Sylvana Simons This must be done NOW!!
Profile: Sylvana Simons’ BIJ1
«We have to be part of the government Now»
Free translation by: Julio Flores
The political party (Bij1) lidered by Sylvana Simons brings a movement to politics that is increasingly speaking out against inequality. They have the spirit of the times – with Black Lives Matter and major scandals around ethnic profiling. «Zero seats, would not be right.».
Under a bridge in Amsterdam-south-east some men are talking to each other with a can of beer in their hands. It is a sunny afternoon in February, not far from the (Bijlmer-square). Nobody knows what they are talking about, because it is a group that you normally pass without looking. Sylvana Simons (50), however, approaches them with an election flyer from BIJ1 in her hands. She is recognized immediately. But when an ANP photographer also walks in that direction, one of the men angrily gestures that he does not want to be on the screen. Only when the camera drops does the tense atmosphere disappear and Simons starts talking to the men.
BIJ1, the political party of which Simon is the founder and party leader, is handing out flyers a month before the elections. First in the letterboxes, but they quickly contact the shops of the Amsterdamse-gate. They are in Southeastern and not in a region where they are still unknown, explains campaign leader Ruud Tevreden (34). «Southeast is a place where few people go to the polls, according to various studies. They don’t feel represented or believe in current politics. And we think it is important that people here, often with a Surinamese, Antillean or African background, vote. Preferably on us, but we think it is even more important that they vote at all. «This is also evident in practice when Simons gives a flyer to a man passing by. He examines the paper in his hands and then says, «BIJ1? I’m not voting for you. «Simons replied,» Don’t worry. As long as you vote. »
‘Dit is mijn buurt’, zegt Vayhishta Miskin, de nummer vijftien op de kandidatenlijst. Ze is hierheen gelopen met haar vierjarige dochter op de fiets. Ze deelt aan het team T-shirts en tote bags uit met de regenboogkleuren van de partij en de slogan ‘beken kleur’. ‘In Zuidoost is alles gebaseerd op menselijk contact en vertrouwen’, zegt ze met een stapel flyers in haar handen. ‘Sociale-mediacampagnes werken niet. Die mannen onder de brug bereik je niet via Instagram of WhatsApp. Maar ze gaan nu wel aan iedereen die ze kennen vertellen dat ze ons hebben gezien en gesproken. Zo werkt het hier.’
Miskin then addresses three young women who are sitting on a bench in front of a closed shop, smoking. «Tell me what’s important to you and I’ll explain our position.» Miskin and the women begin a conversation about «expensive care» and «unaffordable housing.» Meanwhile, two white boys enthusiastically approach the team. «Can we also have a flyer? We love what you do. We will definitely vote for BIJ1! «A few days later we speak to Simons via Zoom. She looks back on the flyer campaign. «We do our best to be careful.» She thinks for a moment. «Also because we cannot afford to make mistakes towards the people who have lost their confidence in politics. Those people in the neighborhood (Bijlmer), I cannot fail them. They are not heard or seen. I say: I see and hear you, and that makes them proud. I am one of them, a daughter, a sister. We bring new hope. »
BIJ1 is the political party that Simons started in December 2016, after after a short adventure in “Denk”. Within that party there was attention for racism and discrimination against people with a migrant background, but she felt that she was not given enough space to also stand up for the LGBTQ + community and women’s rights. At that time, BIJ1 was still called Article 1, a reference to the first article of the constitution that says: «All who are in the Netherlands are treated equally in equal cases. Discrimination on the grounds of religion, belief, political opinion, race, gender or on any other ground is not allowed”. later she changed the name of her new political party from “Article 1” to “BIJ1”.
Simons’ commitment became visible to the general public when she sat opposite Martin Simek as a table lady at The world turns by in 2015. The conversation was about African refugees who made the crossing by boat and washed up on southern European beaches. «Zwartjes», said Simek, who himself lived on the Italian coast, she and Simons asked if he meant that «funny». It started something that lives on to this day. In addition to threats, Simons received half of the Netherlands and a stream of racist and sexist hate messages that never stopped.
