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It’s the Lidl Things That Matter (by Layla Mahmood)

Date:10 December 2015
Photo by Richard Terborg
Photo by Richard Terborg

I love a bit of good quality cheap brie, or the freshly baked five-for-one euro croissant deal going on at Lidl as I write. I feel shameless in my adoration of the cheap German supermarket, as it has now almost become a rite of passage for young folk in their twenties to go shopping there – or its equally popular counterpart, Aldi. The fact that it’s German (foreign) adds an additional touch of exoticism, I’m sure. However, it wasn’t until recently that I didn’t feel my usual chipper and sprightly self as I threw cheap product after cheap product into my basket. Instead, as I walked into the Lidl in Amsterdam-Bijlmer, my mother quickly warned me: “You better put those bags away or hide them”.

“Why? They’re just my H&M bags” (I had an impulse shop of neon socks that day)

“Believe me you can’t come in with them. I had a war with the security guard about it. They make you put it in those lockers. To make sure you can’t rob them I guess. It's pure racism.”

I looked at the lockers and was taken aback by the scene. Women mainly, mothers in fact, hurriedly putting away their shopping inside the lockers with great effort. The security guard standing militantly by the entrance, policing every new customer with his eyes and an over-inflated sense of superiority.

My mother ran ahead of me, the way mothers do when on a grocery mission.

I saw the security guard get distracted with a locker that wasn’t working properly for a customer. As he moved I went straight ahead into the store past him. There was no way I was going to put my H&M shopping bags in a locker. The whole system seemed absurd.

Historically, Bijlmer, situated in the south-east part of Amsterdam (formerly known as Bijlmermeer) was built with the purpose of attracting Dutch middle-class families that wanted affordable housing. The apartment complexes were built in line with the philosophy of modern architect and urban planner Le Corbusier, who harbored a utopian and futuristic vision within his designs.

Nowadays, Bijlmer has a reputation in the Netherlands for being the “dangerous” part of Amsterdam, with many even calling it the “ghetto.” Or more generally, the “black part of town.” Since the mid 1970s it gradually became an area populated with low-income inhabitants of a predominately ethnic background. After Suriname’s Independence in 1975 from Dutch rule, a third of the population in Suriname migrated to the Netherlands for better economic opportunities. Many of these migrants were housed by the Dutch government in the Bijlmer area. Other ethnic groups, such as, individuals from the Antilles also began to populate the region. It has since attracted a host of inhabitants from various parts of Africa.

Factors which contributed to the increased ghettoization of Bijlmer were due to significant infrastructural delays that caused much of the middle-classes to relocate. The metro to the city center was not built until 1980 and the now bustling shopping center “Amsterdamspoort” was not finished until 1988. In light of these obvious structural issues, the Dutch government has come under attack regarding the area for facilitating ghettoization and increasing racial segregation.

However, since the harsh times of the eighties Bijlmer has undergone considerable regeneration, with crime dramatically lowered. Police complaints dropped from 20,000 (2000 robberies) in 1995 to 8,000 (600 robberies) in 2005, with a steady decrease in crime since. In terms of theft, according to the yearly statistics published by the Amsterdam Gemeente (city council), there were only 420 reported cases in 2014, the third lowest out of the six regions in Amsterdam. The center of Amsterdam was the highest, with 664 reported thefts.

Despite the general opinion of Bijlmer (mainly by those that have never set foot in Bijlmer) the atmosphere is vibrant and non-threatening. Dutch bank ING houses its headquarters there, alongside famous venues, such as the Heineken Music Hall and Ajax Arena. The Lidl in question is itself situated in the bustling Amsterdamspoort shopping center.

The only conceivable threat that comes to mind, is the false threat of blackness and all the complicated stereotypes packed within blackness.

I spoke to some locals to gather their opinions on the policing of Lidl, something I have never experienced in any other Lidl in NL during my four years of residency. Some, to my surprise were quite happy with the set up, exclaiming it was there so they could do their shopping with ease, free of extra luggage.

Others had a different response. Rachel, a medical secretary and nurse (originally from Suriname) believes that they have the lockers and security guards in place because of the bad reputation of Bijlmer. Telling me of a time that one of the security guards tried to force her to put her personal handbag in one of the lockers because it was “too big.” To which she yelled back:

“What do you want me to do?! Go in with just my wallet?!”

Eventually she got in with her handbag. But she had to fight for it.

