LEIDEN, STATIONSPLEIN, 23 NOVEMBER, 09:59
From the corner of the Stationsplein, an officer on a mountain bike is watching a group of about 30 students. It is action group End Fossil and they have gathered in front of the station this Thursday morning. Today is the day they announced two weeks ago by unfurling a large banner in the Pieter de la Court building: ‘GET THE SHELL OUT OF HERE! 23 NOV WE OCCUPY!’
End Fossil is going to occupy a university building because they believe the Executive Board is not making enough efforts to cut ties with the fossil industry.
One of the activists raises their hand, signalling the rest to listen. ‘We’re about to start,’ he says. ‘We’re sending a few people ahead. They know what to do’ A text message via the encrypted chat app Signal reveals the location: Lipsius.
Elsewhere in the city, university security guards have already taken measures against the announced occupation. The gate in front of the main entrance to the Administration and Central Services Building at Rapenburg 70 is closed. Extra security is also in place at the Academy Building. The main study area of the University Library is still open, but several of the entrances further on in the building are closed.
THE HAGUE, TURFMARKT, BEEHIVE, 20 OCTOBER, 20:04
A few weeks before the action is due to take place, around 15 prospective occupiers sit in a circle on the floor of the dance hall at the Beehive Student Centre. The atmosphere is tense. Security guards unexpectedly showed up at the entrance to the Beehive and recorded the names of all visitors.
Does the university already know that there will be an action training session? One of the End Fossil members quickly checks to make sure the image projected on the wall by the projector they brought along cannot be seen from the corridor.
The expected security guards ultimately do not appear and everyone relaxes. Activists Berk, Zoekie and Duif start their explanation and exercises: how to participate in a demonstration. Anyone planning to take part in an End Fossil action must undergo this training to ensure that the action proceeds smoothly.
An important part of a well-executed action: the well-being of the activists. ‘Before we start, we first want to ask everyone here how they’re doing.’ One by one, the attendees respond: they are excited, tense, curious or determined.
‘My mother would be angry if she knew I was here,’ says one of them. ‘So it’s a good thing I’m here.’
LEIDEN, CLEVERINGAPLAATS, LIPSIUS, 11:14
Without being subjected to an LU-Card check or any other form of resistance, the occupiers reach two classrooms on the first floor of the Lipsius building. They settle in, prepared to stay there for multiple days.
A lecturer walks in and stares confused at all the activity. ‘I was supposed to have a meeting with the programme committee here, what now?’ Several activists immediately run off in different directions, in search of an available classroom. A minute later, one of them returns: ‘Room 1.15 is available. We will redirect everyone from the programme committee there.’ Satisfied, the lecturer heads to the other room.
As the activists put up banners ('OCCUPIED, Stop destroying lives in the global south'), the Faculty Board shows up to see what is going on.
‘We will tolerate the occupation as long as you abide by the house rules and the teaching can continue,’ Executive Director Saskia Goedhard tells the protesters. She hands them a sheet with the rules. ‘But we can’t allow you to stay here overnight.’
‘If you want to get coffee downstairs, be sure to take a reusable cup,’ Dean Mark Rutgers adds.
Once the Faculty Board has left, Berk declares the occupation through a megaphone: ‘WE HAVE OCCUPIED THE UNIVERSITY!’ The students cheer and chant together: ‘I BELIEVE THAT WE WILL WIN!’
After the initial excitement, the protesters make themselves comfortable in the classrooms. A student displays a small collection of books and magazines on climate, ecology, sociology and politics. On another table, vegan food is set out.
One of the occupiers is almost constantly grinding coffee beans with a manual grinder. A note with a QR code asks for donations for children in war zones.
Lecturer Joeri Reinders starts a lecture on climate change. He begins with a brief fact check of the climate positions of election winner PVV.
After the climate change lecture, the students disperse across the two classrooms for the workshops on meme-making and clothing repair. Others hand out flyers to students having lunch downstairs in the hall and cafeteria.
There is an ultimatum: the Faculty Board arrives to announce that the occupation must stop at 5 pm, even though Lipsius closes at 10 pm. ‘If the university meets our demands by 5 pm, we’ll go,’ is End Fossil’s reply.
Two lectures scheduled at Lipsius well after that time have already been cancelled, as per an update of the university schedule. ‘No social activities can take place at the university because the safety of those present in the buildings cannot be guaranteed’. A lecture on nitrogen by professor Jan Willem Erisman and a Studium Generale lecture (‘Leadership in uncertain times’) by former Rector Carel Stolker are cancelled.
‘Such a shame,’ Stolker responds. Erisman says he was informed of a possible cancellation the day before.
As students are listening attentively to human rights activist Raki Ap who is giving a lecture on West Papua in the occupied lecture hall, Dean Rutgers and university spokesperson Caroline van Overbeeke enter. They want to convince the occupiers to engage in a conversation with Rector Magnificus Hester Bijl. The condition: the meeting must take place outside Lipsius and a maximum of five activists may join in.
