Translated blog, 30 January 2021, by Jolijn Santegoeds, Mind Rights, Eindhoven the Netherlands
Dutch original post: https://tekeertegendeisoleer.wordpress.com/2021/01/29/beter-geen-harde-aanpak-voor-relschoppers/
On 24 January 2021 riots occurred in the centre of Eindhoven and other cities in the Netherlands, as an act of protest against the Covid-measures, and to the occasion of the introduction of a curfew. In response, various politicians announce to be in favour of a tough approach of the rioters, and that they will be prosecuted criminally. In many cases these are minors and people under 25.
Of course such blunt vandalism is unacceptable. But as an expert by experience on the use of coercion in (youth)psychiatry I would like to stress that a tough approach to rioting youth and youngsters is counterproductive.
Isolation cell reaction
Every reaction has a cause. Looking at the riots, and knowing about the social and physical isolation, and the powerlessness that can occur as a result to deprivation of liberty, I have to admit that a part of me understands it. I disapprove the riots, yet somehow I also understand the behaviour. It reminds me of when I was 16 years old, when I was locked up in an isolation cell in youth psychiatry “for my own protection”, to prevent me from harming myself. I thought it was unfair, since I was in a cell without having committed a criminal act. At that moment I developed behaviour which I had never had before, namely: I started screaming and banging against the door. That was powerlessness and despair. I didn’t know how to change the situation. I saw no way. And so all that was left was screaming and crying. I tore up the blankets. Smeared the food on the wall. I was in resistance, and I became destructive, because I was losing hope. I was angry at the staff who locked me up, and I had the feeling as if they did not understand me. The nursing staff chose a tough aproach, with a lot of coercive measures in mental health care (restraint, forced drugging, seclusion). That became a downward spiral, in which I was detained in an isolation cell regime for almost 2 years. Only when I was transferred to another institution, the situation changed, and I got chances to unfold myself. That made the difference.
From my own experience I know what ‘escalation by deprivation of liberty’ means, and how feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness, being fully out of options and feeling helpless, can have an effect, and can evoke excessive reactions and escalations to occur.
I also recognize the feeling of ‘being stuck in the moment’. My life seemed completely over when I was solitary confined. I was 16, and I had unsufficient life experience to oversee that there would be a life AFTER the solitary confinement. It seemed like that was the only thing that existed. My horizon was not yet so broad, and due to the isolation anything that happened had a lot of impact on me (such as the contact moments with the nursing staff). I could easily be carried away by the moment, and responded more intense than usual.
And I also recognize the expression of dissatisfaction in a ‘disruptive way’. I couldn’t identify myself with the nurses, e.g. because they locked me up, and I couldn’t settle to that, it kept on causing friction, which filled me with resistance. I saw things differently, yet there was no room for that. Due to powerlessness and force majeure my emotions in fact had no place, and hence ‘strange ways to express myself’ came to be, such as destroying the isolation cell mattress.
When I look at the riots, I see a group of young people who are stuck in the moment, and where the bottled up energies have exploded, clearly expressing that they are exasparated by the restrictions to their freedom, and that a limit has been reached. I can imagine that they experience powerlessness and insecurities, especially due to their age. I can imagine that they have no clue how to canalize the abrasive pain of the lockdown measures, because this is a fully new situation for everyone.
A lot of young people are actually very sensitive to the world around them, but they are also still searching and experimenting, and do not always know how to make themselves heard. Exploring boundaries is part of the learning process of growing up, this is how one learns where the limits are.
“Zero tolerance” is the line announced by the outgoing prime minister Rutte and outgoing minister of justice Grapperhaus, with a very tough approach on the streets, “super fast justice proceedings” and hefty fines, seizures and prison sentences to make the youth aware that such behaviour is not toletared. “That scum will have to pay for everything”. The consequences of these personal liability claims are drastic, also for the parents. Rutte does not want to hear about any sociological explanation of the riots. And many politicians repeat the call for a tough approach.
The undertone that comes through accross various media is shocking, with remarks such as “with a criminal record one will not get a job”. That does not correspond with being given a second chance. Moreover, the youth is the future. The tone of the debate makes me wonder which goal they are pursuing by calling for a tough approach? Is it about revenge, or is it about a safer community?
