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26/5/2018 / Issue #018 / Text: Nicholas Burman

What ‘Free’ University? The Case of De Verrekijker

In late February 2018 Dutch news outlets started posting stories regarding the potential closure of Amsterdam’s Vrije Universiteit’s (VU) autonomous squatted space, De Verrekijker (DV). This conjecture followed the space’s hosting of a controversial panel event which included Jordanian/Palestinian activist Rasmieh Odeh on February 27.

A Brief History
Coming out of the New University Movement, which spread through Dutch cities during the Maagdenhuis occupation at the University of Amsterdam, DV was founded in 2015 in a storage facility of a VU building set to be demolished in 2020. The Movement was formed to discuss the lack of possibility for self-organisation by students and staff and a lack of transparency regarding administrative processes at universities, as well as to open up discussions on racism and sexism. 

The last remaining student-ran, campus based autonomous space in Amsterdam, DV had had a relationship with the University based on informal verbal agreements. The VU was unwilling to put anything in writing regarding De Verrekijker as this would have legitimised the space.

DV’s events listings weren’t particularly threatening (yoga classes, free film nights, reading groups). However, they did position themselves as a place for political dialogue. It was a truly international space, much needed at a university whose current trend is internationalization. Non-commercial, available to be used by students for events, it provided facilities on a non-political basis, such as free food, hot drinks and clothes. It also worked as a networking space, where students from different faculties could exchange skills and interests.

The ‘Controversial’ Event
Odeh is a Palestinian rights activist who was convicted by an Israeli military court in 1970 following her confession of involvement in the 1969 Jerusalem Supermarket bombing. Since her release in 1980, she has maintained that her confession was obtained via torture and that she is innocent of all allegations. 

She was invited to give a talk by far left student group Revolutionaire Eenheid (RE) on her experiences. The event had two locations before finding itself at De Verrekijker; those other potentials received threats which lead them to cancel their hosting of the talk. To be clear, RE support Odeh because they believe her innocence, and her claims of violent treatment in the hands the Israeli police. 

As news about the Odeh event started to circulate, so did the interest from the press. A rule, written into the VU’s code and adopted by DV, is that journalists cannot operate on campus without prior permission. Because of this, DV’s blanket policy is to not admit journalists into their public events. 

Reporters did turn up to this event, and after being refused entry reported the event as clandestine (despite it being advertised online, which is how they found out about it). The most damning criticism against DV - promoting anti-semitism - stems from refusing an Israeli journalist entry, but this refusal was equally applied to journalists from De Telegraaf and ANP.

The ANP photo which illustrated articles about this event (taken through a window pane, stark white light in the corner) certainly makes the meeting look secretive. However, the session was streamed live via Facebook, and the video has been uploaded in full by RE. The Public Prosecution Service watched the video and stated that no punishable statements were made.

Another rule, albeit unwritten, between DV and the VU was that the University needed prior warning to any events which posed a risk to safety, specifically when more than 85 people were expected to attend. Because they did not consider it a ‘high risk’ event - an assessment shared by two police who inspected the event - DV did not notify the Uni about Odeh’s talk. It’s this lack of clearance which the VU claims provides a primary reason for the decision to shut down the space.

The VU’s Response
The University’s Executive Committee soon issued a statement that it would evict the space. This happened just weeks before the space would have been entitled to Dutch ‘huisvrede’ laws that secures squats certain legal rights if they are over three years old. 

On the morning of March 15 regular contributors to DV arrived on site to find that security had broken the locks and entered the space. Nevertheless, DV members managed to enter the premises and resume the occupation. A tussle followed, which resulted in a professor of social anthropology at the VU, Dimitris Dalakogloul (a supporter of the autonomous space), being threatened with a screwdriver. The VU subsequently apologised to Dalakogloul and said (to DV) that security acted overzealously. Neither the VU’s Worker’s or Student councils were consulted about the eviction.

Since then, DV had been attempting to open up a dialogue with the University’s Executive Committee. It had minority support within the Worker’s and Student councils, but all members had been left in the dark regarding the Executive Committee’s actions. This scenario highlights the distance between the University’s actions and student and staff involvement, the exact opaqueness which the New University Movement had been battling against. In not wanting to entertain the idea of any resolution which resulted in DV continuing, the VU seemed to be more mindful of internet commentary than input from their own community.   

Debating Debates      
DV claimed that the VU stated the Odeh event wouldn’t have been cleared even if it had been presented to them ahead of time, so there’s a suggestion that it was the content of the event which is the problem. 

With the content of Odeh’s talk being deemed legal by the Public Prosecutor this raises the question of whether the VU should limit legal speech due to its political position. Isn’t the role of an educational body to promote dialogue, not limit it? Various other ‘controversial’ names are associated with official university activities, especially large corporations whose logos adorn research trips involving students. Odeh’s innocence is indeed determined by her audience’s trust. Still, she was breaking no laws by being in the Netherlands, and she broke none during her speech.

No one is expecting the University to take a position on this or any other particular political situation. But media in the Netherlands, the arts especially, regularly deal with the Israel-Palestine conflict, Ad van Denderen’s recent retrospective at Amsterdam’s Huise Marseille is a case in point. How come publicly facing bodies like this can approach this subject, yet university students can’t?   

Support had come from a range of places, including political party Bij1 and Tel Aviv University student organization Jabha Tau. Sadly, with negative press around the space not balanced by positive reports, by April DV realised they had lost the PR war and their central purpose (to improve university life) had been overshadowed by the controversy.  

Looking Forward
De Verrekijker eventually agreed to vacate the space on the condition that the University open up a substitute. Not necessarily a bar, but a series of events where the political focuses of DV could continue to engage students and improve university culture. DV members were cynical as to whether cooperation would be very forthcoming after giving up the thing which made their voices heard.

On April 11 the VU issued a public statement announcing legal action against DV in order to get them to vacate the space. They wrote that “the collective has repeatedly failed to comply with the agreements made.” They said that they are “committed to a policy of cooperation” but only following an eviction of the space. Fearing legal costs and wasting energy on a lengthy legal battle, DV was voluntarily vacated on April 21.

An independent, student-run space for debate should be part of any university’s infrastructure. With all the talk about millenials’ lack of political engagement, institutionally sabotaging this student-run initiative is not only be unfortunate but also irresponsible.     

Right now, student fees are helping to fund the building of flashy new buildings. Unless the University intends to fully degenerate into a lackey of corporate and real estate interests, at least a bit of campus should remain reserved for the purpose of serving its constituency, its students. 

What sort of future can we look forward to, to paraphrase the VU’s recent catch phrase, when we are able to purchase endless cans of Coca-Cola, but are not able to discuss?