The true story of the Dutch Provos
It's no secret that Holland has the most liberal drug laws in the world, especially when it comes to cannabis. What you may not realize, however, is that these laws were enacted thanks to the efforts of the Dutch Provos. The Provos set the stage for the creation of the Merry Pranksters, Diggers, and Yippies. They were the first to combine non-violence and absurd humor to create social change. They created the first "Happenings" and "Be-Ins." They were also the first to actively campaign against marijuana prohibition. Even so, they remain relatively unknown outside of Holland. Now, for the first time, their true story is told.
It all started with the Nozems. Born out of the postwar economic boom, the Nozems were dissaffected Dutch teens armed with consumer spending power. Part mods, part 50's juvenile delinquents, they spent most of their time cruising the streets on mopeds, bored stiff and not knowing what to do. Their favorite past-time? Raising trouble and provoking the police.
"Provo" was actually first coined by Dutch sociologist Buikhuizen in a condescending description of the Nozems. Roel Van Duyn, a philosophy student at the University of Amsterdam, was the first to recognize the Nozems' slumbering potential. "It is our task to turn their aggression into revolutionary consciousness", he wrote in 1965.
Inspired by anarchism, Dadaism, German philosopher (and counter-culture guru-to-be) Herbert Marcuse, and the Marquis de Sade, Van Duyn, a timid, introverted intellectual, soon became the major force behind "Provo" magazine. But while Van Duyn presided over the Provo's theoretical wing, another, more important, element was provided even earlier by its other co-founder, Robert Jasper Grootveld, a former window cleaner and the original clown prince of popular culture.
More interested in magic than Marx, Grootveld was an extroverted performance artist with a gift for theatrical gesture. During the early 60's, he attracted massive crowds in Amsterdam with exhibitionistic "Happenings". At the core of Grootveld's philosophy was the belief that the masses had been brainwashed into becoming a herd of addicted consumers, the "despicable plastic people". According to Grootveld, new rituals were needed to awaken these complacent consumers. While the writings of Van Duyn greatly appealed to the educated crowd, Grootveld found his followers among street punk.
The provo phenomenon was an outgrowth of the alienation and absurdity of life in the early 60's. It was irresistably attractive to Dutch youth and seemed like it would travel around the world. However, in only a few short years it disappeared, choked on its own successes.
"Every weekend in 1962, I paid a visit to a police officer named Houweling", explains Grootveld. "During these visits, I often dressed like an American Indian. We always hade very friendly chats about marijuana. Houweling didn't know anything about it, so I could tell him anything I wanted."
Thus began the "Marihuettegame", a disinformation game played by Grootveld and his friends. The idea was to demonstrate the establishment's complete ignorance on the subject of cannabis. The players were supposed to have fun, fool the police and, of course, smoke pot. Other than that, there were no rules. Anything that looked remotely like pot was called "marihu": tea, hay, catfood, spices and herbs included. Bonus points were collected when a smoker got busted for consuming a legal substance. The players often called the police on themselves. A raid by blue-uniformed nicotine addicts, looking for something that didn't exist, was considered the ultimate jackpot.
"One day a whole group of us went by bus to Belgium," says Grootveld. "Of course I had informed my friend Houweling that some elements might take some pot along. At the border, the cops and customs were waiting for us. Followed by the press, we were taken away for a thorough search. The poor cops ... all they could find was dogfood and som legal herbs. "Marijuana is dogfood", joked the papers the next day. After that, the cops decided to refrain from hassling us in the future, afraid of more blunders."
The following year, Grootveld and artist Fred Wessels opened the "Afrikaanse Druk Store", where they sold both real and fake pot.
The marihuette game became the model for future Provo tactics. Surprisingly, games proved to be an effective way of shattering the smug self-righteousness of the authorities. The police would usually overreact, making themselves seem ridiculous in the process. There was, however, a seriousness underlying the method. The ultimate aim was to change society for the better.
In the late 50's Grootveld was already well-known as a kind of performance artist. His inspiration, he claimed, derived from a pilgrimage to Africa, where he'd purchased a mysterious medicine kit formerly owned by a shaman. Somehow, the kit helped Grootveld formulate a critique of Western society, which, he came to believe, was dominated by unhealthy addictions. A short hospital stay soon convinced Grootveld that the worst of these were cigarette smoking. "All those grown-up patients, begging and praying for a cigarette was a disgusting sight," he recalls. (Even after this realization however, Grootveld remained a chain-smoker.)
