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La Boum 2 descends into chaos, leading to 132 arrests
After the tensions which led to a violent police intervention at the first La Boum event on 1 April, it was no surprise that the second mass gathering at Bois de la Cambre on Saturday would descend into chaos.
The May Day event started, much like the first, in a festive atmosphere. Around 1,000 people gathered in the park on the edge of the Sonian Forest in Brussels after responding to a Facebook invitation from the organisers, the Abîme collective. Numbers swelled to around 2,000 as the mood became more boisterous, overwhelming the 40 park stewards who had been pre-emptively deployed in the morning.
Police numbers also began to swell, and announcements were repeatedly made for revellers to adhere to the coronavirus restrictions as tensions began to rise. There was a nervous expectation in the crowd of a repeat of the first La Boum, where police used officers on horseback to disperse the crowd. Predictably, some elements in the crowd decided to act first.
"Through a public address system, participants were repeatedly asked to comply with the sanitary measures," a police spokesperson later explained. "At one point, the atmosphere was tense, and projectiles were thrown at the police, including stones and bottles. We also confiscated several prohibited items: fireworks, knives, firecrackers, smoke canisters, etc."
"When the participants started fighting among themselves, it was decided to evacuate the premises," the spokesperson continued. "The police public address system was again used to spread this message, and for the evacuation, several water cannon trucks were deployed, and tear gas was used."
In the ensuing melee, 15 participants were injured, including one person who was hit by the jet from a water cannon and was taken to hospital. Another was slightly injured after a collision with a police horse. The Brussels police spokesperson confirmed that "there were minor injuries which were treated at the scene", adding: "12 people were taken to hospital, including four police officers who were later discharged after treatment."
Despite resources being spread across the city to cope with more than 10 large scale events taking place on the traditional day of protest, the police had identified La Boum 2 as the most likely flashpoint and were deployed in large numbers at Bois de la Cambre. It took several hours for the police to clear the woods and calm was only restored at around 21.00 on Saturday night.
"For us it was a very important day,” the police spokesperson confirmed. “We had about 10 events to manage. Obviously, the maximum number of personnel was deployed in the woods to intervene following the presence of people who no longer complied with the health measures and where after several warnings, we had to intervene."
The police also admitted that there was a mixture of profiles within the crowd, and that the majority of attendees were not there for a confrontation. “There were those who wanted to protest against the coronavirus measures peacefully and to have their say,” the spokesperson said. “There were also those who came specifically to challenge the police.”
The police initially spoke of 60 arrests but later raised their numbers to a total of 132 by Sunday morning. 127 people were administratively arrested while five judicial arrests were made, for offences including armed rebellion, threatening behaviour and the sale of narcotics.
Dave Monfort, creator of the Facebook event behind the rally and the man behind the Abîme website, told reporters that things began to escalate as soon as the police began their advance.
"We ourselves, as the organisers, removed a few violent people who had been clearly identified, we went to speak to the police officer in charge to tell him that we had identified these groups and that they should be removed. We didn't get any answers and they weren't interested,” Monfort said. After the violent elements had been removed by the organisers, the police allowed the event to continue "for an hour or two".
"Then they decided to charge and then that's when it started to get more violent obviously," Monfort said. "It's clear that there were a few infiltrators. The violent people we had identified came back as soon as the police started charging. Everything got out of control and we could no longer communicate. There was chaos in every direction."
"We can't be everywhere at once but when everything was concentrated in the same place, we more or less had control over the gathering, and at that time everything was going well,” he added. “As soon as the police started charging, there were small groups that formed and broke off."
The Brussels mayor, Philippe Close, said he regretted the incidents which took place in Bois de la Cambre and praised those who had decided not to attend after warnings in the days leading up to the event. “Unfortunately, it got out of hand at one point, and we had to intervene," he said.
Earlier in the week, Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo said that the event was organised with “a certain purpose and with the aim of destabilising". He had urged those considering attending La Boum 2 to “not fall into that trap.”