From Iceland — The Struggle for Autonomy

The Struggle for Autonomy

Published April 13, 2007

The Struggle for Autonomy

March 1, at 10 pm, I joined around 2000 people gathered at Radhuspladsen in central Copenhagen before marching into Nørrebro, the neighbourhood where Ungdomshuset was situated. We carried coffins emblazoned with slogans such as “diversity” and “freedom”, we sang songs and shouted slogans and you could sense a lot of anger in the group. There had been protests all day, some of them violent, and more than 100 people had already been arrested so I really did not know what to expect.

The march ended in Folkets Park in Nørrebro where a few speeches were made, a large bonfire was lit and people began mingling and drinking beer. At some point a barricade was built in the street and lit on fire and shortly thereafter came the teargas.

I still don’t know which came first, the throwing of stones at the police or the teargas canisters, but either way I ran a safe distance away with the majority of the crowd, tears running down my face and a burning sensation in my eyes, nose, throat and lungs. The crowd gathered again, more barricades were built and subsequently set on fire and then the sequence repeated itself. More teargas and flying rocks and bottles and this time a teargas canister hit me in the leg giving me a limp for the rest of the weekend. This continued for a while and I ended up hiding in a churchyard together with a couple of other protesters while the police swept through the area arresting everyone in their way. The riots were still in full swing when I decided to call it a night and go home.

After the Riots
Two days later – as I marched down a street in central Copenhagen and looked around at the thousands of demonstrators marching against the eviction of Ungdomshuset – I couldn’t help but think how much our view of the world is distorted by the mainstream media. Although the rioting had stopped, the demonstrations and protests continued. But since there were no burning fires or flying Molotov cocktails, the media was disinterested.

They would rather have everyone believe that the activists and supporters of thiscontroversial house were all stone-throwing, troublemaking teenagers with Mohawks and piercings in the strangest places. Black clad anarchist extremists with their faces covered and their backpacks filled with destructive devices. Violent psychopaths hell bent on destruction

Yet as I looked around I saw only diversity. There were Mohawk-sporting punks, beadwearing hippies, leather-clad metalheads, baggy pants-wearing hip-hop crews, ravers, senior citizens, middle-aged parents with their children and a whole bunch of people that were impossible to categorise, they just looked “normal” (whatever that is!). And the demonstration was a success. Not only was it peaceful and enjoyable, it was also huge, with up to 5000 people marching for Ungdomshuset, diversity and freedom from police control.

Later that day I was again in Nørrebro trying to find a demonstration that had been announced. There were a lot of people walking down the main street. It was a Saturday night and people were on their way to parties or clubs. When I reached an intersection about 50 metres from where Ungdomshuset used to be, several police vans were lined up across the street, stopping people from going further into the neighbourhood. All of a sudden their sirens began to wail, the vans charged ahead full speed and those unlucky enough to be there had to run for their lives

This is a tactic that was frequently used during the demonstrations and at least one person had been run over by a police car. After that, everyone walking away from the area was stopped by police, searched and questioned and ordered to go home. The policeman told me that if the police stopped me again anywhere in the city that night, I would be arrested.

This was how the police attempted to control the situation: threats and intimidation;systematically breaking the laws they are supposed to uphold; beating up arrestedindividuals inside police vans where there were no witnesses; refusing to give their name and badge number when asked (as they are required to by law); harassing anyone who looked remotely suspicious; videotaping and photographing everyone walking the streets to build a database of possible suspects; arresting people for commenting on their behaviour, putting up posters or other harmless activities; the list is endless.

The large house on Jagtvej 69 was originally built in the 1890s by the Danish labour movement, financed by donations from the Danish working class at a time when salaries barely covered basic needs. It was called Folkets Hus – The People’s House – and there they held political meetings, fundraising balls and so on.

The house was abandoned in the 1950s and stood empty for the better part of 30 years until 1981 when a large squatting movement rose up in Copenhagen, seizing empty houses all over the city, including the one at Folkets Hus. It was there that the Initiative Group for More Youth Houses was formed and drafted a document with four basic demands to present to the authorities. After several evictions and riots, the city council finally gave up and agreed to give the house at Jagtvej 69 to the group. The mayor handed them the keys to the house at an official ceremony in October 1982.

The agreement between them was that, in return for control of the house, the Initiative Group would run it for public use, holding concerts, art exhibitions, seminars, workshops and so on – a duty the occupants of the house have fulfilled non-stop for the past 25 years. The house was promptly renamed Ungdomshuset, or The Youth House.

Ever since, the users themselves have been responsible for operating the house, without assistance or interference from outside. Ungdomshuset was run on the principle of consensus democracy, where all major decisions are taken at collective meetings open to everyone, and the issues are discussed until everyone is satisfied, as opposed to conventional majority rule democracy whereby an unsatisfied minority has to accept the will of the majority.

In the house itself there was a small bookshop, two concert halls, practice spaces for bands, meeting rooms for political groups, a large kitchen which served cheap vegan food once a week and probably other things that I am unaware of. There were concerts, raves, art exhibitions, seminars and workshops teaching everything from bicycle building to self defence for women, along with more ambitious projects, like how to start a revolution.

