Science - March 10, 2005

Student activists proud of occupation

They were held in custody for two days, the students who took part in the occupation of the Maagdenhuis in Amsterdam. There were also students from Wageningen among those protesting against the plans of secretary of state for education Mark Rutte. Wb spoke to five of the students: ‘It was worth it. We stood up for our rights.’

The students do not want their full names published in the newspaper. They also refused to give them when they were arrested. ‘It increases our collective strength, and no one wanted a criminal record. If we are sentenced the record will be added to our fingerprints and number,’ explains Johan.

Together with about one hundred and fifty other students, the five from Wageningen occupied the Maagdenhuis, the administrative centre of the University of Amsterdam, on Monday 28 February. Everyone had a rucksack with a sleeping bag, book, games, a plate and cutlery and lots of food. Greta: ‘We were planning on staying about three days.’ Everyone had been assigned a task for once they had entered the building, such as barricading the doors and taping up the windows. After that it was time to wait. Annemie: ‘Some were even studying, lying on the floor.’ The police entered the building at one o’clock in the morning, surprising the students. Johan saw that people who didn’t stand up quickly enough got a blow to the neck. ‘And people were dragged off through the glass from a broken window.’ The Wageningen students went quietly in handcuffs.

Bras off
The five ended up in the same police station in Amsterdam Zuidoost, where they had to wait outside in a big cage in sub-zero temperatures. ‘Fortunately we had put our coats on before they removed us,’ commented Greta. Nearly everyone was photographed, and they had to give their names and a statement. ‘We had a standard written statement ready about Rutte’s plans,’ continued Greta. ‘So after a while they gave up.’ Everyone had to empty their pockets and hand in their belts and shoes, and women had to take off their bras. Lip balsam was not allowed either.

The students were locked up two to a cell. Tineke: ‘We had to share one narrow mattress and a pillow.’ The most difficult was not to give themselves away. Johan: ‘You couldn’t say where you came from or what you were studying.’ They were worried that the cells were tapped or being spied on, but they felt better for not being alone.

Their time in custody was longer than they had expected, but they kept their spirits up by singing songs like ‘Always look on the bright side of life’ from the Monty Python film Life of Brian. There were also old gossip magazines, the Bible, Koran and Discovery Channel on TV. Wednesday afternoon the students got support from demonstrators outside making noise, which helped. Johan: ‘That was really cool. We’ll be alright, I thought then.’ It wasn’t until nine o’clock on Wednesday evening that the students were released one by one. Annemie: ‘The first thing we did was to buy a newspaper to see what had been reported.’

Political debate
The five do not regret their action. At last a public debate has started on the issues that the students wanted to bring attention to. Mo: ‘A week ago nobody knew about leerrechten [the plans to limit the time for completing a degree, and to increase fees for those going over time, Ed.].’ Johan joined the action because he has had enough. ‘Leerechten are nothing less than study rations. The amount of time you have for doing a degree is going to be limited and afterwards you have to pay back a huge amount.’ According to him taking out a loan is not an option, certainly not if you come from a family that is not well off.

They are also worried that students will not have time to do anything in addition to studying, such as writing articles or working for social organisations. Annemie: ‘That’s not what future employers want.’ They also want to be able to continue to be active in student politics. Although the five do not know whether they will be sentenced, they do have the feeling that they have done something special. Now they are busy collecting signatures for a petition: ‘Rutte can expect more action.’ / YdH

You can also sign the petition: www.wu.nl/wso

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