A peaceful Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest in Brussels gave way to looting and chaos on Sunday, leading to widespread condemnation from authorities and over 200 arrests.
Shops in the high-end Louise area were broken into and trashed as groups of rioters broke off from the mass of some 10,000 demonstrators as they left the gathering spot in Place Poelaert.
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Looters also moved into the nearby Matongé district, where they clashed with police as they set fire to garbages and looted fast-fashion chains and other retailers lining the Chaussé d'Ixelles.
"Groups of delinquents are disturbing the homage to George Floyd," Brussels City mayor, Philippe Close, said on Twitter, adding that he had ordered police to immediately arrest the "thieves."
Close, who had on Friday authorised the demonstration despite the current ban on gatherings, pinned the chaos that ensued on "troublemakers and delinquents" who deliberately provoked police before "attacking shops and robbing them like common thieves."
He added that authorities would review video footage and the city would be filing proceedings against the perpetrators, saying 229 were in police custody as of Monday morning.
He also said that shop owners and businesses, who recently opened their doors after months of lockdown, would be compensated.
Footage of the looting and clashes with police spread rapidly on social media and prompted sharp criticism from politicians, including far-right party figurehead Tom Van Grieken, who shared footage of a Salvatore Ferragamo shop being looted with the caption: "immigrant scum."
Organisers of the march did not immediately reply to a request for comment but told Flemish media on Sunday that they were "disappointed" that some had chosen to loot and riot, saying that this hurt the movement.
A spokesperson for local non-profit Change, among the organisers, said that police "did not play their part" by acting as if "everyone was a vandal" as protesters left the square.
At least 10,000 demonstrators gathered peacefully for the march in Place Poelaert, at the foot of Brussels' Courts of Law, chanting "Black Lives Matter" and other anti-racism slogans.
Protesters also raised a silent fist in solidarity to the anti-racist movement that inflamed the US after the death of George Floyd, the latest in a string of brutal killings of black residents at the hands of police officers or white citizen vigilantes.
Several officials expressed concern for the demonstration, with Federal Health Minister Maggie De Block sharing images of protesters packed in the square and describing the gathering as "dangerous."
The mass demonstration comes as federal leaders move forward with phasing out the lockdown in an attempt to revive economic activity in the country.
Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès, who had previously advised against the demonstration, said she "regretted that an alternative could not be found" where sanitary rules could be enforced.
In line with the agreement clinched with authorities, organisers managed to keep the protest static and even distributed free masks and enlisted stewards to guide protesters, but as the crowds gathered to hear organisers speak, social-distancing was all but impossible to observe on Sunday.
The Brussels Times