When/Where: Wed 25/3/2015, 18.30-23.00, Antwerp, Belgium.
What: between 150-200 peaceful protesters in front of City Hall in Antwerp are reported to have been boarded on police buses, and administratively detained (max 24hrs).
Why: The Mayor of Antwerp, and Belgium’s most popular politician Bart De Wever (NVA) gave an interview on the Flemish National TV on Monday that was branded as highly racist. While talking about integration, migration, radicalisation and racism, he singled out the Berber community as the most problematic group, and stated that racism is relative and too often used as an excuse to mask personal failure. (see transcript in ENG below) Tonight’s sit-in in front of City Hall called for apologies and/or his resignation. The protesters were straight away boxed in by heavily armed and large police force and shipped off in buses.
Broader context: After last week’s international outcry over Didier Reynders, Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs, blackface incident, and the recently started #dailyracism FB and twitter campaign in which people were incited to share their every day experience with racism, – which they massively did – the issue has resurfaced at the forefront of the debates and spurred on actions cf. the one tonight.
Over the years I have often found it extremely difficult to explain the levels and particular manifestations of racism in Belgium – and Flanders in particular – to friends and colleagues abroad; to convey how everyday life in the UK – even though it has its own set of racism-related and other challenges – is so much easier for me ever since I moved out here from Antwerp, Belgium – my home town and country of birth.
Many of us have spared no efforts to speak up about the prevalence of racism in Belgium, both to our fellow citizens as well as internationally. We have tried to patiently explain the racism in the small, demeaning and ridiculous things like the annual Zwarte Piet [Black Pete] tradition that we share with Holland, or the most recent related incident when our Minister of Foreign Affairs Didier Reynders went around Brussels blackfaced (for charity^^). But more importantly, through countless studies, essays, columns,reports, interviews,…the most dedicated groups and individuals and the brightest minds have sought to inform on the link between racism and the abysmal racialised poverty, unemployment and education and housing statistics in Belgium. Or the link between the seemingly unwavering perpetuation of racism and the monocultural, monochrome nature of our centres of power, i.e. politics, the media, the country’s teachers and professors.
This weekend, on the International Day Against Racism and Discrimination, the hastag #dailyracism was launched by one of these bright minds, Bleri Lleshi, – writer, political philosopher, activist – , to incite people to share their experiences of everyday racism via twitter and Facebook. (For a collection painful testimonials check https://www.facebook.com/pages/Daily-Racism/406742619487273)
The local media picked up on it and the debate (beyond the usual endless and debilitating ‘this-is-not-racism’ nonsense) on the prevalence of racism and discrimination and their broader structural effects on people and society, seemed well on the way.
In the midst of all that, the Mayor of Antwerp and most popular politician in Flanders, Bart De Wever, gives an interview on the newsprogram ‘Terzake’ on the Flemish public broadcaster VRT on racism and discrimination, integration and migration, radicalisation. A few quotes:
Beck: Is racism relative? BDW: “Of course it is relative. All ism‘s are more or less relative, so is racism.” Beck: “Racism is in the facts, you can demonstrate it with facts.” BDW: Of course, racism exists. And it is very regrettable, it has always existed and still exists today and since 9/11 we haven’t tumbled into a more cheerful world in that regard. So the distrust between the Muslim world and the Western world has grown and it spills over in our main cities and throughout Europe. The apartheid that was already there, the very little contact, the very few mixed marriages between communities. That is the problem, the soil on which racism grows.
on the Berber community in Antwerp:
BDW: “No, I am saying there are negative experiences that are also real for certain ethnic groups” Beck: “Who then?” BDW: “Well, then we’re talking about people from north Africa, in particular the Moroccan communities and especially Berbers. And 80% of the Moroccans in Antwerp are from Berber origin. We are having a hard time to organize social mobility in that community. They are also very closed communities who distrust the government. [They have a] weakly organised Islam, are very susceptible to the salafist stream and as such also to radicalisation and that is of course not the best publicity. People who turn on the television and see day after day decapitations and while people here symphatize with that, or even go there to participate…” Beck: “Yes, but that has nothing to with the community in Antwerp” BDW: “Yes, no, but racism or rejection comes from somewhere. Yes, of course it has something to do with it if people from here go there. If after 4 generations people are still allochtoon and still call themselves that or are seen as such, then it has something to do with it. Aboutaleb says real jihad is jihad within yourself, to get a good education and to find work. That attitude also needs to be there. Simply saying there is a problem of racism and if that is not solved then everything is excused, well, that’s incorrect. And that’s what Mr Homans meant and I support that for 200% because I see that day in day out in my own city.
