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Project X Haren revisited

In 2012 the small town of Haren made worldwide headlines. A peaceful town transformed into a battlefield for one night. The rich people’s town, right outside of Groningen, was invaded by thousands of youngsters who came to a Facebook event that was never supposed to happen at all.


Everything started on 6 September 2012, when 16-year-old Merthe created an event on Facebook inviting some friends to her birthday party. She decided to give the event a public status, so her friends would be able to invite some other friends. This unfortunate decision had a snowball effect: over 24 thousand people were invited to join. Merthe cancelled the event when she realized things were getting out of hand, but it was already too late. Other people started creating similar events and one of them had at some point over 55 thousand invitees. On 21 September, thousands of people, most of them teenagers and students, went to Haren to see what would happen, but the police didn’t allow them to enter the street where the girl lived. People started getting drunk and the ‘party’ turned into a huge riot.

It didn’t take long before the rioters started to break store windows, cars, bicycles

Merthe’s parents did all they could to try to prevent the party from happening. They contacted the organizers of the events that were created after the original one was deleted, asking them to also delete their events, but the organizers refused. Concerned with the situation, they distributed a letter to warn the residents of Haren. The police agreed to act if the party truly happened and even got in contact with the German police about the events that took place in Hamburg one year before, to learn how they should react.

Life imitated art
Although similar events happened across the world, what took place in Haren that night was bigger than even the most pessimistic citizen of the town could have imagined. It didn’t take long before the rioters started to break store windows, cars, bicycles, and anything else they found on their way. Eventually the police had to confront the rioters and although no one got killed that night, some people got badly injured and were sent to hospital.

In the beginning there was a very good vibe, no signs of violence whatsoever

The party and the event itself were inspired by a Hollywood movie named Project X, in which a boy throws a birthday party for a couple of friends and it ends up in a huge riot. The name of the event wasn’t a coincidence: life imitated art. Similar to the movie, a party went out of control and ended up in a lot of people injured and arrested, and with a town turned into complete chaos.

A poor decision
Journalist André Spaansen covered the event for Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf. According to him, the atmosphere was actually nice in the beginning, without any signs or traces of violence: ‘People started arriving from all over on Friday afternoon, especially from the direction of Zwolle. In the beginning there was a very good vibe, no signs of violence whatsoever, with a lot of youngsters wearing funny T-shirts like I’ve been to Haren or I love Haren. Everyone was friendly, they thought they were about to have a pleasant evening.’
Simone Pas was in Haren that day, although not for the party: ‘I lived nearby a field where they put some disco lights and a DJ was coming to play some music in order to get people out of the downtown area. But it didn’t work at all.’

Project X Haren was nothing more than a poor decision on my part

Two people created an event after Merthe deleted her original one, and neither of them were from the Netherlands. One was Jesse Hobson, from Christchurch, New Zealand. The other used a fake profile, Ibe DerFührer, with a lot of Nazi quotes and references. Jesse Hobson says he received admin rights for the Facebook event from a Dutch (non-identified) person and that the event didn’t bring him anything but trouble: ‘Project X Haren was nothing more than a poor decision on my part. I had nothing to do with the event besides being given administration rights for it on Facebook – everything else just seemed to happen of its own accord. From my point of view, it was all spread by people inviting other people. Coverage about it in the media may have given it a boost as people were made aware of it, when they may not have known about it otherwise.’


Trashed homes
Although a new event in the Netherlands, this wasn’t the first time something like this happened. In fact, during the last five years, several similar events took place in Brazil, Germany and England. The most infamous one was in Hamburg in June of 2011 when a German girl also created an open public Facebook event inviting people for her birthday party which ended up in a big riot against the police, with a lot of drunk people, very similar to what happened in Haren. The authorities of Haren had information about the Hamburg situation and used this to try to predict the people’s behaviour.

Rachel Ross committed exactly the same mistake and got her home trashed because of it

Key factor in the rise of these incidents was the rapid worldwide growth of Facebook. In 2010, a British girl named Rebecca Javelau also invited some friends to her 14th birthday party, but forgot to put the event on private status. Over 21 thousand people were invited. She also mistakenly posted both her address and cell phone on the event page, so she received many calls in the few days before the event and she felt forced to change her number. Her mother cancelled the event in time and although no one appeared that day, the police stayed in Rebecca’s street as a preventive measure. Rebecca was grounded and lost access to her computer. Around the time of this incident, some people complained that the Facebook politics of privacy were too complicated. But even though the social network changed them not long after, similar and worse cases still happened.

Just before the Javelau incident, in February 2010 Rachel Ross committed exactly the same mistake and got her home trashed because of it. This was one of the first cases reported in mass media. It was supposed to be a small party for friends while her parents were in another city, but over 50 people showed up and caused a big mess, invading Rachel’s house, breaking furniture and stealing things. According to British newspaper The Telegraph the damage was estimated at around £15,000.

The aftermath
Project X Haren shook the small and peaceful town of Haren. Mayor Rob Bats had to resign. Although four years have passed, the inhabitants still have the events in the back of their heads and most of them don’t like to talk about it.

The city recovered and some of the people involved in the riots were arrested

On the very next day after the riots, several Facebook events were created to help clean Haren, the biggest one being Project Clean X. The effects of this party influenced the creation of various other Project X parties around the Netherlands in the months after the events, but none of them really happened, although the city of Arnhem had to close the access roads due to a party that was scheduled there.
Besides everything bad that happened on the night of 21 September, Project X still brought Haren some positive things. Before the events hardly any tourist came to the town, but afterwards people started showing up, curious to see where the riots took place.
Haren made history and became famous worldwide. The city recovered and some of the people involved in the riots were arrested. But there are some scars, and it hurts to open them. Haren was not the first city to experience a big chaos thanks to the snowball effect that social media can create and it probably won’t be the last one.

Many people were asked for an interview for this article, but only a few accepted the invitation. Among the ones who agreed, some only wanted to comment anonymously. Haren’s City Hall refused an interview, stating that Project X Haren is a closed page in the city’s history book and that there is no point in raking it up. While filming the street in which everything happened, two old ladies stopped us and politely asked why we were filming there. When we explained that we were reporting about Project X, they told us they didn’t approve of the idea of digging up the history of the riots.

Photos: Kees van de Veen (c)