In July 2015, the Aruban Mitch Henriquez died a day after being arrested at the Zuiderpark in the Hague. Because he claimed to be carrying a gun, police officers held him in a prolonged choke hold, used pepper spray and hit him in the face. The initial pathologist’s report showed that Henriquez had died as a result of the choke hold.
This death enraged many inhabitants from the Schilderswijk in the Hague, a neighbourhood with a history of tension between the police and its large ethnic minority population. In the days following Mitch Henriquez’s death, riots broke out in the Schilderswijk with protesters attempting to storm the police station.
Ever since 1893, when Journalist Johan Gram wrote about the poor living circumstances in the Schilderswijk, the neighbourhood has been known as the most famous problem area of the Netherlands. Gram described the houses in this neighbourhood as ‘thin and draughty cubes of carton’ where no one with the will to live should want to reside.
Throughout the 20th century, the neighbourhood was known as a working class district. However, from the 70's onwards, immigrants started moving into the Schilderswijk which caused it to become a highly multi-cultural neighbourhood. Currently, 9 out of 10 inhabitants have a migration background. The Schilderswijk retains its image of a working class neighbourhood, as in 2014 it was the poorest neighbourhood of the Netherlands.
The riots surrounding the affair of Mitch Henriquez symbolize the existing tension between the police and the inhabitants of the Schilderswijk. Corina Duijndam’s research into the attitudes of youngsters from the Schilderswijk towards the police showed that a significant part of the youth views the acts of the police as racist.
However, this does not necessarily mean that the police from the Hague is guilty of discriminatory practices. Since Professor Joanna van der Leun from Leiden University concluded in 2014 that the Hague police could not be accused of ethnic profiling.
A voice of change
However, there are many inhabitants from the Schilderswijk that actively try to move away from the tension of 2015 surrounding the affair of Mitch Henriquez. With his business called NextProjecten, Mohamed El Khadir (42) tries to bridge the gap between the authorities in the Hague and the youth from the Schilderswijk who do not always feel understood according to Mohamed, “whether that is justified or not”. After being born in Marocco, Mohamed moved to the Schilderswijk at age 6 and has lived there ever since. With NextProjecten, Mohamed coaches and empowers youth from the Schilderswijk so that they develop their talents and become more resilient.
For Mohamed, the riots surrounding Mitch Henriquez’s death felt like a step back from what he had been trying to teach the youngsters through NextProjecten. "Every night I was trying to talk sense into the youngsters that were involved in the riots. I felt like I had to start all over again, after years of coaching them. I was telling them to go home", Mohamed says.
After the riots, Mohamed created a project to improve the relations between the youth, the police and the municipality.
If youngsters feel like they have become a victim of ethnic profiling, Next Projecten helps them to file a complaint against the police officer or to find a lawyer. As Mohamed has come to recognize that without any formal complaints, no concrete measures can be taken by the police.
Mohamed tries to teach the youngsters that “they should not only consume, but they should rather be actively involved so that they can take ownership of what happens in their neighbourhood”.
However, the youngsters that Mohamed works with are not only affected by their perception of ethnic profiling in the Schilderswijk but can also feel hurt by seemingly racist comments of Dutch politicians.
A recent example of such a statement about Islam from a Dutch politician can be taken from a promotional video of the Dutch national party the PVV. In this promotional video from 2018, Islam is associated with violence, anti-semitism, terror and misogyny.
"If politicians state that they have something against your ethnicity, you can either stay within your community or you can speak up. You can put your fist on the table and say that you are from the Hague, just like them; that you are also a Dutch citizen." By encouraging youngsters to do the latter, Mohamed further bridges the gap between the youth from his neighbourhood and the authorities.
An example of a youngster who has taken Mohamed’s advice to heart is a young man nicknamed ‘the director’. Like other youngsters that are coached by Next Projecten, he was a bit timid at first. Now he actually leads the talks of Next Projecten with the municipality. “I can just sit back and watch”, Mohamed says proudly. ‘The director’ currently is an active volunteer for Next Projecten next to his full-time job.
The face behind the work
When Mohamed went to youth centers when he was younger, he already felt like the type of empowerment he witnessed with ‘the director’ was integral to youth work. “All we did was play games all day, which was fun. However, I did feel like something was missing. I wanted to develop myself further.” So Mohamed took measures into his own hands, started coaching youth and eventually turned it into a business.
When Mohamed was 17, he was about to get kicked out of school. “I remember the principal saying that he was sure we would make it in life, all of us, just not if we would continue down this path.” This advice became a turning point in Mohamed's life, after which he started to change his bad behavior. He is glad to now be able to pass on the same message to youngsters from the Schilderswijk.
Now that Mohamed has incorporated personal development into youth work in the Schilderswijk, he is often thanked by the youngsters.
However, Mohamed does not want to take all the credit. “It is a collective endeavor”, he says.
Shadows of the past
Nonethelesss, engaging in dialogue with the police is not always as easy as it seems according to Dean Arma (28), a student who works for NextProjecten. Next to studying social work at the Hague University of Applied Sciences, Dean also performs as a spoken-word artist.
Dean finds it difficult to have a positive attitude towards the police, due to his personal experiences. He admits that he has been involved with drugs and weapons in the past and that he has therefore often been in contact with the police. Based on these experiences, Dean feels hesitant about the effectiveness of dialogue with the police of the Hague.
The other side of the story
Mohammed el Arrag, a superintendent of the police in the center district of the Hague, specialized in culture and connection, holds a different view than Dean Arma. According to Mohammed, the police of the Hague actively tries to move forward and seeks to learn from past mistakes.
An important way through which the police now tries to improve the relationship between the police and the inhabitants of the Schilderswijk is through a project called the ‘Culturele Wasstraat’. Before police officers start working in the neighbourhood, they receive a 2-month long training that introduces them to the diversity of the Schilderswijk. During this time, police officers talk to key figures in the neighbourhood, visit locations such as prayer rooms, schools and shisha lounges and receive workshops about the different cultures that exist within the Schilderswijk. Mohammed describes this period as being an ‘integration phase’ for the police officers.
This is especially important because the Schilderswijk poses several specific challenges for police officers according to Mohammed. As the police needs to understand the many different cultural groups of the neighbourhood, who may have different views of the police due to the situation in their country of origin. In addition, because of the neighbourhood’s multi-cultural character, international affairs have an impact on the Schilderswijk.
Furthermore, according to Mohammed, the riots surrounding the affair of Mitch Henriquez did not only show dissatisfaction with the police but they were also an example of cooperation between the police and inhabitants of the Schilderswijk. As worried inhabitants wearing yellow vests were actively involved with trying to calm the protesters to prevent the situation from escalating further. However, Mohammed explains that this is only the tip of the iceberg, as there are many more initiatives in the Schilderswijk led by inhabitants who love their neighbourhood.
Mohammed thus feels proud of the efforts of the police to engage with inhabitants of the Schilderswijk.
Just like Mohammed el Arrag of the police, Mohamed el Khadir of NextProjecten is positive about the future. Mohamed el Khadir lives and breathes positivity and resilience, exactly what he is trying to teach youngsters. When asked, he can’t think of an instance when he felt helpless or powerless. He names his faith in Islam as being a key factor in his outlook on life.
"In the end, you can accomplish more if you work together", Mohamed says.