Bij1 brings a movement to politics that has been increasingly opposed to «the existing power structures» in recent years. It is a movement that finds theory with scientists such as Philomena Essed and Gloria Wekker, takes to the streets with Kick Out Zwarte Piet (KOZP) and Black Lives Matter (BLM) and now sees itself represented in politics.
«If you look at the history of the House of Representatives and the political representation of people who look like me,» says Simons, «we are underrepresented”. The people of color in the Chamber mainly fell under the falg of the political party PVDA. What we are going to do now is take that place at the table ourselves, not dictated by others, but only in our own context. » Because, says artist Quinsy Gario (36), the number two on the list and known as one of the first to raised the racist character of Zwarte Piet: ‘At a certain point it has to be about who is claiming power. Groups out of the norm – such as migrant communities – have asked too often. Now is the time to demand. »
According to Liza Mügge, associate professor of political science at the University of Amsterdam, this is an important difference from twenty years ago, when there were also black female MPs. «But they did not profile themselves as such. There is now an increased awareness of social injustice and racism. Simons has founded her own party and does not have to bend over to the expectations of others. Moreover, «she says,» she has an exemplary role that should not be underestimated. We know from research that young girls, who recognize themselves in Simons, become more aware of politics and start talking about it. »
Where the party in the House of Representatives elections four years ago relied entirely on Simons’ fame, BIJ1 is now becoming a mature party. There is an election program of 170 pages, a very diverse list of candidates, a board, a team of volunteers, and a campaign budget (albeit modest compared to other parties). And not unimportantly: BIJ1 has a seat on the Amsterdam city council for three years.
Bij1 has achieved a lot with that one seat, noted Mayor Femke Halsema when Simons’ farewell from the city council last November to focus on the national elections. «I am thinking, for example, of formulating a climate paragraph that tests every policy against the climate objectives,» says Simons. «Or the motion stating that the home situations of parents may no longer be taken into account in the school advice. That is such a discriminatory element in a child’s school career and has an impact on future generations. I am proud to have been able to break through that. »
But, Halsema also noted, BIJ1 did not even make the biggest difference with motions, amendments and initiative proposals, but on another point. «The essential thing about your contribution to the council is that through your thoughtful and experienced speeches all these topics (sex work, homeless people, slavery past and structural racism) are discussed in greater depth and tackled more vigorously. And that through your courageous and personal confrontations with ignorance, hatred and threats, you remind us once again how important it is to ban racism from our city. You have learned from others and we have learned from you. In this way, you worked patiently on expanding our vocabulary. The term intersectional is almost established in this council. Some men on the council still have to get used to toxic masculinity, but there is probably still a course ready for that in the council. »
Now is the time to go into national politics, as has always been the plan. Although the polls do not immediately look rosy: BIJ1 is skipping between zero and one seat. But the polls do not impress the party. «No seats is not an issue,» says Simons. «If we can’t do it now, I’m afraid we’ll be out for the first five to ten years. I will then be reproached: «Mrs. Simons, your supporters do not care, your supporters will not vote.» This must be done now. We have to enter that Chamber. That’s an importance I don’t even dare to think about every now and then. «
Sandra Salome (53) was tense at home on June 3. She watched the live stream of the BLM demonstration in Rotterdam on the screen of her laptop. It was she who co-organized the demonstration and applied for it in her name. How big would the turnout be? And would it all go smoothly? The tension dropped somewhat when she saw the Erasmus Bridge fill up. The tears that flowed were of joy. But it also felt bittersweet. Because she belongs to a risk group, she could not be there herself.
