A'dam mayor criticized over massive anti-racism protest; Potential 'super spreading event'

Thousands in Amsterdam turn out in support of Black Lives Matter after the death of George Floyd in America. June 1, 2020
Thousands in Amsterdam turn out in support of Black Lives Matter after the death of George Floyd in America. June 1, 2020NL Times / Byron MühlbergNL Times

Amsterdam mayor Femke Halsema was criticized for not intervening in a massive protest against racism and police brutality on Dam Square on Monday. Some 5 thousand demonstrators gathered at the square, without keeping 1.5 meters apart. This demonstration may well be a "super spreading event" when it comes ot the coronavirus, Menno de Jong, virologist and member of the government's Outbreak Management Team, said to Het Parool.

Minister Ferdinand Grapperhaus of Justice and Security called images of Dam Square swarming with people painful to see. "In this time when we as a society are doing everything we can to keep the coronavirus under control, this really went beyond the limits," he said to NOS. Demonstrating is a fundamental right, but protesters must maintain social distance, he said. "These images are painful to see for all people who have adhered to the corona measures in recent weeks and who have worked hard in this crisis."

Grapperhaus pointed out that it is the responsibility of the local mayor, police and public prosecutor to manage demonstrations. 

Mayor Femke Halsema told Op1 that the size of the demonstration caught her completely off guard. "The expectation was that there would be about 250 to 300 people. But it turned out to be a lot more. It overwhelmed me. If I could have foreseen this many people in a bunch, we would have led them away normally."

According to the mayor, the protest grew so quickly that the only intervention possible would have been violent police action. That left her in a devilish dilemma. "There were a lot of people with heavy emotions. I could have intervened with heavy police intervention, which in turn could have caused a lot of unrest and perhaps riots." She doesn't think she made a mistake in letting the protest continue. The right to demonstrate cannot just be barred like that, she said.

Virologist Menno de Jong worries about what impact this demonstration will have in the fight against the coronavirus. "This is what you don't want. You do not have to be a virologist for that conclusion. It is not without reason that we have been talking about a one and a half meter society for months," he said to Het Parool. "This could potentially be a so-called super spreading event; a person infected with SARS-CoV-2 may have infected many others on the Dam. What hopefully decreased the chance of this, is that the demonstration took place outdoors. I also understood that many people wore masks, which might help a bit too prevent the spread."

Mayor Marianne Schuurmans of Haarlemmermeer called on the demonstrators to stay at home for two weeks to see if they develop symptoms. "When you get a cold or other symptoms, call the GGD and get tested. Take your responsibility," she said on Twitter. 

The protest in Amsterdam was to show solidarity with demonstrations in the United States against police brutality and racism after the death in custody of George Floyd last week. It was also to draw attention to similar problems in the Netherlands. Another Black Lives Matter protest is planned for The Hague on Tuesday. The demonstration is scheduled to be held on Koekamp from 6:00 p.m.