The remark “they will have to pay back for years” sounds to me as revengeful, as if the goal is to take people’s futures away, to punish and to inflict pain. While the circumstances for youth and youngsters during the Covid lockdown are already extremely heavy, and the vandalism may have been connected to the insecurities and hardships that this group is facing. They may probably already fear for their future chances, with an education crisis, a Covid crisis, a climate crisis, an economic crisis, a refugee crisis, the Dutch child welfare tax scandal (“Toeslagen affaire” which caused the resignation of the political cabinet) etcetera. There is already a very heavy burden placed on the shoulders of the youth and youngsters. Are we seriously going to put them under more pressure?
Making mistakes is human. “At home I am locked up as well, so what difference makes a prison sentence” said a youngster. This remark illustrates the immaturity in his world view. Is it useful to punish an immature person very tough and rigidly? Is it useful to punish groups of youngsters who experience herd behaviour and peer pressure, who think ‘it is funny’ and do not fully oversee the consequences at that very moment. Of course they should learn a lesson from it, but to make them pay for years and years and to scar them for life is going too far in my opinion. I think most of them already know it really went too far.
What is the goal of punishment? Is it about revenge, or is it about preventing repetition. Which final result are we pursuing?
Imprisonment does not lead to better citizenship. A burden of debts also does not lead to better citizenship. These measures could be questioned whether these are appropriate as a response to a single escalation in a group association, especially because it is about young people, and certainly because this happened in exceptionally hard times. For the punishment measures it also makes a difference whether it is a single incident, or a repetitive nuisance. Hooliganism is actually by itself an expresson of bottled up energies and competitive drive. Anyway any reaction has a cause. Everyone will have had their own reasons to do what he/she did during the riots. Not all of them will have had deliberate cruel intentions. There is no universal solution. The only way that fits with the human diverity is an individually tailored approach.
Individually tailored approach
A conclusion which also came from the recent Dutch tax scandal (Toeslagen affaire) which already showed the disastrous consequences of ‘a tough approach’, is that it is better to take an individually tailored approach. Imagine, that one of the rioters would be an underaged child from a family that has been suffering for years under the Dutch child welfare tax scandal, and therefor had a lot of bottled up energies and was being drawn into the rioting, and that those parents will have to lose the 30.000 euro of compensation for the tax scandal right away, what are you doing to a family then? All families and youngsters are bearing bottled up energies within themselves during these heavy times of lockdown. There should be attention for the individual situation, with the overall aim: preventing repetition. The lives of these youngsters should not be ruined unnecessarily.
Indeed it was wrong what they did. And they caused a lot of grief. But there should be proportionate, fair and reasonable follow up steps. And the future of the youngster involved should not be left out of consideration. These youngsters should not be branded for life, not scarred for life. A feature of a justice based state is actually that people are given a second chance, and that penalties and verdicts are shaped in a reasonable way. The damage at the side of the shops and government posessions is bigger than the budget of the perpetrators. Of course the damage needs to be compensated, but not at the expense of the perpetrators. Because an eye for an eye makes everyone blind. It should be about de-escalation and a future for everyone.
Don’t let this pandemic ruin the lives of the young generation. Let’s forgive their mistake, and support the entrepreneurs en mass. Let’s also especially listen very well to the youngsters, and ensure they can carry on with their lives, and give them the hope and space they need. Let’s give them a second chance, and let’s teach them what it is to approach each other with understanding, empathy and respect. Let’s teach them what it really means to look after each other, and most of all, let’s teach them that in spite of it all, everything will be okay in the end.
For a large group of youngsters it may be more appropriate to be ordered to fulfill community service, tailored fines, or a reprimand. By this, I do not mean to downplay the damage done to the entrepreneurs. The damage should be compensated in another way. And possibly community service could be designed a creative form to support the entrepreneurs (such as e.g. delivery service). Then it could become a kind of win-win situation, because the entrepreneurs will be supported, and the youngsters can also move on with their lives. A smart approach can bring more unity instead of polarization.
“When one member of the community suffers, the community suffers as a whole”
In the prevention and handling of escalations and coercion in mental health care, the most important thing is to establish contact and to take care of meaningful support relations, where the main person feels free to be open, so signals and signs can be addressed, and prevention of a crisis is possible. The risk of a crisis reduces when wellbeing increases. Then there is peace.
