There are many questions that need answering on 9 November in the courthouse in Groningen. But the most important one, the judge says, is the following: ‘Why did you put your foot on his head?’
She is addressing Wouter B., a broad-shouldered, 24-year-old master student, reasonable water polo player, and former member of student association Vindicat atque Polit. The head belongs to Rogier, eighteen years old at the time, and an aspiring member of the association.
Wouter B. is on trial for assault. He is suspected of having inflicted grievous bodily harm on Rogier during the initiation period in 2016. Wouter B. is alleged to have stood on Rogier’s head at the association’s club house, Mutua Fides.
At the time, B. was president of the Commissie Overdracht Corpskennis, COCK for short, which is supposed to teach new members about the association. It consists of experienced senior students who have earned their stripes: men of a certain reputation. ‘Sometimes aspiring members do things that aren’t allowed at Vindicat. Using drugs, bullying other first-years, or underage drinking. That’s when they get sent to COCK’, B. explained.
Rogier was called to appear before the COCK, even though he hadn’t bullied anyone, nor had he used any drugs. His ‘crime’ had taken place before the hazing period even started.
In the weekend before the KEI week, Wouter B. was DJing at pub the Blauwe Engel. A friend of his entered the bar, bringing Rogier with her. B. lightly slapped his cheek twice, which Rogier returned in kind, once.
‘So you started the slaps’, the judge concludes.
You’re COCK food, they hiss at him
‘But it was never my intention… I was being nice, it was just a way to say hello…’ Faltering, B. tries again. ‘This eighteen-year-old school kid comes to a new city, getting drunk. He shouldn’t have been acting that way.’ He sounds indignant. ‘It was just so inappropriate.’
After the KEI week, hazing starts, and the incident at the Blauwe Engel is the talk of Vindicat. At camp, Rogier is treated harshly. He has to crawl through a ditch while keeping his head under water for slapping Wouter, he is told. ‘You’re COCK food’, they hiss at him.
‘But we do that to every fresher’, B. argues. ‘We make it personal so they’ll try harder. I understand that Rogier thinks he was treated differently from the others, but that’s just not true.’
B. does nominate Rogier to go to the COCK. ‘He’d behaved inappropriately’, says B. ‘That’s why he had to go there. He wasn’t there because I personally wanted revenge, he was there because he’d hit someone.’
The judge refers to Vindicat’s hazing policies. ‘You can only be sent to the COCK if you fail to apply yourself during the initiation period’, she reads out. ‘The incident at the Blauwe Engel took place before the initiation period.’
‘No one had told me about the rules’, says B. ‘I was just doing the same thing others had done before me.’ The document contains another important rule: ‘The COCK will not touch the aspiring members’.
‘Same thing’, says B. ‘I didn’t know.’
Rogier is taken to a basement room in the club’s building, Mutua Fides. A few candles are lit, but the room is dark. He and nine other first-years are forced to sit on the floor. Two COCK members talk about the history of Vindicat and ask questions. If the freshers answer questions incorrectly or not fast enough, they are grabbed and made to lean against the wall with their legs bent at a ninety-degree angle.
They kick your legs out from under you. One time I got a knee in my back. That hurt
Rogier has to do it several times. ‘They practically make you stand there until you faint’, he said in his statement. ‘And they kick your legs out from under you. One time I got a knee in my back. That hurt. Wouter B. stood close to me the whole time.’
‘Were you sober that night?’ the judge asks B.
‘Stone cold sober’, he immediately answers.
‘People were saying you were “fucked up” and acting “nuts”.’
‘I was acting’, says B. ‘I guess I’m quite good at it.’
B. tells Rogier to lie down. He is eerily calm as he says this, which is exactly what scares Rogier. He is told to put his cheek on the concrete floor. B. and the other COCK members surround him, repeatedly asking: ‘Why did you slap him?’
