The first thing to strike me about the Friends of Iceland protest march on May 27th, Election Day, were the freaks. When you’ve been living in Reykjavík for a decent amount of time, anyone in downtown unfamiliar to you immediately stands out in a crowd, but this was something else altogether. This was a parade full of weirdos. Everywhere I turned there was a person of immodest height and/or weight, an unconventional arrangement of facial hair or someone with way too many pieces of metal jammed through their skin and face.
And, of course, no freak show parade would be complete without a weird band to round things out, and this was no exception: A decidedly makeshift brass ensemble complete with huge drums and a very impressive tuba led the column marching down Laugevegur with the steady, solemn pace of people who meant business.
While the same could not be said for everyone – for as is often the case with marches such as these, there were a fair amount of people who were just there for the company and a pleasant noon walk – most of the people there appeared to have issues which they felt could be resolved by this demonstration. The issues were varied, ranging from dissatisfaction with the Icelandic school system to general concern over the state of the country, but, as advertised, the main item on the protestors’ agenda was aluminium and the smelting thereof.
One particularly colourful group were dressed in white painters’ overalls and had fashioned crude percussion instruments of their own from lampshades, coke cans and other metal garbage. On their backs they had stencilled one of the day’s more memorable, if not terribly poetic, slogans: DROWN VALGERÐUR, NOT THE HIGHLANDS, the Valgerður in question being Minister of Industry and Commerce Valgerður Sverrisdóttir.
Other slogans ranged from the eloquent BLOOD-COVERED MOUNTAINTOPS to the simple and desperate WE WILL NOT LOSE OUR COUNTRY, WHERE’S THE DEMOCRACY? to the incomprehensible and vague RICHES MAKE FOOLS OF MEN.
Minor differences aside, the march was an impressive and surprisingly unified effort, compared to the Icelandic ‘protests’ of the recent past. It felt like things were changing, and that something, either an event like the January 7th anti-smelter concert or the Independence Party’s impending victory in the Reykjavík mayoral elections, had suddenly upped the ante and made people a bit more aware of what they really fought for.
And almost anyone who has had occasion to question the Icelandic government’s judgement would agree with me when I say that making a meaningful statement by way of public protest is a dying thing. In an age where protestors have been compartmentalised and categorised and filed away as a ‘dissident fringe element,’ it seems almost impossible to imagine anything short of a violent, chaotic riot to fully convey the public’s anger at a negligent or irresponsible government.
So imagine my surprise when the kind of solemn, steadfast people that never ever get their points across actually began to fill the air with a sense of lofty idealism. The presence of a common, unified goal – the abandonment of the smelting projects in the east country – was slowly starting to work its magic on the nation’s disenchanted, and it was a pleasure to behold, especially when it was a unity of so many people. The full count for the march is estimated to be 3000 people, which, if we’re not mistaken, is a full one hundredth of the country.
But all hopes were very nearly dashed upon arrival at Austurvellir square and the beginnings of what had all the makings of just another outdoor-concert-with-a-noble-cause-conveniently-attached-to-it. There was a very makeshift-looking stage, a tent where you could pledge your support by either buying a t-shirt or writing your name on a list, people running around offering to sell other people t-shirts or put their names on lists. The passionate individuals were of course still there, but it seemed their ardour had somehow vanished to be replaced by the timid, scowling bitterness of people resigned to their fate, a look often seen on the faces of outvoted politicians and teachers unable to maintain any semblance of control over a classroom.
Perhaps it was simply that the hype had gotten to everyone. They had gone marching down Laugavegur in such great confidence that they had begun to think the battle won without realising that once they arrived at Austurvellir, things could only go as well as planned, which is where the hitch in all this is.
You cannot plan an effective protest. In order for a protest to be effective, the very mention of it will put the ones being protested against in action against the protest (you may want to read that sentence over a few times). The point of a protest is to show solidarity in a common disapproval of something being implemented or stood for, such solidarity that the implementers rethink their schemes or abandon them altogether. None of these things were inherent in the election day protests, nor in any other recent Reykjavík protest.
Granted, there are unconfirmed reports of a shaken Davíð Oddsson balefully regarding the gathered ‘masses’ with a this-sort-of-thing-would-never-have-happened-on-my-watch expression, but raising eyebrows is simply not enough, especially this late in the game. And besides, the only eyebrows raised at this particular protest would be those of incidental bypasser; as soon as the music and the reading got going, it was preaching to the choir, all the way.
This was made especially true by the fact that a fair number of people immediately abandoned the protest to vote at City Hall once they reached Austurvellir. Those remaining had most likely already voted, and were there to enjoy the simple but satisfying pleasure of being surrounded by people you agree with.
Actress Sólveig Arnardóttir read an interesting speech penned by Social Democratic nominee Dofri Hermannsson which detailed the planning process for a company to gain permission to build a smelter such as the one under construction in Straumsvík. The speech itself was poignant, showing how pathetically easy it is to swindle large amounts of money through nepotism and total disregard for the welfare of future generations, but I was rather disappointed that Dofri didn’t make time to read it himself; it certainly would have bought him a few extra votes by showing his dedication to the cause, and his reading couldn’t have harmed the speech that much.
The musical acts didn’t help matters much by completely abandoning stage presence and relying solely on the ‘high spirits’ they were evidently certain permeated the grounds. They demanded sing-alongs, tweaked lyrics to be slightly more political, or dedicated the odd song to either a disliked politician, a favourite activist or, most clichéd of all, to Iceland itself, hoping to draw roars of approval, but getting only the half-hearted cheering of friends or those really irritating people who always hoot excitedly at everything that’s said onstage.
In the end, the whole thing failed to amount to much despite the charged atmosphere at the outset, and perhaps actor/director Stefán Jónsson said it best upon seeing sadly out-of-place electro outfit Dr. Disco Shrimp attempting to create an atmosphere at the crowd’s initial arrival at Austurvellir: “It’s like starting to have great sex, but then when you feel the climax coming, your dick gets slapped out. It sucks.”
Approximately 1600 people signed the list going round, which was in fact a petition to the Icelandic government to put to a halt all exploitation of natural resources by big business, and that steps to taken to ensure a lasting protection of said resources. While 1600 may not seem like much, the Friends of Iceland organisation have put up a website, www.islandsvinir.org, where the petition can also be signed, and organiser Andrea Ólafsdóttir told the Grapevine that they will be going door to door collecting signatures, knowing that in a country run by men with such a flexible take on democracy, the chances of a petition of this manner to be taken seriously are dim unless signed by a large enough amount to be impossible to ignore.
This does seem a more effective method to show the people’s mistrust in the government’s policies than the disorganised shambles at the protest itself, but the problem dwells not within miscommunication between government and people, but in government arbitration; the people can prattle on all they want, but little do they realise that their government is listening even less to them than they are to it. They mistrust their people to such an extent that they have pledged support to a foreign war without believing public consent to be necessary, and that the people’s opinion on the matter to be too uninformed for their judgement to be sound. It can hardly be considered surprising that such a government would turn a deaf ear to the people’s stance on as convoluted an issue as conservation in the face of big business.