Protest for social safety in front of the Academy building in early March of this year. Photo by Zuzana Ľudviková

Impossible demands and a coercive UG

After the occupation: what’s next?

Protest for social safety in front of the Academy building in early March of this year. Photo by Zuzana Ľudviková
What happened that drove a group of students to occupy the Academy building for a second time? Why did the board of directors call the police to get rid of them, and why did the police use force to do so? And how can the students and the university move forward?
24 May om 12:08 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 24 May 2023
om 12:33 uur.
May 24 at 12:08 PM.
Last modified on May 24, 2023
at 12:33 PM.
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Door Giulia Fabrizi

24 May om 12:08 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 24 May 2023
om 12:33 uur.
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By Giulia Fabrizi

May 24 at 12:08 PM.
Last modified on May 24, 2023
at 12:33 PM.
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Giulia Fabrizi

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When it comes to what exactly happened when the police evicted protesters from the Academy building on April 25, accounts vary. ‘There are two, three, or even more versions’, said board president Jouke de Vries to the university council during the May 11 committee meeting. 

These varying accounts are increasingly becoming a sore point at the university. The university says social safety is an important topic and it’s willing to talk to students about it. But the students of Occupy RUG are allegedly difficult to reach, make impossible demands, and only represent a small group of people.

Conversely, the students say the university is all talk and little action when it comes to social safety. According to them, the UG is just trying to protect its image, while its staff and students continue to feel unsafe. They also say that the university is painting a false picture of Occupy RUG that the students can’t keep defending themselves against. 

UKrant provides an overview of how they got to this impasse.

To start at the beginning: what is Occupy RUG and what are the protests and occupations about?

Occupy RUG is a group of students who are concerned about how the university is handling the concept of social safety. They are trying to protect it. ‘The group spontaneously formed in response to Susanne Täuber’s firing’, says one member, third-year student R. ‘There are currently around eighty people involved with the group’, says J, a second-year student. 

There are two, three, or even more versions of the evacuation

Both students were involved from the start and were there on April 25, when the police put an end to the occupation. ‘The group is larger than just the people that were there that day’, says R, ‘but not everyone is able to take the risk to publicly express their support or show their face.’ 

After the first occupation of the Academy building on March 22, it looked as though the board of directors and the students had reached an agreement. So what went wrong on April 25?

On March 23, the university published a statement it had written together with the students. The statement mentions a follow-up meeting to further discuss new topics the university could improve upon. But that follow-up meeting never takes place.

According to Jouke de Vries, communication with the students is difficult. ‘We’ve been meeting with them, but they keep sending different representatives’, he told the university council. 

The account the UG published on the events states that the students cancelled a proposed meeting on April 11. A meeting set for April 25 isn’t confirmed until the night before, giving rise to the notion that the students are difficult to work with.

But according to the students, the university is only telling part of the story. ‘The initial negotiations were hard, but we were fairly happy with the joint statement’, says J. But then the university went over the agreement again and told the students they wouldn’t be taking any extra action on most of the points. ‘We realised the university wasn’t putting its money where its mouth was.’ 

One point they agreed on was to use a victim-based approach on all levels of care within the university. ‘In the run-up to a next meeting, they told us they want to keep the existing system of hearing both sides of the argument, which involves putting people together’, says R. ‘But the whole point of the victim-based approach is to prevent victims from unnecessarily being confronted with the perpetrator, since this can be traumatic for them.’ 

How did the meeting that took place during the April 25 occupation go? Did the students really think they could get Susanne Täuber reinstated?

‘Of course we were hoping that she’d get her job back’, says J. ‘If the university had reinstated her, they would have actually admitted that there is a structural problem at the UG.’ The students were less concerned with Täuber as a person, and more with her position as a researcher and advocate for social safety at the university. 

Of course we were hoping that Susanne Täuber would get her job back

The university says it was surprised by the demands the students put forward during that meeting and that they hadn’t been discussed earlier. The UG also said it can’t respond to personal affairs, especially not when the case could possibly end up before the court again. The non-negotiable demand to reinstate Täuber put an end to the discussion, says the university. 

‘That wasn’t a new demand at all, we told them about it the first time’, the students say. 

In the meantime, fifty students occupied the steps inside the Academy building. What happened there?