The members of End Fossil refuse: ‘We will only speak with the rector in public. We don’t want them to use this as a PR moment, and we won’t be escorted out.’
On the condition that it will not turn into a fifty-versus-one debate, the Rector decides to visit one of the occupied classrooms after all. She has little time, she warns. But she would like to explain that the Executive Board is working on a new policy. ‘We’re working with a broad group of experts to develop a policy plan. We hope to present and discuss it with the University Council in February.’
In response to a question about why the university does not want to immediately cut ties with the fossil industry, Bijl says the university is ‘not a top-down organisation’. ‘I can’t dictate to researchers what they can or cannot research.’
Before she leaves, an activist asks the Rector to cut a symbolic tie to signify that the university is committed to cutting fossil ties. Bijl does not want to do so fully so she only cuts the tie halfway.
THE HAGUE, BEEHIVE, 20 OCTOBER, 20:34
During the action training session, it is time for a practical lesson on evacuating. Some of the volunteers take on the role of police and are already waiting outside in the corridor. The remaining “occupiers” sit on the floor, waiting to be dragged away. The activists quickly exchange some more tips on how best to hook their limbs together.
‘Does it count as resisting arrest if you keep holding each other’s hands?’, someone asks. ‘At the Extinction Rebellion training, they said it does, so better not do that, just to be sure.’
‘Hey ho, take me by the hand. Strong in solidarity we stand.’
When the “police” enter the room, the occupiers start singing. The makeshift officers choose their first target, someone sitting at the end of a row. ‘Are you coming with us?’ As they start pushing and shoving, the tension breaks and giggles erupt among the protesters. With some effort, the “officers” manage to drag the occupiers away one by one. As both the occupiers and evacuators end the exercise laughing, one of the trainers gives a warning: ‘The real police are better at this.’
LEIDEN, LIPSIUS, 23 NOVEMBER, 16:35
In the occupied lecture hall, about 50 protesters prepare for the announced evacuation. ‘Unfortunately, we probably won’t be able to run our entire programme.’
That the university is taking the matter seriously became clear earlier through a new update on its website: ‘The Executive Board has decided to close all university buildings in Leiden at 5 pm.’ It is no longer just two cancelled lectures at Lipsius: the entire academic community grinds to a halt. Whether it is students preparing for their exams in the University Library or lab technicians on the science campus miles away.
‘The early closure of buildings caused a lot of inconvenience and trouble for our staff, students and visitors, which we regret,’ university spokesperson Van Overbeeke admits afterwards. But this decision was based on the advice of local authorities, who made an assessment of the security risks at the time. Due to safety concerns, we can’t share the details.’
‘The police are expected to be here at five, but they may very well be quite a bit later,’ says someone in the occupied classroom. ‘For now, let’s tidy things up a bit.’
Afterwards, the activists split up into three groups: those who will leave as soon as asked, those who will stick around to film the police action, and the hardliners who will keep going until they are arrested.
About 25 activists remain. They decide to put on some music: Rage Against the Machine can be heard playing in the room, followed by Hang Youth and Woody Guthrie. Although there is still no sign of police, one of the protesters raps along to KRS-One’s ‘Sound of da Police’.
Just after five o’clock, Rutgers and Goedhard enter the room once more and ask the protesters to leave one last time. According to Goedhard, this is a ‘formal request on behalf of the Executive Board’ and everyone is ‘ordered to leave the building in accordance with the house rules’.
‘Are you cutting the ties?’ one of the activists asks.
Goedhard: ‘If you don’t comply with the request, the building manager will have no other option but to ask the police to enforce it.’
Rutgers concludes on a personal note: ‘Don’t let it end in chaos.’
As the departed activists wait outside and the first police vans arrive, the remaining activists play tag in the occupied room.
Goedhard shows up one last time, accompanied by three police officers: ‘I previously ordered you to leave the premises. You did not comply, which means I’m now handing over the premises to the police.’
Officers enter through a side entrance of the Lipsius building and walk up the stairs; the hallway fills with uniforms. As the evacuation begins, the students hook their arms together and start chanting: ‘WHAT DO WE WANT? CLIMATE JUSTICE!’
The first few students allow themselves to be taken away without much pushing and shoving, eventually walking along compliantly. After the last unwavering protesters are grabbed by the neck and dragged along by their arms, the room is empty. One activist’s glasses break. Outside, a growing number of onlookers cheer the protesters on: ‘YOU ARE NOT ALONE!’ By a quarter to six, everyone is standing outside. No one has been arrested.
‘If we don’t do anything crazy, we’re free to go,’ says one of the activists.
‘It was a successful action,’ concludes End Fossil member Zoekie. ‘There was a sense of solidarity and that was very much needed. It was a shame that the university called the police, though.’
‘A three-week occupation would probably have had more impact,’ thinks Zoekie. ‘But we will definitely come back. We won’t leave until our demands are met.’
In collaboration with Tamar Tros.