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Climate Protestors Free To Go

March 19, 2024
A portrait of a young woman looking towards the viewer over her left shoulder against a black background wearing a blue and yellow turban as well as a pearl earring.

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer

A Dutch court has made an interesting ruling that may set a precedent for how prosecutors deal with climate protesters.

On October 28, 2022, three Belgians staged a protest at the Mauritshuis in The Hague to draw attention to our current climate crisis. To do so, one glued his head to the protective glass layer covering Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. Another glued his hand to the gallery wall while the third filmed the incident. Initially, prosecutors in the Netherlands charged the trio with property damage and public violence, for which they received a two-month prison sentence. However, a Dutch appeals court has recently rescinded this punishment.

Their reasoning comes from two places: first, the three climate demonstrators were aware that the Vermeer had a layer of glass protecting it, so they fully understood that their demonstration would not harm the painting in any way. The only damage was that the glass and the painting’s frame had to be cleaned afterward. Furthermore, the Mauritshuis refunded the tickets of visitors who had come to see the Vermeer but were not able to since it was taken off the gallery wall for cleaning in the incident’s aftermath. Therefore, not only was there not much property damage but there was no intent to do damage on the demonstrators’ part. The court reasoned that, while it discourages people from participating in these protests, imposing a prison sentence would infringe upon the freedom of speech and the right to protest peacefully. The demonstrators had already spent twenty-three days in detention before their initial trial. That, according to the appeals court, was more than enough.

It will be interesting to see how the Dutch government, the Mauritshuis, and the art world will generally react to this news. In a way, the court has recognized that, while many are quick to call these protests “attacks” or “acts of vandalism”, these artworks are seldom damaged. Michael Wang of Art in America noticed this as well, writing, “If these truly were attacks, the injuries sustained by the artworks were ephemeral”, and that they are merely “political performances that operate primarily within the symbolic sphere.” Discussions about these demonstrations have allowed many to enter conversations and debates about climate change. It has increased the general population’s awareness of important issues, which is one of these protestors’ goals.