She thought of all the times she’d demonstrated, sometimes with a handful of others and often in the pouring rain. She also thought about the time that they were attacked by extreme right-wing hooligans at a KOZP conference in The Hague, about the threats in her home in the letterbox, and about the 7,000 online hate reactions after she had addressed HEMA on social media about the appearance of Zwarte Piet. «It even goes so far that I no longer dare to go out on the street with a bag from KOZP or BIJ1.»
Salome has a Surinamese father, but grew up with her white mother and stepfather. «It was quite a racist family. I learned that my skin tone was something I shouldn’t talk about. I got along: if you don’t talk about it, no one will see it. So that’s what I did, shut up, to fit in. When my children were born, my mother said: «Fortunately you hardly see any color with them anymore.» Everything changed when her Surinamese grandmother died and with it the connection with her black side. ‘What now? I thought. Back in the armor? In the meantime I had children. That’s why I decided: I’m not going to be silent anymore. »
On the day that Simons started the party, Salome applied and she is now chairman of the Rotterdam department and part of the strategy team of the national campaign. She subscribes to Bij1’s intersectional thinking, but she is still learning every day. «I am from Rotterdam with a heart on my tongue and every now and then something pops out so that I am corrected. «Don’t be stupid» or «are you deaf» I easily blurted out, but I now know that you can hurt people with it. «.
Although the word barely appears in the election manifesto, BIJ1 is based on intersectionality, the theory that all forms of systematic inequality cannot be separated from each other. Does the hand of Gloria Wekker, emeritus professor of anthropology and party pushing the list become clear here? «When I started the game, I realized I had to learn more,» says Simons. « I don’t have a political, philosophical or sociological background, so I contacted Gloria, and asked: can I learn from you? » Wekker gave Simons her book Kaleidoscopic visions, in which, together with Nancy Jouwe, she uses the concept of intersectionality. ) introduced in the Netherlands. «Gloria is someone I look up to. She also dared to raise something that the local community was not ready for, but that needed to be said. But otherwise it has no formal function within the party. It is not that she presents an ideology and we follow it. The same goes for sociologist Willem Schinkel. He is widely billed as our party ideologist, but he is not. » However: how accessible is intersectionality, an academic concept, and to what extent do the most vulnerable in society – the target group that Bij1 tries to represent – now wake up to validist swear words and discrimination? Quinsy Gario believes that BIJ1 can clarify how intersectionality works with concrete examples.
When we speak to him, it has just been announced that the lawyers of the police officers who were convicted of the death of Mitch Henriquez charged a sloppy 1.3 million euros. The Aruban man died in 2015 after an arrest with a neck clamp – which BIJ1 wants to ban. The officers received a lot more money for their lawyers than average suspects or people with few resources, which, according to experts, is bad news for legal equality. It is immediately the first thing on the table. «Social advocacy and legal aid for refugees are being stripped down. I see that and I think: that is really dirty. But then pay 1.3 million euros to officers who killed a man from the position of their police officer. »
The Henriquez case illustrates for Gario why intersectional thinking is necessary. «What happened to Henriquez coincides with several chapters from our program: security, decolonization, economy, working conditions. It’s all connected, «he says. «By continuously zooming out from a small preview, you can make it tangible. The fact that someone still has to fight to get fourteen euros per hour minimum wage is linked, among other things, to PO box companies that receive tax benefits in the Netherlands, which means that the state misses out and impoverishes income, so that the benefits remain low. »
«It’s like a Matryoshka doll. You unpack the problem every time and see that it is connected» he continues. «BIJ1 stands for systemic criticism. We have to ask ourselves whether a percentage point here and there from the budget is the conversation we should have. «For that reason, BIJ1 did not want their election program – just like PVV, FvD and PVDD – to be calculated by the Central Planning Board. In an extensive speech, Schinkel explains: «The CPB calculations are based on models that are not neutral, but ideological and a party that wants system change has no use for calculations based on the continuation of the existing system.»
