We met Andrea Mai during a demonstration of the yellow vests in Brussels, while he challenged a policeman, expressing his revolt and his fears about this unbearable world that is taking shape every day. We saw him again for an interview. His words show a great lucidity, the same one that is absent from the cenacles of this power that hates the yellow vests.
Andrea, we met on December 15th. It’s you that we see on this video that Kairos made. Tell us what happened…
For me, the movement started on November 15, with the first calls for demonstration. Many have taken this fight to heart by sharing on the networks, we have discussed among ourselves, groups have been created …
Following what happened in France?
The blockades began on November 16 in Belgium, while the Saturday acts had begun in France. It was from December 7 onwards that there were demonstrations here, the day that the two police cars were burned. I went there with a friend, we saw the protesters blocked in front of the pumps. It was obvious that the first hostilities had not been launched by the yellow vests.
What are you advocating for by going to these events?
My daughter is 6 years old, and I don’t want to leave her in this world. There is corruption everywhere! At the moment something wonderful is happening. The first demand was the gasoline tax, which was emphasized by the media. But as the rallies went on, we discovered together that the problem was much larger and that it concerned politics in general, the industrial and pharmaceutical lobbies, the banks… The movement is now closer to a popular revolution.
Do you feel the beginning of a revolt in Belgium as much as in France?
Yes, but you have to understand that we are in Brussels, the capital of the European Union, the one that wanted the oppression of the people. Since then, all the taxes have fallen, many laws have been changed. So it is normal that it is more difficult, here in Brussels, to be heard than in Liège, Namur or Charleroi, where they do not have these problems. That’s why I try to bring people here. The first weekend we were about 3.000 people, but it decreased afterwards, because of the misinformation, but also because of the arrests and the protesters put in the stables in Etterbeek. However, Brussels is the most beautiful sign, as a yellow vest. If there is no more revolt here, there will only be authorized demonstrations like in other cities, which will not bring anything. The only thing we have supposedly won is the resignation of Charles Michel, but it is not due to the yellow vests. It was the N‑VA that left the government to try to gain an advantage in the elections in May.
You think the yellow vests don’t win because there aren’t enough of them?
Yes, because if we were more numerous we could say that we represent the people. I think we really represent the most disadvantaged social classes. I myself am raising my daughter alone. I am aware of the difficulty of life, which others do not know or know much less, because they are in a couple, they have two salaries that come in… Yet, we fight for everyone. At the moment, we are the ones who are in trouble with money, but if we let this happen, the whole working class will suffer later on.
When you say » we « , there are many people who live with difficulty, one child out of four living below the poverty line…
Yes, but then where are these people? We need them! Because we are also tired, since November 16!
Where do you think they are?
In my opinion, they turn a deaf ear, indulge in their little habits because they can still afford it. When you compare Black Friday and the number of people who move to make their voice heard, there is an incomprehensible differential and we feel alone, we wonder why we see these things and others do not. If they saw them, they would be on the street with us for sure.
On the 15th, when the police channeled the demonstrators towards Rogier, they at one point secured the Rue Neuve. They did everything possible to prevent the demonstrators from disrupting consumers’ shopping…
It’s been done since the beginning… The best ratio we had was one demonstrator for every two policemen in the first week, when we were the most numerous; even so, they were twice as many as us, with fire engines, horses, riot police, plainclothes policemen… We’d like to do what they do in France, but we’re understaffed!
You communicate mainly via Facebook. What’s going on right now at this level?
A law was easily passed in 2015 after the terrorist attacks, because the citizens were afraid and wanted to give all the weapons to the politician to prevent it from happening again. But a few weeks ago, when I reread all the clauses of this law, I saw that what is considered a terrorist attack is too broad. For example, the fact that I relay real and accurate information about the actions of politicians on Facebook is a reason to monitor me.
Have you been arrested?
I was quickly arrested the second week. On Friday, December 1st, I managed to go to the demonstration, even to the European Parliament, where there were about 150 of us, peacefully. But because of the fact that we were there, we were charged by the police with tear gas. Then they surrounded us and arbitrarily arrested us. That’s why, when we came back home, we wanted to find a solution so that people could arrive at the place of demonstration. Having a lot of contacts with the movement on social networks, I launched a small status giving people tips on how not to get arrested.
Is the report when you were arrested at the demonstration?
