Netherlands: Death in custody reveals racist policing problem

July 14, 2015
Henriquez’s death and attempted police cover-up sparked widespread protests. Photo:

Police in The Hague arrested 42-year-old tourist Mitch Henriquez on June 27. Henriquez, who was born on the Dutch-Caribbean island of Aruba, was visiting the city’s Night at the Park festival.

The statement released by the public prosecutor claimed that he told police he had a gun and then resisted arrest. This prompted five police officers to beat Henriquez until he was unconscious.

Henriquez did not have a gun, and he died in hospital the next day as a result of injuries sustained while being arrested. On July 1, the preliminary autopsy results were announced: Henriquez died from lack of oxygen.

The prosecutor, Kitty Nooy, said “it is likely that lack of oxygen is a result of the police action. No other explanation has been found ... No natural causes were found for his death.” Nooy confirmed that Henriquez had not been using drugs and was not drunk.

In the aftermath of Henriquez’s death, the Dutch public prosecution department claimed that Henriquez had become ill once he was inside the van. This was contradicted by several videos filmed by passers-by.

One video shows officers holding Henriquez down while he was clearly unconscious and then trying to pull him into a sitting position when the van arrived. No efforts were made to check his vital signs. The police seemed more concerned with making it look like he was ok; dragging Henriquez to his feet at one point, only to see him collapse back towards the ground.

The news of Henriquez’s death and the subsequent attempts by police to cover their tracks sparked widespread protests on and offline. On June 28 and 29, hundreds of protesters marched through The Hague carrying signs demanding “Stop Police Brutality”. Eventually riot police were sent in to control the crowds, with 16 arrests on June 29 and 11 more the next day. This time, they managed to avoid beating anyone to death.

Meanwhile, #MitchHenriquez was trending on Twitter and social networks were thick with eyewitnesses contradicting the public prosecutor’s statement and demanding justice for Henriquez.

Henriquez’s death has, inevitably, been compared with racially-motivated police brutality in the US. Yet every Dutch media outlet reporting on the case is followed by comments vigorously denying comparisons between the holidaymaker’s death and similar deaths in the US.

In Western Europe, we do not like comparisons between our own police brutality and police brutality in the US. In the US, people of colour are regularly killed by police. In Western Europe, the suggestion is that we just have the occasional, unavoidable, tragedy.

We are used to seeing our police officers held up as examples of what good policing can look like.

All of which makes this feel even more like a US crime.

Henriquez’s death feels like the kind of police brutality that killed Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Dante Parker, Tanisha Anderson, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray and many other African Americans over the past two years.

Henriquez was not black, but he was a man of colour in a country that historically has an uneasy relationship with race. He was unarmed. He was blamed for his own death and for saying he had a gun – despite there being no evidence he actually made this claim). There were inept attempts to disguise the reason for his death.

Experts have laid out the reasons why the US seems to be more susceptible to police brutality, but these conditions also exist in Europe; a continent with a long and troubled history of policing people of colour.

Protests at racially-motivated police brutality have erupted in Sweden, France, Norway, Britain, and Germany in recent years. In short, every Western European country has blood on its hands but we’re still acting as if this is a US problem.

The police officers involved in Henriquez’s death have all been suspended and are official suspects in his death. Police chief Paul van Musscher, meanwhile, heaped insult onto injury by saying that he assumes their intervention was well-intentioned, but “something went wrong”.

The lack of international media interest in Henriquez’s death suggests that this will not be a defining moment in the way Western Europe, or even the Netherlands, views police brutality. It is, however, worth asking: will we remember Mitch Henriquez’s name in a few years’ time? Or will we still be talking about how racially-motivated police brutality is a US problem?

[First published at the New Internationalist blog.]

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