Published February 6, 2009
By early afternoon on January 20th 2009, it was obvious that it was going to be a historic day. Just how the day, and the ones that followed, would unfold was not yet clear. When the dust had settled, a whole generation of Icelanders – and perhaps the country itself – had changed. For the better, and hopefully for good.
For 100 days, for longer than it took Napoleon to get from Elba to Waterloo, people had waited. The economy had collapsed, but so far there was no improvement to be seen, neither in the people guiding us nor the policies they set.
The one decision Parliament had made that would impact the country was when they announced just before Christmas that they would go on a month’s long vacation. At the same time, any idea of fresh elections had been written off as too time consuming. The MPs kissed each other on camera and announced that they would not be returning until January 20th. The politicians had set the starting date for a revolution.
Day 1. January 20th “The Revolution Has Begun”
It was the 105th day since the collapse of the Icelandic economy. It was the day Obama was sworn in as president of the United States, making his country once again a beacon of hope and of change. As for the people of Iceland, they would wait no longer.
Inside the old building, still bearing the mark of the Danish king, lawmakers were busy discussing how to best serve their people. One of the bills was a proposal whether to allow alcohol sales in supermarkets. Crisis? What crisis? Give them bread and games, give them beer and wine.
For once, Icelanders declined a drink.
At 13.30, when Parliament was set to belatedly commence, thousands of people were already standing in front of the building, beating on drums, on pots and on pans, on anything they could find. Sailors brought their foghorns, others beat on wheelbarrows. “We are protesting against the lack of action and useless Ministers,” said three elderly ladies as they beat their spoons on teapots. They, like many others, had taken time off from work. “We are taking a long lunch break,” they said.
Slogans such as “The USA is getting rid of Bush today, we want to get rid of you” and “Yes, we can!” were inscribed on signs hung on a nearby tree. People surrounded the Parliament building on all sides, beating on every window in reach.
A few policemen stood behind the Parliament building in the adjacent garden. Standoffs between protesters and police had by now become commonplace, but patience was wearing thin on both sides. On New Year’s Eve, a policeman had his jaw broken by a protestor. Bad blood was in the air.
Riot police soon arrived on the scene, pushing everyone out of their way. They took up positions in front of the building, where they were pelted with eggs, with milk, with occasional trays of pasta and a local delicacy called skyr. Skyr, sometimes translated rather unappetisingly as curd, has long been local protesters weapon of choice. In 1972, Helgi Hóseasson threw it on MPs exiting the cathedral, to protest that he was not able to have his baptism annulled. In 2005, members of Saving Iceland threw green coloured skyr on aluminium producers at a local hotel to protest the damming of the highlands.
So far, though, eggs had been the protesters weapon of choice after the economic collapse. The police chose pepper spray. Before the week was through, both parties had expanded their arsenals.
One man threw a rock in the direction of the police. He missed, and was pulled back by others disapproving of the action. This was the only time anyone witnessed rock throwing in a cop’s direction that day, but was used by police chief Stefán Eiríksson to excuse subsequent actions of the police.
The garden was cleared with bursts of pepper spray, the police in some cases aiming over the wall at protestors who were out of reach. 26 people were arrested. Meanwhile, protesters in front of the building kept banging on anything available. They found their rhythm, and the chant “incompetent government,” that was to reverberate for the next days.
Anarchists wearing Red Cross armbands poured milk into the eyes of people who had been pepper sprayed before ambulances arrived. A special and official teargas-station (an ambulance and some buckets) was later set up to nurse those who were injured. Several cameramen and photographers had to seek aid there, having been sprayed while posing no threat to police. “Milk is good,” said a young protester who was seen drinking a carton, the white fluid still pouring from his eyes.
At six o clock, the Prime Minister made his escape through a tunnel leading into another building. It might have ended there had the police not attempted to move their prisoners into detention. The crowd surged forward, and for the first time since protests started, police used batons on people.
An older man standing by had his arm broken. His son, Þór Jóhannesson, was interviewed on television that evening. “The revolution has started,” he said.
The crowd, by that time thinning out, grew larger again. The mood resembled that of a national holiday. Everyone felt that it wouldn’t be long now until the government would fall. But we would soon learn that they would not go without a fight.
A bonfire was lit on the middle of the square. The Oslo Christmas tree, an annual gift from forested Norway to barren Iceland, was thrown onto the pyre, as were nearby park benches. The protests went on well into the night, until police eventually put out the fire.
