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Saint V is the commonly used name for a holiday for university students in Brussels, celebrating the founding of the Free University of Brussels. As Wikipedia explains, it refers to Pierre-Théodore Verhaegen, the founder of the university, who notably is not a saint and was never canonized; the name was chosen to mock the Saints of the rival Catholic University instead. The festivities take place on November 20, commemorating the anniversary of the university’s official opening in 1834.
The event dates back to November 20, 1888, when students of the university organized to protest a university reorganization that was perceived as undemocratic and against the principle of free inquiry. That morning, 200 of the university’s 1400 students, with many freemasons, (as Verhaegen was also the founder of the Grand Orient of Belgium) assembled and left a wreath of oak leaves on Verhaegen’s tomb.
In the following years, the students, accompanied by a lot of noice and while waving the flags of their respective student organizations, would form a long procession to pay hommage to Verhaegen at his tomb and monument. These celebrations continue to this day, although the students are now generally more concerned with drinking in the streets. The honouring of Verhaegen is mostly done by faculty members and leaders of the student organizations and is more formal and official. In the last few years a revival of the formalities has occurred due to several restrictions imposed by the city council. Students get the day off for the events; no classes are scheduled that day.
After the terror attacks in Paris in 2015 the city council decided to cancel the event for the first time since World War II. However a large part of the students ignored that decision and proceeded to occupy the traditional starting point of the Grand Sablon Square only to later continue with the procession on foot. The year after that the City council forbade the use of the transport trucks and limited the consumption of alcohol to the start- and endpoint, and the ‘party-village’ on the Sablon felt like an open-air prison.
The students are worried: does the city still really welcome them? We asked Yessin Aattache about his impressions.
Yessin, who are you?
Yes, I’m Yessin, a Bachelor and Masters student criminology and vice president of BSGgtgv (Brussels Studenten Genootschap Geen taal Geen Vrijheid, the umbrella organisation for all recognised student societies). Together with Timo Steffens, the vice president of ACE (Association des Cercles d’Etudiants, same as BSG but at the ULB) I am responsible for organizing the festivities at the Sablon and the parade going downtown. We do this in close co-operation with all vice presidents of the participating student organisations. Aside of that, I am also the chairman of the youth chapter of the Green political party in Brussels and I work as a job student for Scooty.
How did the preparations go?
Well, immediately after the first exam session we, BSG and ACE, met each other and concluded that we needed motorized vehicles. Not large trucks as in the past, but pick-up vans. This because it would make it much easier to control and animate the parade by using pitstops. At the end of August however ACE announced that they no longer wanted to use vehicles, but they agreed to support our point of view. So the first official request was sent to the city.
After many replies asking for more details at the end of September a negative advice was issued regarding our vehicles. We then tried to overrule this through political support from one of the aldermen, and with the official but silent support of ACE. Finally, after a common agreement on Sunday 22 October, a meeting with the police on the 26th concluded that ACE would also be responsible in case of any accident. Alltough we made up a legal contract for them, taking all responsibility on our side, Timo failed to obtain a final agreement from all ULB circles. Whether this is due to bad communications, or as rumours go due to a prohibition from te ULB academic authorities, I don’t know. After that mayor Philippe Close confirmed the negative advice. Case closed.
But that’s not the whole story. After years of bad experiences with Visit Brussels, professionals assisting big events in town, we decided to rely on the ESL group, well known at the ULB. Alas, we continued the cooperation with CARESC, a safety firm, that instead of supporting our viewpoint spoke out against the use of vehicles. Being our employee that is not what one expects. Moreover they forced us to use their ‘pitagone’ system to stop terrorist trucks for instance, at the cost of an extra € 2500. Luckily, at the last moment, the police accepted to cover this post, just as they did last year.
Any positive remarks?
Oh yes! There will no longer be an open-air prison on the Sablon square. We can use it entirely. However, there will be gates at the entrance: for security reasons we are obliged to control people and their backpacks. But we can party from noon till five. People can bring their own booze, in plastic only, but it’s much easier of course to buy a wrist strap at € 10 from one of the student organisations that entitles you to free drinks throughout the afternoon. There will be marching brass bands, guilds and so on. They will try to control the rythm of the procession as well. Anyhow it will be a huge party, and as the tradition wants, it we will occupy the city. Last but not least, the theme of this year, welcoming migrants and chasing politicians is a strong political message too, and that is a very important part of our tradition, not to be neglected.
We learned some lessons. We’re starting to feel like we’re no longer welcome in the city. That’s the opposite of the plans of our rector with Konnekt Brussels and the brand-new night bus linking our campuses to the centre on Thursdays. Therefore, we will start immediately after this year’s edition with the preparation of the next one. Firstly we will try to obtain the support of the academic authorities to use vehicles. Apparently, we did not give the necessary arguments. We will also proceed the efforts to obtain a ‘immaterial cultural heritage’ status for the procession. Maybe we should consider other vehicles, horses and carriages for instance, although the police would advise against these as well. So lot’s of work is waiting, but nevertheless, 20th of November, the city will be ours. And it always will be.