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Provo was a Dutch counterculture movement in the mid-1960s that focused on provoking violent responses from authorities using non-violent bait. It was preceded by the nozem movement and followed by the hippie movement. Provo was founded, on 25 May 1965, by Robert Jasper Grootveld, an anti-smoking activist, and the anarchists Roel van Duijn and Rob Stolk. The term was used for the movement as a whole and for individual members. Provo was officially disbanded on 13 May 1967.
The Provos are thought to have evolved out of the artist Robert Jasper Grootveld's anti-smoking happenings in June 1964. The following year other groups appeared as a fusion of small groups of youths around the pacifist ban-the-bomb movement. Roel van Duijn is thought to have been the group's theorist, influenced by anarchism, Dadaism, Herbert Marcuse and the Marquis de Sade.
The Provos borrowed their name from Wouter Buikhuisen, who in doctoral dissertation in 1965, talked about “young trouble-makers” as "provos", a word derived from the Dutch word provoceren meaning to provoke.
Bernhard de Vries states that the Provos comprised four groups of people:
- "The happeners": those managing happenings in Amsterdam and Antwerp, combining non-violence with absurd humour to provoke the police. The police were regarded as “essential non-creative elements for a successful happening” and “co-happeners”.
- "The beatniks and hipsters".
- "The thinkers": those publishing Provo ideas in magazines and pamphlets, including Provo, Revo, Eindelijk, and University of Amsterdam student weekly Propria Cures.
- "The activists" or the “street Provos” who engaged in direct action with the intent to influence public opinion.
While their parents, seated on refrigerators and washing machines, watched TV with their left eyes, and their cars with their right eyes, a mixer in one hand and the Telegraaf in the other, the kids left Saturday evening for the Spui square.
12 July 1965 the first Provo magazine was published. It contained the “Provo manifesto”, written by Roel van Duijn, and reprinted recipes for bombs from a nineteenth-century anarchist pamphlet. The magazine was eventually confiscated.
In Provo #12, the magazine was described as
a monthly sheet for anarchists, provos, beatniks, pleiners, scissors-grinders, jailbirds, simple simon stylites, magicians, pacifists, potato-chip chaps, charlatans, philosophers, germ-carriers, grand masters of the queen’s horse, happeners, vegetarians, syndicalists, santy clauses, kindergarten teachers, agitators, pyromaniacs, assistant assistants, scratchers and syphilitics, secret police, and other riff-raff. Provo has something against capitalism, communism, fascism, bureaucracy, militarism, professionalism, dogmatism, and authoritarianism. Provo has to choose between desperation, resistance and submissive extinction. Provo calls for resistance wherever possible. Provo realises that it will lose in the end, but it cannot pass up the chance to make at least one more heartfelt attempt to provoke society. Provo regards anarchy as the inspirational source of resistance. Provo wants to revive anarchy and teach it to the young. Provo is an image.
Actions and ideas
The Provos gained world prominence through its protests at the royal wedding of Princess Beatrix of the Netherlands and Claus von Amsberg. The Dutch Royal Family was unpopular at the time, and Claus von Amsberg was thought to be unacceptable to many Dutch people because of his Hitlerjugend membership during World War II. The engagement was announced in June, and in July the Provos threw anti-monarchist pamphlets from a bridge into the royal boat.
In the run-up to the wedding Provo made up a fake speech, in which Queen Juliana declared she'd become anarchist and was negotiating a transition of power with Provo. The White Rumour Plan was put into action, as part of which wild rumours were spread in Amsterdam, including that the Provos were preparing to dump LSD in the city water supply. These rumours led the authorities to request 25,000 troops to help guard the parade route.
Dressed as ordinary citizens, the Provos managed to sneak sugar and nitrate smoke bombs past the police. The first bombs went off just behind the palace as the procession started. Unable to identify the Provos, the police overreacted and the wedding turned into a public relations disaster. In the week after the wedding, the police attacked and beat patrons of a photo exhibition documenting police violence at the royal wedding. Following these events a number of well-known writers and intellectuals started requesting an independent investigation into police behaviour.
Provoking the police
The Provos sought to provoke the police in non-violent ways, aiming to shatter the self-righteousness of the authorities. Led by Grootveld, the Provos began a disinformation campaign to demonstrate the establishment's complete ignorance on the subject of cannabis. The Provos set out to get busted for "consuming" tea, hay, or herbs instead of marijuana. The Provos would often call the police on themselves.
"One day a whole group of us went by bus to Belgium," says Grootveld. "Of course I had informed my friend Houweling [police officer] 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 some 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 White Plans
The political wing of the Provos won a seat on the city council of Amsterdam, and developed the "White Plans". The most famous of those is the "White Bicycle Plan", which aimed to improve Amsterdam's transport problem. Generally the plans sought to address social problems and make Amsterdam more liveable.
