From Iceland — Is Reykjavík the City of Fear?

Is Reykjavík the City of Fear?

Published August 24, 2007

Is Reykjavík the City of Fear?

It should be no surprise that when up to fifteen thousand people gather in the same spot and drink alcohol, violence is likely to follow. And in Reykjavík, it routinely does. Every weekend, police officers interfere with fights, assaults, domestic violence, disturbances of the peace, vandalism and drunken driving. Fifteen-thousand drunken individuals are also going to leave remnants of their stay, such as broken bottles, cigarette butts, and empty beer cans. There is no reason to condone this behaviour, but so far at least we will have to accept this as a fact. Pretty much the way it has always been, for better or worse.

However, in recent weeks, the “situation” in downtown Reykjavík has become increasingly dominant in certain Icelandic media outlets. Judging from the coverage, downtown Reykjavík resembles a war zone every weekend and ordinary citizens are wise to sit at home, or otherwise put them self in harms way.

An editorial in Iceland’s biggest daily, the conservative paper Morgunblaðið, on August 1 stated that it was time to increase law enforcement in downtown Reykjavík, pointing out that the public feels decreasingly safe in the city centre: “People are simply afraid to walk around there when they get regular news of assaults and mayhem such as last weekend.” And later, that “[t]he public has a right to demand that violence in the city centre will be dealt with, so it becomes a safe place for all.”

On August 2 another editorial in Morgunblaðið declared: “Rampant drinking [as] a major problem in Reykjavík’s City Centre,” citing public intoxication, disorderly conduct and general filthiness as symptoms of a city where respect for the law and human decency was utterly vacant.

Bloggers also directed their attention to violence in the city centre. Widely read blogger and social critic, Egill Helgason, host of a popular political debate show on television, echoed Morgunblaðið’s view in blog posts on August 1, and again on August 2, 3, 9, 16, 18, 19, and twice on August 20 (it was a Monday) claiming that Reykjavík City centre was ravaged with dope fiends, drunks and violent maniacs. And he was not the only one in blogsphere to raise the issue, either.

Follow the Leader
On August 13, the Police Commissioner in Reykjavík, Stefán Eiríksson, wrote an op-ed in Morgunblaðið where he addressed the issue, and suggested ways to improve the conditions downtown in cooperation with city officials and bar owners in the area. Eiríksson’s article opened a floodgate of articles on violent behaviour in Reykjavík, public drunkenness and the poor image of the city centre.

City Council member Svandís Svavarsdóttir wrote an article on August 16, stating that: “[t]he situation in the city centre is such that people are hesitant to attend bars and enjoy the summer nights with other people. Violent crimes are a daily phenomenon and the behaviour is very bad – cans and shattered glass everywhere. People wander around in a drunken stupor and all constraint is relinquished. Drug use is general and has increased say those who know best. People are scared. Parents are worried. The Police demand action and the city government must react.”

Another city council member, Björn Ingi Hrafnsson, praised Morgunblaðið in a blog post for fighting the good fight, while scolding the other big daily newspaper, Fréttablaðið, for not treating the issue with proper seriousness, while appearing in every available print and broadcast media with the Mayor of Reykjavík, Vilhjálmur Vilhjálmsson, to pledge that the situation would be reigned under control.

Seriously, What the Hell Happened?
As a frequent visitor to downtown Reykjavík, the discussion of the situation in the city centre surprised me. It has not been my experience at all that the situation is any worse than it was five years ago. Did I miss something?

According to the statistics, I didn’t. On the contrary, the statistics indicate that violence is on its way down. The crime rate has decreased in recent years, and assaults and severe violence is on the retreat.

In his article, Police Commissioner Stefán Eiríksson pointed this out in plain Icelandic, stating that the correct information and a realistic analysis of the situation was lacking from the discourse, providing statistics and using refined graphs that should have erased any doubts. City Council member Gísli Marteinn Baldursson said the same thing in the news magazine TV show Kastljós the same day Eiríksson’s article was printed. The message was clear. Crime is down.

