Is Belgium an oppressive police state or merely highly incompetent?
By Oriana P.
In a Europe that is increasingly deserving of the “honorary” title, “Fortress Europe”, because of its insistence to close its doors, eyes and hearts to the enormous suffering of the hundreds of thousands of refugees flooding in and a Europe that is also increasingly leaning more rightwing and racist, it is no small feat for a city to have the dubious honor of being called one of the most racist cities in Europe. Antwerp is one of such cities, boasting a rightwing mayor, Bart de Wever (N-VA), who has been known to stigmatize a whole group of people on national TV, the Imazighen, and who, in the ensuing protests, was all too eager to show off his massive police force, one of the biggest ones in Western Europe no less, in a vulgar attempt to intimidate the peaceful protesters. Indeed, intimidation tactics are always the preferred strategy in an oppressive state and the hallmark of fascism.
So is it any surprise that exactly in this city, with this mayor, we hear of intimidating raids against members of society with 'foreign' sounding names and a skin color that is a couple of shades darker than a lighter shade of pale?
On Tuesday oct.13th, 2015 Antwerp police raided a nursery. No, this is not a typo. Armed police officers, with crackling walkie talkies, heavy boots and bullet proof vests did indeed raid the child daycare center in Hoboken, Baby in Wonderland, owned by Fatima Elhamdaoui. You never know with these babies and their weird sounding names these days. Better take precautions.
According to Fatima the police officers had waited until one of the parents rang the doorbell to be let in and pick up their baby. At 3.45pm they took advantage of the door being opened and six officers, accompanied by two labor inspectors, forced their way in while a seventh officer guarded the door, hand on the doorknob, in case anyone, maybe a rambunctious baby, should try to escape. They had received a tip that work off the books was happening on the premisses. A normal labor inspection may indeed bring two officers, and usually only in case of previously known aggression facts, but since a nursery is clearly an extra dangerous place they had taken no chances. According to the parents present there were more officers outside and through the window a police van could be seen parked across the street. The whole ordeal looked more like a murder investigation scene on the set of a TV show rather than a simple inspection reacting to a tip that was more than likely a case of harassment of which there had been more in the past according to Fatima. Not everyone in Belgium is happy with 'immigrants' having successful businesses in 'their' neighborhood.
At no point in the investigation did the officers show any papers or identified themselves. They were merely stomping around with their heavy boots and traumatizing the fourteen babies in the tiny playroom while scaring the older kids and their parents, who were waiting in the hallway, making things worse by separating Fatima and her co-worker, Meshda Bouhajra, from the crying babies.
“Now that we know the teachers there wear hijab and most babies are 'immigrants', it has become clear why those monkeys stormed inside. We are not 'citizens' and our children aren't 'regular' children, it doesn't matter much when our children cry a little and suffer trauma."
Their questions, about identity, working schedule, etc...were entirely without merit since it became clear very soon that everything was in working order and no untaxed labor was taking place. Meshda indeed has working papers and is registered to work in the daycare center even though ATV in their video report claims the police department officially declared that proof of working off the books had been found after the inspection.
In the aftermath things became even more confusing. Initially the raid was denied entirely with the office of labor saying not any inspection had taken place. Upon persistent probing from the media they eventually admitted indeed there had been an inspection but didn't admit it until Friday, three days later.
Fatima writes on her facebook profile:
“You know what is even more impressive? The police and the labor inspectorate first denied they barged in! They so called couldn't find anything in their records about the incident."
Journalist Saskia Van Nieuwenhove writes on her blog:
Fatima, owner of the nursery, has always stated from the start: “Six officers entered unannounced, in uniform and carrying weapons, accompanied by two inspectors. Outside there was more police."
Then we read article 1: Het Nieuwsblad mentions a couple of officers and ten trainees. The number had suddenly increased in the newspaper. According to other reports there had been more inspections in that street.
Yesterday (oct. 16th, 2015) on ATV: The spokesperson of the Antwerp police department declares on camera: “There were four officers in gear, one of which was a trainee, and two inspectors. This is common and normal for labor inspection."