“Bijlmer 17 years ago was a hotbed of crime, drug dealers and junkies,” she tells me.

I ask her if she ever feels threatened in the area now?

She jokily responds with: “At night I can walk free and safe because I know all the junkies.”

We share a brief laugh and she says in a more serious tone: “I feel safe either way. Irrespective if they know me. Bijlmer isn’t what it used to be.” Rachel later informs me that the Albert Heijn in the area (a major Dutch supermarket) also has a similar system in place. Explaining that you are not allowed to bring your own personal food trolleys inside the store, but must leave them in the corner by the entrance for fear of people stealing. I discover this to be true. Another local tells me that there is also no self-scanner option. Something he has never noticed in any other AH.

Jermaine, who has Ghanian roots, gets deep about the issue. I ask him how the policing makes him feel.

“Like you’re marginalized and excluded,” he says. He continues: “Why do they have it here and nowhere else? Obviously it has do with the demographic of Bijlmer and the negative traits people have assigned to the locals. Using old history to fit in with contemporary life. It’s like you’re a leopard that can’t change its prints.”

“Has this affected your relationship with police and authority generally?”

“I have had my share of issues with the police in Bijlmer. I have an immunity to them by now. I know how to conduct myself around authority and do not antagonize them.”

It should be noted that Jermaine, who I discover has been targeted for “random searches” countless times on the highway leading into Bijlmer, is extremely thoughtful and humble in his demeanour. He is a model citizen, with a clean record, yet he is systematically treated like a criminal.

He tells me that the road on the highway leading into Amsterdamspoort and Bijlmer is blocked by police. According to Jermaine, white individuals often continue their journey unchecked. Police target ethnic drivers (individuals from Suriname, Antilles, Africa and Indonesia) for random searches. Apparently it is so common in the Bijlmer area that no one bothers to say anything about it any more.

Regarding Lidl, an official of the store- who wished to remain anonymous- tells me they have the strict system because of stealing. You know the reputation of this area? He says to me in a tone that expresses our mutual connection of being outsiders to the neighborhood.

Ironically, he does not fully agree with the harsh reputation of Bijlmer and admits to visiting the area for drinks on the weekends. But he does believe that this specific Lidl is a hub for thieves and see’s nothing wrong with the system in place. Boldly exclaiming that he has worked in other Lidls in NL, in which he only encountered six thefts within a year.

Something I found hard to believe.

I ask him for some concrete figures regarding the thefts, but he tells me he cannot give them to me. Acknowledging that he probably should not even be speaking to me.

More importantly though, is the fact that the Lidl opened its doors approximately 6 years ago with security guards and lockers. It was not a response to theft, it was a response to a perceived threat of theft.

He even tells me that on the opening day there were six guards waiting at the entrance. This eventually got reduced to two after a week.

I ask him, “Are there other Lidls with the same system in place?”

He replies, “Only one other. In the Hague somewhere.”

After some digging, I find out that this in Schilderswijk. Another neighborhood described as a “problem area” in which the majority of the inhabitants are of Turkish, Moroccan and Surinamese descent. Edwin Smit, who worked closely with the municipality in The Hague in association with an organization aimed at tackling racism in NL, tells me of his experiences in this specific Lidl.

“I was shocked and angry. It was the first time I witnessed racial profiling. People of color were being treated like potential thieves. What does this do for ones self image? Security is against them instead of for them.”

The region is one the poorest areas of the Netherlands. It witnessed the killing of Mitch Henriquez, 42-year old Aruban, earlier this year. He was held in a choke-hold position outside a UB40 concert by the police, dying of asphyxiation. The police claimed he said he had a gun but he was then found to be without any weapons. This ignited riots and protests in Schilderswijk against police brutality towards ethnic minorities.

In response to the riots the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte stated “I’m not planning to go in person to every neighborhood where backward lilies are stirring up trouble.”

Racial and ethnic profiling appear to be taken for granted in the Netherlands. This exclusionary and aggressive type of policing is described as mere protocol, separate from issues of racial and ethnic discrimination.

How is it that such a progressive nation, one of the first to make gay marriage possible along with numerous rights for disabled people, turns a blind eye to such forms of systemic racism and prejudice?

Revised version of an article previously posted by The Establishment, AfroPunk, on December 2, 2015 at 8:00am. For the original text, see:

AfroPunk works to promote alternative black identities and culture. For a short CNN piece about the platform, see: