By Tom Weber
—“Environmental activism” is a term that evokes in many an extreme, slightly negative image: people chaining themselves to train tracks, or spraying fake blood on coats made from real fur. Two Amsterdam University College (AUC) students are now trying to break that stigma.
Carolina Maienza, a second-year Social Science major, and Frankie Turk, a second-year Social Science major, have created “Fossil Free AUC” – a platform with the goal of familiarizing students with environmental activism, and inciting them to become active themselves. The two were motivated to start the project in November last year, during a climate protest that left a deep impression on them.
On 5 November 2017, a group of AUC students, among them Maienza and Turk, travelled to Bonn, Germany to join ‘Ende Gelände’ – an environmental protest pushing for a fossil fuel phase-out, held in the light of the 23rd Conference of the Parties (COP). The COP is the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change, and therefore a platform for governments of the world to come together and tackle issues of climate change.
According to Saga Norrby, a second-year Humanities major, the group of students interested in joining the protests communicated via a Facebook group at first, and later met for dinners in the dorms. “When we had the first meeting there were about 40 people interested”, said Maienza. A group of 13 students eventually ended up making their way to Bonn. “What makes me really happy is that all kinds of people from AUC joined, who I had never met before”, said Lennart Tiller, a second-year Social Science major.
Maienza explained that she joined ‘Code Rood’ last year, a similar movement in the Netherlands, which motivated her to become more environmentally active and join ‘Ende Gelände’. Norrby said that she had for a long time felt the need to stand with environmental movements. “It felt insufficient to just share it on social media, and I felt that I should at least try it out”, she added. For Tiller, protests like the one in Bonn represent an easy way of becoming environmentally active. “Civil disobedience is an accessible tool for us to do something about climate change”, he said.
The students were aware that they were running the risk of being arrested during the protest. However, the participants could join workshops a day in advance that were meant to prepare them for the actual event. According to Maienza, encounters with the police were rehearsed and legal advice was given. “In the end when you get there, yes there is some uncertainty, but at the same time you feel protected and cared for”, she said.
Encounters with the police have left a special impression on the students. Tiller explained that he felt simultaneously connected and alienated. “Of course these are also humans and it would be great if they were on our side, but they are also not humans, in that they are just a black line that we push against”, he said. Norrby added that many protesters were trying to break up the tension, by smiling at the officers in full riot gear, who smiled back on occasion.
The occupation eventually came to an end, after the protesters struck a deal with the present police forces. According to Maienza, the police photographed each occupant, escorted them off the property in buses, and let them make their way home without further repercussions. The group of AUC students returned to Amsterdam the next morning.
Although several months have passed, the group has not lost the momentum that the protest has given them. Maienza and Turk started to volunteer at “Fossil Free NL”, which is part of a global movement that aims to fight climate change, and enable a fast and fair transition to an economy based on renewable energy. “Fossil Free really pushes universities, but also other institutions, such as pension funds to diverge from fossil fuel”, said Maienza. According to Turk, Fossil Free NL has recently received 1 million Euros from a lottery fund. That money is now being used to set up student groups all over the country, with the goal of establishing a network supporting one common goal. Their involvement in the organisation motivated Maienza and Turk to branch out to AUC.
Fossil Free AUC’s first event is a photography exhibition, that will take place on April 7 at Nieuwland under the name “Evanescence of Time”. “We didn’t really know what to do and just wanted to help out, so we thought of making this first event”, said Maienza. The two are still looking for submissions for the event, that is supposed to introduce their initiative to AUC and the local Science Park community. “We are this kind of platform where people can go to”, said Turk. “We want to encourage people, who would not necessarily get involved, because they are put off by the negative image that activism has”, she added.
Maienza said that the protest in Bonn has made her feel empowered, and that she has been able to motivate some of her friends to become active by telling the story. “To a lot of people it might seem a bit scary to join that kind of activism”, she said. Norrby adds that illegal occupations like ‘Ende Gelände’, run the risk of further alienating people who think of activists as extremists. “Being an activist doesn’t mean getting angry all the time, it means loving and peaceful action”, she said.