On a cold November evening, a large canvas tent lies half-collapsed in front of parliament. Small crates of food lie out in the open, and a young man in coveralls is helping to gather the tentpoles. This is Occupy Reykjavík, part of the global Occupy movement and formed a month previous, but already going on hiatus.
It wasn’t pepper spray or tasers that forced this group to stand down for the time being, though, but rather a combination of poor logistics, the exhausting grind of Icelandic bureaucracy, and a deafening roar of indifference.
IT´S ALL ABOUT LOCATION
As the Occupy movement began to gather momentum in the US and around the world, Iceland wasn’t entirely slow on the uptake. Occupy Reykjavík began organising on October 15, and had its official start on October 30. Their chosen location—Austurvöllur, the grounds in front of parliament—would prove to be the source of many of the group’s difficulties.
While the parliamentary building is itself a national structure, Austurvöllur is land owned by the city. As such, any permission to be on the property was in the hands of City Hall. While Occupy movements around the world had chosen the direct action approach of simply occupying public space and dealing with the consequences later, Occupy Reykjavík chose instead to seek permits to be on the property. Police told occupiers that without such permits, their tents—numbering around half a dozen at the time—would be immediately removed. Indeed, while the question of their legal right to be on the property remained unanswered, police did remove the largest tent from the encampment, which was later reportedly returned in damaged condition.
The occupiers argued that being on public space, they had a constitutionally protected right to assemble there, but this made little difference to authorities. Eventually, city hall agreed to issue permits to the occupiers to camp on Austurvöllur, but these permits needed to be renewed on a weekly basis. Re-applying for a permit each week, while police continued to doubt the legality of the occupiers’ presence, began to wear the group down.
Austurvöllur also happens to be in the heart of downtown Reykjavík. On weekends, this means dealing with passing crowds of drunks who may be less than sympathetic to the cause. One occupier, Sigurður Einarsson, told the Grapevine, “The police have been ignoring us very loudly. We had some drunk people here the other night, we called the police for aid, and they said ‘Yes, yes, yes, we will send someone’, and they never came. So we’ve had to take care of security ourselves.” There was also a theft of some speakers from one of the tents. With a lack of manpower to be able to stand guard, and police doing little to protect the occupiers, the Austurvöllur camp has been a vulnerable target left to their own devices.
“There are very few people capable of manning all the shifts, and winter is coming,” adds Pétur Karlsson, another occupier. “And we’re also getting harassed by the police once in a while. We’re really undermanned right now. There aren’t a lot of people helping us.”
WHAT DO THESE PEOPLE WANT ANYWAY?
One of the most frequent questions that arises about the movement anywhere in the world has been what, exactly, the Occupy people want. In the case of two members of the Occupy Reykjavík movement, the emphasis seems less about economics and more about democracy.
“The thing that we are striving for, that is closest to my heart, is direct democracy,” Pétur says. “We don’t want a few people controlling the affairs of everyone else. Neighbourhoods could become more active, there could be more public referendums, but I would also like to see changes to the economy as well. I’d like to see cooperatives. We all come here with our own ideas. We are all here to contribute. I don’t think it’s advisable to define it so narrowly. This is about the 99%. We want the community to get together and try to arrive at a consensus, find solutions together.”
Sigurður echoes much the same sentiment: “I would like us to not dehumanise other people with needless power. I want a society that is egalitarian, instead of having a hierarchy. I want people to be able to get together, whoever they are, to decide on things, instead of some higher power that tells everyone what to do. I want to see people brought more openly into the decision-making process.”
In trying to bring people into the fold, Pétur admits there have been logistical problems: “We don’t really have a lot of resources to network, but I think that our best tool is the internet. We are trying to contact the media and let them know what’s going on, but there are some difficulties there. If we want to get them to cover us, they demand stuff like free pictures or they’re just not interested. So not a lot of them are coming here to see what’s going on.”
Sigurður is a bit more optimistic on this point: “We’ve had some support from the general Occupy movement around the world by having them come here to check us out and offer their assistance. We’ve also had some good conversations with journalists from around the world. Journalists in Iceland? Mostly freelance journalists who are already deep in the grassroots movement themselves.” In fairness, he admits that it was the presence of a camera crew from RÚV that kept police from taking away their tents on their first night, and that Morgunblaðið was there to take photos when police eventually did seize their tents.
On top of this, support from public officials has been lacking.
“I would not be aware of any other public figures showing us support,” Pétur says. “Some people support us in spirit, but for the most part we’re on our own. They give us the thumbs-up, but they don’t do anything.”
The strongest show of support from any public figure has been from Movement MP Þór Saari, who earlier this month submitted an official proposal that parliament allow the protesters to have access to the building’s toilets, and to provide hot soup in the evenings. His motivation is pure altruism.
“I think that parliament should do as much as possible to try to heal the rift between itself and the people,” he told the Grapevine. “Parliament has become an ivory tower whose occupants are afraid of those outside and refuse to speak to them. In general parliamentarians have contempt for the public and do not consider them as important as the special interest groups.”
MP for the Independence Party Ragnheiður Ríkharðsdóttir, posted this status on Facebook: “Terrible view of Austurvöllur which shows unbelievable disrespect from the city of Reykjavík towards the Icelandic parliament.” She also expanded her criticism to include the Occupy movement itself. “Do people think this is some kind of performance piece?,” adding that Occupy protests elsewhere have been in front of financial institutions rather than legislative bodies. “So can any kind of performance piece be held in Austurvöllur, or any other public space then?”
But Þór is convinced that the Occupy protesters are exactly where they’re supposed to be: “Parliament is the originator of all things and the most powerful institution in Iceland. As long as it does not change its ways or remake legislation favouring the people instead of special interest groups, it remains the correct and in fact the only relevant target for protest.”
MOVING ON, MOVING FORWARD
The logistical problems and public indifference have unfortunately compelled the group to pull up their tent stakes for the time being, but their optimism remains.
“I’m optimistic for change overall,” Pétur says. “I don’t know about the path of this movement. We pretty much copied it raw from America. There may be different tactics that we’ll have to take. Whatever happens, we’re going to develop new methods, adapt to the situation, and we’re going to go on.”
Sigurður tells us the movement plans to expand its horizons. “Taking down the tent seemed the next logical step, so we can conserve our strength to do other activities that we want to do: organise protests and sit-ins, go to places other than Austurvöllur, such as the commercial districts. The camp is coming down until we’ve re-assessed our strengths, focused our abilities elsewhere, and then when we feel the need to put up the camp again, we’re going to do it more organised, with all the equipment we need.”
“The thing that we are striving for, that is closest to my heart, is direct democracy,” says Pétur. “We don’t want a few people controlling the affairs of everyone else.”