In the afternoon of Monday, January 16, 2023, dozens of UvA students and teachers occupied a university building. Their reason? Once again, the university’s long-standing ties with the company Shell. Upon the protesters’ refusal to leave, the UvA immediately filed a report of trespassing with the police, who had to intervene by entering the building and arresting 30 of the protesters.
Protesting against the university’s collaboration with Shell has been going on for months, but until recently, all of the protesters’ words have fallen on deaf ears. The UvA’s ties with a company that has been involved in destroying indigenous communities, lobbying against climate policies and oil spills in Nigeria result problematic for some of the University’s communities.
However, on February 8, 2023, the University of Amsterdam officially announced a moratorium (a temporary suspension) on its collaboration with Shell. After months of protesting, the militants had won. Was the occupation of a building owned by the university the act that finally opened the eyes of the university’s representatives? And why did the protest have to get so violent?
After the police’s intervention and arrests, a discussion spiked throughout the university’s activist community. Is this a matter of police brutality? And where do we draw the line between unlawful actions and pressing climate issues? To answer these questions, the University hosted a conference on February 15, 2023, titled Abolition Ecology: Police, Violence, and Ecology. The conference has been promoted on social media by @uvarebellion, a leftist community within the University of Amsterdam whose purpose is “demanding that the UvA cut its colonial ties with Shell.” In the end, it seems they have reached their goal.
One legitimate question that inevitably arises when looking at the Instagram profile of @uvarebellion is why the university’s ties with Shell are defined as “colonial.” Is it just used as a buzzword to spark even more outrage?
This piece does not aim to discuss whether or not police violence is ever justified: it is not, and I do not deny police violence either. I am simply questioning whether police violence and environmental activism are connected, or at least if they are connected to a significant degree. Could it be doing a disservice to both issues to connect them in such a way so as to spark even more outrage? The UvA hosting a conference about climate change and police violence in my opinion condones the two issues’ connection. At the end of the day, I believe that in most cases, the police only intervenes to restore order and does not have anything against climate activism in and of itself, and that may very well be what happened at the UvA protest against Shell. I am not denying how big of a deal death by the hands of the police is. What I am questioning is the framing of the issue: specifically, I am criticizing how activists expect to be able to occupy a building without there being any consequences from the point of view of involving police forces.
Opinion of the writer
Climate action and requests that the university ends a controversial collaboration are valid motives for protesting. Indeed, it is in everyone’s right to do so. But I question whether occupying a university building and talking about police brutality, in this case, might be taking it too far. The occupation of private facilities is a grey area when it comes to protesting. In this case, the University has decided to involve the police to restore order.
Tying climate action with police brutality is a long stretch and not an entirely fair one. Not only at the UvA, of course, but everywhere in the world, lately, we are seeing climate activists going against the law. In many cases, they go as far as limiting other people’s freedom to take a strong stance and “make their voice heard” (such as activists physically stopping traffic on roads). A famous adage goes, “my freedom ends where yours begins,” and no climate emergency, as pressing as it is, justifies breaking the law. Using the expression “police brutality” in the setting of climate action deeply undermines both the issue of police brutality and the environmental emergency.
Where do we draw the line, then? Why are activists occupying a university building (thus going against the law) any different than people throwing paint at invaluable artwork in museums?
The climate crisis is real. There is no denying it. But it is highly problematic to assume that climate and environmental issues give someone the right to break the law. One should change tactics if one needs to shout so loud to get their voice heard. Of course, in the end the UvA has decided to end their collaboration with Shell, but is it actually going to make a difference in terms of environmental damage? It seems to me that the students and professors protesting against this collaboration were simply forcing their ideas upon the university. Everyone’s opinion is valid and worth listening to; the environmental emergency is real. But unlawfully occupying a building (albeit in disuse) is probably the wrong way to make a point since it is a violent action: those that agree with it are already convinced, and those that don’t are probably going to be even more set in their opinions against climate activism. Arguably, this particular violent type of climate activism is harming the environmental cause rather than benefiting it. There are other ways of opening up the dialogue. Using kindness to discuss even the most pressing issues may be the way to finally reach a breakthrough.