Civil disobedience. It’s a phrase that has often graced the news headlines in recent weeks after waves of protests by the activist group Extinction Rebellion brought chaos to central London. Ordinary, legal methods of campaigning for climate action have been unable to achieve the systematic change needed to address climate change. This has led activists to resort to more drastic methods – such as planting a bright pink sailing boat in the middle of a busy intersection. After weeks of relentless civil disobedience, the UK government bowed to the demands of Extinction Rebellion and declared a climate emergency, making it the first government to do so. Now Erasmus Change is looking to bring civil disobedience to the streets of Rotterdam, with the die-in being Act 1.
“We’ve had many protests in which the police have guided you exactly where they wanted it to go, but we need to do more radical things to draw attention to these issues,” says Joppe Hoekstra, one of the founding members of Erasmus Change. “Civil disobedience is an acceptable form of political action. In colonial times, laws ensured the separation of white and black people. Now laws allow big polluters like Shell to continue destroying our planet, making it impossible for future generations to survive. We are a peaceful movement. We’ll never use violence, but we will break the law if that helps our cause.”
Extinction Rebellion does exist in the Netherlands, but Hoekstra says its members are mainly older people. By starting an activist group within EUC, Hoekstra believes Erasmus Change can help link students who wouldn’t normally join organisations outside of their study with activist groups like Extinction Rebellion.
“We felt that we were talking a lot about climate change here at EUC, but not doing enough about it,” Hoekstra says. “As for the die-in, it’s based on the concept of the sit-in. But instead of sitting, you lie down on the ground and you basically pretend to be the Earth that’s dying. And that’s just one way of drawing attention to the climate crisis because we feel that this is vital before the European elections.”
Just minutes before the die-in was set to begin, the square in front of the Markthal was fairly quiet, apart from a few Extinction Rebellion members and a hoard of tourists buzzing around. Suddenly, the sound of chanting in the distance started to fill the air and a crowd of students could be seen marching together behind a banner reading ‘Climate Justice’. At the command of EUC student Emilie de Bassompierre, the students scattered around the square to prepare for their ‘death.’
“What do we want?”
“When do we want it?”
At that very moment, over 75 activists dropped ‘dead’ on the ground. There they lay there under the sun for the next 20 minutes, with more and more onlookers stopping to see what was happening. Fortunately not every activist was on the ground. Many were walking around spreading the word about the climate crisis.
“Most people know there’s a climate crisis going on, but I don’t think they realise just how serious this is. I think that’s the most important thing for us to get across,” says de Bassompierre, who studies Liberal Arts and Science at EUC. “There are also people here who don’t belong to EUC, which is really good because we want this to extend beyond the university.”
Students weren’t the only ones at the die-in. Among the ‘dead’ was senior lecturer Christian van der Veeke, who had organised a course about the climate crisis three years ago. For him, the protest was a manifestation of what his course is all about.
“Most of the activists here are my students, and what I’ve seen over the past three years is that the course is very existential – like a mourning process they have to experience,” according to Van der Veeke after the die-in. “So first there’s denial, then slowly acceptance, and eventually they become active like this. That’s exactly what we want.”
As for playing dead, van der Veeke didn’t mind it too much.
“There was this man walking around the square with a drum, which reminded me of ancient battles where the dead needed to be honoured. For that, the Greeks used to have people with drums who would ceremoniously walk over the battlefield to honour the dead. So in a way, the whole experience was quite Zen.”