«Do they think our election manifesto resembles the Communist Manifesto? Then they have not read either. «21-year-old Rebekka Timmer is the number three on the list and a former SP councilor in Hilversum. In addition to being anti-racist, BIJ1 also describes herself as anti-capitalist and that appealed to her.
As a teenager, Timmer devoured the work of Marx and Engels. «When I was twelve, I visited a political market. There I first came into contact with the SP. They talked about a fairer health care system. I remember very well thinking: this is what I think too. «Timmer grew up with her sister with her single mother, who was incapacitated for a long time and died when Timmer was fourteen. «We had little money. Our situation at the time prompted me to think politically. How could we make ends meet to pay the rent, when there were large villas on the other side of town? »
In the election program, Timmer wrote about economics and care, areas that, according to BIJ1, should be radically «fairer», the word that appears 62 times in the program. Timmer laughs. «99 percent would benefit from our program. Call it communist, we call it fair. «Her switch from the SP to BIJ1 came when she put the decolonization of street names on the agenda in Hilversum and participated in a demonstration with KOZP. «A municipal councilor who was going to demonstrate in his own city. That was unseen. «It earned her the nickname Rebella. «It was clear that the SP was not happy with what I was doing. I got calls from the national board. «A month after she met Simons, she left the SP.
It is a common thread with many BIJ1s: they have always voted left-wing progressive, but the disappointment in the traditional left-wing parties made them switch to BIJ1. This is also the case for 23-year-old Ömür Sönmez. Just graduated as a filmmaker, he signed up for the flyer campaign in the Bijlmer. «I used to vote GroenLinks. I come from a politically committed family. As a child, my parents took me to demonstrations against Bush and the Iraq war. «Sönmez remembers exactly when he decided to leave GroenLinks. «Their voting behavior in the Lower House about police violence made me realize: this is no longer possible.»
But it is precisely in positioning themselves differently from existing parties that presents a challenge for BIJ1, says Joost van Spain, professor of political science. His research shows that since 1948 ninety percent of the new political parties have been unable to join the House of Representatives. «In addition, the current party landscape is not in favor of BIJ1. Voters in the Netherlands, and certainly on left, rely on the content. You really have to come up with an alternative to attract voters from parties such as DENK, GroenLinks, the PVDD and the PVDA. But would voters see that alternative in BIJ1 as sufficient? »
Political scientist and founder of Kieskompas André Krouwel also does not foresee any major electoral success for the time being. «In the context of populism, BIJ1 is an important opposite, because they are the face of a group that says, we do belong. But the party is extreme on both axes of the political landscape: both on economics and on issues of ethnic-cultural minorities. However, many voters are more moderate than that. Their potential electorate is very small in the Netherlands. »
BIJ1 is not included in his vote-kompas because it only gets a seat in the poll of Maurice de Hond. Political scientist Mügge is more optimistic. «Groups that do not feel represented are difficult to reach for surveys. I expect that BIJ1 will have a seat in the House. There is momentum among young people who are critical of the lack of inclusion. There is a lot going on, especially online, and traditional studies have difficulty getting a grip on this.
The current elections are not normal due to the corona crisis. «It could be that people choose certainty, and therefore do not vote for BIJ1 because they are afraid that they will not come into the Chamber and their vote will be lost,» continues Mügge. Smaller parties such as BIJ1 also want attention for their own ideological agenda. «As long as it concerns the epidemic, BIJ1 is left empty-handed, because they want to talk about other things,» says political scientist Van Spain. «And without corona, it would have been more about BLM and BIJ1 could have benefited from that.»
The election program of BIJ1 deals with predictable topics such as apologies and reparation for the slavery past or ethnic profiling, but also surprising proposals such as the constitutionally anchoring of animal rights, raising the minimum wage to fourteen euros per hour or setting up a National Care Fund. Many of the plans raise the question of how BIJ1 intends to pay for this. Timmer: «There is enough money, but it is not distributed properly. It now goes to tax deals, KLM, Shell and other multinationals, while it can go to healthcare. Something fundamentally wrong and that is capitalism. The system needs to be overhauled. «With this, BIJ1 is actually fishing in a relatively small left-wing pond, but they also want to show that they are not only an anti-racist party for and by black people.
