Shield and Friends was known by UNIA

“Flanders is in our blood,” one of the images that Schild and Vrienden spread on social media.
 Amber Vuylsteke

UNIA, the Belgian organisation against racism and discrimination, already kept an eye on Schild and Vrienden (Shield and Friends). This is an extreme right-wing youth group disseminating racist comments. The organisation received ten reports about racist statements. “People reported very concrete cases, such as photos and t-shirts with racist comments”, says UNIA spokesman Bram Sebrechts.

The racist youth group Schild and Vrienden has recently been connected to extremist ideas following a Pano-reportage. After the media storm it now appears that the extreme right organisation was already a known phenomenon at UNIA. The anti-discrimination organisation received several reports from victims, about the group.

The reports were about offensive photos, stickers and t-shirts. Yet those statements were never criminal offences. “The broad freedom of speech in our country allows us to say things that can offend or shock people,” explains spokesman Sebrechts. “Everything we received about the organization remained within the limits of what is legally acceptable.” That’s why UNIA could not intervene earlier.

The public prosecutor is now investigating whether Schild and Vrienden have committed criminal offences or not. This can lead to a lawsuit if they have encouraged others to be violent. If that is the case, UNIA can join the civic party together with the victims, says Sebrechts: “We ensure that the public prosecutor’s office includes homophobia and racism in their investigation, so that it is considered an aggravating circumstance.”

Dries van Langenhove, the founder of Schild and Vrienden, has already been suspended from the University of Ghent, where he is a student. According to UNIA, this is a partial solution. “We hope above all that he realizes that his statements completely conflict with our super diverse society and that he’ll think about how to interact openly with each other “.

Visible racism

UNIA is unclear about whether there are other similar organisations to S&V in Belgium. Yet, it seems as if Belgium is adopting a more right-wing mindset. In 2017, the equal opportunities centre received 17.5% more individual reports from victims of racism than in 2016. There is no scientific measure as to whether there is more racism in Belgium, but it is becoming increasingly visible. “Racist ideology is coming more to the foreground today. This has partly to do with social media, but also with the political statements that become more free and coarse”, says UNIA.

Flemish Prime Minister Bourgeois (N-VA) thinks about it differently, “Every party has convicted this right-wing extremist movement.” According to him, there is no connection between the political language and organisations such as Schild and Vrienden.

UNIA continues to support the victims and closely follows up the investigation of the public prosecutor’s office.