From Iceland — Police Story

Police Story

Published February 6, 2009

Police Story

I saw police officers pepperspraying innocent journalists just standing around with their cameras. A peace lovin’ friend got run over and bashed with a club. Another was forced to lie on his belly in a puddle of mud for twenty minutes for no apparent reason. Fuck, even fragile old me inhaled teargas and got all fucked up while casually strolling through Austurvöllur in the pursuit of some pictures. This is totally uncool, and it got my temper boiling. Who are these people to beat on my friends while they try and exercise their right to peaceful protest? Who are they to fuckin’… douse me in teargas? What are they protecting? Who are they protecting?

Then again, I also saw dudes throw heavy bricks at cops’ heads. I saw them kick their shields while verbally abusing them for hours on end. I saw unruly rabble-rousers (unsuccessfully) try and incite random acts of violence in hitherto peaceful groups of protestors. I saw a very sparse team of shielded police officers face an angry mob of thousands. I witnessed cops being spat on; low waged public servants pelted with skyr, with eggs, with snowballs, with rocks and pretty much anything that wasn’t nailed to the ground. Hell, some reports say folks were throwing bags of faeces at them.
And, I thought, they were just trying to do their jobs. Trying their best to maintain order, to keep our small community from slipping into total chaos.
So. These guys. Keeping in place for dozens of hours, doing their jobs as best they can while a whole lot of angry folks hurl abuse and heavy objects their way. You’ve got to wonder what it’s like. I did, and thus called up a couple of friends in the force and asked them to elaborate on the subject. By their own requests, they will remain incognito. “Policemen received public death threats that week,” they told me, “it would be a bad idea to draw attention to ourselves by going public.”
Senior Policeman:
We don’t have a large police force in Reykjavík. Most of the police’s employees were there, and that wasn’t enough. We had to call in people from Keflavík and Selfoss – basically anyone that could make it.
I was there the whole time. There was a lot of stress on the police officers. During the Austurvöllur protests, we worked 12-18 hour shifts at a time, we had to do all the usual police work alongside monitoring the protests. These were rough days.
Our main task was ensuring that the protests could happen, that was our purpose and we did our best to uphold it. We did this by designating certain areas for the protestors to stay within, and by closing off certain traffic veins. Again, our main purpose was to ensure that peaceful protests could go on without any risk to public safety.
However, there were people there with the specific purpose of fighting the police and damaging public and private property. It is then that we need to respond in a firmer manner, and follow up our orders with action. Early in the afternoon that Tuesday, when people started beating and kicking the windows of the parliament house with such intensity that they nearly gave in, that’s when we needed to use force. We don’t give a shit if people shout and bang on their pots and pans to make a point – that’s quite all right with us.
Were you afraid for your well-being?
Yes, frequently. Especially when we were being pelted with rocks and glass and other unpleasantries.
Happy Thoughts
What does goes through ones mind while being pelted?
Happy thoughts. You think of your childhood and your family. About your partners. These circumstances bring us together; we become a sort of whole, acting as a single person. You try not to let it get to you.
I’ll allow myself an opinion here: those that stood at the front shouting obscenities at us, they had no will to protest anything whatsoever. They have no opinion of what’s going on, no solutions. These people were there because the circumstances allowed them to act like idiots. Protesting isn’t about being at war with the police. You can stand there and bang your pan all you want, shouting in your megaphone – we’ll leave you alone. Those days, we saw a lot of usual suspects blending in with regular folks that chose to stand in front of us and call us every bad name in the book. “Your mom must be proud, you loser.” It makes you wonder.
In my line of work, you continuously believe you’ve seen it all in regards to human nature and frailty. But there’s always more. There’s always more, and it reached new heights that week.
Our fascistic behaviour
How do you respond to claims that the police often overreacted, even escalating the situation?
In such a large and complex turn of events, there’s always something that goes differently than you’d like. But the main thing is: when you refuse to abide a police officer’s orders, and you continually and purposely ignore them, and I am being as polite as I can – something can snap. You get fed up. When you’re being pelted with coin-laced snowballs, you get enough.
Also, carrying a camera doesn’t make you a reporter. A lot of the people we’ve been dealing with since this fall show up bearing these large cameras. Holding a big camera does not give you the right to ignore official police orders.
Some things went wrong, perhaps. We continually practice dealing with large-scale riots – not everyone present had the correct training. We are an extremely small police force. And again, we’re only people. People can and will lose their patience at times.
And again, these circumstances were ridiculous. Three hundred people on the steps of the National Theatre, dancing around a bonfire. And that was supposed to be all right? As people were lighting their small fires, we ventured into the crowd and put them out. And were met by these incredible attitudes – they didn’t understand our fascistic behaviour, not allowing them to light fires at Austurvöllur. How do you respond to such people – what can you say? You can’t converse with people that act this way.
Then you start thinking about the people that were loudest at those protests. It was a group of maybe 2-300 people that was most active. It all starts with a group that connects itself with anarchism, although I don’t believe there’s much behind those claims. These were the people that drove on the protests, the people that brought along items to throw at us. Beating on pots and pans, making your voice heard – I think that’s great. The violence was restricted to a small group, like I said, and when you looked over that group; you couldn’t really imagine that they were hit hard by the economic collapse. I would have liked to see more people my age there, people that are up to their necks in debt, people that have lost their jobs and have families to support.
I hope this whole course of events illustrates for once how undermanned and underfunded our police force is. There is a limit to how much you can do with the same people, a lot of who are on their last legs after such an intense experience. I can tell you that not all of them came home to a good night’s sleep after manning the riot guards.
Junior Policeman:
We were expecting some action that first day. It’s always the same core group that crosses the line – we try and do everything we can to let people express themselves. And then some people cross the line, and as I said, it’s always the same core group that instigates that. They provoke and incite the crowd. We all understand the rage. There are a lot of cops that are in the exact same position, but they have to do their jobs. Nobody has any personal issues with the protestors. Most of us actually oppose the government, from what I can tell. But it’s a job. And somehow, the group manages to turn it into a war against the police. It always happens.

