My office is near the centre of Brussels, just around the corner from the Regional and Federal Parliaments, which gives me a ringside seat for every major demo in the city. Belgians like a good demo and they’re almost always colourful, loud and entertaining. They like it so much that everyone wants to join in.
This morning was a good example. We had an official one day strike by workers on buses, trams and metro, the same as last Friday. Quite a few just couldn’t wait and launched wildcat strikes yesterday – shutting down virtually all bus services. They were joined today by up to 3000 DHL employees who closed down major junctions on the central ring road this morning. This caused complete traffic chaos, given that so many extra people have taken to their cars. Finally, their ranks were swelled by protesting Volkswagen workers, and dockers from Antwerp and Zeebrugge.
This morning I watched the crowd give the police a healthy and reasonably good humoured barracking as they blocked the route to the Parliament. The man at the fireworks shop had obviously had a particularly good day, and firecrackers were going off everywhere. They all had coats, hats, flags, scarves of the right colour (red or green), and whistles of course.
The police, as always, seemed well prepared – if a little ‘high-profile’ for comfort. They park their paddy waggons and reinforcements in our street and today they had the water cannon wagons facing up to the crowd too. Officers were in full riot gear and the streets were criss crossed with concrete barriers and barbed wire fences (ok, so the US Embassy – another regular target for demos – is about 50 metres away too).
But though it looks very confrontational, there was very little real trouble, and there rarely is. Perhaps the police are part of the ritual – the fun. It’s gotta be a bit edgy. It gives you the adrenalin rush. I suspect that rather than just maintaining order, they fulfil a further function – making people feel they’re being taken seriously.