No, because it didn’t. There were about 100 of us on the first Friday, and almost all of us went home without any problems. They didn’t know who I was or that I was there. As soon as I get home, I prepare with friends the events of the following week. On December 5, I see on Facebook that two people often present in Liege with the yellow vests were arrested: Cédric Zachariou and Max « The Belgian ». Being as present as they are on the networks and having talked to a lot of people at that time, I feel that something is going to happen to me, that the police are going to come to my house. Before going to sleep, I post a status on Facebook to give news to all my friends, yellow vests and others, and to my family of course… The next day at 10:40, it rings at my house, while I was sleeping. On the intercom, an inspector asks me to leave. Then the coin falls and I am surprised that I was so right! I knew that everything had been seized from two other people who had been arrested before me: telephone, computer, anything that could have been used to communicate.
So at this point, you go out?
I had the presence of mind to take my keys because I could sense that they wanted to search and I didn’t want to give them the opportunity to do so directly. There are two police inspectors and two anti-terrorism inspectors.
From the anti-terrorist brigade!?
Yes, because those who monitor us on social networks are the anti-terrorist brigade. They were closed and hard. They are the ones who deal with the yellow vests, yet not terrorists, but normal people. That means a lot.
Could you not have gone out? Did they have an arrest warrant?
Not at that time. They just asked me to come to the door. I innocently asked them what was going on, surrounded by these four men who asked me to follow them to the police station, making me understand that it was mandatory. It was through the networks, especially Facebook, that they got my name. There are groups where they are particularly present, the inspector told me. For example, Edgard Dache’s group called Police Control Belgium. The inspector told me himself: they know me because they have a total vision of this group.
And so you follow them?
I follow them nicely. I tell them I’ll get dressed and come back. Before that, they ask me if I consent to a search, which I can accept or not.
A friendly search!
That’s it. Now I tell them that I don’t agree. They say directly: » Sir, we can have a mandate, so just because you say no doesn’t mean we won’t come . I still refused, thinking to upset them, but 10 minutes later, they had it, based on what was present on my Facebook wall and the discussions I had had with the different yellow vests on the Net, in particular two publications, which I will come back to, and which are for them the obvious proofs to arrest me, but which for me are totally arbitrary So on the way to the car, 3 of the men get in front of me, the 4th, from the anti-terrorism, stays behind me. When we got to the car, my upstairs neighbor was watching because he was worried, and a man took my arms without asking. I don’t understand why they’re doing this, I wasn’t incisive or violent. He puts me in handcuffs and I start to get a little angry asking them why. There is no justification for it. The other counterterrorism guy tells me it’s the process. So I try to keep calm, even though they are squeezing my handcuffs very tightly, which hurts my wrists. In the car, I insisted, asking why. The one who put them on me said, » Shut up! »
So they have become progressively more aggressive?
Yes. So I got a little angry, saying that I would not keep quiet, that I had the freedom of speech. One of the inspectors turned to me and said, » Look, we don’t want this to get out of hand or have to get rough with you, so try to stay calm until we get to the station. There, we’ll take off the handcuffs. « I kept my mouth shut. Arrived at the police station, rue de la Bouteille, I am questioned by the two inspectors. Just before I enter the room, I have the opportunity to see the work place of the anti-terrorist squad, which is the room right next to the office where I was. It also struck me: there was a big table with 4 computers and 8 people around. It was probably the whole of the anti-terrorist brigade of Seraing. They are probably the ones in charge of monitoring the networks. From there follows an interrogation of everything on my wall, including videos and publications.
Did they list everything?
Yes, and in fact the complaint came from Charleroi, which I did not understand. I think I was being monitored on Facebook and certainly elsewhere. But how far can they go… I started to justify myself on everything I had written, for example on harmless posts shared thousands of times. More specifically, they based their arrest on two publications. The first one is a short video where I write in comment: » I prefer to see burned cars than to see people dying next to me « , because in this video, we see the CRS backing up in front of the demonstrators for 15 to 20 seconds. By my comment I wanted to say that in Belgium, we should react in the same way, that we should not let ourselves be done. But in this same video, there were 10 seconds where cars burned in Brussels were shown. So it was used to accuse me of stirring up hatred. I never said to burn a car, hit a policeman or break anything. I simply urged people to wake up and make their voices heard. This comment is their most concrete « proof ». On this 3.5 minute video, they use 10 seconds to trick me. I think it’s a bit special! The second « proof » is a discussion I had with a lady on Facebook. She says she disagrees with the destruction of property. In a fit of anger, I answer: » I prefer to see burned cars than to see people dying next to me, like in France. « That’s my very specific phrase. Who wouldn’t agree with that? For the police, on the other hand, it is incitement to hatred. I never said: » Burn cars « . They also called me out for 4 or 5 other statuses or videos, yet without any aggressive comments from me. Their goal was really to get me to betray myself by saying I wanted to break everything, but they didn’t succeed. That day, I was questioned twice. During the first interrogation, which lasted 1h30, the search had not yet taken place. I was then told that I had to go to jail. I had never been there and it pissed me off. I had not been violent, I had answered all the questions. I asked them if I could stay in the office until the search was done. But no, I stayed in the dungeon for 2h30 without water, without the possibility to call. There was no reason for me to be there. Plus, I am claustrophobic, which I reported to the police. After these 2h30, the inspectors came back. I have nothing to say about them, they were nice, they gave me food and drink, then brought me back to the office to tell me about everything they had found in my house: my phone, my computer, balaclavas that I used to use when I worked at the post office… Balaclavas, in winter, when we were on scooters with snow falling, we really needed them! And unfortunately for me, they found something else. That’s when I gave them a stick to beat me with: one of the people close to the yellow vests had researched on the internet how to make homemade smoke from sugar and fertilizer. Nothing explosive. I just had it on paper, I thought it might be useful in case we had to defend ourselves a little bit against police attacks.