Now, the riots are of course not fully comparable to a psychosocial crisis, yet there are many similar aspects. The police is searching for signals of possible rioting locations, in order to enable prevention of such incidents, Besides that, genuine contact is needed, to expose the underlying motivation and/or problems. One could think of triggers and stressors which contributed to the circumstances of that moment, which may vary from person to person. This possibly entails a task for the parents or other close persons of choice. When the bottled up energy has no way out, the risk of escalation increases. And also in an increasingly virtual world, and while socially and physically isolated, it is incredibly hard to grow up because the checkpoints of ‘normal life’ have disappeared and the virtual life has become more important.
The riots could only arise on a certain soil, and instead of focussing ourselves on questions of guilt and skyrocketing penalties, we could also choose to focus on laying a healthy basis, and give appropriate penalties, and to try to take away some stress from the youngsters, and give them hope in return. Only together we can defeat Covid. It makes no sense to let a group of youngsters and families go financially bankrupt to save the entrepreneurs. The damaged goods are replacable, but the future of a youngster isn’t. The damage to the entrepreneurs could better be paid from an emergency fund, because if now also family are being disrupted we may do more harm than good. The riots are a drama for all victims. But let’s not make it even worse.
Let’s emphasize unity, and help each other where we can. Let’s stop spreading revenge and division, “them against us”, because that contributes to fights and friction. The youngsters are extremely burdened by the lockdown, and didn’t know how to express that. Whether the reason was boredom, frustration or powerlessness, fact is that the basis is falling short, and their wellbeing is not properly in balance. Especially young people can be prone to reacting from emotion, and less from rationality. And especially under current circumstances it is not fair to hold them fully accountable, because the situation of restricted freedoms and crisis and insecurities just clearly has an impact on people. And these are youngsters. They should be given the space to learn from their mistakes in a constructive way. They deserve it to be able to overcome this well, and to become beautiful adults nonetheless. That is in everyone’s interest.
The riots were absolutely not a decent way to gain attention or express dissatisfaction, but it does carry a message. With the loud demand for a tough approach, the implicit signal that the protests broadcasted is again nearly passed by. In my understanding this is the same kind of reaction as my response to the isolation cell, which was resistance and destructivity, strange behaviour in reaction to elusive powerlessness and insecurity. To me at that time as a 16-year old in solitary confinement, it was a lack of future perspective. I thought I would never get out anymore, and that caused panic. I thought that everything was over and that I had fallen overboard. My future seemed like a black hole, as if I had no future. I saw only the isolation cell and I felt powerless. It was not until later when I learned that there was a life after the solitary confinement. At first I just couldn’t see that. It had just seemed as if my life had collapsed fully. And I went crazy from grief and despair.
I think this experience comes close to what youngsters experience nowadays. When you lack experience with such difficult times, then it is also extremely hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. If you do not even know that there is a light at all, and have never experienced what it is like to find hope back in such darkness. Bear in mind that youngsters also witness the suffering in their surroundings, such as entrepreneurs at the edge of loss, unemployment, poverty, Covid-grief etc on top of their own problems. And they know they are the next generation, and that they will take on the world after us. I can imagine that this can be extremely overwhelming, and that the pressure can become too much. And they have no place to go.
The riots in Eindhoven and other cities are not ‘normal behaviour’. It is not in the nature of the youngsters nor in the culture. It is mostly a sign of the impact of the Covid-measures, and I think we should approach it as such. The youngsters got carried away in a stupid action. It is not the first time that a dumb impulsive action or an ‘internet challenge’ causes problems. But trial and error are part of learning. Especially because the riots are so “un-Dutch”, one could conclude it is an incident caused by the circumstances. Maybe it was an inevitable side effect of the pandemic, and we must all learn from this.
The riots have showed us clearly that the youngsters are experiencing a problem. And a tough repressive approach is not a sustainable solution, but would mainly lower the chances of the youngsters. The fast justice proceedings do not do justice to the complexity of the situation, and the difference between nuisances and followers, and the people who regret that they let themselves be carried away without thinking about their further future. It is a fact that as a youngster you still have a lot to learn before you are really mature.