‘All I could say was how sorry I was’, Rogier says in his statement. ‘I must have apologised at least five times. At one point, Wouter got up. He put his foot on my temple and pushed down. It was bizarre; I didn’t know what to do. The pain became unbearable after just a second. It felt as though he was putting his full weight on my head. I screamed. I tried to get away, but no one helped me. After about ten seconds, he stopped.’
B. says the part about the full weight is incorrect. ‘I put my foot against the side of his head, keeping my heel on the floor, putting my weight on my other leg. I told him he was never allowed to slap me again. That was it.’ B. talks in a rush, looking relieved when he’s done.
‘Then there is the main question: why did you put your foot on his head?’
B. is not entirely sure himself. ‘Hazing is supposed to be humiliating. That’s just how it is’, he tries to explain. ‘I did it to intimidate him. I know now that it was stupid. I should’ve known better than to put my foot on his head. But it was never my intention to hurt him.’
We were really upset when Rogier had to go to the hospital. We didn’t understand
‘You didn’t realise beforehand that standing on people’s heads might not be the best idea?’
B.’s stammering explanation grinds to a halt.
‘How do you feel about the incident?’ the judge asks. ‘Do you feel responsible?’
‘I was the president of that committee. I’d feel responsible if someone slipped on a banana peel’, says B. ‘We were really upset when Rogier had to go to the hospital. We didn’t understand.’
Several days later, Rogier is taken to the UMCG in an ambulance. He has a severe headache, is vomiting, and can’t abide harsh lighting or loud noises. His right ear is leaking fluid. He gets a CT scan, and the neurologist thinks he might have a small skull base fracture, although she is not entirely sure.
Rogier has to stay at the hospital for a few days, mainly because he cannot stop vomiting. He is unable to go through with the rest of the hazing. His statement shows that he still gets headaches from time to time, and that he has trouble focusing.
A foot is applied to a healthy young man’s head, who is then in so much pain that he has to be admitted to hospital. It sounds like a simple case of cause and effect. You’d think.
But Wouter B. and his lawyer have a different opinion. After all, B. isn’t the only one who insists that he never pushed down with his foot: the other COCK members corroborate this. Maybe Rogier was pushed around at the pub, hit his head on a wall. Whatever the reason, B. refuses to accept that he caused the damage.
And that is something the judge finds hard to accept. ’People’s heads are fragile. Your foot was close to his temple. You keep saying that it wasn’t your intention to cause harm. But surely you could have known that it could lead to this?’ she asks. Later, straightforwardly: ‘Did you go too far?’ ’Outside of the initiation period it might have been too far’, says B.
Not enough overview, too few rules, too many risks. It was an accident waiting to happen
‘Are you seriously suggesting that it’s okay to put a foot on someone’s head as long as it’s during the initiation period?’ the judge asks incredulously. ‘Not that it’s okay’, B. responds, ‘just that it happens.’
He has by now concluded that it would probably be better to abolish the COCK. Not enough overview, too few rules, too many risks. ‘It was an accident waiting to happen.’
The Public Prosecution Office has demanded a 91-day prison stay for B., ninety of which would be probationary. They also demanded a 180-hour community service for the infliction of grievous bodily harm.
‘B. didn’t wish to inflict harm’, the public prosecutor explains. ‘He was upset when he heard Rogier was in the hospital. One witness even says he was crying.’ Moreover, within the framework of hazing, which is a complicated game that can enthral the people in power, people’s values can become blurred. The chances of B. becoming a repeat offender are small, the prosecutor says.
On the other hand, she says: ‘A terrible offence has been committed. Wouter B. abused his position of power to settle a personal score. And not once did hid he admit that what he has done was wrong.’
So why does a young man put his foot on someone’s head?
Intense indignation over a drunken slap fight. Intense dedication to a role he might have played just a little too well. The idea that his actions served a higher purpose, that what he didn’t wasn’t intended to do harm, but to teach someone a lesson. That must have been why.
Although he’s not too sure himself, either.