SpeakEasy: Spoken Word Brussels is an ‘open mic’ evening of spoken word (and a bit of music) in a basement in the Ixelles area of the city. Modelled on similar events in Paris and London, it has been taking place every two weeks since November last year.
On Tuesday 22 March, SpeakEasy had to cancel, as the terror attacks earlier that day meant that people were simply unable to travel to it. They were determined, though, that the next scheduled event, on Tuesday 6 April, would go ahead as planned. I was lucky enough to join the performers on that evening.
The main organiser, Miksi, is from the Netherlands, and has been living in Brussels for three years. She explains that, “People want to get together. You can see that in all the assemblies and get-togethers, at the Bourse and at social and cultural events. For some reason it brings people together, and we feel that we can share this together. That is why art is so important.”
The Bourse is a small pedestrian square in central Brussels, a popular place for people to meet up if they are going out together for the evening. Since 22 March, it has hosted a huge and growing display of flowers, candles, flags and chalkings protesting against the attacks, some sorrowful, some defiant, some political.
Miksi adds that, “After 9/11 we saw a lot of hatred towards people, a lot of anger, a lot of exclusion. But in the last few days here in Brussels it’s been ‘tous ensemble’, which means solidarity between everybody together. We stand together, we walk together, we speak together, we write together, we sing together.
“Some people will try to ruin that but we’re not going to let them do that. There are right-wing hooligans who proclaimed that they want to beat up Muslims and some left-wing people went to protest that. The right wingers got scared and didn’t show up, the left-wingers stood at the Bourse, and the police got antsy and decided they were going to arrest them - even though the protesters had already said that they were not going to do anything other than sit and stand there and show solidarity against the right-wingers.”
Miksi explains the selective action of the police: “The last time the right wing showed up, they threw stones and set fires at the Bourse. The police did nothing against 500 skinhead hooligans chanting ‘Muslims die’. The Police Commissioner has been avoiding the question of why he didn’t react when the right-wing hooligans started to throw flames. He has stood back when right-wing people have attacked Muslims. It seems like the police are only attacking the left wingers.”
Left wingers organise their mobilisation through social media. They are up against a right wing which Miksi describes as “sometimes nazis, often football hooligans. Others just feel like they don’t understand what is happening and they are lashing out, they don’t know where to go or what to do. There is a lot of war-like rhetoric from the government, trying to look good. It’s not pretty.”
Flip, also from the Netherlands, describes Brussels as “a city of its own - a lot of people live outside Brussels but work here, and a lot of them are xenophobic. I love the city, but I sense that it’s a split society. There is a lot of fear felt by Belgian people towards newcomers.
“There are lots of disagreements about the definition of what is happening, the reason it is happening and what to do about it. Some say it is a religious thing, some that it is about social factors. But we don’t hear many solutions from politicians, only shouting.
“One week they shout about the need for solutions, the next they are having a nice dinner with a rich family who is going to invest in a big new factory, even though that family has ties with the Taliban. Shouting on the one hand, filling their pockets on the other hand.
“We have right-wing activists blaming Muslims and blaming left-wing socialists for letting the Muslims in and for not handling the problem. The left wing blames the right wing for being xenophobic.
“I disagree with seeing eight-year-old girls wearing the veil, but I also disagree with it when I see very orthodox Jews. We can disagree with religious conservatism but still defend them from attack by the right wing.”
Last November, after the terror attacks in Paris, the authorities ‘locked down’ Brussels whiel they searched for the perpetrators. Jane, who was living in London in July 2005 when Islamist terrorists attacked London’s public transport system, described the ‘lockdown’ of Brussels: “Nothing had happened like that before. The authorities went overboard. The Metro was shut for a week, public places like libraries and swimming pools shut, restaurants closed. You couldn’t do anything, pretty much.”
This time, Jane says, the authorities were “more relaxed about it. People were in bars and restaurants almost immediately after the attacks. There’s a ‘fuck you’ attitude. We’re not going to let it get to us.”