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The Unimaginable: My Night of Violence at the Hands of the Belgian Police.

cp Mo-magazine | 13.10.2010 10:37 | Repression | World

Democracy in Europe is under threat of a police force that feels entitled to police thoughts and use violence, while being fully confident that it can act with impunity. Marianne Maeckelbergh, assistant professor at Leiden University went through a horrowing first hand experience.

There are moments in everyone’s life when, suddenly, after a tragic experience, the whole world looks different. On Friday 1 October 2010, the Belgian police provided me with such an experience. When they looked at me with the anger and hate of complete aggression in their eyes; when they raised their fists in violence towards me; and when I felt the hand of the state collide hard and painfully against the side of my face, that was when I realised – the world, my world, would never be the same again.

On Friday I travelled to Brussels to catch the last two days of the No Borders Camp, a bi-annual meeting of the No Borders Network that brings together people from all over the world “to end the system of borders that divide us all” and the systems of repression that “multiply the borders everywhere in all countries.” My research explores how these international networks are developing highly complex and effective models of democracy. So it is very ironic that when I began to take pictures on a public street, the police responded by unjustly arresting me and robbing me of my most fundamental democratic rights.
The Violence

For fourteen unforgettable hours I was held in custody and subjected to their violence, their authority, their every whim. I was beaten, spat upon, repeatedly called a ‘dirty whore’ and chained to a radiator until 4am right outside the open door to the office of the chief of police, who observed it all and reacted only with silence. The police chief and I also witnessed the violent beating of another arrestee, also chained to a radiator, upon whom the police unleashed a fit of rage like none I’d ever seen – the young man fell to the ground screaming the only French word he knew, ‘non, non, non’. As I watched this, chained myself right next to the police chief, I wondered what country I was in, how such a thing could happen at all in this world, and where oh where had democracy and justice gone?
The Crime –Being Socially Engaged

And what was my alleged crime? I was only taking pictures and the police knew it. The chief of police arrested me himself, dressed in plainclothes and without giving me any warning or dispersal order. He knew what I was doing and he knew it was only taking pictures. But it didn’t matter to these police officers. They were 100% convinced that I was a protestor and as they put it, a ‘leftist', and that was all they needed to know in order to feel fully justified in beating me and others. They used the European Trade Union demonstration from Wednesday 29 September 2010, attended by over 56,000 people, as evidence against me even though I wasn’t even there, arguing that being a part of that demonstration justified their treatment of me. They were mad because someone had smashed the windows of their police station, and they were sure, despite all evidence to the contrary, that I had been a part of that and that being a part of that somehow justified their behaviour.

In this police station, any association with the No Borders Camp and any desire to help those who live their everyday lives in the insecurity of having no papers and nowhere safe to turn, was a justification for severe violence. The police laid their values on the table for me, clear as day. For them the safety, physical and mental well being and the democratic rights of the human beings whose care they were responsible for was irrelevant. All of those arrested should have been treated as innocent until proven guilty – and none of them, regardless of the crime, deserved to be beaten by representatives of the government. Once again I wondered what country I had ended up in and where democracy had gone. But I didn’t even dare to raise my eyes to meet theirs, much less contradict them, for fear of the raging fists flying at me.
The Set Up – Police Intentionally Lie to Frame Me

Even one of the ‘friendlier’ police officers felt the need to frame me for the crime. There could have been no doubt that I was doing nothing more than taking pictures, not only because the chief himself saw me, but also because I had a perfect alibi for the whole evening – I was sitting on the terrace of a café with two friends and I told them that if they went there right now they would find many people who could confirm this fact.

I described the café in extensive detail because unfortunately I didn’t know the name.

Despite his claim that he believed me, and despite overwhelming evidence that I had done nothing, the police officer intentionally put a blatant lie in the statement he wanted me to sign. He assured me over and over that the name of the café where I was seated was the “Volle Brol” even though this café bared no resemblance to the description I had given. I told him I couldn’t sign a statement of which I wasn’t 100% sure that all the information was correct. In the end this was a crucial decision.

It was only the next day, however, when I came before the judge that I realised the consequences of what this officer had tried to do to me. To this day, I cannot imagine what the police stood to gain by falsifying my statement in this way.

When I was finally released by a judge fourteen hours later, I received a plastic bag with my belongings in it. But many items were missing. Most importantly, my Identity Card, but also my USB stick, the camera I had with me and twenty-five euros cash. When I returned to the police station to reclaim my items – together with friends because I literally feared for my life – they laughed at me and said they were keeping my money as ‘financial compensation' and taking the camera and the USB stick for investigation. I asked for a written record that these items were being confiscated and received none. I requested my ID card back and they just laughed. When I returned two days later for my ID card, they told me they had lost it somewhere in a ‘combi’.
Lessons to be learned

As a university teacher specialised in democracy and social change, I spent the duration of the horrible night and every day since wondering if this experience can teach us anything about power, the state or democracy? I found very few answers.

