. As the Netherlands goes to the polls for its most controversial elections in decades, few would have expected this multicultural city to be hitting the headlines because of protest and unrest – yet that is exactly what is happening
“Police were beating men and women with bats,” Jessy De Abreu says. “They hit people in the face. Hair was pulled out, dreadlocks were pulled out.”
De Abreu, 27, the co-founder of StopBlackFace.com, was describing a protest in Rotterdam last November, in which she was among roughly 200 activists arrested while protesting the controversial Black Pete (Zwarte Piet) character – St Nicolas’ Moorish “helper”, who is portrayed with a painted black face and curly wig.
The violence was mirrored last weekend, when members of the city’s large Turkish population took to the streets to protest after two ministers from Turkey were blocked from entering the country. Again, police clashed with demonstrators. Water cannon were fired and dogs released on protesters.
As the Netherlands prepares to vote in an election characterised by inflammatory rhetoric by both the prime minister, Mark Rutte, and hard-right challenger Geert Wilders, the country’s most diverse city is having a moment of soul-searching.
With 47.7% of its population of non-Dutch origin, Rotterdam is proud of its multiethnic makeup, and in 2009 it further cemented its multicultral status after Ahmed Aboutaleb became the first Muslim mayor of a major Dutch city.
Yet despite this diversity, the city struggles to make everyone feel included. Ahmet Erdogan, a 31-year-old activist, is a proud Rotterdammer. “Rotterdam is a beautiful city to live in,” he says. But as a community leader of Turkish origin, he says he is concerned about what appears to be an unstoppable rise in xenophobia. “In the last five or 10 years, Rotterdam has become a more racist city. There’s a lot of Islamophobia.”
Though he witnessed Aboutaleb’s landmark appointment, Erdogan thinks having a Muslim mayor hasn’t fixed the problem. “It didn’t help at all,” he says. “Since having a Muslim mayor, the problem of xenophobia has got bigger. But when you call people out on it the reply you get is: ‘You can be anything in Rotterdam – look, we even have a Muslim mayor!’”
De Abreu agrees, pointing to Rutte’s most recent dismissal of the Black Pete protests. “The Netherlands sees itself as a liberal, tolerant country, and therefore believes it can never be racist,” she says. Rotterdam, in particular, takes great pride in being liberal – meaning racism is rarely addressed.
Paradoxically, the city’s latent racism hasn’t affected mayor Aboutaleb’s popularity among supporters of the Party for Freedom (PVV) – the Dutch nationalist rightwing party led by Wilders, who, on 9 December last year, was convicted of inciting discrimination. According to a poll of PVV supporters in the city, Rotterdam’s Muslim mayor is more popular than the prime minister. And many in the Muslim community who you would suspect would feel an affinity with Aboutaleb instead feel ignored by him.
Part of the problem is an inherent social divide that is reflected in the city’s geography. After Rotterdam was bombed during the second world war, the city made an active effort to address social division. Industrial pre-war Rotterdam was full of crowded and impoverished neighbourhoods; rebuilding the city was a chance to ensure a better mix.
And yet today the upmarket Kralingen area north of the Nieuwe Maas river is a world away from some neighbourhoods on the south bank, where, says Edwin Cornelisse of the vice mayor’s office, “there is too much unemployment, bad housing and bad education”.
One area that has made big strides is Katendrecht, a warehouse district on the south bank historically home to dock workers. “If you see Katendrecht now, you wouldn’t recognise it from five years ago,” Cornelisse says. “The improvement has been almost explosive. All the old warehouses have been torn down and new houses have been built. A lot of people moved there, and you get a much better balance of demographics.”
But some argue that making poorer areas more appealing to the middle classes has an undercurrent of racism. A proposal to demolish 20,000 social housing properties and replace them with 36,000 upgraded houses attracted a campaign that was tinged with xenophobia.
According to Brian Doucet, a senior lecturer at Erasmus University College, the political parties who campaigned in favour of the demolitions – including the Leefbaar Rotterdam, D66 and CDA – played on people’s fears of the “Islamisation” of the city.
“There were some animated videos they made about how the demolitions were necessary to stem further decline, which they characterised with a giant mosque in the background and satellite dishes on apartment buildings,” he says.
In the end, 72% of voters rejected the demolition, although the council is expected to press ahead with its plans regardless.
Meanwhile, police officer Marco den Dunnen is one of the many Rotterdammers trying to push back against the narrative of fearing outsiders. His cafe Heilige Boontjes, which translates to “Goody Two Shoes”, is in its second year of helping minorities and other socially vulnerable people to find their place in Dutch society. He describes one of his employees, John, who is of Cape Verdean descent: “He was a drug dealer, and did some time for that. He was hired by Heilige Boontjes to do logistics … so instead of delivering drugs, he’s now delivering coffee.”
But regardless of these efforts and of the results of the Dutch election – in which Rutte’s tough talk towards Turkey’s autocratic president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seemed to take a page out of Wilders’ own rightwing intolerance – Rotterdam has a tough few months ahead.