Did they tell you about it?
They grabbed it too. But even more worrying: I’ve been writing rap music for 4 years. I was preparing texts on the yellow vests, they even went to grab that… texts! Why enter these texts, when I am very careful about what I say? I don’t want to be aggressive or lead people to be aggressive.
And then they let you go?
Before my first meeting with the inspectors, I had been in contact with a human rights organization. The lawyer had advised me not to hesitate to talk about her several times, so that they would keep me for less time. It was a judicial arrest and they could have held me for 48 hours. So I have often mentioned this jurist. They listened to what they had found, I justified myself with everything again and they closed the 2nd minutes. They passed everything on to the investigating judge, I think, and told me that they were going to put me in the dungeon for a second time. It made me even more angry. They said that was the procedure. Moreover, that day, I had an appointment with the lady of Human Rights in Brussels. I couldn’t get there.
What if you had to pick up your daughter from school or…?
They didn’t care about that. Their goal, as I understand it, was not to arrest me for stirring up hatred. The inspectors, in discussing the yellow vests with me, totally agreed with me! They even advised me on what to put or not to put in the minutes when I said certain things in a fit of anger. Basically, they understood our struggle, but said they had orders and had to question me.
What’s the point above, then?
The real goal is to stifle the movement. From the very first weeks, they wanted to find all the people who advised or motivated others, those who federated without putting themselves forward, like Max « The Belgian » and Cédric Zachariou. The moment a person is too smart, takes up too much space, or has too much of a following, they get arrested. I was the first one in Seraing and, to tell you how impressive the misinformation in the media is, Sud-Presse published an article about my arrest, totally false, but without mentioning my name. For them, we were terrorists, we were preparing grenades, real ones, not smoke grenades made with fertilizer and sugar. Has it ever killed anyone?
What about the other media?
RTL-TVi, Sud-Presse and RTBF did not talk about my arrest, but for them as for the others, it is either silence or disinformation in the sense that they use what could be detrimental to us by removing everything that could be in our favor. At RTBF, they are magnificent! If RTL is already not very objective, RTBF is worse. They don’t have even a little bit of objectivity or conscience. Everything that is shared, as well as the yellow vests that have been invited on their sets, it has always been with the aim of incriminating our movement.
You mean they invited yellow vests that were more like sheep?
I think in particular of Elodie Doppagne. I have been in contact with her a lot after her first interview on RTBF where, in my opinion, she was completely broken by experienced politicians because she was not ready. 6 months later, we had a bit of an argument because I told her that she had to understand that we had reached a point where, if you go on television, you must not be aggressive but incisive. We don’t have to ask for permission anymore. We think we represent the people because in all the groups of yellow vests to which I belong, there are already about a hundred thousand of us. I told her that I was not against her taking on the role of spokesperson, but that it had to be done in the best way possible. Because we are facing people whose goal is to disassociate us. On the sets, they always go for the simpletons or those who are stuck on this tax thing.
Is it power to the people?
The power to the people is that they can have their own voice in politics. Our representatives know nothing about the daily lives of people like us. They live with 10, 15, 20.000€ per month… Just look at what happened with Publifin, Nethys, or even with the climate: 75.000 people march for the climate and 2 days later, Belgium is the only country that does not accept the conditions that were set to limit global warming. This is proof that their goal is not to solve climate problems or poverty, but rather to serve the pharmaceutical and industrial lobbies and the world’s greatest wealth. Moreover, when the yellow vest movement started, Rothschild sold its shares. Why? Because everyone realizes that they are the problem. And as long as they have a stranglehold on politics with money, we won’t have a voice. And it’s been going on for 50 years. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not even a binding text. It was written in 1948, and the elites have been preparing the ground since then. It is for these reasons that we do not want to give up. The investigating judge told me, » If we ever see you again, or see that you are too present on social networks, we will come back and arrest you! » According to the law, having even a recipe for homemade smoke could have earned me 3 months. They told me I was lucky. They thought that like the others, I would calm down because of my family, my work. At that time, I still had a job, which I lost because of all this.
