This moment has a pretty unique stand in this writer’s mind, as I witnessed it take place. I was a young journalist when it happened in 2008 and I remember the tension it presented, which I tried to explain in an article printed in the newspaper, DV, the day after. This is the story about a young anarchist who flew the Bónus flag from the parliament flagpole, which instigated a riot and turned out to be the first indication of the famous Pots and Pans Revolution against the sitting government of Iceland.
First: some context
This incident happened around one month after the last big bank collapsed in Iceland’s spectacular and complete banking failure that threatened the economic future of Icelanders. ‘Banksters’ had been running wild across the world, resulting in the Brits evoking the Anti-errorism, Crime and Security Act to secure deposits in connection with Icesave—which would later become a major international dispute between Iceland, the UK and the Netherlands. Regular housing loans had skyrocketed and it was clear that thousands of Icelanders would lose their homes within the next months and years. As a result, Icelanders, un-organised but angry, started to take to the streets.
The weekly protest
On Saturday 8th of November 2008 there was a gathering outside parliament. This in itself wasn’t special: protesters met weekly but hadn’t really gotten any straight answers from the government. It was starting to dawn on everybody that politicians had been enabling the Icelandic bankers the whole time.
Hörður Torfason, a legendary musician, had been helping to organise these peaceful protests every week, and they had grown significantly in numbers. Now there were not hundreds, but thousands of people at the protest.
New faces, covered faces
The protest went on like usual. There were a few speeches and a lot of angry faces in the crowd. But I spotted a crowd I had not noticed before; some of them were dressed in black and all of them covered their faces. These were the young anarchist activists, a new generation of protesters who had been repeatedly in the news in connection with the most concerted environmentalist fight Icelanders had ever seen a few years before, the building of Kárahnjúkar dam. These guys were serious.
Shortly after the speeches people turned their focus on the parliament. They threw eggs and skyr at the house and chanted that the government needed to go.
And then, all of a sudden, we saw a young, slim man, dressed in a red hoodie and military pants, walking on the roof of the parliament. The protesters immediately started cheering him on. The man pulled out a Bónus flag—obviously stolen from the discount supermarket chain. Next he started to raise it on the pole until it flew high over the building hiding the corrupt government. It was a powerful statement, as one of Iceland’s biggest players in the economic crash was the owner of these discount stores. The message was clear: the government was firmly under the heel of dirty investment bankers.
First serious clash
The police mobilised to get the young anarchist and headed to the parliament garden where he had climbed to the roof, but the protesters saw what was happening and rushed to stop them apprehending the anarchist. This turned out to be the first serious clash between the protesters and the police. The young man managed to climb down, and the protesters blocked the police’s efforts to arrest him.
After the event I managed to interview the young protester. His name was Haukur Hilmarsson, and I asked him what he wanted to achieve when he flew the Bónus flag. He told me, “We just wanted to show people that they can change everything. It doesn’t perhaps feel like a big difference to fly a flag for a minute—but it shows that nothing is unchangeable.”
Haukur lost his life around a decade later. He was killed by Syria, where he was fighting alongside the Kurds against ISIS. His body has never been repatriated, despite many attempts by his mother to bring him home. We immortalised him on our cover in November 2018, where we wrote about his remarkable, but sadly short, life.
This incident is an incredibly important one in Icelandic history, even if Haukur didn’t recognise that himself at the time. It is said to have been the first shift towards the Pots and Pans Revolution which ultimately resulted in bringing down the government, and forcing them to actually go and clean up the economic mess, instead of being a part of it.
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