Glued to a road for your convictions
would you go?
‘Regular protests didn’t work anymore, so we needed to try something else’, says Marinus Jongman. As president of the Groningen student union GSb, he helped organise the occupation of the Academy building in September 2021 along with Shelter Our Students. A strong measure, but Marinus felt it was necessary.
‘When you occupy something, the reaction is always going to be: oh, that’s very heavy-handed, you are bothering other people’, he says. ‘Some people didn’t condone our way of protesting, but the message was widely supported and everyone understood why we were doing it.’
Students of Groningen are no strangers to protest. In 2022, they demonstrated against the ongoing housing crisis, the exclusion of students from gas subsidies, the climate crisis, and the Sugar Homes owners not returning students’ deposits. However, when you care deeply about a certain cause, it might become difficult to distinguish what is and what isn’t morally acceptable behaviour. When are you crossing the line?
For many activists, anything that involves dealing with police is one step too far. ‘I can get a little anxious around the police. I don’t have a lot of trust in them’, says Bart Reed, an art history master student who attends protests and helps write speeches for Extinction Rebellion here in Groningen. ‘I’m pretty sure if you step out of line in any way, they just see you as a threat.’
Dutch police are allowed to use a technique called joint locking to restrain protesters who engage in acts of civil disobedience, such as blocking roads, and they often do.. ‘During blockades, they either pick you up or they rough you up a little bit.’ It’s one of the reasons Bart decided against joining in with these types of actions in the past.
With every step, you have to consider how much further you’re willing to go
‘With every step, you have to consider how much further you’re willing to go’, says Mariska van Hattum, a fourth-year mathematics student who took part in a legal demonstration with Extinction Rebellion at Schiphol Airport in November.
That same day, around two hundred protesters were arrested for trespassing and blocking the take-off of private jets on a restricted area of Schiphol’s airfield. ‘I specifically didn’t join the disruptive action’, she says. ‘It was a bit out of my comfort zone to climb over obstacles and really break the rules.’
The action itself wasn’t over the line of what is acceptable in activism, she believes. ‘It was morally justified, it just crossed my personal line. For now, I’m good with doing normal protests. But maybe I would try it in a different place than Schiphol, when they expect lower risk.’
According to Martijn van Zomeren, an adjunct professor of social psychology who specialises in subjects such as collective action, social change, and protests, there is no permanent moral line for protest in society. ‘I prefer to see it as a continuous negotiation where people make decisions about whether to tolerate something or not’, he says. ‘That can mean that it might lie somewhere else in ten years time than it does now.’
Of course, what society as a whole deems acceptable behaviour may differ from where people draw their own line. Kristin McGee, associate professor of music and a member of tree activist group Boomwachters Groningen, feels that it’s a tough question as to where to draw the line between acceptable and criminal behaviour when it comes to protesting.
The moral line might lie somewhere else in ten years time
‘I guess everyone has their own limits’, she says. ‘For students, it’s typically more precarious, they should be aware of the consequences for their careers and lives when they protest. It can be hard for students if they are criminalised, so it’s good to educate yourself.’
McGee herself has always opted for peaceful protests, ‘even if I did come across as fierce’, she says. ‘I’ve never actually crossed any lines and done things that were questionable or controversial.’
That doesn’t mean she would disapprove of activists who are daring to go very far. She is a strong supporter of students choosing activism and going for harmless yet effective and far-reaching measures, she emphasises. ‘I think more and more young people should become activists, as the younger generations will be most affected by, for example, climate change.’
So how do people decide where their line is? It’s really a mix of their personal psychology and their social surroundings, Van Zomeren explains. That also means that when their surroundings change, their perspective may likewise shift.
When people start protesting, they meet other activists and become part of a network. ‘When you combine people’s moral convictions and sense of group identity, you get a very potent mix. That can actually make people more likely to cross their own personal lines and do things they wouldn’t otherwise do’, says Van Zomeren. ‘There is an infrastructure around you that makes these types of actions much more imaginable and doable in your mind.’
When people have shared beliefs, they feel they are in the right more so than others. ‘And then they’re more likely to shift the moral line in order to justify more radical actions.’
Marinus saw an example of that at a housing protest he organised at the Vismarkt. One person held up a cardboard sign with a message about ‘nasty’ landlords along with a picture of a guillotine. ‘That’s over the line and I did not feel comfortable with that, because it violates my morals. That’s just not what you do.’
You have to match the action to those who can do something about the problem
When deciding how far an action should go, he asks himself a few questions. Who has the power? How can I change their interests so they’ll do what I want? ‘Mindless disruption is no good, you have to match the action to those who can actually do something about the problem. And causing trouble for ordinary people isn’t morally wrong, but it should be avoided if possible.’
Van Zomeren is optimistic about the effects of this kind of tailor-made protest. ‘Some movements are starting to use actions that aren’t doing any harm. For instance, they are messing up a painting with soup or paint or whatever they use. That kind of protesting attracts attention, but does not hurt people in the process.’
McGee, too, believes that activism should always be nonviolent. ‘I don’t think aggression is a good strategy to prove your point. It’s fortunate that many students have developed solid and peaceful activism strategies’, she says, pointing to Extinction Rebellion’s roadblocks and protests where they glue themselves to objects.
‘The line is always violence or destruction’, says Bart.
‘You can never resort to violence, in any way’, agrees Marinus. ‘Other than that, any peaceful demonstration that matches the severity of the cause – I don’t see a reason why that would be wrong.’
Within the boundaries he’s set for himself, Marinus knows one thing for sure: he’ll remain a proud protester. ‘The only way anything ever changes in this society is when people stand up and demonstrate for things that they think are important. For free education, for housing for all, for the world that they want to have or see in the future. If people don’t stand up, everything will remain the same.’