The violence I experienced and witnessed was not the random act of a single police officer that had gotten out of hand. It was apparent from the very first beating that for these police officers, in this police station, this unimaginable violence was completely normal behaviour. They did not feel the need to hide me in a cell in order to beat me; they did not shelter their violence from the eyes of their superiors or their colleagues; their colleagues did not even look up from their paper work. Why would they? They obviously saw this everyday.

I, on the other hand, held this type of violence as unimaginable. I had seen police be violent on the street and heard of beatings in cells, but to experience and witness such an extreme degree of violence under the controlled circumstances of an everyday police office, in plain sight of police superiors, but fully sheltered from the eyes of the public, was an experience that engraved itself onto my heart and will forever be rooted in my mind.

Perhaps it is a function of my privilege that being faced with such violence on the part of those that are supposed to protect us shocked me so thoroughly. I am not the poor person, the migrant, the person without papers or money, who doesn’t speak the language of the police and who lives in a poor neighbourhood. I have a PhD and get by in six languages. I am a university lecturer and a published author. People like me don’t often become the ones that catch the unbridled rage of the police state. Until, of course, we dare to stand up for those whose life is defined by this kind of fear and insecurity.

This too, is part of the trauma I am left with. Not only was I subjected to bodily violence and witness to what can only be called torture, I am left with a question that I cannot let go, a question that keeps me up at night and makes me lose my appetite. How is it possible that we live in a society where these kinds of people are allowed to represent the law? And why is it impossible to do anything about it? Even the judge told me the only thing I could do was to register a complaint – as if the police had made an administrative mistake. How can I come up with an explanation for this experience? There is no explanation. There is actually no reason at all why this kind of violence should be possible.
Why all this matters

The violence I witnessed on the night of 1-2 October is worrying for at least three reasons. First, the way the police operated was based on an assumption of guilt by association – this is a much larger trend that we see across Europe as categories of people are being created as ‘evil’ regardless of whether or not individuals have committed a crime. The pre-emptive arrest of hundreds of people who were on their way to a legal demonstration on Wednesday 29 September 2010 is an example of this trend. It is an example of the increasingly powerful idea that it is okay to rob people in general of their freedom on the off chance that maybe, at some point in the future, someone (statistically not even likely to be the person robbed of their freedom) might do something slightly illegal.

Second, the idea that you can base someone’s guilt on ideas and not actions – what we might refer to as thought-policing. For the police officers, the idea that I might have left-leaning politics at all was enough to prove my guilt in this very specific case. This too seems to be a growing trend. It was in this frightening combination of guilt by association to a vaguely defined category of people and guilt by association to a general set of ideas, that this police violence was made possible. Once the police had labelled me a certain way, it no longer mattered what happened to me. This is a type of prejudice that democratic societies cannot and should not support.

What worried me most, however, is the idea that guilt in this matter would somehow justify the violent beating of citizens by the representatives of the state. Since when do we live in a society where the police are empowered first to pass judgement and then to deliver violent reprisal?

Finally, what worries me today is that everyone keeps telling me that there is nothing I or the many other people subjected to abuse by the police throughout the duration of the no borders camp can do about it. I worry about the four others arrested at the same time, held in the same station, subjected to the same violence, but who are still being held in custody. The more I delve into the history of police violence in Belgium, the more I realise it is actually a chronic problem and that my experience is anything but the exception. Belgium as a country and we as its people have the responsibility to examine this chronic problem and to begin to take steps, serious steps, to rectify it.
Making sense of the unimaginable

The only sense I can make of all this, a week after the facts, is that what I witnessed is the ultimate example of why it is necessary to struggle for a more just society. The one we have now, even as it is legitimated by rhetoric of democracy, is prepared to violate the most basic principles of a democratic society as soon as it feels even slightly threatened. That is not the world I want to live in, nor the world I want others to be subjected to and judged by.

And so, after all is said and done, and once the nightmares subside, I will remember this day as the day I understood, for real, how big the problems are that face our society today and how deeply undemocratic Europe still is. It will be the day that I understood with every inch of my scared, shaking and shivering body how important it is to keep working for a society in which we can all feel free and safe.

Marianne Maeckelbergh is anthropologist, Leiden University, author of The Will of the Many: How the alterglobalisation movement is changing the face of democracy

Auteur: Marianne Maeckelbergh.[art_id]=29989

cp Mo-magazine


Hide the following 8 comments

Hit back

13.10.2010 11:26

Welcome to the real world.

