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Occupation in Amsterdam

by JURRIAAN VAN OORTMERSSEN

Amsterdam protesters occupied Beursplein (Exchange Square – a modest-sized piazza in front of the building that houses Wall Street-based NYSE Euronext’s Amsterdam stock exchange AEX) on October 15 2011 – four weeks after Occupy Wall Street took off and four hundred years after the first stock exchange in the world opened its doors on the Beursplein in 1611.

During the Dutch Golden Age of the seventeenth century, Amsterdam became both the world’s financial center and wealthiest city. After the Dutch East India Company, which itself issued first continuously traded stock, was established in 1602, the Twelve Years Truce was signed to halt the Eighty Years’ War in 1609. That same year Dutch and British sailors under DEIC-employee Henry Hudson arrived at a bay now known as New York Harbor and the Bank of Amsterdam (the precursor to, if not the first central bank) opened its doors on Amsterdam’s central Dam Square.

Encamped around the corner from Dam Square, a five-minute walk from the Central Station down the ever-crowded main drag Damrak that nowadays is mainly filled with souvenir stores, fast-food places, hotels, canal cruise companies, cheap casinos (sporting exotic names like Novoplay and Macao), Teasers (a bootleg-Hooters) and the world-famous sex museum, the Occupiers are not only near the main targets of their protest, but also well-placed to attract public attention.

Six days after the first protesters had pitched their tents, leader of the Amsterdam fraction of the “liberal” party VVD (the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, which is said to have the most bankers among its members), Robert Flos stated that the quickly growing “anti-globalist campsite” then consisting of over a hundred tents was “too large for Amsterdam” and that he wanted the city’s Labour Party mayor Van der Laan “to persuade its inhabitants to leave.”

Flos was backed by the “modern Christian-democratic People’s Party” (as self-proclaimed on their English website) CDA, that, with the VVD, forms the Dutch minority government presently in power. Government-appointed mayor Van der Laan paid his first visit to the encampment that day but thought it too early to respond to Flos’ appeal.

The next day American musician Michael Franti treated Occupiers to a wonderful performance on a tiny mobile stage. Labour Party MP and financial spokesperson Ronald Plasterk wandered through the crowds wearing a Borsalino hat and smiling sheepishly. Earlier that day, protesters had peacefully marched to the present central bank (the Netherlands Bank) that until last year had been headed for fourteen years by Bilderberg habitué and Trilateral Commission member Nout Wellink.

The following week The Netherland’s oldest (1989) and most popular private broadcaster RTL reported that “eighty to ninety percent” of the tents on Exchange Square were empty at night, having produced thermal images with an infrared camera, as the Daily Telegraph had done some days earlier in London. VDD honcho Flos feigned “shock” at the disclosure –which a day later proved to be false— stating “the mayor should put an end to the encampment as soon as possible.”

British protesters easily proved the infrared method to be completely bogus: after stuffing almost ninety-nine people into a single tent, they used exactly the same camera to produce thermal images in which the tent still appeared empty, simply because most tents are made of heat resistant material. This shattered the ludicrous report. Not a single traditional news outlet however took up the counter report; instead they portrayed protesters as whiny weekend hippies.

The next day (October 28th) some protesters moved from Exchange Square, claiming it was getting too overcrowded, to the spacious Museumplein (Museum Square) whose adjacent buildings include: the Van Gogh Museum; Rijksmuseum, home to Rembrandt’s most famous painting, The Night Watch; the Stedelijk Museum; the Diamond Museum; the famed Concertgebouw concert hall; Chinese (partially state-owned, partially Goldman-Sachs-owned) branch of ICBC; a branch of Friesland Bank; the Russian Trade Representation and, most heavily guarded of all, the American Consulate.

Amsterdam’s Labor Party mayor Van der Laan initially allowed this expansion to the Museumplein (presented by media as a reflection of internal dissension among the protestors) but in the evening police forced all protesters to remove their tents at 11 pm, while giving them permission to re-pitch their tents at 7 am. So they did, and kept doing.

About a week later (November 4th), following a meeting with Damrak entrepreneurs, Van der Laan started threatening that he wanted the encampment out of Exchange Square—and soon.

Mayor Van der Laan ironically supported his poorly disguised threat by claiming multi-story department store De Bijenkorf, or Beehive –an apt description of this wannabe-Harrods, that has its back entrance on Exchange Square and front entrance on Dam Square–was among several nearby businesses that were losing sales because of the protest. De Bijenkorf‘s management immediately denied this, a fact that most of the media studiously failed to mention.

On November 6 protesters squatted a huge old decayed laboratory that had been and would surely stay empty for a long time and is owned by the world’s second richest company—and one of its biggest polluters—Royal Dutch Shell.

Keenly aware of the importance of its public image and rightly frightened of how media try to harmfully distort that image, Occupy Amsterdam officially adopted a neutral position on the squat. (Squatting has been prohibited in Amsterdam since 2010, despite a huge housing shortage and countless empty buildings in the city.)

The next day the mayor paid another visit to Occupy Exchange Square to negotiate and a protester who had literally gotten tired of pitching and taking down tents (and therefore getting little sleep) got arrested for disobeying curfew on Museum Square.