Smoking, according to Grootveld, was an irrational cult, a pointless ritual forced upon society by the tobacco industry for the sole purpose of making profits. The bosses of the "Nico-Mafia" were the high priests of a "cigarette-cult"; advertisements and commercials were their totems. Ad agencies were powerful wizards, casting magic spells over a hypnotized public. At the bottom of the heap lay the addicted consumers, giving their lives through cancer to the great "NicoLord".
Grootveld began a one-man attack on the tobacco industry. First, he scrawled the word "cancer" in black tar over every cigarette billboard in town. For this, he was arrested and put in jail.
After his release, Grootveld, began going into tobacco shops armed with a rag soaked in chloroform. "I spread this terrible hospital odor all around," he says. "I asked if I could make a call and spent hours on the phone, gasping, coughing and panting, talking about hospitals and cancer and scaring all the customers."
A rich, eccentric restaurant owner named Klaas Kroese decided to support Grootveld's anti-smoking crusade. He provided him with a studio, which Grootveld dubbed the "Anti-Smoking Temple." Declaring himself "The First Anti-Smoke Sorcerer," Grootveld started holding weekly black masses with guest performances by poet Johnny the Selfkicker, writer Simon Vinkenoog and other local underground artists.
But Grootveld was soon disappointed by the small media coverage these performances received, blaming it all on the Nico-Mafia who controlled the press. He decided to do something really sensational. After a passionate speech and the singing of the "Ugge Ugge" song, the official anti-smoking jingle, Grootveld set the Anti-Smoking Temple on fire, in front of a bewildered group of bohemians, artists, and journalists. At first everyone thought it was a joke, but when Grootveld started spraying gasoline around in the room, the audience fled to safety. Grootveld himself came perilously close to frying, saved only by the efforts of the police who came to rescue him. Although the crusade had only begun, the fire cost him the support of Kroese, his first patron.
In 1964, Grootveld moved his black masses, now known as "Happenings," to nearby Spui Square. At the center of the square was a small statue of a child, "Het Lievertje." By coincidence, the statue hade been commissioned by a major tobacco firm. For Grootveld this bit of evidence proved the insidious infiltration of the nico-dope syndicates. Every Saturday, at exactly midnight, Grootveld began appearing in the square, wearing a strange outfit and performing for a steadily growing crowd of Nozem, intellectuals, curious bypassers and police.
Writer Harry Mulish described it this way: "While their parents, sitting on their refrigerators and dishwashers, were watching with the left eye the TV, with their right eye the auto in front of the house, in one hand the kitchen mixer, in the other "De Telegraaf", their kids went at Saturday night to the Spui Square ... And when the clock struck twelve, the High Priest appeared, all dressed up, from some alley and started to walk Magic Circles around the nicotinistic demon, while his disciples cheered, applauded and sang the Ugge Ugge song."
One night in May 1965, Van Duyn appeared at one of the Happenings and began distributing leaflets announcing the birth of the Provo movement. "Provo's choice is between desperate resistance or apathetic perishing," wrote Van Duyn. "Provo realizes eventually it will be the loser, but wonīt let that last chance slip away to annoy and provoke this society to its depths..."
Grootveld read the first Provo manifesto and decided to cooperate with the publishers. "When I read the word anarchism in that first pamphlet, I realized that this outdated, 19th century ideology would become the hottest thing in the 60's", he recalls.
The leaflets were followed by more elaborate pamphlets announcing the creation of the White Plans. Constant Nieuwenhuis, another artist, was instrumental in shaping the White Philosophy, which considered work (especially mundande factory labor) obsolete. Provo's renunciation of work appealed to the Nozems - and marked an important ideological split with capitalism, communism and socialism, all of which cherished work as a value in itself. Provo, however, sympathized more with Marx's anarchist son-in-law Paul Lafargue, author of "The Right to Laziness."
The most famous of all white plans was the White Bike Plan, envisioned as the ultimate solution to the "traffic terrorism of a motorized minority." The brainchild of Industrial designer Luud Schimmelpenninck, the White Bike Plan proposed the banning of environmentally noxious cars from the inner city, to be replaced by bicycles. Of course, the bikes were to be provided free by the city. They would be painted white and permanently unlocked, to secure their public availability. Schimmelpenninck calculated that, even from a strictly economic point of view, the plan would provide great benifits to Amsterdam.
The Provos decided to put the plan into action by providing the first 50 bicycles. But the police immediately confiscated them, claiming they created an invitation to theft. Provo retaliated by stealing a few police bikes.
The White Victim Plan stated that anyone causing a fatal car accident should be forced to paint the outline of their victim's body on the pavement at the site of the accident. That way, no one could ignore the fatalities caused by automobiles.
