Het Spinhuis: Reclaiming the Public University

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By: Touraj Eghtesad

In the first week of this academic year, a group of concerned students and ex-students squatted the Spinhuis Common Room, just two months after being closed down. This room was once the meeting spot for academics and students from the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, until the University of Amsterdam decided that the profit made from real estate sales was worth more than cultural heritage.

‘I hate that I have to go to Roeterseiland now. The Spinhuis is so beautiful, it’s central and we had a real sense of community with the professors and students here.’ – Joanna, anthropology student.

The Spinhuis is a typical example of what the anthropologist David Graeber calls ‘zones of cultural improvisation’ in which ‘diverse sorts of people with different traditions and experiences are obliged to figure out some way to get on with one another’. The initial squatters were political activists, but we soon managed to include many non-activists who were delighted to witness this social space take shape. The Spinhuis Collective is not limited to anarchists: there are communists, liberals and non-political students. What unites them all is a sense of community and their drive to defend a free university, devoid of commercial interests.

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The advertisement campaign of the UvA focuses on the ‘intellectual rebel’. This powerful imagery was helpful in legitimizing the Spinhuis action.

Many students involved with the Spinhuis feel a sense of community in this space that they had yet to feel at university. Members of the collective constantly remind each other that running the Spinhuis demands hard work, but that they do not mind it because it is meaningful. Public services are being provided to students and non-students who come to enjoy a quiet study atmosphere during the day and fun, informative events every night of the week. They have been overwhelmingly popular, as universities provide too few opportunities for students to organize free cultural and political events.

‘The Spinhuis taught me a lot about being the change you want to see and how life can be different if you step outside the social norms. There are so many possibilities now that I never noticed before.’ – Jan, 26, UvA graduate.

There seems to be a widespread ‘squat stigma’, whereby people refuse to attend squatted social centres because they are an attack on private property. I invite those people to come see for themselves what they have missed out on. In fact, anyone can feel free to organize events at the Spinhuis. So far these have ranged from parties to discussion nights; cinema nights to benefit dinners; activist meetings to poetry readings. If these things are not appealing, there is the cheapest food and in all of central Amsterdam and coffee, tea and snacks are free.

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The Spinhuis Common Room.

The Spinhuis is safe for now, as the University of Amsterdam has another month to provide evidence that they have plans for the building (which they currently do not). In the most recent court ruling, the judge decided that this was an act of civil disobedience and that a speed eviction had no legitimacy as long as the space is used in the public interest.

In the meantime, the university community’s support for the Spinhuis and its principles will go a long way. The ideal of the university as a ‘community of learners’ is still worth defending. The example of the Spinhuis shows that when students are given an opportunity, they can also create amazing practical outcomes. They are not just consumers of education waiting to become working adults, but are also actively engaged in shaping the society they want to live in.

For more information, check hetspinhuis.wordpress.com

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