Published February 8, 2008
Throughout January, Reykjavík has seen a sudden surge in politically charged protests. This is cause for celebration.
Despite what misguided tour books will have you believe, Iceland does not have a long democratic tradition. We may have had some functioning form of parliament here before the year 1000, but the original Icelandic Parliament was dissolved in 1262, with a parliamentary decision no less, and Iceland joined the Norwegian kingdom. The ideological winds of change mostly passed us by when other surrounding nations established democracies in the 18th and the 19th century. Icelandic democracy has lasted less than a century.
Maybe that partially explains why Icelanders have always frowned upon on demonstrators. We never had a Bastille to storm. We never fought for our freedom. It was handed to us due to ‘external circumstances’ after Germany occupied Denmark, our rulers at the time, during WW II. We are a conservative nation where every man should know his place. We know authority comes from above, not from below. No questions asked. Our democratic maturity is stunted.
Perhaps that is about to change.
Let’s recount for a moment. After the decision had bounced around the system for years, plans to tear down two old houses on Laugavegur 4 and 6 were finally set in motion. That sparked a small protest group into action, which set off with a petition to reverse the decision and preserve the buildings. The chain reaction that followed was one of the things that led to, or at least made possible, a mayoral change and a new coalition in city government.
The mayoral change, however, sparked a completely new wave of protest. Again, a petition was circulated, and although close to 6000 people signed it, the new Mayor showed little interest in accepting it. And then they stormed the Bastille. Or City Hall at least, where a heated protest erupted during the inaugural meeting of the new Mayor. For the first time in recent memory, a City Council meeting had to be postponed due to protests.
Fired up by recent developments, I staged my own protest that night against the injustice of having to do the dishes at home. It went unnoticed. Yet another petition was started to save the bar Sirkus on Klapparstígur. The Mayor gladly accepted that one. A protest concert was organised and spirits were high.
The latest action comes from Reykjavík bar owners, who, perhaps feeling empowered by the spirit of the age, and generally fed up with the somewhat misguided smoking ban that was put in effect last June, decided to allow smoking in their bars again in protest to the ban. A fine act of civil disobedience if you ask me. What comes of it remains to be seen, but sales numbers for deodarants are sure to take a dive.
I’d call this a good month for democracy. The recent wave of protests shows that democracy in Iceland is not the putrid corpse it has been made out to be. There is life to it yet. It is the duty of every good citizen to protest its government, or so they say, and the minimum requirement guaranteed by freedom of expression should be our right to stand up against the tyranny of governnment, both local and national.
That is why I am stunned to read comments from public officials and members of the fourth branch of power, the media, claiming that protestors are a mob, and protests are mob behaviour. They would be better served by examining the actions that spurned the protests in the first place.