Other White Plans included the White Chimney Plan (put a heavy tax on polluters and paint their chimneys white), the White Kids Plan (free daycare centers), the White Housing Plan (stop real estate speculation), and the White Wife Plan (free medical care for women).
Some White Plans were elaborate, others were just flashes of inspiration. "It seemed that proposing a White Plan was almost a necessary exam to becoming a Provo," says Grootveld. The most hilarious of all was the White Chicken Plan, proposed by a Provo subcommitte called Friends of the Police. After the police began responding to Provo demonstrations with increased violence, the Provos attempted to alter the image of the police, who were known as "blue chickens." The new white chickens would be disarmed, ride around on white bicycles, and distribute first aid, fried chicken and free contraceptives.
The police failed to appreciate this proposal. At one demonstration they seized a dozen white chickens which had been brought along for symbolic effect.
Van Duyn's theories of modern life were quite similar to Grootveld's: labor and the ruling cass had merged into one big, gray middle-class. This boring bourgeoisie was living in a catatonic state, its creativity burnt out by TV. "It is impossible to have the slightest confidence in that dependent, servile bunch of roaches and lice," concluded Van Duyn.
The only solution to this problem lay with the Nozem, artists, dropouts, streetkids and beatniks, all of whom shared a non-involvement with capitalist society. It was Provo's task to awaken their latent instincts for subversion, to turn them on to anarchist action.
As later became clear, Provo didn't really enlighten the street crowd, although they did offer opportunity to intellectuals and punks alike to express their feelings of frustration and rage.
Van Duyn's writings combined an equal mixture of pessimism and idealism. Too much a realist to expect total revolution, he tended to follow a more pragmatic and reformist strategy. Eventually he advocated participating in Amsterdam council elections. Other Provos denounced this as an outrageous bertayal of anarchist ideals.
One Provo leaflet hit the newsstands folded between the pages of "De Telegraaf", Amsterdam's biggest newspaper. The perpetrator of this action, Olaf Stoop, was immediately fired from the airport newsstand where he worked. No big deal for a Provo. It was important to demonstrate a disdain for careerism in general.
When the next leaflet. Provokaatsie #3, was published it aroused indignation all over the Netherlands by alluding to the Nazi past of some members of the Royal House, a sacred institution in Dutch society. Provos threw the leaflet into the royal barge as it toured the canals of Amsterdam. Provokaatsie #3 was the first in a series of publications that were immediately confiscated by the police. The official excuse was that Provo had used some illustrations without permission. A lawsuite followed and Van Duyn was held responsible. But instead of showing up in court, Van Duyn sent a note stating it was "...simply impossible to hold one single individual responsible. Provo is the product of an everchanging, anonymous gang of subversive elements ... Provo doesn't recognize copyright, as it is just another form of private property which is renounced by Provo ... We suspect that this is an indirect form of censorship while the State is too cowardly to sue us straight for "lese majeste" (an offense violating the dignity of the ruler) ... By the way, our hearts are filled with a general contempt for authorities and for anyone who submits himself to them..."
In July 1965, the first issue of "Provo" magazine appeared. "It was very shocking to the establishment," recalls Grootveld. "They realized we were not mere dopey scum but were quite capable of some sort of organization."
The first issue contained out-of-date, 19th century recipes for bombs, explosives and boobytraps. Firecrackers included with the magazine provided an excuse for the police to confiscate the issue. Arrested on charges of inciting violence, editors Van Duyn, Stoop, Hans Metz and Jaap Berk were released a few days later.
Actually Provo had an ambivalent attitude toward the police, viewing them as essential non-creative elements for a successful Happening. Grootveld called them "co-happeners". "Of course, it is obvious that the cops are our best pals," wrote Van Duyn. "the greater their number, the more rude and fascist their performance, the better for us. The police, just like we do, are provoking the masses ... They are causing resentment. We are trying to turn that resentment into revolt."
By July 1965, Provo had become the national media's top story, mostly due to overreaction by the city administration, who treated the movement as a serious crisis. Even though only a handful of Provos actually existed, due to Provo media manipulation it seemed as though thousands of them were roaming the streets. "We were like Atlas carrying an image that was blown up to huge proportions," recalls Van Duyn.
At the early Spui Square Happenings, the police usually responded by arresting Grootveld, which was no big deal. Grootveld was considered a harmless eccentric and always treated with respect. Privately, he got along quite well with the police. "They gave me coffee and showed me pictures of their kids," he says. And Grootveld remained grateful to the police for rescuing him from his burning temple.
However, trouble started at the end of July. A few days before, the White Bike Plan had been announced to the press. The police were present, but hadn't interfered. At an anti-auto happening the next Saturday, however, the police showed up in great numbers. As soon as some skirmishing began, the police tried to break up the crowd.
