On Sunday, I was at the receiving end of aggressive police behavior during a protest against a company operating in an illegal Israeli settlement.
Along with about 15 activists, I picketed a food fair in Brussels to highlight how SodaStream produces soft drink carbonation machines at a factory in Mishor Adumim, an Israeli-controlled industrial zone in the West Bank.
Dressed in green and white “Free Palestine” T-shirts, we surrounded the SodaStream stand and distributed leaflets alerting the fair’s attendees to the firm’s criminal activities. We then walked through the exhibition hall – beside the Atomium, one of Brussels’ best-known landmarks -- chanting “boycott Israel” slogans.
It wasn’t long before the police arrived and moved us outside. We were immediately followed by a few men who started making rude and threatening gestures towards us.
A few moments later, a police officer grabbed the few leaflets I had not yet distributed and crumpled them in a ball. “You don’t have the right to do that,” I shouted at him. He smirked and swiped the cap I was wearing off my head. He was carrying a gun and a baton in his belt.
No name badge
Unlike most of his colleagues, the police officer did not have a visible name badge on his shirt. Because he refused to give his name, I tried to take his photograph with my mobile phone (unsuccessfully, it transpired). When he saw me doing so, he demanded to see my identity card but I refused to show it to him.
More police arrived. At one point, I counted 10 in total, all armed. Indeed, it felt to me that there was a far more visible police presence at this small protest than there was the previous day, when I was one of an estimated 7,000 people who marched through Brussels in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement and to register our outrage with the austerity agenda being imposed on Europe’s people.
A few of us complained about the officer’s aggressive conduct but his colleagues still refused to give us his name. Another activist approached the officer at one point and asked his name. “Je m’appelle David et je suis juif,” he said. (“My name is David and I am Jewish”). I can only assume that the officer mentioned his religion in an effort to suggest that our action was anti-Semitic, which it certainly was not.
Threatened with arrest
Later, four of us went to a nearby police station to complain about the officer’s behavior and the participation of SodaStream in the exhibition. At the station, another officer told me that I would have to show him my ID card. I replied that I would be happy to do so if I was given the name of the officer who had been aggressive towards me. The second officer then accused me of blackmail and warned that he would arrest and detain me for 12 hours unless I complied with his order. I told him he could arrest me if he wished. (The second officer gave me his name but warned of serious, though unspecified, consequences if I posted it on the internet).
After a minute, I asked to use the toilet. The second officer was no longer in the hallway when I returned. The three other activists accompanying me all advised me to show my card and then file a complaint with a committee that monitors the Belgian police. As they had organised the action, I felt that I should accept their advice.
I do not wish to exaggerate the significance of what happened to me. Having a few leaflets confiscated is nothing compared to having your home destroyed, as regularly happens to Palestinians.
Yet it seems important that all attempts to stifle actions in support of the Palestinians should be documented. There was no excuse for that officer to behave in the way he did, given he was not provoked in any way. And if he was genuinely interested in fighting crime, he would have studied the information on the literature he crumpled. If he did, he would have learned something about why were protesting against SodaStream. He and his fellow police officers could then investigate why an exhibition next to his station was hosting a firm that profits from violations of international law.
●First published by The Electronic Intifada, 16 October 2011.