BDW: What I meant with education and welfare was that we see now, with the deradicalisation officials we have, that they often enter families’ homes, – we’re often talking about families of Berber descent – where they are the first-line assistance providers. And when they come in, they see that that cloak of radicalisation simply a cover for a tremendous amount of other problems: a missing father figure or a father who only beats and stopped talking. A mother who also has a lot of problems, domestic violence.”
The following is a transcript from the translation from Dutch to English of a bone-chilling conversation that painfully illustrates the extent to which racism is entrenched in the deepest folds of the Belgian society, and is cynically being promoted and fueled by our most important public officials. For once I don’t have to try and explain the extent and particular brand of racism in my beloved home country. You can read for yourself.
(transcribed and translated from Dutch by Seckou Ouologuem and Olivia U. Rutazibwa)
Does Bart [De Wever – Mayor of Antwerp] make a U-turn? Does Bart De Wever issue a mea culpa for the integration policy of the last years, or not?
(BDW at the press conference of a book launch earlier this week) “Had we had a different integration policy, had we had for much longer now an integration policy that made any sense, (and) had we much earlier on tackled the problems of discrimination and racism that flowed from it, and that are consequences of it, we would not have been in such dire situation today. “
Annelies Beck (journalist): Racism was a heavily debated topic this weekend, and continues to be. People are sharing daily incidences of racism, small and large with the hashtag #dailyracism. And earlier this weekend, during the launch of a book on radicalism it was not the author, political scientist Bilal Benyaich, but rather the Mayor who stole the lime light. He stated, – I quote – “The last years we fell short in our migration policy”. A remark that surprised some, for instance Wouter Van Bellingen, head of the Minderhedenforum [Forum of Minorities] and Jozef De Witte, the head of the Interfederaal Gelijke Kansen Centrum [Interfederal Centre for Equal Opportunities].
Wouter van Bellingen: “The NVA ¨New Flemish Alliance – Party of BDW) usually does not make the link between dicrimination, racism and also radicalisation. So we were pleasantly surprised the link was made. This means a new day in which we can truly work on equal rights for all in Flanders, also people with a migration background
Jozef De Witte: “I was happy to hear from Mr. De Wever that he links discrimination in housing, employment and education to radicalism, as risk factors of that radicalism. Up until not so long ago, Mrs Homans [party member of BDW – Flemish Minister for Local Government, Poverty Reduction, Housing, Civic Integration, Equal Opportunities, Cities and Social Economy] was claiming that these issues are completely unrelated. Well, related or not, we have to get on with equal opportunities in any case as it is in our own best interests.”
Beck: “Bart De Wever, chairman of the NVA, Mayor of Antwerpen, welcome. You were in all the newspapers today with the statements you made at that book launch of the book on radicalism written by Bilal Benyaich, sociologist and political scientist. It seems as if you are making new friends like Jozef De Witte of the Centre for Equal Opportunities”
BDW: “Yes, he has a very selective hearing, and there are others like him, also Wouter Van Bellingen has a very selective understanding. I have first and foremost pointed at the failings of the migration policy. For a couple of decades we have had an open borders policy, we have in fact been handing out citizenship for free through the “fast Belgian” law, we have regularised people en masse, collectively and indivually and not very selectively. Hundreds of criminals and even rapists have been regularised and we are now reaping the sour fruits of that. That is the part of the message they did not really hear.”
Beck: “So what did they misunderstand?”