Did you lose your job?
Yes. I’m not going to say that I’ve become a media person, but since November 16, I’ve put my personal life on hold. I gather on my wall everything that could be interesting for the movement. My employer saw it, he knew about my arrest because I was supposed to work that day. My sister, who works with me, explained to him why I wasn’t there. But I lost my job after 8 months, even though they were happy with me. This is their goal, in fact, in calling out to those who are trying to build bridges, to connect, to find solutions. And that’s what they’ve managed to do with others. To give just one example, Max « The Belgian » was really on the blocking points and he got arrested for that, especially in Wandre. Filming live while he refused, it was on this basis that he was challenged. They searched his house and must have found something. Since then, he has calmed down. We still see it, but no longer in Brussels, only in Liege in the authorized demonstrations. And the problem with these demonstrations is that they are taken over by small parties. Not PS or Ecolo, but rather Agora or Demos. At the moment, in Liege, the demonstration is managed by the yellow vests but also by the PTB. In Namur, it’s another party.
Obviously, you think that the movement should not be linked to parties?
Absolutely. This week, all the yellow vests were in agreement for the RIC [Référendum d’Initiative Citoyenne], it was really the basic idea. The RIC is a citizen suffrage where for each question, each law, there must be a vote, so all the people have the right to say what they think. CPR is totally different. There, the small parties want to blow up all the traditional parties — PS, Ecolo, N‑VA — to take their place, because they were in politics before the yellow vests. If the RCP were to pass at this time, it would be these small parties that have never been in power that would benefit. The problem would not be solved because a person would have to be elected from a list of these parties. Once again, the people will still have no say. And this is just one of many examples that we are trying to combat on the networks. It’s difficult because there are people from the Nation, from the extreme right, from the extreme left, from everywhere in fact, you really have to watch everything.
Finally, Andrea, despite the risks, will you continue?
I will continue, I will be present in Brussels until the end, even if I have to be alone with a yellow vest! But it is really time that people realize that our fight is not a gas tax, it is to get a real popular voice to bring a solution to poverty, climate, corruption at all levels of power, up to the European level. We want to stay in Brussels, the capital of Europe is here! In a way, living in Belgium is a duty. Already 23 countries in Europe have risen up. We represent the tip of the sword, so it makes sense that we get a little more abuse and they do everything they can to shut us up, but it also makes sense that we can’t stop. We have to stay in Brussels, we have to be patient, we have to gather people, maybe the first week we will be 500, the second 1.000, the third 2.000, but I am sure that if we continue like this, we can show people that our movement is non-party and social. Social actions are everywhere, like yellow vests bringing coffee to the homeless. There is a link that is recreated and it is beautiful! For the past thirty years, we have tended to close ourselves off, listening to the media. It is based in fact on…
… on a false reality?
A false reality! Since November 16, we have realized this. And that’s the beauty of it! At each demonstration, at each blockade, that’s what gives us strength too, we talk with people and we always end up with the same demands. On the networks too, even if we don’t agree, we always end up finding common ground. That’s what they don’t show, precisely to divide us. At the moment, we are creating a website to contact all the people in Wallonia, Flanders and Brussels. It will be much easier, given the censorship on Facebook, where you can’t create an event with more than 1,000 participants without it being deleted. Our main goal is not to let Brussels down, otherwise the whole movement will die. We already saw it last week with the political recuperations. People really need to realize that the most important thing is to stay united. We all want the same thing, it’s time for people to be aware of this and to go out on the streets, because that’s where we need them, in Brussels. As long as we don’t have a presence, we won’t have any weight, but we’ll continue anyway. The problem is the mental fatigue due to the arrests, the cold, the blockades. But we don’t give up, we are here! They can come back and arrest me, that’s not why I’ll stop, as I told the inspectors. I thanked them because by trying to restrain me and stop me in my tracks, they gave me 10 times more determination. Before leaving I even kissed them and thanked them.
Interview conducted by Alexandre Penasse, Brussels, January 2019. Transcribed by Sébastien Gillard, reworked by Bernard Legros.
Video of the interview available on