I kept meeting people – decent, peaceful people – that were infuriated by the police, as they or their friends had been maced or beaten up.
It doesn’t take a lot. If there’s 200 people facing the cops and two guys show up throwing rocks – stuff is going to happen. And these bricks they were throwing, they can reap some serious consequences. I got hit by a rock, in the head. I did have a helmet on, but it still stunned me. The blow from a thrown brick is tremendous. It’s like people don’t realize – we aren’t really evolved in riot culture, you don’t need to be a cop to see that. It’s like some folks think that if you’re wearing a helmet and a shield, you’re somehow fair game.

We stood outside the house of parliament while the people pelted bricks and glass at us. It was an absurd experience. It has nothing to do with protesting, nothing to do with government. After a certain time had passed, it was clear that all the MPs had long gone to their homes; all that was left was us policemen guarding the premises.

Keeping cool
Things went peacefully, for the most part. There were certain factors – when the police have arrested someone, they need to take them to the station. That’s the law. Your right to protest, while important, can never allow you to break the law.

And the scuffling?
No one can claim that everyone present kept their cool the whole time. No one can maintain their cool for so long. Not even trained policemen.
But we’re all on the same team, that’s what gets me. We arrest some guy this day and the next he calls us for help when his flat gets broken into. It’s like people forget that bit when they’re screaming at us. We come to their help, no questions asked. No sides taken. We talk, like people do. There’s folks out there that have been personifying us policemen. They’ve publicly encouraged others to note our badge numbers, to find out our names and addresses. Inciting people to act violently towards me for doing my job. Towards my kids. It’s disturbing.

How does it feel, being showered with rocks and skyr and eggs by the people you’re supposedly working to protect?
It’s rather unreal. This is something that’s happening in Iceland for the first time in decades. There’s not a cop next to you that has experienced anything like it. And nothing in your training can prepare you for it, even though you practice these exact circumstances. You’re not afraid – you know what to do – but standing there and seeing it all. It was kind of amazing.

What went through your mind?
I thought. What’s all these people’s purpose – why are they here. Are they civilians? Is this a cross section of our society? I don’t know. I saw a lot of police “regulars” there. It was also kind of comical to see that there were tourists posing for photos in front of the rioters and the police squads. It underlined the unreality of the situation. And how peaceful everything was, up until a certain point. But one thing’s for sure: it wasn’t us cops that cast the first stone, so to speak.
I also thought about the nature of crowds. How they stray out of control. How the people can be “at war with the police” one day, and then friendly conversing with us the next.
But all of these events. I think they underline how far the we were willing to go – of course mistakes were made, just like a lot of the protestors crossed the line. But I think these events underline how far the police were willing to go to let people peacefully protest. Fuck, people were allowed to build fires downtown, lighting that Christmas tree from Norway. That’s extremely dangerous. Lots of people could have gotten hurt.

Did you learn anything from the experience?
Well. Not really. But it reminded me of the fact that… you have to be empathetic. You need to have the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. You need to try to understand whoever you’re dealing with, and to place yourself in their shoes. How it feels to lose everything, your job, your savings, your family… how the anger can take over. It made me think about the importance of all that. Of empathy.


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