Footage Shows Police Using Violence to Deter Student Protesters – a Recap of the UvA Occupation

Trigger Warning: Violence

By Levin Stamm

Collage by Vera Bejczy

Colourful banners, two tents, and dozens of people who stand around and engage in small talk: At first glance, the crowd gathering in front of the former Amsterdamse Academische Club (AAC) could be enjoying a cosy neighbourhood party. But rock music that blares from hastily set up speakers and chants proclaiming “Fuck Shell” quickly set the situation straight: Cosiness is not on top of the student activists’ agenda on this Monday evening, 16 January, in the heart of Amsterdam’s grachtengordel.

The occupation of the AAC is in full swing. At around 20:00, one of the spokespersons announces what the student activists had tried to put off for at least a few more hours. “The riot cops are on their way now and will be here in around 15 minutes,” they say. Upset murmurs break out among those present. Of course, the student activists expected the police to clear the building at some point. Yet, there had been the hope that the university and authorities would let them enjoy their vision of a “self-governed university” for at least one evening.

Photo by Levin Stamm

“Decolonize, Decarbonize, Democratize”: It was under this slogan that a group of approximately 200 protesters had left the Roeterseiland campus earlier that day. Organised by several student-led groups – among them UvA Rebellion, the Decolonization Club, Student Justice Palestine, and the Activistenpartij UvA – they protested against “corporate greed” and urged that the “university cut ties with climate criminals,” among others.

The surprise element of the protest began halfway through the march. Instead of proceeding to UvA’s PC Hoofthuis at the Spuistraat, the crowd stopped at the AAC, where members of the collective had occupied the venerable 17th-century building only shortly before. The occupiers urged the UvA to “cut ties with Shell,” to “give full transparency in relations with the fossil fuel industry,” and to “provide an autonomous space” in exchange for ending the occupation.

The UvA currently takes part in four research projects that are organised by the Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek (NWO) and partially financed by oil giant Shell. The student collective accuses the UvA of being “complicit in legitimizing the harm of Shell”.

How exactly the students gained access to the building remains unclear. Wouter, a Master’s student at the UvA and spokesperson for the movement, says that they could only disclose that “little damage” had been done to the door when entering the building.

Wouter says that the movement had carefully chosen the location to “not be a burden to both students and staff.” Indeed, the AAC – from 1995 onwards, “the living room of the UvA” – shut its doors to the public at the beginning of July.

By the evening, euphoria has given way to disillusionment. The chants of the students present are ongoing, but they more and more resemble exhortations to hold out. Having sent the list of demands, the occupiers had hoped to enter negotiations with the UvA’s Executive Board. After an initial conversation with the occupants, however, the Executive Board notified them that a report to the police had been filed and that the building had to be cleared by 22:00 latest.

“Ongoing projects will not be stopped”

– UvA executive board

In a statement sent to students the next day, the Executive Board refuted that Shell had any influence on UvA’s education and research and agreed to a “UvA-wide discussion with staff and students […] on the subject of ‘cooperating with third parties’.” However, it also rejected the activists’ main demand – namely that the university immediately drop out of all ongoing projects that are (co-)financed by Shell. “Ongoing projects will not be stopped,” the Executive Board stated.

Photo by Levin Stamm

Spokesperson Wouter criticises the Executive Board’s choice to send out a statement to all students and staff – given that the movement does not have the same opportunity to reach the university community. “It’s just another power move of the Executive Board that shows how unfairly the discourse is currently being led by them,” Wouter says.

The activists have already received the same response from the Executive Board on the day of the occupation; they are angered. They feel the university is not interested in entering a genuine dialogue at all, as their main demand is treated as non-negotiable from the start. There are also rumours going around that the university administration called in the police so quickly because they were afraid of a second Maagdenhuis occupation.

The students that are present know that the police will clear them out that same evening. Without further ado, a barricade is created by screwing a bicycle stand into the door. A core of approximately 25 activists decides to remain in the building. Inside, tables are placed in front of the two entrance doors to the AAC and couches put on the stairs that lead to the first floor of the building.

Among the people staying inside is AUC student Daisy*. Daisy will be referred to by their action name as they fear repercussions from university and police.

“I wanted to keep the occupation as long as possible and the more of us were inside, the more difficult it would be for the police to evacuate the building,” Daisy says.

While Daisy and their peers prepare themselves for an encounter with the police, AUC student and UvA Rebellion member with action name Pansa* dances unsuspectingly in front of the building. “We were all surprised by the speed with which the university sent the police,” he will say later.

“This was the first moment it began to be scary”

– Pansa, UvA Rebellion member and AUC student

Indeed, shortly after 20:00, a dozen policemen from the Mobile Eenheid (ME) – more colloquially known as riot police – appear and block the southern access road to the AAC. They are equipped with batons, shields and helmets. 

For a brief moment the students’ chants fade away; they seem like they need a moment to collect themselves. “This was the moment it began to be scary,” Pansa recalls. Daisy adds, “when the music suddenly stopped, the atmosphere in the building grew tense.”

The students’ hesitancy is brief, however. The voice of the police officer in charge booms from a megaphone and urges the students in the building to clear out. It is almost lost in the swelling chorus of protesters.

“Tout le monde déteste la police,” they sing.

To slow down the clearing of the building, members of the collective sit down in front of the entrance and improvise a lock-on by linking their arms. Among them is AUC student and UvA Rebellion member who will be referred to as Berry*. Also Berry fears legal consequences in case they are identified.

Berry recounts, “The police carried me to the police line where they literally just dropped me on the floor and let me go.” Other students that had been sitting in front of the door with them are arrested. “I have no idea why they didn’t arrest me but the others, I almost feel some sort of guilt,” Berry says.

As some demonstrators rush to support their comrades sitting in front of the building, the situation escalates. Riot police officers cut them off and begin to push them and other demonstrators back. The police now want to get them off the square, clearing the space in front of the AAC.

A scuffle unfolds. First, the police officers only use their shields, pushing the demonstrators down the road. The tent that had served for speeches and concerts is pulled over by the backward tumbling mass.

Video by Levin Stamm

“We are peaceful, what are you?” the protesters scream. The police officers now start to use their batons as well. A protester falls onto the road and screams as she is being pushed by an officer.

“No injuries were reported”

– UVA executive board

In midst of the trouble, Sjors, a local resident, stands on his staircase and observes the ongoing eviction by the police. He shows solidarity with the movement, now filming the police that keeps the demonstrators in check. Earlier that afternoon, he had entered the AAC and played chess with one of the occupying students. He estimates that the AAC has just been used four times since July and believes that the police-led eviction “lacks urgency”.

Executive Board vice president Jan Lintsen will later be quoted in YOUvAToday, saying, “If you look at the images you can see that there is a very careful handling of police of the people who are resisting.”

The Herring also obtained a response letter that the Executive Board wrote to Rethink UvA (a forum of UvA employees demanding structural reforms within the university) after it had publicly condemned the “Violent Eviction of the Former Academische Club”.

In the letter, dated 20 January, the Executive Board refutes the presentation that the building is not in use. “The space is operated and managed by Facility Services and is used for catering, various meetings and events,” the Executive Board writes, adding that “cleaning and repair work is expected to take several weeks.”

The Executive Board also writes that “the police gave them [the activists] every opportunity to leave voluntarily and without consequences” and that “no injuries were reported.”

UvA Rebellion responds via its Instagram account and publishes pictures that show students’ bruises stemming from that same night.

Instagram post by @uvarebellion

On that Monday evening, the skirmish between riot police and protesters continues. The police pin two demonstrators to the ground and arrest them as they push back with determination. Meanwhile, the student activists in front of the building are carried away one by one.

Video by Levin Stamm

The demonstrators observe this from afar – now maintaining a two-metre distance between themselves and a row of riot police officers. They sing the Italian partisan anthem Bella Ciao. Whenever a newly arrested activist disappears in the police van, they chant, “You are not alone.”

As the Mobile Eenheid carries away the last protester in front of the door, the Brand- en Traangaseenheid (BraTra) – the unit of the Dutch police specialised in evacuating squats – is brought into action. While one of its members removes the bicycle stand from the door, another one tunes a chainsaw and gets it running. Now, the protesters’ boos are lost in the deafening hum of the chainsaw cutting down the entrance door to the AAC.

Video by Levin Stamm

The end of the occupation is slow and tedious. Over several hours, the police carry out the 20 activists who had held out in the building since the afternoon. AUC student Daisy is among the first ones to be arrested. Not wanting to resist their arrest, they open the window curtains as soon as the police enter. “So people outside would be able to see what is going on inside,” they say.

Daisy is brought to a police station in the Biljmer and kept in a single cell until 15:00 of the following day. Officers take Daisy’s mugshot and fingerprints, but are unable to identify them as they carry no ID or phone. Like all of the 28 arrestees, they will be released without any charges for now. However, all cases may be reopened by the police in the future.

“We are not going to stop disrupting”

– Berry, UvA Rebellion member and AUC student

Days later, the AUC students that were present during the occupation have mixed feelings. Pansa speaks of a “shared experience, full of emotions with students that think alike.” Fellow AUC student Berry even calls the occupation a “liberating experience.” Daisy says, “Many people weren’t aware that the UvA had ties with Shell, so we definitely got our message out.” Still, the three of them are frustrated – like many other members of the movement – for not being able to wrest more tangible promises from the Executive Board.

A ray of hope remains for them: The AAC occupation has catapulted the movement into the national headlines. Spokesperson Wouter says that the number of followers on Instagram has doubled since the occupation and that a lot of students have signalled interest in joining the movement ever since.

“At the end of the day we want Shell out of the university and to create a space in which students’ demands are taken seriously,” Wouter says. Berry adds, “I’m looking forward to what is going to happen next. We are not going to stop disrupting.”

* Real name known to the editor.

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