On June 8th, UvA students were violently removed from campus after a peaceful protest. Students who were part of the protest share their experiences and explain their reasons for protesting.
1. Return to protest
Humanities Rally (HR) is a student movement that was formed in 2014, which has since then united students and teachers in a battle against budget cuts and for a democratic and emancipatory university. In 2015 the protests culminated in an occupation of the main office of the University of Amsterdam (UvA), the Maagdenhuis, which lasted for almost six weeks.
After the occupation of the Maagdenhuis, HR decided the struggle had to be continued from within the institutions as well. For three years, they participated in student politics but eventually came to the somber conclusion that the student councils aren’t democratic bodies that are taken seriously by UvA management. Within the current structure, students can do no more than softening the blow of detrimental policies, while being laughed at by directors during meetings.
Now, after three years of battling the board of directors, the problems that caused the 2015 protests are still pervasive. Once again there are stark budget cuts awaiting higher education. At the UvA, itself, 40 full-time jobs are being cut from the Social Sciences and Humanities Faculties. On a national level, there is a huge budget cut of 183 million euros that the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science is planning to execute. While these are acute problems to be tackled, they are inevitably tied up with the managerial structure of the university. Until we experience a shift in which teaching and research become the true priorities, issues with diversity and decolonisation cannot receive the proper attention. When the movement needed to decide whether they would continue to participate in the student council elections, it was clear to us that change would not come from within this sham democracy. The only way to make real changes was to pick up where we left off in 2015: Direct action.
2. Reclaiming the University
When the university fails to provide an environment for learning and research within a democratic, decolonized, and autonomous academic community, we have to take matters into our own hands. A university whose main focus is the amount of money earned and diplomas handed out, is an institution where the interests of students and teachers take a backseat. This is why we need to actively create spaces within the university where criticism is finally heard. Every time we organize an event, we are reclaiming territory, reminding the Board of Directors for whom and what purpose these buildings were erected.
On the 22nd of May, we organized a Night of Protest, the third one in Humanities Rally’s history. This time we joined forces with NU!, an action group formed at the Faculty for Social Sciences and the student union, ASVA. The night was held at the Oudemanhuispoort and featured lectures, panel discussions and music, with the intention to inform students on the issues that are threatening education. Though the night ended with everyone charged and ready to take action, when asked to leave we decided to comply.
On the 8th of June, we held a March for Education, with 700 people walking from the Oudemanhuispoort to Roeterseiland, as our chants sounded through the streets. Not only were we joined by students and teachers from across the UvA faculties, delegations from other universities showed up to support the cause as well. On the day of the march, the university decided to close their doors five hours early. We imagine that they wanted to ensure students inside would not be able to join us, and more importantly, so that we would not be able to occupy. Having anticipated the UvA’s reaction to our march, we set up camp across the water, on a grass field. The day after, alumni would return to the UvA for University Day, thus we found it appropriate to host our own University Night.
Yet the university demanded our departure, because of children’s activities that were to be set up early morning on that grass field. When we tried to reach an agreement our departure, the dean made clear that he refused to negotiate with us, and at 22.00 the police started closing in as we sat on the ground, arms interlocked. They started pulling, then dragging, then throwing us at our own tents. We saw our friends being beaten with batons, pepper sprayed, and punched by police. Geert ten Dam, the head of the Board of Directors, explained the situation the next day, saying she ‘supports the cause but carries responsibility for the safety of the buildings and the territory.’
The police violence that took place on Roeterseiland campus, was clearly political in its motivation. A nearby side-walk café, for instance, was cleared out by the cops only after its patrons started protesting against the police brutality taking place. Whilst legally speaking the same area-regulations applied to them, these people were not summoned to leave by the university at precisely 22:00 hours as we were. Police did not ‘escort’ them off campus, until their presence had also become one of dissent. This discrepancy, and the subsequent rapid escalation to violence, lays bare that the alleged offense was a challenge to power, not law.
The university as cradle of social change
The university does not exist within a vacuum. The repression experienced by students and staff fighting austerity-measures across universities, has only increased over the last five years. This development is symptomatic for the direction in which our neoliberal society is headed. As the idea that everything in society should be run like a business has been losing political legitimacy following the Great Recession, those in power increasingly rely on direct force to push through austerity-measures across society: encroaching on civilians, breaking up strikes, and attacking (student-) protesters.
Accordingly, from the Maagdenhuis occupation to recent events, the non-violent reclaiming of space within the university has been a strategic tenet for us. Its political effectiveness stems from its material language: occupying property challenges (and thus reveals) the real interests of neoliberal capital. Additionally, its principally non-violent nature exposes any use of force as politically motivated: since public safety is not threatened here, police-intervention blatantly serves those who own the occupied property. One’s very presence as such becomes a critique of a status-quo that puts profit and property before people. A status-quo, where public institutions, like everything else, are to be run as businesses. It is by revealing the nonsensicality of this assumption, we believe, that the university movement is of value for society at large.
As the economist Ernest Mandel reminded us, ‘the university can be the cradle of a real renewal of society’. Not through students and staff single-handedly bringing about social change, but more by way of pointing in a possible direction where such change can take place. In order for the HR movement to even begin fulfilling such a function, we must seek to be inclusive of all groups and faculties within the UvA, of (support-) staff, and of university movements across the Netherlands. Simultaneously, we must understand our position: our local issues will not be resolved until addressed on a national level. However, a march on The Hague will only be possible when the university movement stands and organizes with those similarly affected by neoliberal policies. Eventually, we must reach out to the cleaners, the elementary school teachers, to the nurses and bus-drivers, and to all other groups that neoliberal politics has made precarious.
Photo: Theo Warnier