As soon as the water cannons arrive, the ponchos also appear. “You are not alone,” it sounds, as the front climate demonstrators allow themselves to be sprayed by the police. An inflatable earth bounces around in the water jet.
Thousands of people are standing at and around the start of the A12 in The Hague on Saturday afternoon. The demand from initiator Extinction Rebellion (XR), like the seven previous editions, is that the government puts an end to fossil subsidies, schemes that stimulate the use of fossil fuels.
For the first time, this is a multi-day blockade. XR promises to return to this spot every day at noon until fossil subsidies are abolished.
It seems an unrealistic plan, especially since the fall of the cabinet. Outgoing minister Rob Jetten (Climate, D66) will present his own overview of all fossil subsidies on Budget Day, which he says he wants to phase out “step by step, in an orderly and sensible manner”. It is up to Jetten’s successors to cut the previously estimated 37.5 billion euros per year, divided over 31 schemes. That could take years.
No one knows how long the activists will actually continue to block. Some are only there for the first day, others have days left in a month. Activists can indicate in advance which days they want to participate, but are not obliged to come.
“I would like to come back,” says activist Tineke Scholte from Enkhuizen, “but I first want to see what happens to me today.” Tinus Peterse, arrest number 3634 on his left leg in permanent marker: “I will definitely go on Saturday and Sunday, and probably also on Thursday, but other than that I have classes.” Several demonstrators express the hope that they will last at least until Budget Day.
The most experienced XR members also seem to want to block most often. Jackie, who like many fellow activists does not want to give her last name, says she will be on the highway every day next week. She walks away from the water cannons with a soaked shirt. “It looks festive, but it can be quite intense.”
The number of demonstrators on the asphalt this Saturday is also new. More than a year ago it started with dozens of activists, which soon became hundreds and now there are thousands, some of whom want to stay until the police drag them away.
Also read: Extinction Rebellion no longer just blocks highways, but also conducts a traditional lobby
The marathon blockade that starts this Saturday is therefore bigger and lasts longer than ever. And yet: broadly speaking, the action is similar to the seven previous times. Once again there is an orchestra, this time playing the ‘Dies Irae’ from Mozart’s requiem. Once again, demonstrators climb the lampposts to stretch a cloth with the text “stop fossil subsidies” between them. Once again activists respond to police commands with slogans such as “climate justice now”.
Sociologist Charles Tilly noticed in the 1980s that protest movements had difficulty devising new forms of action. The ‘action repertoire’, the total palette of protest forms that groups of people can choose from, is rigid. With each protest, demonstrators teach each other habits that they repeat the next time.
Climate blockages are also ingrained in XR. The participants receive training: how can they best get carried away? How should they deal with difficult questions from journalists? How do they remain non-violent, even when the police treat them harshly?
As a result, the demonstrators are visibly seasoned, almost professional. The ‘fingers’, local XR departments, each gathered at their own locations in The Hague on Saturday morning and came together in perfect synchronization on the Utrechtsebaan next to the Malieveld. Among them are demonstrators wearing different colored vests: green for ‘welfare’, purple for communication with the police, pink as a point of contact for the press and orange for first aid. Anyone who proclaims a message that goes against that of XR will be presented with light blue de-escalation vests.
Normally, XR is relatively good at coming up with new types of actions, says Jacquelien van Stekelenburg, professor of social change and conflict at the Vrije Universiteit, on the phone beforehand. “The department in the United Kingdom often tried out new forms, which spread to the Netherlands.”
Repetition can also be a risk: anyone who does the same thing over and over is in danger of losing attention. Yet XR benefits from it in this case, Van Stekelenburg thinks. “Firstly, this is because they have grown. If it had only been twenty demonstrators, it would not have been successful. In addition, this is an incredibly symbolic place, between the House of Representatives and the Ministry of Economic Affairs. That helps the movement tell its story.”
Listen also: Roadblock for the climate: how far does the right to demonstrate extend?
From the A12, under the building of the employers’ association VNO-NCW, a convoy of riot police cars arrives. Bumper to bumper, they form a wall that slowly drives between the demonstrators, to separate those who stay from those who do not want a confrontation with the police. “Anyone who does not make room will be arrested,” it says. A group leans against the hood of the front car.
According to Van Stekelenburg, the fact that demonstrators are being arrested en masse is not all bad for XR. “People are joining out of outrage at how the authorities are treating the movement.” The arrests in January and recent community service orders for incitement added to this.
Michiel Vermeij, spokesperson for the Gouda XR branch, agrees. “I don’t understand why Jan van Zanen (the mayor of The Hague, ed.) doesn’t realize that. He’s playing into our hands.”