Day 2, January 21st. Teargas Attack!
Protesters surrounded Geir Haarde’s car, as the embattled PM tried to leave the Government Office. People banged on the windows and shouted “resign,” before police and bodyguards drove the crowd away with their batons.
After standing in front of the Seat of Government for roughly an hour, the protesters then moved back to the Parliament building. The building was empty, as the session that day had been cancelled.
However, that was not why the crowd now remained deathly silent. A funeral was taking place in the Cathedral next door. For a full hour, not a pot was banged, not a saucepan hit. As soon as the funeral was over, however, the crowd burst into song and then resumed making noise with and on all available implements.
That evening, the Alliance Party’s Reykjavik chapter held a meeting in the National Theatre. Thousands of people arrived at the scene, lit a bonfire and chanted outside the meeting place. A red flag with a hammer and sickle was drawn up on a nearby flagpole. This was removed by anarchists and a black flag put up instead. The Red and the Black. The next day, a new colour would appear.
The people resumed their regular chant of “vanhæf ríkisstjórn,” – incompetent government. The chant seemed to grow ever louder, the percussion ever more rhythmic as the protests wore on. When the vice-chairman of the Alliance Party appeared on the steps and said that they were calling for elections next spring and an immediate end to the coalition government, the crowd briefly changed their chant to “Áfram Ísland!” – go Iceland.
Victory, however, was not yet at hand. With the Alliance Party leader, Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir, on the operating table in Sweden, the resolution was non-binding.
The mood in front of the Theatre had been jovial, with many people bringing their whole families. However, as soon as the party meeting was over and most of the crowd started moving on, the occasional drunken skinhead said: “Get them,” or “flip their cars,” referring to the police. Bad mojo.
Parts of the crowd moved on to the Parliament building. The mood soon turned from celebratory to ugly. Riot police stood in front of the parliament building. When some policemen arrested a protester and tried to get him indoors, things soon took a turn for the worse. Some of the man’s friends surrounded the three policemen, kicking at them and impeding their progress along the sidewall of the parliament building. Riot police arrived to aid them. The police were backed up against the wall, while people threw fireworks, eggs, and, according to some reports, bags of faeces at them. The police then went on the offensive, using pepper spray and batons to clear the area at the side of the building.
Storming out from their positions, they pushed people back and formed a new defensive wall at the entrance to Vonarstræti (“Hope Street” – fancy that!).
Some anarchists charged the police shields, using their flagpoles as lances. Someone threw a rock, but was stopped by other protesters from doing this. A scuffle ensued. A rumour soon circulated that the police were running low on pepper spray.
The police were by now wearing gasmasks, lending credence to the rumour. Fireworks had been going off sporadically, but this time a different thunder was heard. Some people had thrown gasoline on to the Parliament doors, and set them on fire. Police responded by deploying teargas.
It was 60 years ago that teargas had last been deployed on this field. That time, it dispersed the protesters and the then government tear gassed its way into NATO. This time, the crowd would not be driven away so easily. The police fired teargas rounds again and again, 4 or 5 times, ten canisters in all. But the wind seemed to side with the people, blowing the gas back towards the police.
Eventually, the crowd withdrew back to the Government Offices. Some started beating on the windows with hammers. Seven riot policemen arrived, and brave men they were, as they were outnumbered roughly a hundred to one.
Some masked men were reported to be seen tearing up stones from the pavement and piling up, as if to form an arsenal. Rocks started flying again. A policeman was hit, all in all seven policemen were hospitalised that evening, one of them knocked unconscious. Bad mojo.
This time, however, a line of protesters moved up in front of the policemen, to form a human shield. An unprecedented act of solidarity with the public servants. The rock throwing ceased. Peace had been restored.
The crowd thinned out and eventually left at 3 am.
The Revolution, day 3, January 22nd. Enter the Orange Guard
The police force had been fought to a standstill. Police were visibly tired after the previous days’ events, their uniforms egg-stained and worn. It was said that not only had the entire Reykjavík police force been on duty those past few days, but they had called up reserves from the neighbouring towns of Keflavík, Selfoss and Akranes, over 55 desk-bound officers and even the police academy. They would be hard pressed to endure two more days of fighting.