Not the world portrayed on television or spoken of by our politicians and others in authority.

I am pleased you survived this ordeal. Long may you keep shouting about it (& maybe next time don't just take photos - join the fight).


sympathy + reaction

13.10.2010 11:42

I'm sorry for the traumatic experience you went through Marianne - it sounds like hell and I hope you have good friends around you now. For many of us, police violence suffered first hand, witnessed wrongs and no recourse to justice are what radicalises us. The scales fall from our eyes. We see how this is pretty much the normal life for the sans papiers, homeless, Roma, anyone showing dissent..
I can be never leave my trust in any authority except my own and my own moral values. I can never let anyone have power over me. Anarchism: the absence of leaders, is my only faith. My true community lies in the solidarity of fellow activists.


now is the time for solidarity

13.10.2010 12:14

it is time to fight on...solidarity to you. i also was beaten by police recently, although in brussels i managed to avoid them, mainly due to the panic instilled in me since my beating by english police whilst being arrested before i went to no borders. i have been attacked and injured by the police state literally dozens of times and each time strengthens my revolutionary resolve to not give up and to fight on. we are with you sister, join us, as the time is coming to throw off the chains and attack the structure of the fascist global elite. if revolutiuonary violence unsettles you, and why should it not as you have expressed yourself a distaste for it - quite rightly, we should not have violence in the world - then you can help us with your written words and your peaceful the rest of us fight and carry on.......

stay as safe as you can sister..


@ Marrianne

14.10.2010 07:22

As has been said keep shouting about it and try and get it in the mainstream. In the UK it is possible to take civil action against the police although it sounds like the whole lot of them should be arrested and thrown in prison (not that this would ever happen). The guy who was tortured probably needs you as a witness and do you have medical evidence of bruising, depression, anxiety etc? If not see a doctor. I really feel for you and hope you recover fully from this ordeal.Excellent article by the way.

Lynn Sawyer

Any evidence?

14.10.2010 23:54

Am a bit sceptic myself - too convenient for gaining sympathy for the no border crew

table manners

suing the cops

15.10.2010 17:51

and when you do sue the cops Lynne - the cops will fuck you over if you among those of us to whom 'austerity' ( anuvva new keyword ) is not some new thing. Did you know that the CPS is target driven? That is, you liberty may be at risk just for the CPS to meet targets...Oh and they do murder and fit people up in this country and get away with it. This weeks private eye has an intersting tale of woe regarding a chap reporting internet grooming and getting arrested.


not surprised

15.10.2010 18:47

I saw from a distance the police tricks in Brussels for the No Borders event. I wasn't keen on falling into their trap. They have a reputation here for being useless and not caring, and I'm also sure they are b*stards as you suggest.

I've seen the police at work in various 'democratic' regimes. I'm afraid it is time for people to stop harping on about Russia, China and other countries. This fixation on other countries' records is nothing short of chauvinism. Look to our own countries of the EU - where democracy and freedom are virtually non-existent for those who persue social change outside the 'frame' of neoliberalism. The only freedoms we have are to consume (plus the freedom to profit from various services to keep us happy propping up bank and armies, etc., with taxes).

Fight oppression in Europe - then we can tell the rest of the world how to act.


Also beaten by the cops many times

15.10.2010 18:50

Yes I am fully aware of that thanks having experienced a few beatings, assaults and one serious hospitlisation in which I could have died from life threatening police induced injuries personally. The fact that some police officers don't like it and may bear a grudge doesn't mean that you can't sue though I've done it 8 times now and have had 10 complaints upheld. Many other activists have done the same. Better than doing nothing and only speaking for myself I think it makes violent police officers learn a few manners. The only other way is to use violence against them and unless you are very good and very clever you will suffer a worse fate than if you just sued and complained. Being neither very good at violence or indeed very clever I sue/complain/kick up a stink.Works for me so I don't understand why it is just assumed that those who are talking about these issues are shot down on the assumption that we have not had it as bad as other activists. Well of course as I am educated and I suppose middle class I am in a very priveleged position, therefore I also think about those who are not as lucky as I when I challenge certain policing practices. They certainly don't frighten me but what Marianne went through is on a different level to what I have experienced. At least when I was left bleeding all over the place with my left leg smashed the police did actually arrest the PC and raid his home and bring him to trial, there was some sort of consequence for my assailant who was aquitted but sued. It may make another copper think twice before trying to kill someone. I am glad I pressed charges even though I was harassed for it.

Lynn Sawyer

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