And yet it remains difficult to shake off the image of a one-issue party. «An obstinate prejudice,» Simons calls it. The fact that BIJ1 comes from the anti-racism movement provides authenticity and trust among some of their supporters, but it is also the factor that makes their visibility in other policy areas more difficult. How does BIJ1 want to solve this? » I sometimes compare it to the early years of the Party for the Animals,» says Simons. «They told a good story, and told it again, and again. And now everyone sees what they stand for. Our success is not the success from zero to one hundred in twenty seconds. Our success is a steady but sure story. When people get to know us – as in the Amsterdam city council – they see that the frame in which they are stepped on is not correct.
«In the Amsterdam city council I was impressed by the party,» says Marjan Sax (73), who has been active in activist circles for fifty years and is today concerned about the fate of undocumented refugees. She helped BIJ1 to put things in order. «Anja Meulenbelt then dragged me by the hair and said, come along. Practical matters had to be arranged and I had experience. »
Sax, with her expertise in financing funds and capital management, contributed to the crowdfunding. The party raised one hundred thousand euros. «That may seem like a lot, but for an election campaign it is not a large amount. We really scraped it together with small donations, «says Sax. «Everything is just starting. Most of them have little or no experience, but they do have an intense youthful enthusiasm. Sometimes I also think: could it be a little less? When they say they want a general pardon for all rejected asylum seekers and undocumented migrants. Then I think, while I am very committed to this group: that is insufficiently nuanced. But BIJ1 is the most diverse group I have ever dealt with in all these years. And I’m not exactly from a monolithic women’s movement right now. They try to bring street activism into politics. That’s new. »
«We did not join the BLM protests. We organized them, « emphasizes Timmer. That is the difference with other parties. We are the movement. «It is a question that arises among (potential) voters and political watchers: if BIJ1 succeeds in getting into the House, how do they find a balance between activism and politics? «I once decided that I want to link the two and be in between,» Simons replies. «I want to take what is on the agenda by activists to politics. The difference is that an activist is free in what and how they address, while a politician has to deal with interests, traditions and responsibility. »
The question is whether the left-wing electorate is waiting for an activist opposition in the Chamber. According to political scientist Krouwel, the floating left-wing voter is mainly looking for a way to «rattle the cabinet – and therefore power.» They mainly doubt between PVDA and GroenLinks. »
A reproach that BIJ1 regularly receives is that they go overboard in identity thinking and that this leads to polarization. «To be honest, I can’t do much with that and I don’t think we’re there for those people either,» says Simons. «Not every Dutch person has the potential to be a BIJ1 voter. But that we only address Randstad problems is nonsense. For example, we have an active department in Friesland. And people from the Achterhoek also have an AOW they cannot get by or care costs are too high. »
Simons is «tired, but happy». In recent weeks she has been working on the campaign for up to 20 hours a day. «I feel responsible for the ins and outs of the party, the well-being of everyone, the campaign strategy. As a result, things like eating and sleeping sometimes get in the way. «She pauses, then says:» We are now on the right track with the BLM protests and, for example, the allowance scandal. We have the opportunity to make history and make it different for my grandchild. «There have been times» when it would have been legitimate «to throw in the towel over the past four years, but Simons doesn’t give it a second thought. Not even if they don’t get a seat now.
During the flyer campaign in Amsterdam-Zuidoost, BIJ1 wore T-shirts with «Still I Rise» in large letters, referring to a poem by the African American Maya Angelou. «Our strength is that we are flexible,» says Simons. «We bend, but we don’t burst. Sooner or later you will have to agree with us, because our story is just good. Time is our greatest asset. »BIJ1_FLYER3_english_2-end