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Tuesday, 27 April 2010


How has the Netherlands managed to escaped large-scale ethnic riots, researcher Otto Adang and two of his colleagues wondered. On Monday, Adang, who teaches public order and threat control at the Apeldoorn police academy,presented his findings to the acting minister of home affairs, Ernst Hirsch Ballin. The report titled Are we different? tries to explain why the rise in immigration and tensions accompanying it hasn’t led to an explosion. The importance of knowing what lies behind the absence of ethnic riots in the Netherlands is important, said Adang, because some have warned they could happen any moment. "With reason," Adang said about this alarm. "In a heavily polarised society, riots can easily break out." Other Western countries have already seen their share of race riots. As recently as 2005, heavy rioting gripped the outer neighbourhoods of France’s major cities, but the first ethnic riots there took place in the 1970s. The UK, Belgium and the US have also been the scene of some violent ethnic rioting.

Many incidents
The Netherlands has some ethnical tensions of its own. In recent years, incidents could have easily escalated into more serious turmoil. A neighbourhood in the city of Gouda remained a hotbed of unrest long after a bus driver had been threatened and his colleagues refused to traverse the neighbourhood in 2008. In Amsterdam's Slotervaart neighbourhood, emotions ran high after a Moroccan-Dutch man was shot and killed by a police officer in the same year after he had stabbed both her and a colleague. Earlier this year, confrontations between youths of Moroccan and Moluccan descent rocked the rural town of Culemborg. The list of ethnic incidents goes on. "The reason for these ethnic riots lies largely in segregation and social-economic deprivation," Adang said. “Large scale immigration is a relatively recent phenomenon. We have ethnic neighbourhoods of course, but we don’t have ghettos like the US or the UK do. The Dutch social security system prevents extreme poverty." But that is not the only reason ethnic tensions may be milder in the Netherlands. Based on his research, Adang has concluded the police also plays an important part. Grosso modo, two models for police action exist. In the repressive model, the police simply upholds the law by cracking down on violations. This type of police action is mainly directed at symptoms, not at underlying causes. The police force is an outsider in neighbourhoods and it approaches residents as a group. In the second model of police action, police officers are familiar with a certain neighbourhood. Officers invest time and effort in their contacts with local residents and social organisations. They get in touch with mosques and social workers; they know the local priest and participate in neighbourhood meetings occasionally. In this model, police officers also uphold the law, but only through targeted action. Police officers are familiar with the peculiarities of ethnic groups, allowing police to respond adequately to problems.

No dumb luck
In the Netherlands, the police adopted the latter, network-oriented, approach as early as the 1980s. This helps to quell incipient riots, said Adang. "When trouble arises, they can fall back on their relationshipsAs a police officer, you have your sensors out in society. You can prevent escalation by using your network. It was more than dumb luck that we have avoided ethnic riots." According to Adang, investing in local work is the way to go. He wants this to get more attention both within the police and from politicians. Some experts he interviewed study said they could not rule out ethnic riots from taking place in the Netherlands in the future. At the same time, the tendency in recent years has been to emphasise repression and upholding the law, Adang said. "Upholding the law is good. The police has cracked down on crime and anti-social behaviour. Nobody is against that,” he said in favour of this policy. “But addressing people based on their group-membership instead of their behaviour doesn't work well. A police officer busy writing tickets and meeting targets can only spend part of this time maintaining relationships. The sense of balance is lost." The problem here, Adang said, is that there is no direct pay-off. "Connections only become valuable when trouble arises."