The following week, after sensational press coverage, a huge crowd gathered at Spui Square. Again the police tried to disperse the crowd, but this time serious fighting broke out, resulting in seven arrests. The next day "De Telegraaf's" headlines screamed, "The Provos are attacking!" Suddenly, the Provos were a national calamity.
In August 1965, some Provos met with the police to discuss the violent interventions in the Happenings. "Since Amsterdam is the Magic Center, it is of great cultural importance that the Happenings will not be disturbed!" declared the Provos in a letter to the commander of police. Unfortunately, the talks produced no results. "We stared at each other in disbelief like we were exotic animals," says Van Duyn.
The same night, the police surrounded the little statue in Spui Square, Rob Stolk recalls, "like it was made out of diamonds and Dr No or James Bond wanted to steal it."
About 2000 spectators were present, all waiting for something to happen. At exactly twelve o'clock not Grootveld, but two other Provos showed up. As they tried to lay flowers at the Het Lievertje statue, the crowd cheered. The police arrested them on the spot, after which a riot broke out. Thirteen were arrested, four of whom had nothing to do with Provo, but just happened to be hanging around the square. They all ended up serving between one and two months in jail.
In september 1965, Provo focused their actions on another statue, the Van Heutsz monument. Although Van Heutsz is considered by most Dutch to be a great hero of their colonial past, Provo branded him an imperialistic scavenger and war criminal. The following month the first anti-Vietnam war rallies were organized by leftist students who were slowly joining Provo. "Our protests against the Vietnam war were from a humanistic point of view," recalls Stolk. "We criticized the cruel massacres but didn't identify with the Vietcong like Jane Fonda. That's why later on we didn't wind up on aerobics videos."
Although the Happenings at the Spui Square were going on, the Vietnam demonstrations became the big story of 1965. Hundreds were arrested every week. Meanwhile, the Provo virus was spreading throughout Holland. Every respectable provincial town boasted its local brand of Provos, all with their own magazine and statues around which Happenings were staged.
At the end of the year the administration changed tactics. Instead of violent police interventions, they tried to manage the Provos. Obsolete laws were uncovered and turned against Provo. But when a demonstration permit was refused on this basis, the Provos showed up with blank banners and handed out blank leaflets. They still got arrested. Provo Koosje Koster was arrested for handing out raisins at a Spui Happening. The official reason? Bringing the public order and safety into serious jeopardy.
Public opinion on the Provos began to get more polarized. Although many were in favor of even harsher measures against the rabble-rousers, a growing segment of the public sympathized with the Provos and began having serious doubts about police overreaction.
The monarchy became the ultimate establishment symbol for the Provos to attack. Royal ceremonies offered ample opportunities for satire. During "Princess Day", when an annual ceremonial speech was delivered by the queen, Provo made up a fake speech, in which Queen Juliana declared she'd become an anarchist and was negotiating a transition of power with Provo. Provo Hans Tuynman invited the Queen to hold an intimate conversation in front of the palace, where he and some other Provos had assembled som comfortable chairs. Although the Queen did not show, the police did, quickly breaking up the Happening.
The climax of this anti-royal activity came in March 1966, when Princess Beatrix married a German, Claus von Amsberg, a former member of Hitlerjugend, the Nazi youth organization. Coincidentally, Grootveld had been doing performances based on "the coming of Klaas," a mythical Messiah. Sinterklaas, the Dutch version of Santa Claus, and Klaas Kroese, Grootveld's former sponsor served as inspiration for these performances, but by March, Provos identified the coming of Klaas with the arrival of Van Amsberg.
"Grootveld objected to this corruption of his symbolic Klaas mythology," recalls Jef Lambrecht. "He wanted to keep Klaas pure and undefinable, but the link was soon established."
The Provos spent months preparing for the March wedding. A bank account was opened to collect donations for an anti-wedding present. The White Rumor Plan was put into action. Wild and ridiculous rumors were spread through Amsterdam. It became widely believed that the Provos were preparing to dump LSD in the city water supply, that they were building a giant paint-gun to attack the wedding procession, that they were collecting manure to spread along the parade route, and that the royal horses were going to be drugged. Although Provo was actually planning nothing more than a few smoke bombs, the police expected the worst acts of terrorism imaginable. Foreign magazines offered big money to Provos if they would disclose their secrets plans before the wedding, plans that didnīt exist.
A few days before the wedding, all the Provos mysteriously disappeared. They did this simply to avoid being arrested before the big day. Meanwhile, the authorities requested 25 000 troops to help guard the parade route.