List of the White Plans:
- White bicycle plan: Initiated by Luud Schimmelpenninck, the white bicycle plan proposed the closing of central Amsterdam to all motorised traffic, including motorbikes, with the intent to improve public transport frequency by more than 40% and to save two million guilders per year. Taxis were accepted as semi-public transport, but would have to be electrically powered and have a maximum speed of 25 m.p.h. The Provos proposed one of the first bicycle sharing systems: the municipality would buy 20,000 white bikes per year, which were to be public property and free for everybody to use. After the plans were rejected by the city authorities, the Provos decided to go ahead anyway. They painted 50 bikes white and left them on streets for public use. The police impounded the bikes, as they violated municipal law forbidding citizens to leave bikes without locking them. After the bikes had been returned to the Provos, they equipped them all with combination locks and painted the combinations on the bicycles. (The song "My White Bicycle" by the English psychedelic rock band Tomorrow is about Amsterdam's white bicycle plan. This song was later covered by the band Nazareth, whose version was a hit in the UK pop charts.)
- White Chimney Plan: Proposed that air polluters be taxed and the chimneys of serious polluters painted white.
- White Women Plan: Proposed a network of clinics offering advice and contraceptives, mainly for the benefit of women and girls, and with the intention to reduce unwanted pregnancies. The plan was for girls of sixteen to be invited to visit the clinic, and advocated for schools to teach sex education. The White Women Plan also argued that it is irresponsible to enter marriage as a virgin.
- White Chicken Plan: Proposal for the reorganization of the Amsterdam police (called "kip" in Dutch slang, meaning "chicken"). Under the plan, the police would be disarmed and placed under the jurisdiction of the municipal council rather than the burgemeester (mayor). Municipalities would then be able to democratically elect their own chief of police. The Provos intended for this revised structure to transform the police from guard to social worker.
- White Housing Plan: The plan sought to address Amsterdam's acute housing problem by banning speculation in house building, and by promoting the squatting of empty buildings. The plan envisioned Waterlooplein as an open-air market and advocated abandoning plans for a new town hall.
- White Kids Plan: The plan proposed shared parenting in groups of five couples. Parents would take turns to care for the group's children on a different day of the week.
- White Victim Plan: The Plan proposed that anyone having caused death while driving would have to build a warning memorial on the site of the traffic collision by carving the victim's outline one inch deep into the pavement and filling it with white mortar.
- White Car Plan A car-sharing project proposed by Schimmelpennink featuring electric cars which could be used by the people. It was later realised in a limited fashion as the Witkar system from 1974 until 1986.
Tensions with the police peaked in June 1966, when the construction worker Jan Weggelaar died during a demonstration. The official autopsy stated heart attack, but it was widely believed that Weggelaar had been killed by the police. De Telegraaf reported that he had been killed by a colleague. A strike was called by construction workers and large numbers of workers and their sympathisers, including Provos, marched through Amsterdam. Demonstrators fought the police in the streets (on the Dam and Damrak) and attacked the offices and vehicles of De Telegraaf.
At the same time, the Provos participated in left-wing student protests against the Vietnam War. Demonstrations were banned, resulting in an increase in their size and popularity. The police responded with increasing force, and by mid-1966 hundreds of arrests were made every week. Police brutality led to increasing sympathy for the Provos and the anti-war demonstrators among the general public. An official investigation into the crisis was opened.
These events eventually led to the dismissal of Amsterdam's police chief, H. J. van der Molen, in 1966 and the resignation of mayor Gijsbert van Hall in 1967. After van Hall had been removed, Grootveld and Rob Stolk (printer of Provo magazine) decided to end Provo. Stolk said: “Provo has to disappear because all the Great Men that made us big have gone”, a reference to Provo’s two arch-enemies, Van Hall and Van der Molen.
- "Dutch Provos," High Times (January 1990), pp. 32–36, 64-66 & 73. [An article by Teun Voeten on the history of Provos, includes pictures].
- "Revolt and Recuperation in Holland", Internationale Situationniste #11 (October 1967). [Translated by Reuben Keehan. Proofread and copy edited by NOT BORED!]
- Richard Kempton, Provo: Amsterdam's Anarchist Revolt (Autonomedia, 27-08-2007). ISBN 978-1-57027-181-6
- Roel van Duyn Biography
- Provo Archives (in Dutch) from the years (1920), (1940), 1955-1993 in International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam, Netherlands.
- A Dozen Souvenirs of Provo in International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam, Netherlands.
- Cor Jaring's photos of Provo people and happenings
- Netherlands: The Second Liberation - Roel van Duijn - Becoming a Kabouter
- www.provo-images.info shows an almost full collection Provo pamphlets and magazines.