Published May 10, 2010
During its noon news broadcast on Friday, the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service announced that police had been summoned to the Reykjavík Courthouse, arresting two men after “a brawl” broke out in a courtroom where The Reykjavík Nine were on trial. According to the report, an explosive device—“a smoke bomb”—had also gone off inside the courthouse.
Fréttablaðið, the most widely read Icelandic newspaper, gave pretty much the same account of events, complete with brawl and bomb. That following Monday, Fréttablaðið editor Ólafur Þ. Stephensen reflected on the arrests as a teachable moment, venting his frustration at what he claimed was the increasingly “violent extremism” of protesters, wagging his finger at environmentalists who protested government emphasis on heavy industry, truckers who protested rising oil prices, those who participated in the “pots and pans revolution” during the winter of 2008-9, as well as The Reykjavík Nine. Lumping all these protesters together and imagining some links between them, Stephensen concluded “the protesters” had elevated violence and intimidation as a political expression.
Stephensen did concede that perhaps the police had overreacted the previous Friday. Perhaps. But according to his logic, that was irrelevant, since any police overreaction was a logical and necessary response to the supposed wave of radicalised and violent protesters.
Stephensen is correct when he sees the events at the courthouse as a teachable moment. However, he draws the wrong lesson.
I was in the courthouse that Friday morning and witnessed the events unfold. The fact of the matter is that there were no violent confrontations before the police showed up to forcefully clear the courtroom, ejecting members of the public who wished to follow the trial but had not secured one of the 25 available seats, therefore standing in the back of the courtroom. Oh, and the dreadful explosive device, the “smoke bomb”, was a firecracker thrown into Courthouse foyer after the trial was over and nearly everyone had cleared out!
There was no compelling reason to limit the size of the audience or clear the courtroom. There were at most 35 people at the courthouse, and there were no signs this small crowd posed a threat. Sure, there were a handful of anti-authoritarian countercultural characters. But the majority were “ordinary” people: family members of the defendants and members of the public who wanted to show their support, including several nationally known figures. The people in the audience were not some shady “protesters” who posed a threat.
Yet people I spoke to counted upward of 40 police officers in the Courthouse. The only sign of trouble was one gentleman who made loud statements about his constitutionally guaranteed right to stay and watch an open trial, whether he remained seated or standing. The police dragged him and a second man out of the courtroom in a headlock.
With this overreaction the trial was made into an even greater circus than it already was. And the ass-backwards news accounts of a brawl and bombs going off further contributed to the narrative Stephensen and other manicured Brahmin of the cultural and political elite have been peddling.
In a civilised Rechtsstaat the agents of the state should seek to defuse and minimize social unrest and maintain peace. They must recognise the rights of the citizens to protest, or to exercise their constitutional rights, and make every accommodation for the citizens to exercise these rights. Even when it might be inconvenient for the state or its agents. No. Especially when it is inconvenient.
Instead, the Icelandic authorities, the police and some members of the media have decided to approach protest and any signs of public discontent differently — blowing things out of proportion, for example by hysterically describing firecrackers as explosive devices.
The authorities must distinguish common criminals from law-abiding citizens who—while protesting actions of the state—happen to break city ordinances, refuse to follow instructions of authorities or engage in civil disobedience. By refusing to make this distinction the police have been turned into a tool of oppression. And when the state begins to deploy the police as a tool of oppression against its own citizens it has taken a fateful step away from democracy and free society towards tyranny.
Magnús Sveinn Helgason is a historian and political blogger. He most recently authored addendum 5 to the SIC report, and is currently working on a book on financial bubbles.