On the day of the wedding, Amsterdam - the most anti-German and anti-monarchist city in the country - was not in the mood for grand festivities. Half the City Council snubbed the official wedding reception. A foreign journalist put it this way: "The absence of any decorated window, of any festive ornament, is just another expression of the indifference of the public.
Miraculously, by dressing up like respectable citizens, the Provos managed to sneak their smoke bombs past the police and army guards. "The night before, the cops made a terrible blooper by violently searching an innocent old man who was carrying a suspicious leather bag. So the fools gave orders not to search leather bags any more, fearing Provo tricks!" says Appie Pruis, a photographer. The first bombs went off just behind the palace as the procession started. Although the bombs were not really dangerous (they were made from sugar and nitrate), they put out tremendous clouds of smoke, which were viewed on television worlwide. "It was a crazy accumulation of insane mistakes. Most of the police had been brought in from the countryside, and so were totally unable to identify the Provos." A violent police overreaction ensued, witnessed by foreign journalists, many of whom were clubbed and beaten in the confusion. The wedding turned into a public relations disaster. "Demonstrations of Provo are Amsterdam's bitter answer to monarchist folklorism," commented a Spanish newspaper.
The week after the wedding, a photo exhibition was held documenting the police violence. The guests at the exhibition were attacked by the police and severely beaten. Public indignation against the police reached new peaks. Many well-known writers and intellectuals began requesting an independent investigation of police behavior.
In June, after a man was killed in a labor dispute, it seemed as if a civil war was ready to erupt. According to "De Telegraaf", the victim was killed not by police, but by a co-worker, an outrageous lie. A furious crowd stormed the offices of the paper. For the first time, the proletariat and Provo were fighting on the same side.
By the middle of 1966, repression was out of control. Hundreds of people were arrested every week at Happenings and anti-Vietnam rallies. A ban on demonstrations caused them to grow even bigger. Hans Tuynman was turned into a martyr after being sentenced to three months in jail for murmuring the words "image" at a Happening. Yet around the time, a Dutch Nazi collaborator, a war criminal responsible for deporting Jews, had been released from prison and a student fraternity member received only a small fine for manslaughter.
Finally, in August 1966, a congressional committee was established to investigate the crisis. The committee's findings resulted in the Police Commissioner's firing. In May 1967, the mayor of Amsterdam, Van Hall, was "honorably" given the boot, after the committee condemned his policies. Strangely enough, Provo, which had demanded the mayor's resignation for over a year, liquidated within a week of his dismissal.
The reason for Provo's demise, which was totally unexpected by outsiders, was its increasing acceptance by moderate elements, and growing turmoil within its ranks. As soon as Provo began particapating in the City Council elections, a transformation occurred. A Provo Politburo emerged, consisting of VIP Provos who began devoting most of themselves to political careers: Provos toured the country, giving lectures and interviews. When the VIP Provos were out of town attending a Provo congress, Stolk staged a fake palace coup by announcing that a new Revolutionary Terrorist Council had taken power. Van Duyn reacted furiously, not realizing it was a provocation against Provo itself. When the Van Heutsz monument was damaged by bombs, Provo declared that "although they felt sympathy for the cause, they deeply deplored the use of violence." The division between the street Provos and the reformist VIPs began growing wider. Some Provos returned to their studies, other went hippie and withdrew from the movement.
Provo was a big hit as long as it was considered outside of society. But as soon as the establishment began embracing it, the end was near. Moderate liberals began publicly defending it and social scientists began studying the movement. The former Secretary of Transportation joined forces with Provo. "As a real supporter, he should have proposed a crackdown on Provo," Van Duyn said later.
Provo's proposal to establish a playground for children was now greeted by the City Council with great enthusiasm. The real sign of Provo's institutionalization, however, was the installation of a "speakers-corner" in the park.
Van Duyn encouraged this development, but Stolk saw it as a form of repressive tolerance - the Provos were now free, free to be ignored. "Understanding politicians, well-intentioned Provologists and pampering reverends, they were forming a counter-magic circle around us to take away our magic power," says Stolk. So Stolk and Grootveld decided to liquidate Provo. "The power and spirit had vanished," says Grootveld. "Provo had turned into a dogmatic crew. Provo had degenerated into a legal stamp of approval."
At the liquidation meeting, Stolk said: "Provo has to disappear because all the Great Men that made us have gone," a reference to Provo's two arch-enemies, the mayor and commissioner of police.
Provo held a last stunt. A white rumor was spread that American universities wanted to buy the Provo archives, documents that actually didn't even exist. Amsterdam University, fearing that the sociological treasure might disappear overseas, quickly made an offer the Provos couldn't refuse.
by Teun VoetenHigh Times, January 1990