Who were the rioters who smashed through Rotterdam and The Hague?

Large numbers ‘swarmed’ Rotterdam in response to social media messages – police

If there was one telling insight into the rioting in the Dutch city of Rotterdam that flashed on to TV screens all over the world last Friday night, it was this: according to police, at least half of those running amok on the streets were “under age” – that is, under 18.

As the mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, pointed out, this meant two things.

First: they were not principled anti-vaxxers or civil liberties advocates giving vent to legitimate frustrations at how the government has handled the coronavirus pandemic.

Second: they were not even the same people who routinely turn up to largely peaceful weekend anti-lockdown or anti-vaccination protest marches in Amsterdam and some other cities. Far from it. They’ve hijacked the protesters’ cause.


So who were the rioters who smashed their way through Rotterdam and The Hague – forcing police officers to abandon squad cars and run for their lives as they were surrounded by violent mobs?

Acting prime minister Mark Rutte was clearly still angry on Monday when he dismissed them as "idiots" and condemned the destruction as "pure violence" and "nothing to do with demonstrating".

According to the police, a high proportion were from other parts of the country and had “swarmed” to Rotterdam at short notice in response to messages on social media, intent on causing destruction.

Whether these "kids" were motivated by anything other than "the perfect evening's escapism, fighting with riot police" – as criminologist Marijke Drogt put it – is anyone's guess, though it's an avenue worth exploring, especially in a country with a thriving criminal underworld.

However, to characterise what happened at the weekend as “anti-lockdown riots”, as part of a Europewide movement, or as in any way related to coronavirus other than as the perfect opportunity to create mayhem is an unrealistic stretch at best.

Unacceptable intervention

There is, of course, an honourable tradition of liberalism in the Netherlands where the intrusion of government has its limits and an individual's civil rights are sacrosanct. And certainly many of those people are unhappy with the lifestyle restrictions the government has been forced to impose.

On the other hand, the Netherlands is a country where 85 per cent of the population over 18 are fully vaccinated and anxious to receive booster shots– so those who are dissatisfied are no more than a small but vocal minority with an acknowledged and legitimate right to dissent.

Tensions become more than theoretical, however, when patients needing heart surgery are in danger of having it delayed because intensive care beds are full of unvaccinated coronavirus patients who – as health minister, Hugo de Jonge, pointed out – might not be there if they had had the jabs.

Even so, governments are elected to run countries, and these are the issues that democracies must handle in as civilised a manner as possible given the speed and agility of this disease and the proclivity of interest groups to ignore all interests but their own.

In fact, the most unacceptable intervention in the coronavirus debate in the Netherlands has come from Thierry Baudet and his far-right Forum for Democracy, who recently described the unvaccinated as "the new Jews" because they're allegedly in danger of being "excluded" from society, and the government and its expert advisors as "the new Nazis".

The rioters may indeed be idiots but Baudet is not.

His aim is to sow dissent in Dutch society to his own benefit. Unfortunately, when it comes to the extreme right, European liberals have a dangerously poor record of crying halt. It’s never too soon.

Peter Cluskey

Peter Cluskey

Peter Cluskey is a journalist and broadcaster based in The Hague, where he covers Dutch news and politics plus the work of organisations such as the International Criminal Court