According to the university, the students blocked the stairs, hung banners, made quite a bit of noise, and disrupted daily operations in the building. A Studium Generale event, which had ‘many elderly visitors’, was moved to the University library because the visitors didn’t feel safe.

Nonsense, the students say. ‘They’re acting as though we were out of control’, says J. ‘But we treated everyone there perfectly nice. We made room so elderly people could go up and down the stairs and we were silent. Studium Generale even invited us to come attend the lecture.’ They never disrupted any classes. ‘Some students spent the entire afternoon in the coffee corner studying. How would they have been able to do that if we were being as loud as the uni is saying we were?’

According to the students, the university is trying to paint them in a bad light. ‘They’re straight-up lying’, says R. ‘But what are we going to do, debunk everything? Then they’ll react to that and it becomes an endless circle of trying to debunk their lies.’

Around 7 p.m., the university decided the students had to leave. Perhaps the board of directors should have just let them be instead of asking the police to clear out the building? 

The students hadn’t necessarily planned on sleeping in the building; they just wanted to stay until the board of directors met their demands. They had no intention of disrupting daily operations in the Academy building, they say. What they did want was for the board to acknowledge the existence of the underlying issues with social safety and take action to combat this. Their first demand was that Täuber would be reinstated before her contract ran out on April 30.

What are we going to do, debunk everything? Then it becomes an endless circle

The board’s interpretation was that the students presented them with two non-negotiable demands. Number one was Täuber’s reinstatement, and number two was the assertion that they wouldn’t leave the Academy building until May 1, said De Vries during the committee meeting. The directors were not on board with this. 

Letting the students stay in the building was out of the question, because the discussion had hit a dead end. The university also claims daily operations were in fact disrupted, since classes, speeches, and graduation ceremonies take place on a daily basis at the Academy building. 

The mood changed the moment the police arrived. The Occupy RUG students say the police became violent. But where is the line?

‘When the force that the police use isn’t proportional to the situation or behaviour it’s applied to and there is a valid alternative, it’s police violence’, says assistant professor Laura Keesman. In April, she received her PhD for her study of violent situations in police work and the interaction between the police and citizens. For her research, she spent years shadowing police, including during protests.

‘The Dutch police have a monopoly on violence. If a situation calls for it, they’re authorised to use force. Police receive special training in this’, she says. Which means are allowed and when is determined by law. ‘Before the police respond to a protest, they discuss the expectations, the framework, and any and all steps the police may take to resolve the situation with everyone. This includes the use of force.’

Afterwards, there is always an internal evaluation of the officers’ actions. ‘Any officer should be able to explain why they implemented or executed any given action’, says Keesman. ‘It’s not police violence unless the force used was disproportionate to the situation or the citizens’ actions.’

The evaluation of the events that transpired on April 25 has not been concluded. But there’s no guarantee there will be a public statement on it at all. ‘We don’t usually release a public statement, but we’re not yet sure in this matter’, a spokesperson for the police in the north of the Netherlands said.

Who is responsible for the police actions?

Whenever someone asks the police to intervene and the police, after consulting with for instance the Public Prosecution Service, decide to terminate a protest or occupation, the police mainly determine their actions, says Keesman. However, she emphasises, the person who called the police is essentially responsible for the police presence and anything that follows after.

The board should have realised the ramifications of calling the police

‘The board of directors should have realised the ramifications of asking the police to resolve the situation’, says Keesman. ‘When they called the police, they decided that the police were allowed to remove the students if they wouldn’t leave of their own volition. That’s rarely a pretty picture. They also should have taken into account that the police are allowed to and may use violence, as long as it’s proportional and there’s no other alternative.’

What’s next?

This is a loaded question, it turns out. According to the students, the ball is in the university’s court. ‘It’s clear there are both students and staff who are unhappy with the current state of affairs’, says R. ‘Our number is larger than it appears on the face of it, because many of them don’t speak out for fear of the consequences to their academic careers. It’s the university’s turn to take action.’

In the meantime, De Vries says the students are welcome to come talk to him, but he’s worried about what might come next. ‘If we keep going the way we’re going, we’ll run out of things to utilise and end up somewhere we really don’t want to be’, he said during the committee meeting.

The students wouldn’t comment on any further planned actions. ‘For now, we mainly encourage students and staff to sign the petition we started during the last protest’, says J. ‘We need to keep talking about this with each other and have a public discussion.’