BDW: “Well, of course that is the original sin, that’s were it all came from. They have waited a very long time to develop an integration policy? It basically only started when NVA entered government in 2004. We have paved the way for language courses, social orientation, orientation to the labor market. But by then the problems were already known for a long time and we of course have a very large part of our migrants that is passive and not working. In this we score the worst in the whole of Europe. So, basically the import of lack of opportunities and poverty due to the lack of an integration policy which led to a factual apartheid, very little intermarriage.
Beck: “Yes, so you are listing a lot of issues here, but let’s go back to Mr De Witte’s statement before we continue on this. He says: “I now see Mr De Wever for the first time make the link between racism and radicalisation.” Has he understoord that correctly?”
BDW: “No, he did not understand that correctly at all. I said, if you do that [migration/integration policy] systematically wrong for several decades, then the wrong answer from the population can be that of a budding racism. In other words the sum of a lot of negative perceptions and experiences –rightfully so or not – leaves you with a culture of distrust. The apartheid also provokes this. A culture of distrust potentially translates in a very negative attitude towards certain migrants. In particular towards people of north African descent, in particular Moroccans, in particular Berber Moroccans, of which there are many in Antwerp.”
Beck: “Yes, but this is a problem, it’s…”
BDW: “It is indeed a problem but it is the result of, the consequence of. This is literally what I said. Now, how does Mr De Witte twist this and even more so Mr van Bellingen? “no, it [racism] is the cause of all our problems”. No, I have said that it is the result of all our problems. A sorry result that you of course have to tackle in the right way. When they say, it is the cause and we are going to repress/penalise discrimination, and this will be the solution, then I say that this is a complete mistake. And on its own it has nothing to do with radicalism. It only serves hard-core radicals, the truly convinced ones to recruit more people by playing on feelings of rejection.
Beck: “Ok, but maybe it is not so strange then that there is some confusion about NVA’s position on racism and when to intervene or what should be done against it given that the minister of Equal Opportunities, Mrs Homans, stated in an interview that racism is relative. Is racism relative?
BDW: “Of course it is relative. All ism‘s are more or less relative, so is racism.”
Beck: “Racism is in the facts, you can demonstrate it with facts.”
BDW: Of course, racism exists. And it is very regrettable, it has always existed and still exists today and since 9/11 we haven’t tumbled into a more cheerful world in that regard. So the distrust between the Muslim world and the Western world has grown and it spills over in our main cities and throughout Europe. The apartheid that was already there, the very little contact, the very few mixed marriages between communities. That is the problem, the soil on which racism grows.
Beck: “So you are a politician, you have to do something about it.”
BDW: “But politics can’t solve everything, a society is only limitedly makeable. I also read op-eds of very left winged people who live in Borgerhout [a borough of Antwerp with a large population of Moroccan descent] and they also complain about having barely any or no contact with the allochtone residents [people with a migration background, literally ‘coming from elsewhere’. This can apply to up until the 4th and more generation when of visible (north) African and Arab descent mostly], of which several communities are very closed-off.”
Beck: “But you are a politician, you are elected to undertake, to do, to improve.”
BDW: “Correct, and I think the only answer to negative perceptions and experiences are positive perceptions and experiences and you have to work on that. I think we already do this. As Mayor I can tell you that 18% of our city staff has a migration background. I think that I am more or less the largest employer of allochtonen in the entire country. That counts for something. As chairman of the party I can tell you that we have given talented people of Turkish, Moroccan descent all possible opportunities…”
Beck: “But it is about structural…”
BDW: “…that we as party, – and we are not a leftist party -, are going to have Mayors with those origins, that we have an Alderwoman in Antwerp of Moroccan origin. Those are positive examples that then, I think, can counter the negative feelings.
Beck: “But your party also delivers the minister of Housing for example, and of Equal Opportunities. What do they do to counter structural racism?”
BDW: “You can only tackle structural racism, I think, through socio-economic progress in those ethnic groups. That is not just a question of fighting against racism. It is a general social challenge that needs to be realised.”
Beck: “But if you do not act against it [structural racism] as a Minister, are you then not letting it fester?”
