Riot police intervenes in student protests

Whose safety was at risk, Mister Pijpers?

Ontruiming binnenplein UB Binnenstad, foto DUB
The library's courtyard was cleared of protesters by the riot police. Photo: DUB

Two years ago, during Covid, face masks were mandatory. Now, face coverings are not allowed at all at the university. During the recent occupation of the city centre library, wearing face coverings was considered a violation of UU's house rules concerning protests, so much so it was one of the reasons the university named for deciding to call the police to clear the area. Famed for its de-escalation skills, the riot police used pepper spray against the protesters. They also bent people's wrists backwards and caned them. Demonstrators were then crammed into a city bus and dumped at an industrial area in Houten, long after midnight.

An e-mail sent by the Executive Board to all students and employees the morning after (May 8) reads: “There were serious safety concerns – among other reasons, because the house rules weren’t followed. Unfortunately, the demonstrators didn't respond to our request for deliberation, nor to our requests to leave.” They also stated: “After an intensive consultation with the police and the municipality, we had to ask the police to end the occupation of the library's courtyard.”

Safety? Can police safely cane people? 
That makes me wonder what kind of safety concerns were those. What were the potential dangers, according to UU President Anton Pijpers? What kind of gruesome monsters was he expecting to find behind those face masks and keffiyehs? I also wonder if those concerns are more important than the violence enacted upon students. Is it in any way acceptable to dump people in an industrial zone in another city in the middle of the night, regardless of whether they’ve done anything wrong? 

In an interview with DUB, Pijpers says he doesn't think the police were violent when clearing the library. However, a video published by RTV Utrecht shows the police using canes. Eyewitnesses also told me that they used pepper spray. How come our president doesn't know what’s happening at the university? From what I understand from the Executive Board’s story, the main house rule that was broken was the ban on face coverings – at least, it’s the only one that was specified. As far as I know, however, it’s not like the police only took the demonstrators who were covering their faces. I wasn’t there myself. Perhaps something can be said about flight paths being blocked or something, as there were a few barricades and that might not guarantee fire safety.

However, we should take a look at the reasons protesters were forced to set up barricades in the first place: the fact that most universities don’t hesitate to call the police to have their students get beaten up is chief among them. It’s an entirely rational response for students to try and defend themselves from police violence, even before the violence has started. Given the history of student movements, we all know that this threat is always there. Just look at the images from the first Maagenhuis occupation (exactly 55 years ago this month). If it weren’t for the somewhat silly uniforms of the time, these images would be indistinguishable from what we saw in Amsterdam last month. 

Personally, I don’t think the almost non-existent threat of fire outweighs the real threat of violence and the true violence that was and is used against students. In Amsterdam, there are images of multiple people on the streets (outside the barricades, therefore) whose heads were hit by police in broad daylight. The riot police violently dispersed the protest and even used shovels to break down barricades people were still standing behind. In Utrecht, first aid services from the organisation were driven out along with the protesters, and one person had their piercing torn out. So, to the Executive Board, and especially Mister Pijpers, I ask: Whose safety are you concerned about, exactly? 

Who are the real hooligans? Unarmed students or men with canes? 
So, are we talking about vandalism? Or just the fact that protests on your grounds are a nuisance? First of all, the point of a protest is to cause a nuisance. Saying that you can protest as long as it doesn't disrupt others only means that you have the right to be ignored. The goal of protesting is not to establish a platform where you can debate demands until they’re softened down to questions. The fact that France looks like a scene from Fallout every time the government tries to raise the retirement age is exactly the reason why their retirement age was 62 up until recently, while it’s 68 here. Authorities generally act from what they feel is the path of least resistance and a national consequence is that short-term repression is the easiest option. Protest movements tend to be successful only when repression costs more effort than granting demands (farmers who block motorways with their tractors achieve more than Extinction Rebellion activists without tractors). 

The safety of a protest is not the first priority of the riot police. Their priority is nipping "disruptive" protests in the bud. As became clear in the Amsterdam footage, that comes with a lot of chaos and violence, and it’s exactly within that chaos that vandalism takes place, troublemakers can infiltrate the protest, and other unsafe situations arise. If the police aren’t busy trying to end a protest, organisers can generally prevent all of this.

In the occupation of Drift 25, organisers strictly banned vandalism, partially because UU escalated a lot later than UvA did. There was no damage after this occupation – a world of difference compared to Amsterdam. So, if the Executive Board wants to avoid damage to the university's property, it seems like the more rational choice would be to not use any police at all. After all, protesters have been occupying buildings without any violence or destruction in Wageningen, Radboud University, Groningen University, and others. 

You’re not fundamentally different from a Palestinian or an activist
If wearing facial coverings was truly the main reason the library was cleared, I sense somewhat of a parallel to the implementation of the burqa ban. At first, that was only about safety risks in governmental buildings and the idea that these women should be emancipated by now. Now, it’s used to limit the right to anonymous protesting. In the meantime, things like facial recognition are being normalised and our police use it illegally and at a large scale. 

The importance of face-covering clothing during protests cannot be understated. In the US, organisations like Canary Mission are hard at work to doxx and slander everyone – mainly students – who fight for Palestine. Students who are spotted anywhere near the protests can expect sanctions from their universities. In my opinion, the right to protest anonymously and the reasons people have for doing so outweigh house rules or protest regulations. The whole point of a protest is to be disruptive, so as long as these annoying skating rounds are legal, protesters should be able to do more. 

If almost the entire Parliament calls each protester antisemitic for protesting against genocide – almost as many people have died in Gaza as there are students at UU – I think it’s self-evident that you don’t want to show your face. And if you’re told that your friends are hit because "facial coverings make others feel unsafe," then you start covering your face yourself too. They can’t hit us all. Although it would perhaps be easier if us students were able to use tractors. Then the university and the police might choose de-escalation a little more often.

Everyone will have a day when they will want to take to the streets to voice their discontent about something. But, if political freedom keeps diminishing while mass surveillance keeps increasing, there will come a time when we will no longer be able to do that. You, reader, are not fundamentally different from a Palestinian. All nation-states and authorities who are complicit in genocide are equally well-prepared to violate your human rights when it suits them. If the boundaries of protest rights aren’t regularly tested, they will one day disappear entirely. If one day we’re up to our necks in water, the rescue boats will find the highest bidder, not you.