How did this get confused? Why is it that at the same time that violent crimes are decreasing the public feels less and less safe in the city? Why is it that the discussion is always focused on the dangers of walking the streets at night while the likelihood of you being a victim of a violent crime in the city centre is considerably less than it was five years ago?

And somebody has yet to explain to me the contradiction why, if the average citizen is scared to go downtown, the city centre is flooded every weekend? Am I to believe that among 15,000 people – 10% of the population in the greater-Reykjavík area – there are no average citizens?

A Cyclical Discussion
According to Helgi Gunnlaugsson, professor of sociology at the University of Iceland and an expert on criminology, this is a cyclical discussion that comes up every two years or so. “Sometimes, you could think you were reading about Baghdad when you read about the city centre in the Icelandic media,” Gunnlaugsson said when the Grapevine reached him. “There has always been a negative discussion of the city centre. I remember when I came home to Iceland in 1987 after studying abroad, there was the exact same discourse on the downtown area in the media. The Mayor then (Davíð Oddson) demanded that the police should deploy dogs to be better fit to handle the violence. This comes up very regularly, and every time it comes up, the atmosphere is that this is the worst it has ever been. It was always better, five, ten years ago, let alone 20 or 30 years ago.”

Gunnlaugsson states that after carefully reviewing police statistics, hospital records and victimisation reports, this is not the case. “The situation now is no worse than it has been. It was decidedly worse around the turn of the century, in 1999–2000, when the police dealt with many more cases for example. When the opening hours changed in 2000 we saw marked improvement.” Gunnlaugsson is referring to changes in regulations in 2000, which allowed bar owners to keep their bars open longer. Before that, all bars closed at 03:00 AM, and thousands of guests poured into the streets at the same time. “That change was for the good, since violent crimes decreased drastically. We are nowhere near the mark where we were in 2000, and there is nothing that indicates that the situation is getting worse.”

Gunnlaugsson adds that statistics indicate that extremely violent attacks have decreased, although there is always room for improvement. “Every now and then, there is a case reported that you’ll find unusually ugly. But that is nothing new. That has always happened. I don’t want to give the impression that this is OK. Of course violence in the city centre is intolerable, but from a physical standpoint, in the city centre, it is so crowded, it is such a small space and so many people, that I can hardly see how violence could be avoided entirely.”

According to Gunnlaugsson, studies conducted in Iceland and abroad indicate that violence is mostly confined to certain small groups of people. “When you look at the data on violence, you’ll see that it is mostly young males beating up other young males, and it often seems to be arbitrary who is the victim and who is the antagonist. That is, the same person can be a victim one weekend and an antagonist the next weekend. This is related to a certain lifestyle among young males, where violence is considered acceptable. This is not necessarily a large group, but if you look at the big picture, this is the group that is most likely to use violence, and the group that is most likely to suffer from violence. That is, this group is fighting amongst themselves.”

Guðjohnsen Attacked
– Violence Soars in the City Centre

Naturally, there are exceptions, and Gunnlaugsson points out that random attacks still occur and that this kind of discussion is likely to soar whenever a particularly heinous crime is reported in the city centre. “It does happen that unsuspecting citizens are attacked. And that always gives rise to this sort of discussion. In particular if a woman is involved.”

The first weekend in August, two attacks made the headlines. In one case three women attacked another women standing in a line outside the bar Sólon, biting off a sizeable chunk of her ear – unpleasant, but hardly remarkable, other than the fact that those involved were all women.

In another instance, Eiður Guðjohnsen, Barcelona’s ace forward and captain of the national football team, was attacked in downtown Reykjavík. He was pushed to the ground and punched in the face. Again, unpleasant, but hardly remarkable, other than the fact that Eiður Guðjónsson was involved. The Barcelona striker escaped unharmed from what otherwise could only be described as a scuffle.