BDW: “I don’t think so. When she [Homans] says: ‘ racism is relative’, I understand very well what she means by that because it is so easily invoked as an excuse for personal failure. Aboutaleb [Mayor of Rotterdam] says…”
Beck: “That’s easy to say of course, the statistics show that there really are incidents of racism”
BDW: “I’m sure there are, I’m absolutely not going to deny that it exists. It exists everywhere and it’s regrettable but there are also other problems. I have, for example, never met an Asian immigrant who claimed to have been a victim of racism. I don’t often see them pop up in the crime rates, even though there are thousands of them.
Beck: “So you are linking racism to crime or what do you mean?”
BDW: “No, I am saying there are negative experiences that are also real for certain ethnic groups”
Beck: “Who then?”
BDW: “Well, then we’re talking about people from north Africa, in particular the Moroccan communities and especially Berbers. And 80% of the Moroccans in Antwerp are from Berber origin. We are having a hard time to organize social mobility in that community. They are also very closed communities who distrust the government. [They have a] weakly organised Islam, are very susceptible to the salafist stream and as such also to radicalisation and that is of course not the best publicity. People who turn on the television and see day after day decapitations and while people here sympathise with that, or even go there to participate…”
Beck: “Yes, but that has nothing to with the community in Antwerp”
BDW: “Yes, no, but racism or rejection comes from somewhere. Yes, of course it has something to do with it if people from here go there. If after 4 generations people are still allochtoon and still call themselves that or are seen as such, then it has something to do with it. Aboutaleb says real jihad is jihad within yourself, to get a good education and to find work. That attitude also needs to be there. Simply saying there is a problem of racism and if that is not solved then everything is excused, well, that’s incorrect. And that’s what Mr Homans meant and I support that for 200% because I see that day in day out in my own city.
Beck: “But on Saturday you apparently also said that we have failed to include people in education and employment. Is that them some sort of mea culpa?”
BDW: “Well, as a society we failed to sufficiently exploit the talent that exists in every community. I am not a racist so I assume that there is the same amount of talent in every person and every community. Then I see that for some communities and migrant groups this goes really well and for others less so, and for others outright poorly. Look who’s in our prisons, look at our employment statistics, we don’t seem to be managing that. It has to do with a wrong kind of migration, we have massively allowed the wrong kind of migrant in, mostly the passive migra[nts].
Beck: “…Or following on, we have not done enough to include them in our society…”
BDW: ” Indeed, after that we have not done enough about it. We have never had an integration policy. Identity and citizenship, as Glucksmann said in France of the left side that the only link you can make there is exclusion while it is exactly the other way around. Inclusion. You have to start with compulsory language courses, give them social orientation, put people actively in the labor market and have expectations in that regard. State who we are and where they have to join in. No, that’s an identity narrative with citizenship, you have to dare say who you are, what an enlightened society is, what you expect from people and lead them towards it. We have of course never done that. We have started this only 10 years ago.”
Beck: “That is the past but you now your party delivers ministers who are at the steering wheel, who can shape these policies, who can make things happen. Well, we’re going to listen, you said it yourself you have been pulling this for 10 years, what some member of the opposition think of the policies so far.”
Meyrem Almaci [Chairwoman Green Party (left), MP Federal Parliament]: “What the NVA is saying now is a very clear a mea culpa. They have been in power for 10 years now and we see that highly educated people with a migration background still face discrimination and structural racism after graduation in the labor market, a competence of [an] NVA [minister]after all. And we see for example in [the city of] Ghent, where the Green Party actually proposes mystery shopping tests, and awareness policies, but also sanctions, that these policies are not taken on board in Antwerp for instance and that in Ghent, it is the largest opposition party, NVA, who votes against those measures.”
Tom Van Grieken [Chairman Vlaams Belang (extreme right), City councillor Mortsel, MP Flemish Parliament]: “Yes, everyone with eyes can see that the integration policy in this country has completely failed. Minister De Wever actually hangs his own ministers out to dry with his statement. For 11 years they have been part of the Flemish government where they were responsible for integration. I see the statements of Mr. De Wever as a big mea culpa. There can only be a real integration policy in connection to a good immigration policy. With 70.000 new strangers from outside the EU in this country, it is not possible to have a good integration policy. It is a little bit like a cup of tea, one cube of sugar is tasty but if you add ten it no longer is.”