The previous nights’ violence has caused a furore. Some protesters showed up wearing orange armbands, to indicate willingness to try to calm down those who intended to throw rocks. As the day wore on, orange was visible on most of the several hundred people on Austurvöllur. The scene started to look like the Orange revolution in the Ukraine. Or perhaps Serbia, when people handed flowers and hot chocolate to policemen.
At eight pm, protesters wearing orange armbands offered to relieve the police from their duties in guarding the Parliament building. This was accepted, and the policemen in riot gear left the scene. Only two policemen were left outside to patrol the building, while protests continued peacefully into the night.
Everyone was still waiting for the Alliance Party Chairman to return from Sweden. Like a sick king in a Shakespeare play, the future of the country rested on an ill leader. She had already said that she wanted elections that spring, but had no intention of abandoning the government coalition. Her party was dying at the polls, would party members force her to act?
As it turned out, the future of the country was indeed decided by a sickness, but not the one folks expected.
Day 4, January 23rd. Strike One for the Revolution
At 12.30, the Prime Minister called for a surprise press conference, which was broadcast directly on TV and radio. He announced that, due to a malignant throat tumour, he would not run for re-election in his own party before the general elections, which he said would be held on May 9th.
The Revolution had won its first major victory.
Protesters had again gathered outside the Parliament building. The anarchists had asked that the protests end at 7 PM, so as to lessen the chances of drunken brawling. No one knew what the weekend had in store. There was still no news on Gísladóttir, now back from Sweden. Would she and Haarde kiss and make up and continue ruling until May 9th? Would that soothe the crowds that have stood outside Parliament for four days?
That evening, the revolution underwent a name change on Channel Two news. So far, it had been called The Fleece Revolution, in reference to the sweaters some of the protesters were wearing. It would now be known as “Búsáhaldabyltingin.” This was soon translated in the International Press, a tad inaccurately, as “The saucepan revolution.” The Kitchenware Revolution is slightly better, but a part of this revolution will always be lost in translation. You probably had to be there.
Day 5, January 24th. Popular support.
For 16 weeks, Hörður Torfason had held protest rallies in front of the Parliament building every Saturday. The crowds had been growing ever since the collapse. During Christmas, the numbers went down a bit, which perhaps played a part in making the governing parties believe that revolution was not imminent. A cabinet reshuffle was called off.
After Christmas, the crowds started growing again. Now, we were in the midst of the revolution. The previous day, however, Torfason made his first gaffe. Hörður is a fighter at heart. A musician and actor, he was the first Icelander to come publicly out of the closet in the 70’s. After the economic collapse, people needed a focal point and he provided it.
However, when told the news of Haarde’s illness by a Morgunblaðið reporter, Torfason did not offer his sympathies, stating that personal life should be kept out of politics. He had a point. Still, the media outrage led many to believe that people might not show up this Saturday. The violence of the preceding days had also appalled many. Might people stay at home now, had the revolution lost popular support?
As it were: no. It may have been the largest turnout yet, At least 7,000 citizens showed up. Newspaper Fréttablaðið published poll that day said two thirds of the population favoured the protesters. The whole country (well, most of it) had gone orange.
This was a display of mass support that sealed the deal. Events now moved on under their own weight. As a larger crowd than ever stood outside the Parliament building chanting “incompetent government,” it became increasingly obvious that the government’s days were numbered.
The protests ended just after 19.00, to avoid drunkenness derailing the message. That evening, Spaugstofan, Iceland’s weekly and very popular comedy show, featured the protests. Their sympathies were obvious. The revolution had become mainstream.
One of the protesters main demands had been the resignation of former PM Davíð Oddsson as director of the Central Bank. To emphasise this, that evening’s protests were held outside the Nordica Hotel, where the Bank was having their annual party. Upwards of 100 people showed up, pots and pans en tow. One older gentleman had gone to a hardware store and bought up their whole supply of kitchenware. He drove up in his station wagon, and asked people to choose their weapons, a one-man arsenal of democracy.
The police seemed more interested in keeping the peace than upholding the law. At first, they asked the protesters to not violate private property and stay out of the driveway. When this was ignored, they simply asked them to not break any windows. They even asked those wearing Orange to make sure that windows remained unbroken, yet another indicator that the city’s authority had passed on to the people.
By midnight, Oddsson left via a back entrance, escorted home in a police car. Representatives of the protestors were eventually allowed in to confirm that the party was winding down and that everyone had left.