Let’s recognize that the youth is currently surrounded with numerous crisis situations, and that they have too little positive experiences to process under these circumstances of lockdown and curfew. They need more ways to express themselves and to loose the bottled up energy. Therefore there are some extenuating circumstances, and maybe a gesture of a soft approach would be the best sign to revive the hope, with the message that we will all focus on the future, constructively. Let’s assume that the escalation was a single moment, and give people a second chance, because we understand how tough these times are. And maybe we can clean up the mess together and recover the damages, and especially ensure that everyone has a future after the Covid-pandemic.
My call is therefore: Punish the perpetrators of the criminal facts in an appropriate manner, without endangering their future perspectives. By using pure intimidation and the language of muscles, one cannot create a healthy society. The youth needs wisdom, and hope. The times of blunt revenge and flogging have long passed. In a state based on justice there is attention for intent, circumstances, coping capacity and burden, and reintegration (in order to prevent possible repetition). It is about creating a safe community, and to help people find their way (e.g. probation). And in prisons not only good things are learned. It is therefore highly questionable whether the tool of imprisonment is actually contributing to the goal of creating a safe and healthy community.
Throwing bricks is truly a criminal act, but one could also argue that it all fizzled out and the damage is mostly material damage. Most of it is replacable. And now there are so many things broken already, let’s stop causing more harm. No ‘fast justice’ or tough approach, but just a decent proceeding of justice, because it is about youngsters, and their future depends on this single stamp, and there is no room for mistakes of the justice system and legal failures such as the Dutch child welfare tax scandal. It is about a unique escalation under bizar circumstances, which cannot simply be put aside as ‘purely bad behaviour’. Although indeed it was bad behaviour, one can argue about the ‘criminal intent’. It seemed more like little time-bombs that went off. An individually tailored approach is necessary.
Because I see the striking overlap between on the one hand the riots, and on the other hand my ‘isolation cell reaction’ from my youth, I considered it necessary to share my view. A tough approach is not a solution and only leads to more struggle. With an approach focussed on chances much more can be achieved. There should be attention for the person behind the behaviour. Therefor I plea against a tough approach of the rioters. I am in favour of a proportionate, well considered, careful, constructive proceeding which does not loose the future of the youngster out of sight. Considering my personal experiences with behavioural escalation after restrictions to liberty, I can only admit that a part of me somehow understands the despair it brings, and how much energy bottles up by being subjected to deprivation of liberty. And I can understand that the youngsters experience a certain level of despair and disorganization by all of the strict measures that limit their freedom. They see their life slipping away, and it is unclear for how long. That leads to uninhibited behaviour, time-bombs. Due to my life experiences I can more easily oversee such escalating behaviour and see through it. As a youngster I had far less grip on it. That is why I can’t fully blame them, while I also do not want to justify it.
It is evident that the bottled up energy needs an exit. The more youngsters are crushed, the more problematic behaviour occurs. The escalation was unprecedented, and ‘ill-considered’ with for example live images on social media, which fits to the image of ‘time bombs’ and impulsivity, rather than professional criminals. Let’s worry about the underlying causes of this escalation. There were already signals of increasing psychosocial problems and loneliness. Possibly this escalation actually demands for an investment in youth and youngsters, to keep them upright. That is not a reward for bad behaviour, but a recognition of underlying problems, and that the escalation in this time was not an ‘ordinary reaction’. You cannot simply hold youngsters accountable without weighing the context. The pandemic exceeds any imagination. And the youth is confronted with this in the hardest way, because their view on the world is still being formed. Do we really want to punish them rigidly for a primary reaction to deprivation of liberty, on which they may not have had much grip at that moment, purely because the energy needed to be released sooner or later? Do we want them to get out of the pandemic with a criminal record, a debt AND a depression? Or do we understand that it was a bizar dissipation, which in itself happens more often in the adolescent generation (luckily not at the scale of the curfew riots). In these dark times there are enough losses already. Let’s bring out the best side of our humanity.
What is needed, is a soft approach for the young rioters, based on compassion, to take away any appearance of oppression, to plant new hope, and to grant them a future despite all of the events. And because bringing youth up with a tough approach just is no longer allowed in the Netherlands (Youth Act 2007).