By Emily Vierthaler
The number of infections leap higher, while global temperatures increase at a slightly slower pace. New protocols clamp down on previously-possible protesting strategies. Climate activists do not want the climate crisis put on the back burner of a society adjusting to the new 1.5-meter society. How have these individuals – and their movements – fared thus far since the coronavirus reached Dutch shores?
Since the commensurate safety rules hit the Netherlands on March 13th, efforts by climate activist groups have been drastically altered.
For the Amsterdam factions of action group Extinction Rebellion (XR), that meant that all demonstrations and physical meetups had to be canceled immediately or moved online, at least for a few months. Factions thus entered a period of trying to maintain engagement while pursuing XR’s continuous goal of urging for climate reform.
Robin Habbé is a main organizer of XR Amsterdam and a co-founder of the Fashion Action branch of XR. She reflects on the operational changes experienced by XR Amsterdam as well as fluctuating engagement levels of members. The organizational structure changed without physical meetings, she says, shifting completely online with meetings, talks, and trainings.
A slightly older audience who often joined at XR Amsterdam’s physical location De Sering for a weekly dinner meetup was no longer present due to the new online setup.
However, according to Habbé, the online activities also drew new members who would normally not have joined when activities were in-person in Amsterdam or Utrecht. XR Amsterdam launched a series of online knitting and repair meetups for people to learn useful and sustainable skills, which saw some new faces. Five days of themed online protest actions were also implemented under the banner of the XR NL initiative Digital Rebellion, from June 29th to July 3rd.
“I think it’s not really a gain or a loss per se… The new people who joined through the online [efforts] outweigh the people who left because they didn’t want online meetings,” Habbé says.
The manner in which organizers work with affinity groups – small autonomous groups that commit actions – also stayed largely the same.
Engagement in AUC’s faction of XR was also impacted as students felt the pandemic’s strain on their lives.
Third-year Humanities student Merel van Berge Henegouwen paused her XR activities in March.
“It was pretty rough to adapt and balance everything in this new situation. I just felt so overwhelmed. I kept track of what was happening in XR but didn’t really involve myself actively,” she says.
After the summer, van Berge Henegouwen reimmersed herself in XR by attending some refresher events and meeting up with her affinity group in preparation for the large September rebellion.
Third-year Sciences student Vebjørn Berg had already taken a step back from his XR activities before Covid hit, because, he says, “activism, and environmental activism in particular, can be very taxing.”
After taking a rest, he resumed his activities within XR AUC, forming a new affinity group that van Berge Henegouwen also joined.
In addition to the pressure felt by many AUC students studying during a pandemic, AUC activists also felt the toll taken by the lack of a physical meeting space.
“I have the impression that [activities] at AUC have always been tied to a few highly active people who motivate and mobilize the people they come into contact with. As we don’t have a meeting place at the AB any more, it’s hard to reach out beyond one’s immediate friend group,” Berg said.
Third-year Sciences student Augustine Schulte is a member of the University Rebellion group, a collective of international students that situates the climate crisis within a broader framework of inequality and oppression. They say that though their group is based online, it is still much harder to connect with people now that physical meetings are not an option. They observed that some activist subgroups, especially those with low capacity, have seen slumps in engagement due to low morale and the difficulty of organizing actions online without seeing fellow members.
XR activities both in the AUC and broader Amsterdam factions began ramping up again in May. XR Amsterdam began to host physical events, averaging one event every two weeks by June.
On May 18th, XR Amsterdam partnered with climate action group Code Rood and NGO ASEED Europe to organize the ten-minute Leave No One Behind demonstration on Dam Square. The demonstration urged the Dutch government to protect people in the overcrowded Mória refugee camp in Greece, an extremely vulnerable group further endangered by Covid.
In addition to advocating for the people of Mória, Leave No One Behind demonstrated that a Covid-safe protest was possible ahead of the bigger September actions. Mandatory measures implemented to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus included keeping at least two meters of distance between protestors, and wearing face masks and gloves.
XR Amsterdam’s momentum during the year culminated in a 320-person blockade of the Zuidas, the economic heart of the Netherlands, on September 21st as reported by Het Parool. Activists blocked the intersection between Gustav Mahlerlaan and Bethovenstraat to draw attention to the role of wealthy and polluting corporations in ending the climate crisis. Ahead of the action, XR Amsterdam distributed informative materials like the Zuidas Black Book (in Dutch) a summary of the seven most environmentally damaging companies headquartered in Zuidas.
During the protest, XR Amsterdam employed Covid stewards to ensure adherence to social distancing and masking protocols. Once again, protestors wore mandatory masks and volunteers handed out masks to those who needed them.
“I attended the September rebellion, and I was really positive about the way everything was run,” says van Berge Henegouwen. “I think XR did a really good job at sticking to the coronavirus measures, which is why it was especially annoying when the police completely disregarded them and put us on buses en-masse where we couldn’t distance.”
When protestors would not clear the Europaboulevard entrance and exit to the A10 highway, the police loaded them into GVB buses to be administratively relocated elsewhere in the city. According to van Berge Henegouwen, the buses were overcrowded so that protesters could not keep a 1.5 meter distance, including an older woman, to whom the police told “it was her own fault for partaking in the protest” when she requested distancing.
A spokesman for the police told NOS that “the umpteenth demonstration in a short time requires some of our capacity,” in response to smaller protest actions leading up to the Zuidas blockade. “We want to maintain normal life in the city and at the same time facilitate the right of demonstration. That is our task that we carry out on behalf of the Safety Region.”
Besides the removal of protestors, both van Berge Henegouwen and Berg were positive about how the demonstration went.
Berg coins the actions a massive success, noting the ample media attention and endorsement of XR’s mission and actions from several key people in the Dutch environmental discourse.
“Discussions of setting up citizens’ assemblies to make policy for the Earth crisis are [increasingly being] normalized in Dutch party politics,” he adds, which was a particular focus of XR this year.
Schulte, who also had a positive experience and noted the high morale of the protestors, reflects on the importance of XR using its voice to address the BLM movement.
“I was quite disappointed how little attention there was on this issue,” they say, pointing out that climate change disproportionately affects countries in the Global South and more marginalized people. “Moreover, a system of oppression of other humans and non-human nature is what brought us to the current situation, therefore we should acknowledge that this is one fight and not many fights separated from each other.”
Of all the traffic stopped and media attention garnered, plus one arrest, the Zuidas effort illustrated both the possibility of safely protesting during the pandemic and the fruits of perseverance for the XR movement.
Moving forward, participants in AUC’s XR faction are mounting a campaign for UvA to face the climate crisis.
After all, “the climate and ecological crisis, or Earth crisis as I like to call it, is still there, and still getting worse, with or without Covid,” Berg says. “It’s so important that we keep going.”