Eventually, the authorities were fed up with the radical activities of the users of the house and since, legally, the house was still the property of the Municipality of Copenhagen it was sold to a fundamentalist Christian sect called Faderhuset in the year 2000. Sincethen, the activists at Ungeren – as the house was lovingly called by its users – have fought three court battles and countless awareness campaigns and peaceful demonstrations to try to keep their beloved house, but to no avail.

Faderhuset, the religious organisation that bought the house, is a tiny fundamentalist Christian sect led by Ruth Evensen who claims she is in direct contact with God. The sect is very controversial in Denmark. Their school was closed down last year since they refused to teach certain obligatory subjects such as Darwin’s theory of evolution, opting instead to teach the children that the biblical tale of creation was in fact how the world began. The sect has attacked toy manufacturers for manufacturing “satanic” toys. They have been accused of brainwashing young people attending their schools and religious sermons and Ruth Evensen declared during the Sunday sermon on March 4, that after the satanic influence of Ungdomshuset had finally been defeated, their next targets would be homosexuals and abortion.

Maintainig the Status Quo
Ungdomshuset meant a lot to many very different people. It was a meeting place for political groups, it was a place where homeless people could occasionally get free meals, a place where bands could rehearse and play gigs, where thousands of people went to meet friends and party. It was a safe haven for homosexuals and others who often feel threatened out in the “real world.” But ultimately, the house isn’t the real issue. The real issue at hand is to protect cultural diversity: the right to think, live and be different. It’s about being able to be free to maintain, operate and define our own culture without outside interference or having to ask for permission. It’s about finding your own identity in a world that is becoming increasingly homogenous and monotonous.

This is not possible in a society where people are refused the autonomous space necessary for the realisation of such projects. A society that sends its storm troopers to evict houses and beat up citizens in the streets whenever their existence threatens the status quo. The house was a symbol for that freedom, that diversity.

The thousands of people demonstrating feel that the authorities are systematically trying to wipe out anything that doesn’t fit into their idea of culture and society. That they are trying to eliminate a political culture of resistance: the anarchists and socialists, or, as they are more commonly called, the “autonomer.” Most people I talked to at demonstrations weren’t regular users of Ungdomshuset – some had never even been there – but rather people tired of this ongoing homogenising and culture-destroying process that has been dubbed the “normalisation process.”

The official response from politicians after the uproar began when the people were evicted from the house on March 1 has been one of denial and a naive refusal to find a common solution to the problem they created when they sold the house. They have mostly been interested in finding someone to blame. The police response has been random violence and extreme violations of human and civil rights, all sanctioned by the Minister of Justice, Lene Espersen, who put the blame for the riots on “bad parenting.”

Protect and Serve
As of March 12, over 700 people have been arrested and 200 of those have been sentenced to custody for up to 4 weeks. 33 of those are minors (children under 18 years) including a 15-year-old girl accused of digging stones up from the street. All these people were sentenced without any evidence being presented against them other than police reports. A 64-year-old retired doctor was arrested along with a group of about 40 people who had been at a demonstration but were fleeing away after the stones began to fly and teargas filled the air. The group was held for 24 hours in a crowded cell and then brought in front of a judge, five at a time, all accused of violence against the police. She says the only reason she wasn’t sentenced to custody like everybody else in the group was her old age.

Two days after the people were evicted the police raided ten more houses in Copenhagen with only one warrant – including the offices of legal political organisations – looking for foreign activists. More than 100 people were arrested and every foreigner in the group deported without any evidence of illegal activities. In at least one of these raids, at a collective in Baldersgade, the police started the process by firing teargas canisters into the house where most occupants were sleeping, then promptly kicked down the door, locked the house owners’ two dogs in a room filled with teargas for the duration of the two-hour raid, arrested everybody and then proceeded to destroy furniture and personal belongings in the house.

The evening after the eviction, a young man by the name of Alex was going downtown with a group of friends to celebrate his 17th birthday. As the group was walking down a street an unmarked car began racing after them and they started running away. The car caught up with young Alex and three plainclothes policemen jumped on him and beat him with batons. He was then thrown into the backseat of the car and it was only then that he realised they were policemen because he heard them give reports on their radio. In the car he was questioned about the rest of the group and what they were up to, receiving beatings whenever the policemen didn’t like his response. He was then driven to a jail where he was held until the next day when he was again questioned. He was never told what he was accused of or why he had been arrested, but he did receive a fine for “disturbing the peace” and was subsequently released.

Another man shouted, “go home, this isn’t your fight” at a few policemen as he walked by on his way home. He was jumped by three policemen in riot gear, beaten a few times with the policemen’s helmets and, when a search of his pockets revealed nothing illegal, he was forced to take off his clothes so the policemen could search them thoroughly. He was eventually allowed to go home. They’ve also arrested members of the prisoner support network ABC and the Street’s First Aid group who were attending an injured protester when the police arrested them, even though they were clearly marked as a neutral first aid team.

The house at Jagtvej 69 is now gone. It was demolished just a few days after the eviction. A lot of people loved that house, and I saw many people cry as it was being demolished. At the time of writing, the empty site where the house once stood is filled with thousands of flowers, candles, goodbye notes and poems.

But we are not giving up. The demonstrations and protest actions will continue until another house will be available to us, until the authorities stop threatening Christiania witheviction, until we are recognised as a part of this society, no better and no worse than the rest. They can tear down all our houses but not our convictions, our beliefs and our opinions. We will not be shut up, locked out or pushed away. The struggle for free, autonomous space continues.

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