emotions over the recent deaths:
“Emotions? That’s giving them way to much credit. These punks have no emotions for anyone.”