This was enough to jump in my car. Businesses are accessible and I wanted information. That day no businesses in that neighborhood had been inspected by police."
Today then (Oct.17th, 2015) we read in Het Laatste Nieuws: “There were two police officers present during the inspection.” Also an official statement.
In the meantime I also have a formal declaration of a labor inspector who has worked for 15 years for the labor inspectorate in Brussels: "We always do our rounds with two. Very rarely do we ask for police assistance. Only in cases where we know of previously known aggression facts".
Who here has pushed the button "Police assistance needed in kindergarten"? Who?
In an open letter Kathleen Van Brempt (Sp.a) asked for an explanation from mayor Bart de Wever, which prompted the (unidentified) spokesperson for the police department to dismiss her demand and the commotion around their unnecessary display of power as vote baiting from the Sp.a.
Fatima had also tried to contact Nabilla Ait Daoub, member of the extreme rightwing party of Bart de Wever, N-VA and Antwerp councilwoman for Youth, Environment, Childcare, and Animal Welfare. Three years earlier the councilwoman had helped Fatima with organizing the opening of her daycare center. This time though Nabilla Ait Daoub never called her back. Not even after all the media commotion around the case, which is strange since she is indeed the person who has nurseries and childcare under her jurisdiction. Surely fourteen traumatized babies should have aroused her attention to at least pick up the phone especially since she is known for her love of calling people up in their home as Jan Van Vaek can attest to when she contacted not only him but also his employer after he wrote an article criticizing her. Apparently he is not the only one she has done that to. Indeed it seems to be her M.O. If she happens to contact me after this publication I will be sure to patch her through to Fatima so she can give her some much needed answers.
On a sidenote: N-VA seeks to privatize child daycare and in 2013 Nabilla Ait Daoub traveled to Paris for a work visit with Sodexo. The multinational Sodexo, which is interested in organizing child daycare in Antwerp, completely financed the trip. Incidentally this work visit hadn't been pre-approved as is necessary according to regulations.
In the meantime there have been reactions from all sides.
On Oct. 19th, 2015 Saskia Van Nieuwenhove writes on Facebook:
“I don't want to keep this one from you, now city council, safety committee Antwerp about police raid in daycare center.
FYI: 14 babies / toddlers present, eldest child is 2.5 years.
Intervention N-VA councilor Carine Leys "If the children did nothing wrong, they should not be afraid of the police"
Additional information: Carine Leys is one of their many Vlaams Belang transfers from Hoboken."
Vlaams Belang is the extreme rightwing version of the more populist N-VA. Most N-VA members are transfers from Vlaams Belang though and their programme is more or less identical, only N-VA knows how to sell it better.
In contrast with the mayor, the parents unequivocally support Fatima and her center and are angry with the police.
In a letter one parent, Gunther De Graeve, writes:
“I love this city but I am beginning to think we'd be better off to go live a little more rural (my wife would have no objections :-) ) If mister mayor would want to recognize that this action indeed wasn't all that nimble and that it could have been handled a bit more discrete and humane then, as far as I'm concerned, he can redeem himself with an apology and some flowers. But if he thinks all of this is normal and when he reduces all criticism to “vote baiting” from people who are “a bit upset” then I have a big problem with that. And then I am seriously rethinking if I want to stay here at all.
Rule of law is one thing, more police presence another (and perhaps even useful), but within this you can try to maintain some warmth and humanity...and it is exactly that that I am missing more and more (also from other stories from within the Antwerp police force). That whole “us” and “them” policy from Mr. De Wever, and by extension the whole N-VA, is beginning to look more and more like simple Calimero behavior because they know it produces votes."
More and more stories of state harassment and institutional racism towards Muslims are surfacing in Belgium and in the rest of Europe. This is a trend that not only should be recognized, let's call a spade a spade, but should be forcefully opposed. Has Europe learned nothing from its fascist past?