The police shooting of protesters in the Netherlands is bizarre and disturbing, and probably not the end of it

This past week has seen perhaps one of the worst events of government violence in the name of the police in recent years. The phrase “Orgy of violence” does not do the sight justice. I’m in the Netherlands doing a story for the Washington Post based on a longer article from the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung.

The story begins with a normal Sunday morning. As the world was lulled into a sense of overconfidence that Germany was in no way likely to strike back against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the normally muted streets of Eindhoven saw the usual post-climax mass rioting and the end of a peaceful protest as police opened fire on protesters. Protesters were suspected of attempting to torch a police station. Police responded in outrage and confrontations began. Even a former Netherlands prime minister was charged with attempted murder, but he was acquitted. More than 50 people were injured.

Here’s where it starts to become very strange. Even before police intervened, bystanders began shooting at them. Someone must have pulled out a Kalashnikov and begun shooting at law enforcement officers. This happened on a street, right in front of a police station. At least, this part of the story is true.

On a bed of cement, not far from the riots, lay an AK-47 that had been brought to this scene from another area. The shooter was resting on the ground, blood gushing from his wound. He was nearby in large crowds taking photos of police with smartphones, so his weapon had already been alerted by a computer. Officers chased the owner of the firearm and then fired at him from a distance to prevent him from taking a step forward and pointing his gun again at police. In another example of police being caught between a rock and a hard place, officers said they realized he had not fired at them but instead raised the gun.

The article goes on to describe a fascinating incident when, during the demonstrations, a man had his camera phone held to his head and was shot three times. The report describes the fear expressed by one man who literally felt people trying to kill him. The report also describes how police used tear gas and water cannons on the unarmed protesters. One woman is pictured in a swollen ball in a hospital.

Most people think the protests were part of the same thing as nationalist and populist protests across Europe, from France to Italy, but this only scratches the surface of the story. It does raise the uncomfortable question: Did the police cross the line? Perhaps they did, as is becoming increasingly difficult to believe. But given the success of right-wing populist parties in Europe, as well as in the Netherlands, what we have here is two sides involved in a very personal and intimate fight for power in a country with almost no precedent of any sort.

It is also worth pointing out that most of the police involved were portrayed by the Dutch media as heroes of the day, saving the day from potentially dangerous, unmarked vehicles “turning out” to be in fact police buses and then getting their truck stuck in the mud chasing the shooters. This is hardly what is suggested by video footage of the police shooting demonstrators and journalists. While there have been a handful of other instances of Dutch police actions going viral in recent years, none had as significant a media coverage as the clashes in Eindhoven.

In conclusion, it seems apparent that the line has been crossed to some degree. Our reporter was treated with contempt in Amsterdam. Our Dutch researcher was sent back to the U.S. once she started asking questions. The same can be said for journalists from other news outlets. Either police are being taught a lesson, something worse, or this incident is highly suggestive of a very chilling trend in the politics of free speech and the balance of power in the Netherlands.

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