Official: We "failed" to keep tractors off highways during "grim" protests

Tractors leaving Den Haag after a farmers' protest, 16 Oct 2019
Tractors leaving Den Haag after a farmers' protest, 16 Oct 2019Photo: Rijkswaterstaat

As much as authorities wanted to prevent tractors and construction vehicles from tying up the highways during protests by farmers and builders in October, law enforcement in the Netherlands was outmatched and unable to prevent it, concedes Linda Bregman, of the Public Prosecutor's Office (OM). It was not "because we didn't want it. Not because we didn't understand the law. But because it simply couldn't be stopped," she told Opportuun, the internal magazine for OM workers.

Even though protestors "threatened and intimidated workers," often with alcohol playing a role, Bregman said she's pleased that the situation never descended into chaos.

She said she's proud they managed to keep the total number of arrests below 30, even as ten thousand people took part in protests over three days. One reason for being less strict is that "the general public was really behind the demonstrators," she said. "If you then act firmly, things can escalate enormously," and with that comes risks and consequences.

The protests, she said, involved about five thousand tractors or heavy construction vehicles in "an often grim atmosphere."

Besides that, the tractors often do not have number plates, making enforcement more difficult. "Tractors, we have noticed, are very difficult to stop. You can set up blockades, but in places where there is no guardrail, they just drive down the road. Into the meadow. Around the blockades. And back on the highway."

Bregman participated as the OM's representative to law enforcement's Large Scale and Special Action (SGBO) team during the protests. At the end of the day, she was happy with how things worked out in particular with the police "acting wisely", even as the protests caused the worst traffic jams in the country's history.

"Because I realized that you do not solve these problems with criminal law, and that you should not want to solve them with that," she said, adding that "maintaining public order" was the more important focus. 

"I look back on it knowing that we did what we could."