A call to the future: Student activism at the UvA

   The Mayor of Amsterdam and recent press articles claim that ‘professional activists’ have taken over the Maagdenhuis Appropriation while students have become a minority. The few students who are left, according to this narrative, are looking to get away with their irresponsible behaviour by seeking ECTS study credits instead of doing their coursework. This distinction is somewhat patronising: are they suggesting that you cannot be a student and an activist? What would have happened if the student activists of the 1960s, qualified as rebellious anarchists, had not broken with the dominant narratives of how to behave in society? Women would be stuck at home to take care of their precious all-knowing husbands and most of the music genres popular today would be considered blasphemous.

   I find it really curious that the term ‘professional activist’ is used in a derogatory sense by Mayor Van der Laan and Minister Bussemaker. What qualifies as acceptable work? Why isn’t activism qualified as decent work? Isn’t wanting to change society for the better something worth committing time to? Or should we just roll over as arbitrary decisions are made by ideologues such as Louise Gunning, Mayor van der Laan and Minister Bussemaker? They seem to think that society should be based on a set of market relationships, where actions only matter if you get paid for them or if they help you work towards future career opportunities. Meanwhile, managers/politicians (the distinction is now unclear) have lost our trust as they bulldoze over the welfare state and the democratic voice won through struggles such as the 1969 Maagdenhuis occupation.

   The students/activists (the distinction is non-existent inside the Maagdenhuis) are witty and defiant in using humour to denounce this sort of narrative. Chants used at protests against the Board of Directors include ‘Louise is de beste, stop met haar de pesten!’ and ‘We want less democracy, give us more authority!’ Another common joke around the Maagdenhuis is that Russia pays us to be professional activists, otherwise how would this be a sustainable job for us? I find this optimism and sense of humour admirable considering the seriousness of the issue. These managers/politicians are actively discrediting these students’ hard work and personal ambitions. Recent criticisms over a call (in a joking tone) for ECTS study credits for student activists exemplify this denial of the Maagdenhuis actions and their legitimacy as part of the university experience. Students are not seeking a free pass for their so-called ‘irresponsible’ behaviour; in fact non-students have been most vocal about getting credits for student activists.

   Currently, students are expected by the managerial/political class to be nothing more than consumers of education or so-called ‘active citizens’ who follow a set script: voting for student elections, paying for their tuition fees and filling out end-of-year evaluation forms. Professor Engin Isin, who recently visited the Maagdenhuis with great enthusiasm, differentiates the ‘active citizen’ from ‘activist citizens’. Activist citizens are those who constitute themselves as citizens through acts of political participation. Activists like those at the Maagdenhuis set the scene rather than waiting for representative bodies to take their responsibilities and defend the rights of those who elect them.

   De Nieuwe Universiteit prides itself on its imaginative capacity put into practice through direct action. Our actions embody the ideals that we try to achieve in our university and in society – direct democracy, respect, tolerance, sharing, mutual support, active participation, etc. Of course, it’s not perfect but contrarily to these manager/politicians we don’t claim to know the right course of action. As if there ever was a right way! With all the talk about students’ responsibilities, we completely undermine the responsibility manager/politicians have for their risky investments and selling off the university to the tourist industry. The power of imagination is constantly repressed under the pretext that ‘there is no alternative’ and that we have to cover the debts through strict austerity measures. Let us not forget that there used to be Communism, which although heavily flawed, provided the imaginary one existing alternative of societal organisation.

   I believe that we should send a message to the university and the political class that fighting against injustice through the power of imagination is acceptable behaviour. We cannot live in fear any longer. In the spirit of this article and based on trends witnessed in other European countries, I would like to call for several measures to be taken immediately before we consider any withdrawal from the Maagdenhuis (please feel free to add on):

– A possible re-evaluation for student activists, including alternative study assignments relating to the importance of democratic participation. Some plans are being formulated but it would be good if this was generalised and more members of staff get involved.

– An end to the black book for students and staff and a guarantee against people losing their jobs and getting kicked out of university.

– A guarantee by the university management and the Mayor against bans on protests. In 2013, the University of London banned protests on campus. This is not acceptable in a democratic society.

– A guarantee by the Mayor and/or the current government against future attacks by the police against students which reinforces a culture of fear and destroys all trust in the democratic system.

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