Occupy Museum Square protesters re-pitched for two more days but eventually gave in to authority pressure after a municipality contractor had performed an unannounced sprinkler test – soaking protesters and their belongings. Six weeks later the mayor wrote a letter half-apologizing for the incident, shifting blame onto the contractor. The media largely ignored both incidents.

With the exception of only a few honest opinion pieces, both public and private broadcasters and other media have been reporting the protests with ill-concealed skepticism, belittling or blatantly denigrating the movement, already criticizing the campaign before protests had even begun: hours before protests took off, the slowly-dying news magazine HP/De Tijd accused one of Occupy Amsterdam’s leaders foremen of being a conspiracy-nut and further claimed that the movement harbored anti-Semitic views.

Some initially reported on the protests with a fairly neutral tone before they started parroting the official line. Media then gradually started presenting the protests as a steadily growing nuisance and embraced Van der Laan’s threat as a sensible and considered move, especially compared to the way American, not to mention Syrian, protesters were being besieged and attacked by their authorities.

Others never bothered to disguise their desire to protect the prevailing system – jokingly harassing and ridiculing the individuals protesting, instead of investigating questions of why these people are so keen to express their anger or concern by sleeping outside in tents instead of in their homes. No efforts were made to cast a critical eye on the protests’ targets, who have undoubtedly committed worse—and unpunished—crimes than camping in a public space.

After about a month of protesting on Exchange Square,  the chairman of Damrak business association, René Wildeman, representing all businesses on this hellishly touristy street, threatened protesters with a law-suit, stating: “If we wait until capitalism is abolished, they will keep sitting there for thousands of years.”

Four days later (November 19th) two protesters got married on Exchange Square celebrating the world’s first Occupy-marriage. Also, a young mother got arrested in front of her five-year-old (who was left behind with thankfully kind-hearted protesters) when making a reverse graffiti, writing terms like “Occupy” and “99%” in dirt on the stone below a lamppost with the use of eco-soap and a toothbrush.

Two days later Occupy Shell protesters moved back to Exchange Square, claiming they were forced to flee the laboratory as it had been taken over by masses of people who had no interest in protesting and only came to take part in psyche-trance party. Also, another group of apparently mainly Eastern Europeans had stripped the building of its copper, and threatened protesters, who then called the police, who never showed up. The press linked these copper-gangsters and psyche-trance partiers to Occupy Amsterdam, despite the group’s own efforts to deny such associations.

Van der Laan attended an Occupy Amsterdam-organized general assembly on December 3rd after he had added a classic argument to his plea that reminds one of, among others, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak: the encampment was becoming a health and safety hazard.

Media faithfully focused their reports on the homeless, the unemployed, and foreigners staying on Exchange Square, exaggerated small disturbances involving them—all in an attempt to justify the mayor’s concerns.

After fifty-six days of occupying Exchange Square (four days fewer than New York protesters occupying Zuccotti Park), Van der Laan commissioned a small army of policemen to remove most of the encampment on December 8, asserting that the artistically decorated and tidy encampment consisting of over hundred-and-twenty carefully placed tents was still too dirty and dangerous despite all the concessions Occupiers had made. In the course of the removal operation, fourteen people were arrested. Van der Laan allowed a few of tents to stay, in which maximum four people may pass the night.

Protesters immediately changed strategy: that same day they confronted the mayor, who was shaking rich hands at the Millionaire’s Fair (a fair for “spoilt hedonists, the rich and famous, the happy few, and everyone who simply wants to be inspired by luxury lifestyle” as stated on its own website); nine days later they occupied an ING Bank branch, peacefully blocking its entrance. All were brutally arrested.

In an attempt to write the Occupiers out of existence, Dutch media have been continuing their role reporting that the movement was divided, simultaneously estimating the group’s numbers to have shrunk to a couple of small knots of die-hard activists.

Protesters reacted by organizing a sarcastic protest march on January 14th called Occupy got it all wrong, admitting the financial system to be super stable and completely fair and everything media tells us is absolutely true.

Unlike what the media told us, protesters that left the encampments have not suddenly had a change of heart. The opposition and ridicule they face validate their concerns and have nourished their creativity: more specifically targeted demonstrations (against governmental arms trades and the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement) have been conducted, and, in order to prevent people from freezing to death, a trailer was placed on Exchange Square on February 2nd, much to the annoyance of part of the municipality.

After a week they felt forced to have it removed, as the municipality only granted them a permit for a trailer (until March 4th) provided they would abandon the surrounding tents. Latest news is that the remaining tents will probably not be forcibly evacuated soon.

Where the encampment shrinks faster than the occupied territories of Palestine – or the authorities are gloriously winning back the earlier occupied public space to return it to the people – high finance continues and tourism flourishes as if the Golden Age has never ended.

The four-century-long history of capitalism has at least divided its birthplace’s inhabitants into part of its most faithful supporters and part of its most critical opponents. However the latter have also completely lost confidence in the current political system, they may still feel supported by the latest voting polls topped by Socialist Party leader Emile Roemer. This might indicate Dutch swing voters are drifting towards the ideals of Occupiers who bravely keep organizing colleges, gatherings, and demonstrations to convince people that it will take more than voting for Roemer to solve our problems. The next elections are planned for 2014.

JURRIAAN VAN OORTMERSSEN is an Amsterdam-based freelance writer. He can be reached at jurriaanvanoortmerssen@gmail.com

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