Day 6, January 25th. On to the Central Bank
The day started eventfully enough, with Björgvin G. Sigurðsson, the Minister of Business, resigning. One of his last acts in office was to fire the Financial Supervisory Authority.
Even though his apology was somewhat half-hearted, he did admit to bearing “some political responsibility” for the collapse. It was still the first example of any leader taking responsibility.
By noon, protesters started gathering outside the Parliament building. The crowd was small compared to the previous day, but still a reminder that people weren’t going anywhere. One of them carried a sign with the demands. He could now tick off two boxes: elections this spring, and a new FSA.
That evening, people left the Parliament Square and headed for the Central Bank instead.
The continued presence of Oddsson was now the major stumbling block for continued co-operation between the two government parties.
The anarchists were first on the scene. There had been an absence of fire in the previous few days, but now a bonfire was lit. Soon after, the Orange Orchestra arrived. The chant now had gone from “incompetent government” to “incompetent bank management.”
Some people brought marshmallows, others acoustic guitars and old chestnuts such as “The Times They Are A-Changing” and “Power to the People.” There was almost a hint of sadness in the air. We all knew that the next day either the government would fall or Oddsson would be forced out. In either case, the revolution would surely be winding down. But one has to know how to win gracefully.
The fire department showed up well after midnight, when there were only three people left. “Excuse us, can we put out the fire?” they asked, and then did, when it seemed no one would protest.
“Did you have fun?” a policeman asked. He was not being sarcastic. He was being nice. A lone anarchist allegedly broke a security camera outside the bank. Other than that, peace remained.
Day 7, January 26th. The Government Surrenders
“It started like it ended, with a kiss,” said Icelandic Prime Minister Geir Haarde when he announced that the present coalition government was at an end. The government had started with a famous kiss between the Prime Minister and Alliance Party Chief Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir in the spring of 2007. The government had a two-thirds Parliamentary majority and would have remained in power until the spring of 2011, but for the country‘s economic collapse. Some members of the Alliance Party are now referring to it as “The kissing government.” More venal tongues might call it the kiss of death, as both party chiefs had been diagnosed with cancer and the government was at an end.
The Prime Minister went to meet the President, who is the titular Head of State, to tend his resignation at 16.00. Shortly thereafter, the last remaining protesters left their posts outside the Parliament building. All was quiet on the Northern Front.
A party was called that evening, to celebrate the success of the revolution. No one showed up. Everyone, it seems, was exhausted. The bill for the weeks’ riots and protests was assumed by the police to be around 20 million ISK – straight out of taxpayers’ pockets. Rarely have so many spent so little to achieve so much.
On January 27th, the President announced that he would give the mandate to form a new government to the Alliance Party, with the Left-Greens.
The day after, NATO held a mid-level meeting in Reykjavík. The hard-core of the protesters, flush with success, gathered outside the Nordica Hotel again, where the meeting was in session. Around 70 were present in all, bearing pots and pans.
This time, the police were in a different mood. Protecting a building full of Admirals and Generals, they needed a show of force. The police virtually outnumbered the protesters. They arrested people with impunity. Some were jailed for throwing snowballs, others for burning the NATO flag which, it later turned out, is not illegal. One person was pepper sprayed. Six were arrested, despite the protest being peaceful in nature. The people had made their voices heard inside Parliament, but they had again lost control of the streets.
As a further indication of this, no one but the media showed up for a protest planned outside the Central Bank on February 2nd. Then again, was there really anything to protest? That same day, the new PM called the director and asked him to resign. At the time of writing, Oddsson still sits in the Central Bank, everyone but he knowing that his days are numbered. He started his career as an actor, playing the part of deranged despot Ubu Roy. It seems he will end his career the way he started it.
The lead character in Alfred Jarry’s play has been described thus: “Ubu inhabits a domain of greedy self-gratification. Jarry’s metaphor for the modern man, he is an antihero — fat, ugly, vulgar, gluttonous, grandiose, dishonest, stupid, jejune, voracious, cruel, cowardly and evil.”
Such modern men no longer ruled the country. The day before, on February 1st, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, Minister of Social Affairs and Alliance Party member, became the new Prime Minister. It was only fitting that the protests which had been organized by the first Icelandic person to come out of the closet should lead to the world’s first officially instated gay head of state. The Rainbow Revolution had ended with victory. Iceland finally had something to be proud of again.