Gunnlaugsson believes that these attacks did a lot to get the current discussion off the ground, and although it is natural for people to be anxious over such news, these incidents are out of the ordinary. “If you look at the big picture, the reality is much closer to what I have described before. Out of between 1000–1500 reports of violence in downtown Reykjavík every year, a great majority is young males fighting with other young males. The violence is not totally random, although that is the message we keep receiving, that each and every one of us could be the victim of a violent attack in the city centre. That is not exactly the case. Although random attacks occasionally happen. But these are the attacks that find their way into the news, and make us scared.”

Gunnlaugsson also points out that the number of incidents often has little to do with the discourse. “When this sort of discussion comes up, it is not necessary because the number of cases is spinning out of control. If you look at the data, twenty years back, you will see that there is no necessary correlation between the number of cases and when this discussion comes up. There is something else behind this, and sometimes it can even be political, especially around election time.”

Who Gains From Your Fear?
Gunnlaugsson raises an important point. If we are to understand the contradiction that citizens feel less secure while violence decreases, we need to look beyond criminal statistics and look at different statistics entirely.

According to the independent media monitoring company Fjölmiðlavaktin (The Media Watch), coverage of violence and drug use increased by 41% in 2006 compared to the same period a year earlier. Coverage of “police matters” increased by 16% in the same period and has increased by 10% between 2006 and 2007 so far.

While the crime rate goes down, the media devotes more and more time and space in news to cover violence, drug use and crimes. The same marketing principles apply to the Icelandic media and the Hollywood film industry. Violence sells.

Is it safe to assume that politicians might also use this issue for political grandstanding, making heroic gestures, declaring to stomp down on the violence and make the city safer, in pursuit of public acceptance? Is it a coincidence that City Council member Björn Ingi Hrafnsson scolds Fréttablaðið for not drumming up the discussion of city violence? Lesser people have reached bigger political offices under the ‘tough on crimes’ mantra. That much is sure.

The Minister for Justice, Björn Bjarnason, has often made downtown violence the subject of speeches and blogposts. His interest in police matters is well documented. Since 1997, the government has doubled funding to the police. Obviously, this increase needs to be justified, but I would have thought that the decreasing crime rate should be justification enough.

Whose Problem is This Anyway?
In preparation for this article, The Grapevine contacted several people with knowledge of the situation and all of them expressed surprise over the public discourse regarding violence in the city centre. Sigurður Harðarson, a nurse at the emergency room at the city hospital, claims that the situation is no worse during the weekends than it was when he first started working there five years ago.

Trausti Valsson, professor of planning at the University of Iceland, expressed more concern over traffic congestion and available routes for fire trucks, ambulances and police wagons in the city centre than violence.

Professor Gunnlaugsson also pointed out that comparative to its size, downtown Reykjavík is even far from being the most violent town in Iceland. Statistically speaking, you are much more likely to the victim of violence in some small fishing village in the West Fjords, than you are walking the streets of Reykjavík.

Police commissioner Stefán Eríksson told me that his article was mostly intended to analyse the problem and point out that the police is not the only responsible party when it comes to the “situation” downtown. “I think there is a reason to improve the image of the city centre that has suffered for public drunkenness and bad conduct recently,” Eiríksson told the Grapevine, but added that bad conduct and littering are not directly the concern of the police.

“There were 30 serious violent attacks last year, there have been ten the first six months this year. It is impossible to draw wide-ranging conclusions from such low numbers, but they do not indicate that the situation in the city centre is becoming worse. One of the reasons I wrote that article was to get that message across loud and clear,” Eiríksson said.

Nevertheless, the discourse has gone thoroughly off the tracks.

Violence in Reykjavík is a sad fact. It should not be tolerated, but the situation is still no more of a problem now than it was five years ago. Even if we commend all efforts to eradicate violence, it does not justify certain media people, politicians and bloggers in portraying downtown Reykjavík as a public war zone and manipulating people’s fear of violence to their own ends.

PS. The photo on the cover was staged in an effort to boost our pick-up rate.

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