Biscuits And The Broad Shouldered
Biscuits And The Broad Shouldered
Toon Vos is a cultural anthropologist who is currently studying Islam and Arabic at Utrecht University. In 2016 he conducted two months of research on the Dutch chapter of the right-wing anti-Islam movement PEGIDA. By attending multiple PEGIDA rallies and demonstrations, Toon wanted to understand the motivations and history of the movement. Not to judge or prove a point, but simply out of curiosity.
In Biscuits And The Broad Shouldered Toon explores the world of those who call themselves “concerned citizens”, but are referred to by others as “fascists”, or worse...
Part one | How I Got Accepted Into The Group
As I walk towards the square where the protest will take place, I pass the first colonnes of riot police. They look like characters from a videogame: broad shouldered, shield-wielding, standardized and anonymous. I struggle to keep my cool by trying to keep a neutral expression and by not acting suspiciously.
From my experience in previous demonstrations I’ve learned how to stay in stealth mode by simply taking a roll of biscuits with me. Every time I feel observed, or self conscious, I take a bite of a biscuit. My face cannot flinch when I am chewing and, frankly, I look like a friendly moron when I eat.
I walk around the corner and pass a group of tough looking men, all wearing clothes that look new and clean. Later that day I would learn that they were undercover cops, affectionately called the “silent ones” by the protestors. Approaching the demonstration, I see my last hurdle in the form of a large group of riot police on horses. I begin to furiously chew on my fifth biscuit - I'm not a big fan of horses - and wonder at the same time why the mounted police’s batons are significantly longer than those of the ordinary riot police.
Finally, I arrive at my destination: a manifestation of the Dutch branch of PEGIDA, or the “Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes”, which roughly translates as the patriotic Europeans against the islamization of Europe. Founded in Dresden, Germany, the movement gained popularity and notoriety because of their harsh statements on immigration, refugees and Islam. Eventually, they spread to The Netherlands by the efforts of Edwin Wagensveld.
At a previous demonstration, two policemen stopped me to ask for identification and they searched my backpack. The fact I had long hair led them to believe I was a left-wing protester with the intent of causing trouble, they told me. Today, I’m wearing a beanie, blue jeans and old sneakers (“the hooligan outfit”, according to my roommates), leaving my backpack at home. This is just a matter of preparation, however, as I realize that if I don’t find anyone to talk with within the next minute, people will start questioning me anyway.
A conversation between Toon and photographer Joris van Gennip, who was also at the protest.
I feel that all parties involved are at least somewhat suspicious of me. The police’s job is to maintain order, and random guys like me are usually the ones who are up to no good. At the same time, the PEGIDA supporters know that their controversial “hardliner” opinions are often unappreciated by the majority of Dutch society. The possibility of a stranger causing bad publicity is something they are (understandably) wary about. Also, leftist counter-protesters saw me as a traitor (which I would find out later) for hanging with the 'wrong crowd'. I feel like walking away, but decide I’ve eaten too many biscuits to give in now.
According to authentic and ancient Dutch customs, I approach two guys and start a conversation about the surprisingly good weather. Although I feel that they are looking at me as if I’ve just escaped from the zoo, they accept my attempt at smalltalk.
Part two | How The Group Didn't Get Accepted By The Rest
And slogans there were. In between the speeches, of Dutch as well as German and Belgian activists, there is time for the verbal input of the crowd that gathered. Some of the speakers really know how to work the crowd, which results in a passionate sense of community.
The group of counter-protesters that has gathered to protest PEGIDA’s presence greatly outnumbers “us”, as we can see them wherever we look. Many of the things that are said are shocking and sometimes even revolting. At the same time, I can't help to sometimes feel connected to the group I am now suddenly part of.
The passion and excitement I witness also make way for the enactment of their view on what free speech should be. The police is listening, but the boundaries of what is permissible are being tested. In this, the attendees seem to use their space for protest as an opportunity to propagate their views, as well as to finally utter them in public, within a society that doesn’t really tolerate their opinions.
I often feel conflicted, because I'm trying not to judge the things that are being said. Some things I perceive as lies, others as blatant racism. On the other hand, this is the information I am looking for and several points they make I can understand, such as their distrust in politics and their frustration about the economic crisis.
Throughout my research, I came to realize that the very group that flocks towards politicians as Geert Wilders, had often taken the beating for the rest of society. “The people who live at Wittevrouwen (an upper middle class neighborhood in the center of Utrecht) who are able to buy ecological food aren’t the ones who have to worry about losing their jobs, or being confronted with the problems faced by people in the poorer neighborhoods, are they?” Henk asks me in a rhetorical fashion.
Once the official part of the protest ends, we are still trapped on our island of free speech, camaraderie and an overdose of make-the-Netherlands-great-again sentiment. The ocean of people around us do not appreciate this and aren't planning on going anywhere. PEGIDA claims its right to use public space to express their views. This symbolic patch of land has been the stage on which two core aspects of democracy, freedom of speech and the right to protest, are being carried out.
At the same time, this freedom of speech and right to protest has lead to us being imprisoned in public space. Since we have nowhere to go, we complain about the intolerance of the left and ask ourselves if we are actually in danger.
We smoke cigarettes and joke around. We engage in more smalltalk and meet new people, until our way out is finally orchestrated by the city of Amsterdam. Boats in the form of city buses are assigned to free us from our island. As we are being huddled in like cattle, we are finally able to escape the angry crowd. While we are leaving, counter-protesters are banging on the windows and explaining us we are Nazis that should “fuck off”.
When I look at my peers, I see a determined look in their eyes. The very fact they are being scolded makes their presence more valuable to themselves and to each other. They are speaking up on behalf of a part of the Dutch citizens and are thereby putting themselves in danger. In doing so, their cause becomes more urgent. For them, the future of themselves, their families and the Netherlands is on the line.
When I arrive home, a Syrian friend of my roommate, who fled his country 2 years before, is cooking for the both of them. “Do you want to eat with us?” he asks me, “I can make more.”