PPE students conduct survey

‘Municipality makes arbitrary decisions when it comes to protests’

A protest by Extinction Rebellion in Utrecht. Photo: Extinction Rebellion's Twitter profile

Three students from the Politics, Philosophy & Economics Bachelor's conducted a study for one of their courses in which they analysed the way the municipality of Utrecht approves or denies organised protests. They decided to delve into this topic because they felt that the protest culture in the Netherlands is really different from the one found in their countries of origin – namely, Spain, Germany, and Italy. “We don’t see much spontaneity in protests here. Everything is so organised, so unemotional,” Alice von Lenthe explains.

For their study, the students talked to numerous protest groups that have organised protests in Utrecht, including the climate activists from Extinction Rebellion and a group that protested the Covid restrictions. But they also talked to political parties in the municipal council, political advisors to the municipality, and representatives of local media.

No spontaneity
"One thing we noticed is that the rule to notify the municipality in advance is so obstructive. One needs to notify the city at least 48 hours before a planned protest and no less than two weeks before a march. That severely restricts people's ability to respond to the news spontaneously, right away.”

Another thing that surprised the three students was the long list of conditions and limitations set by the municipality. “For instance, the city often designates a non-central location for the protest to take place. Or a location that’s far away from the people you feel need to hear your message the most." But what really struck the students is that some groups seem to get more restrictions than others, says Alice. "The people protesting against the plan to fell trees in Amelisweerd to widen a nearby road were allowed to do much more than the Extinction Rebellion protesters. So the decisions seem to be related to reputation, too. A group that caused a nuisance in the past — by illegally blocking the road, for example — will be designated a less popular location the next time around."

Public safety
In the students' view, all protesters should be treated equally, whether it’s people protesting the Covid restrictions, the road in Amelisweerd, or the nitrogen regulations. Those who protested the closing of restaurant Waku Waku, for example, were not allowed to protest at the restaurant but rather at Jaarbeurs square.

Alice understands that the municipality had to concern itself with public safety and the nationally-mandated Covid restrictions. “But we felt like the restrictions were much stricter than necessary. What concerned us in our talks with political parties was that they didn’t seem to care much about the rules employed by the municipality.”

Finally, the students discovered that the police will intervene quickly, arresting protesters if the demonstration hasn’t been reported beforehand. The protesters will be criminalised and fined. They are freed afterwards but their protests are obstructed.

The findings shocked the students so much that they turned the results of their study into a manifest, which has been endorsed by eight organisations, including student organisations. The students hope the manifest will make politicians more aware of how the right to protest is being handled by the municipality. International laws and treaties apply, such as the public demonstrations law.

Farmers’ protests
The farmers’ protests taking place in the Netherlands right now indicate that there is an emotional protest culture in the country. The farmers are ignoring most rules, blocking motorways and lighting straw bales on fire. Some members of parliament are calling for stricter protest rules, something that Alice does not agree with. She thinks citizens should be able to carry out spontaneous protests even beyond the existing rules. “But we should stress that we are against the use of violence, destruction of property, and interfering in one’s private life.”

Response from the municipality
The city of Utrecht has received the manifest. A spokesperson for mayor Sharon Dijksma states that protesting is an indisputable, constitutional right, which is why the municipality ensures that everyone who wishes to organise a protest in Utrecht can do so. No permit is needed for a protest, but the municipality does have to be informed about it beforehand. According to the spokesperson, the public demonstration law states that the municipality can establish certain requirements for a protest, such as the location. These regulations can never be based on the content of a protest but only to prevent 'nuisances, health risks, and the obstruction of traffic.’"