World

The spring of their discontent

James Fleming May 12 1980
World

The spring of their discontent

James Fleming May 12 1980

The spring of their discontent

World

James Fleming

The ceremony could not have been more deceptive in its serenity. Inside Amsterdam’s 15th-century Nieuwe Kerk (New Church), dressed in the ermine-trimmed cloak first worn by her ancestor King Willem II at his 1840 inauguration, Queen Beatrix was invested as the Netherlands’ sixth sovereign last week. But even as she spoke of the onerous responsibilities of her calling, the streets of the city outside were engulfed by the worst riots in Dutch history as enraged youths, protesting the country’s acute lack of housing, clashed with police. By the time they were finished, hundreds were injured or arrested and, except for the acrid stench of tear gas in the air, the city appeared in the words of an observer “as if hit by a hurricane.”

Ugly as they were, however, the Dutch riots were only one incident in four days of mayhem which swept Europe last week: from Norway, where May Day celebrations turned into uncontrolled riots, to Sweden, which was crippled by the worst strikes in 70 years, to Britain, where five Iranian gunmen seized Iran’s London embassy in a hail of bullets.

In the Netherlands, at least, there had been some forewarning of the upheaval. Ever since Amsterdam was rocked by riots two months ago the city had been on a nervous edge. Then, as was the case last week, the core of the rioters was made up of the 10,000 young Dutch squatters or “krakers” who occupy a large section of vacant downtown buildings. Irate at the fact that so many luxury apartments and offices should stand vacant at a time when the economy is in a down-spin, unemployment soaring and the shortage of affordable housing chronic—the waiting list contains 55,000 names—the krakers had simply moved into the empty quarters and set up home, challenging anyone to budge them. When the authorities obliged the ensuing riots were quelled only by a massive force of baton-wielding police. But the bitterness grew and, although no one knew exactly what would happen when the 42-yearold Beatrix was made queen, everyone knew it would be nasty. And so it was. As 71-year-old Juliana introduced

her successor and eldest daughter from the palace balcony, smoke bombs exploded on the fringe of the 40,000-strong throng gathered below. And only a mile away events took on an almost surreal appearance as 3,000 jeering demonstrators were repelled by policemen with batons and water cannons. As whitefaced parents snatched infants from harm’s way, the protesters hurled everything from cobblestones to bottles in reply. And elsewhere in the city youths smashed shop windows and set cars afire. Said one witness: “It was one of the unhappiest coronations in Dutch history.”

But if the Dutch authorities were prepared for trouble, their counterparts in Norway had no such advantage. Indeed, the rioting there seemed as sudden as it was pointless. About 2,000 youths had congregated in downtown Oslo to celebrate May Day. Unexpectedly, the mood of the celebrants, many of whom had been drinking, turned ugly and they took to the streets, breaking windows and looting at least 50 stores. In the ensuing clashes with riot police, 70 were injured and more than 100 arrested.

And while those events were unfolding, equally grave if less violent unrest was paralysing Sweden. The storm’s centre was a simmering two-week-old wage dispute between the powerful Trade Union Confederation and the Swedish Employers Confederation. While the unions had demanded an increase topping 11 per cent this year, the employers were willing to give a mere two per cent, pointing to declines in industrial output. From there the battle lines hardened and two weeks ago, when the employers threatened a lockout, 26,000 public-sector workers walked off the job. Then, last week, with no sign of a settlement, the employers carried out their threat, and 770,000 found themselves on the streets. At that point another 100,000 workers promptly joined them. The net effect: hotels and restaurants closed their doors, air and sea traffic ground to a halt, and everything from buses and trains to supermarkets and heavy industries were hobbled. In a matter of hours Sweden’s reputation as a model of industrial peace, kept intact by easygoing discussions between labor and management since the Second World War, was shattered.

Meanwhile, in London, a bizarre outcrop of the familiar hostage crisis cap-

tured the headlines in mid-week. A group of masked Arab gunmen had burst into the Iranian embassy, a white 19th-century house overlooking the spring blossoms of Hyde Park, overpowered the London bobby at the door and were holding some 20 Iranians and four Britons hostage, with a threat to blow up the building in 24 hours.

The gunmen—police think there may be five—claimed to be Iranians from the southwestern oil-rich province of Khuzestan and to belong to “the Group of Al-Shaheed,” meaning “martyr.”

They were demanding the release of 91 political prisoners held in Khuzestan, which they termed Arabestan, and the “freedom of the Arabestan people.”

Iran immediately rejected the gunmen’s demands and threatened to execute prisoners in Iranian jails if harm came to the London hostages. In a TV interview, Foreign Minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh described the embassy siege as the work of “a few mercenaries . . . agents of Arabists,” and said the action would have no effect on the case of the American hostages in Tehran. Other Iranians, however, called it a plot by President Jimmy Carter.

London’s police, meanwhile, had swung with rapid precision into their practised strategy for such emergencies. Based on establishing regular verbal links with the gunmen and applying steady psychological pressure over the hours and days, the method proved its success in two sieges in 1975, one involving armed robbers in an Italian restaurant and the other IRA gunmen holed up in a middle-aged couple’s apartment.

Two deadlines for killing the hostages and blowing up the embassy passed quietly. Police Chief Sir David McNee, a blunt-spoken Scot, advised the kidnappers there was nothing the British authorities could do to help their cause. Right or wrong, the siege settled into an apparently passive routine.

Outside, chanting pro-Khomeini demonstrators provoked some scuffles but were dispersed when police penned them into a roped-off area. Then, British students got into the act chanting “Rule Britannia” and “Go home, you bums.” Football fans and shavenheaded Hare Krishna followers joined in.

But, for their part, the police maintained a tight-lipped silence about their dialogue with the kidnappers and, as the siege moved into the weekend, large blue canvas screens went up to hide the embassy approaches. Whether a swift end was in sight or not, it looked as though the “softly-softly” police tactics might once again be paying off.

With correspondents’ files from London, Stockholm and the Netherlands.