Beck: “Your ministers could contribute a bit more. You could come up with slightly more concrete actions against racism.”
BDW: “Let me first say that here you hear two voices that don’t contribute a thing. There is the one that exploits victimhood for electoral self-interest and the other that actually exploits feelings of exclusion and apartheid out of self- interest. Those two approaches are never going to contribute anything to this story. Ghent, the city Mrs Almaci speaks of doesn’t come near the amount of allochtonen employed by the city of Antwerp. We should stop the exploitation of the negative things for electoral profit, it does not contribute to anything. The Flemish policy we stand for…”
Beck: “Ok, but doing something more, as minister…”
BDW: “…is something to be proud of, I think. Before us there was no integration policy, since then the means have steadily gone up,…
Beck: … but no mystery shoppers…
BDW: The waiting lists for Dutch courses have been completely eliminated. Twice a year we have an “Integration Day”. You should come and see how it is being welcomed, how much newcomers see these free classes as a gift.”
Beck: “You indeed focus on positive examples and so on but then what about racism? How about mystery shopping tests to discourage it or even sanction it?”
BDW: “I am not in favour of those actually, unless there are indications of blatant discrimination and then they can be undertaken within a legal investigation. For example Mr Van Bellingen goes off to call around asking for a Flemish cleaning lady, to be able to say afterwards, there is a lot of racism. Well, I don’t know that [on that basis]. I don’t know that at all. You can only know that…”
Beck: “But the opposite is also true. It is very hard to prove that you have been refused, for example when you want to rent an apartment, because of your name or background.”
BDW: “Yes indeed”
Beck: “Is it then not the government’s task to say ‘we will also protect you’?”
BDW: ” I am not saying that racism is to be easily excused. You really have to… but it is a highly nuanced problem. I also see it in the city services, in our police force, we have to work at it every day. Diversity, a culture of diversity in our policies, in their implementation. But by simply penalizing it and claim that that is the way to solve it, you will smother a lot of issues. If you want people to stop renting out their apartments publicly, then these are the kind of things you have to do. One should not confuse cause and effect because then you achieve nothing. Is there discrimination in the housing market? Yes! But if you go look at the Housing Research that just came out, in 2013 I believe, then you see that it is mostly people on social welfare that are being discriminated against most. Single mothers. They are more often than not people with a migration background. Yes it is all linked. So creating social mobility will be the best key, I think, to overcome these feelings of rejection and apartheid.”
Beck: “And shouldn’t this then happen through, as you said yourself, through welfare and education? Should we not put more money there?”
BDW: “Well, there simply isn’t more money. We will have to set different priorities. What I meant with education and welfare was that we see now, with the deradicalisation officials we have, that they often enter families’ homes, – we’re often talking about families of Berber descent – where they are the first-line assistance providers. And when they come in, they see that that cloak of radicalisation simply a cover for a tremendous amount of other problems: a missing father figure or a father who only beats and stopped talking. A mother who also has a lot of problems, domestic violence.”
Beck: “Even more reason to invest in education and welfare, I would think”
BDW: “What I highlighted was that, if those [deradicalisation officials] are the first assistance providers to have ever come to these families, well then our traditional welfare system has clearly missed some issues as it has no insight into a certain part of our urban population. And that is a problem. And this is of course linked to the fact that certain communities are so very closed off and don’t easily turn to the government. This has, in my opinion, been an opportunity missed by the welfare system…
Beck: “Are you pointing at your CD&V [Christian Democrats (centre)] colleagues?”
BDW: “Absolutely not”
Beck: “It is their competence.”
BDW: “No, we are drawing some conclusions now, and we have to draft the appropriate policies accordingly. We don’t have see them immediately as accusations or a mea culpa. It rather is drawing some conclusions about realities in a big city and the question to put the appropriate policies in place accordingly.”
Beck: “Thank you very much for coming.”